Climb to a fire tower near Newcomb rewards hikers with a breathtaking vista of the High Peaks
By Lisa Densmore
I GLANCE AT MY WATCH. 11:22 a.m. It feels like 7 a.m. on this early September morning. The first hint of fall is in the invigorating fifty-degree air. Goosebumps cover my legs below my shorts, and my breath exhales in faint misty tendrils as I start up the sun-dappled Goodnow Mountain Trail. Some days it feels good to go hiking. This is one of them.
I’ve hiked Goodnow Mountain only once before, while working on my guidebook Hiking the Adirondacks. I wonder if anything has changed in the five years since. I chose Goodnow Mountain, elevation 2,694 feet, on this fine day not to find out but to simply get out, or perhaps I should say “up,” as getting a view from the top of this mountain is my goal. The sky is haze-free and as blue as a mountain bluebird’s feathers. I don’t want an epic day in the High Peaks, just a nice walk in the woods to stretch my legs and get my heart rate up, with a 360-degree panorama to reward my effort.
Located two miles west of downtown Newcomb near Rich Lake, Goodnow Mountain is named for Sylvester Goodnow, a homesteader who settled at its base in the 1820s. It’s an easy climb (1,035 vertical feet) with moderate mileage (four miles out and back) on a well-maintained trail to a fire tower. Perfect.
As I head into the woods, I’m surprised that I have to jump one and then another mud hole. Though the streamlets across the trail are dry, the trail is wet. On such a dry, clear day, how could there be mud? Then I recall a heavy downpour two nights earlier. Goodnow holds its moisture, which makes it a haven for frogs and toads and at least a dozen different fungi and mushrooms. I stop to photograph an artist’s conch perched on a tree trunk like a shelf for an elf, then click on a clump of creamy, deeply crevassed mushrooms that look like rubbery blossoms. A short time later, I point my lens at the red berries on hobblebush, its leaves displaying patches of purplish red. The calendar declares autumn at the equinox, two weeks away, but it has already arrived at Goodnow Mountain.
The trail dips, then begins a slight uphill. I pass a post with a bold “4” on its angled top. The path up Goodnow Mountain is an interpretive trail, owned and maintained by the State University College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, but since I don’t have a pamphlet explaining the numbers, the 4 appears to mark a random jumble of forest flora. (ESF is out of the pamphlets, which it used to keep at the register.)
Though the numbers along the trail have no meaning to me, I appreciate ESF’s and the town of Newcomb’s trail work. Goodnow Mountain is the highest point within the fifteen-thousand-acre Huntington Wildlife Forest, which is run by ESF as a field station for wildlife research and ecological studies. The students’ engineering feats include wooden stairs, footbridges, and water bars.
At 0.6 miles, the trail turns upward over railroad-tie steps and a bog bridge. I spy a fifteen-foot-tall dead tree trunk, weathered and stripped of its bark. The hollow on the uphill side of the tree is roomy enough to bring to mind an enchanted telephone booth. But more curious is the way the entire trunk twists up the hill as if Paul Bunyan had reached down and given its top a twirl.
Just beyond is the “octopus tree,” a huge yellow birch growing atop a small boulder. Its roots sprawl down the sides of the rock like a giant octopus reaching its tentacles into the ground. In 2008, my hiking partner took my picture at this memorable spot (we used it in my book). Smiling at this old acquaintance, I photograph it again, though my smile wanes as I take a closer look. Several people have carved initials into the trunk, defacing the magnificent birch. The scarring irks me, bringing to mind an old rhyme: “Fools’ names and fools’ faces are always seen in public places.”
My breathing quickens as the trail gets steeper, but the exertion is temporary. The trail soon eases again, crossing another bog bridge. Goodnow is good to hikers that way. It pushes, then offers a reprieve.
At interpretive marker number 7, the trail makes a sweeping arc along a shoulder of the mountain and then heads slightly downhill. My stride lengthens and my pace picks up, but I stop short when a face catches my eye. A bald, happy man stares at me, not a real man, but the visage of one on a waist-high rock. A crack across the lower part of the rock forms his mouth. Shallow dents in the rock enhanced by smeared moss form his eyes, nose, and Hitler-esque mustache. I chuckle at this new sight along this old trail.
At 1.4 miles, the trail ascends some slab, levels off across an impressive arc of puncheon, and crosses yet another bog bridge. The Goodnow trail has many bog bridges, but this one is particularly long, over fifty paces. I pass a square concrete slab, the base of an old cabin, and then the remains of a small barn that served as a horse stable for Archer Huntington, stepson of railroad tycoon and industrialist Collis Huntington, and Archer’s second wife, Anna, a sculptor. The couple owned the mountain and the surrounding land, which they eventually donated to Syracuse University for wildlife and ecological research. (ESF runs it by agreement with Syracuse.)
The barn has not fared well over the past five years. Before a few boards were missing; now an entire side of the barn is gone. Beams of sunlight shine through a hole at the peak of the roof. The structure looks as if it will collapse in the next heavy snowfall. I imagine Archer and Anna Huntington prancing up the trail on spirited horses to this elevated outpost, when a voice surprises me.
“Another person in the wilderness!”
I turn to find a fit-looking sixtyish couple.
“How much farther to the summit?” asks the woman, “We’re from Ohio. We’ve never been here before.”
“You’ve gone about two-thirds of the way,” I estimate. In fact, we are closer.
I continue toward the summit with the Ohioans. After a short climb, we enter the boreal zone. The change in flora is sharp and distinct. The leafy birches, maples, and beeches instantly give way to spindly conifers. The summit feels close as the trail bends around a knob of land that offers glimpses of blue sky through the fir boughs.
Soon after we pass a view of distant peaks, the fire tower is before us, perched on a hump of bedrock. The couple immediately mounts the steps while I take more photos of the tower itself, the survey disk in the bedrock, and some of the nearby summit flora, but given the lack of a vista from the ground, the temptation to climb the scaffolding is too great to resist for long. The tower is a tall one, scratching the sky sixty feet above the bedrock. The steps are well-maintained and feel solid underfoot.
The view from the cabin is an eye-popper. I take my time ogling the Seward and Santanoni ranges, Algonquin Peak, Mount Colden, and Mount Marcy to the north and Rich Lake below. The Goodnow Flow looks like a green meadow from this height. A circular map, once used by the fire watchers, helps me identify landmarks in the panorama.
After taking my fill of the expansive view, I descend to check out the fire watcher’s cabin just below the rock knob on which the fire tower is perched. If the tower is the hiker’s cake atop Goodnow Mountain, the cabin is the frosting. Though it’s locked, I could peek in the window to see the interior, which has been restored with typical furniture and items used by the watcher, including a classic Adirondack pack basket, which hangs on the wall as if its owner just stepped out for a walk. A placard tells the story of the tower and includes photographs of two fire watchers, George Shaughnessy (1930) and Walter West (1962). A page from a 1936 watcher’s log is taped to the door. A mountaintop mini-museum, the cabin gives modern-day hikers a sense of what life was like at a working fire tower.
“What’s a pack basket?” asks Mrs. Ohio.
“Guides used them the way we use backpacks today,” I reply, shouldering my daypack, glad for its modern design.
My descent takes half as long as the climb. On the way down, my mind wanders to fire watchers and the lifestyle they had, living in a one-room cabin atop a mountain with only a radio for communication and entertainment and random hikers for company. It occurs to me that Goodnow Mountain is well-named. The hike is “good now,” with its well-maintained trail and tower, and it was “good then,” for the Huntingtons and the fire watchers. ■