Westport’s Coon Mountain trail blossoms this time of year
By Tim Rowland
In Western Maryland you will find Savage Mountain, and most locals will be happy to tell you how it got its name. They will not necessarily be the same story, but they will involve an ambush on the part of merciless Indians and end with the settlers either making a heroic escape or getting their heads chopped off.
Sooner or later though, some dour historian will intrude on these fantastic tales to point out in fact that the mountain is named for the 18th century surveyor John Savage. Bummer.
So when you hear of Coon Mountain in Westport on the park’s eastern edge, don’t get your hopes up that it was named for some lawless varmint. Instead, it’s possibly a family name like Cheney, Gilligan and, the best name in the Adirondacks by yards, Vanderwhacker. According to a historic newspaper clip I came across, Vanderwhacker was an early settler, maybe the only one brave enough to try to tame the wilds between Minerva and Newcomb. Or maybe he was just trying to move somewhere no one would make jokes about his name.
Coon Mountain, preserved by the Adirondack Land Trust, is a delightful little hike in any season, but it has gained the reputation as a wildflower Meccha, blanketed with hepatica, trout lilies, white trillium, red trillium the size of zinnias, jack in the pulpits, bellworts, wild sarsaparilla, violets, blue cohosh, and on and on.
Adirondack botanists Dan Spada and Ray Curran led a Mother’s Day wildflower hike for ALT, providing expert commentary on the plants that most of us knew and identifying the far larger pool of flowers and plants with which the rest of us were unfamiliar.
For all the world, Coon looks as if Paul Bunyon had taken his ax and cleft a rock dome in twain. It’s that crevasse where the action is, with its various seeps and pockets of rich soil. You will know it when you come to it. “It’s like an instant change,” said naturalist Steve Daniel, as the ground transformed from relatively dry and monochromatic forest duff to a festoon of blooms.
Naturalist Elizabeth Lee noted how, in the chasm, rivulets of water will appear from nowhere and flow down the rocks for a few yards before disappearing again. It bears out Jerry Jenkins’, the reigning ADK botanical authority, research as to how the underground “plumbing” in the wilderness drives the ecology.
Here, Lee said, the waters are the conduit that feeds the area with nutrients and minerals that are so conducive to plantlife. It’s not just the variety that gives clues to what’s going on underground, but the vigor. We climbed up a little ravine to inspect some outsized jacks and jills in the pulpit, and The Trillium That Ate Westport, a plant more than a foot high with flowers four inches across.
The chasm trail ascends on a steep rock staircase, but it’s fairly brief —the length of the trail is under a mile, although there’s an adjunct Hidden Valley Trail close to the trailhead that adds distance and more flowers if you want.
Atop the climb in a small saddle you will find an excellent vernal pool; I’m fascinated by these seasonal pools, which Spada calls “the biological engines of the Northern Forest.” Given Adirondackers’ fascination with challenges and lists, I briefly considered unveiling the Vernal Pool Challenge, but pretty quickly gave up on the project, given their abundance.
But their importance can’t be overstated, and the degree to which they teem with life is fascinating to consider.
Of course, the view from the top of Coon ain’t bad either. The minty green froth of an awakening forest rolls westward toward the High Peaks, while to the southeast is a grand vista of Lake Champlain. It is possible to hike Coon, located on Halds Road north of Westport, in less than an hour. But at any time of year, you’ll want to budget much more time than that. And you needn’t worry about fighting off any raccoons.
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