Taking a storied trek in remote Hamilton County’s lake country
By Chris Hunter
The trail to Bennett, Middle and Murphy lakes is among the closest Adirondack trails to the State Capitol. This moderate hike along an old logging road passes all three lakes within 3.5 miles and can be hiked out-and-back from Creek Road in the town of Hope, or if using a second car, 8 miles to Pumpkin Hollow Road.
From the Creek Road trailhead, hikers follow in the varied footsteps of history: the Revolutionary War veterans who first settled Hope around 1790 and created the road that the trail follows today; the employees of the 19th century paint mine, responsible for the red paint on local buildings; the subsistence farmers such as the Burgess family, whose 10 children would walk the road daily from Bennett Lake to the one-room schoolhouse; loggers harvesting trees from the forest; and preservation advocates and politicians who trod the path debating the merits of “forever wild” protections.
The uses left a sunken, worn, rocky trail that eschews any modern expectation of a road with few visible remnants of the past uses, suggesting the ability of nature to recover. The walk goes through private land for the first mile and gently ascends the road. Shortly after crossing into the Adirondack Forest Preserve, a twisted and rusted steel cable, an old barrel and a depression in the ground represent the old paint mine. Exploring the rocks on this part of the trail, one sees the reddish hue of hematite, used to create red paint. After another half-mile, the view offers a glimpse of Bennett Lake through the trees. A path to the right leads to a lakeside campsite. A small beach offers a chance to swim or watch fish, loons, frogs and salamanders.
A mile more, a path leads to another campsite, this time on the southern shore of Middle Lake. The trail descends to the northern end of the lake and an open view. From there it is only a half-mile to Murphy Lake.
The path between Middle Lake and Murphy narrows and runs uphill at a slight grade. The first sight of Murphy is an opening on the southeastern shore. In a pine forest, the trail quickly approaches a lean-to.
The Murphy Lake lean-to may be one of the most easily accessible lean-tos in the Adirondacks due to the moderate trail and proximity to the Capital Region. It offers a beautiful view of the lake and the cliffs that rise above the western shore. It is also a frequent target of wood carving vandals.
North of the lean-to, nature’s reclamation power is on view. Beavers recently flooded the trail north of the structure, with the lake to the left and the beaver pond to the right. Walking across the beaver dam is the only hiking option north. Identifying the trail gets difficult due to frequent blowdowns, until reaching the Murphy Lake outlet and an old rowboat past seaworthiness.
Through a creek and hemlocks, a large beaver flow disrupts the forest, and a narrow dirt road gently descends for the last three miles through reclaimed lumbering operations and pastureland to Pumpkin Hollow Road.
The trail, noted in the writing of Barbara McMartin and newspaper accounts from 55 years ago, gained statewide headlines during the 1967 New York State constitutional convention.
Every 20 years, voters decide whether to hold a statewide Constitutional Convention. Traditionally this happens in odd numbered decades. Issues with redistricting led the state Legislature at the Albany Capitol to allow voters to call the 1977 convention a decade early. The Adirondacks faced criticism at the time, being called by some an “impenetrable jungle” that was poorly promoted outside of the High Peaks.
If approved, a convention can offer amendments to the constitution or rewrite it entirely. Voters then decide to accept or reject the changes. Article 14, the “forever wild” clause emerged from one of these conventions. The resulting constitution, approved in 1894, stands today because the most recent calls for a convention in 1997 and 2017 were rejected. Environmental groups distrust the convention process, fearing the loss of environmental protections, while advocates of opening the forest preserve hesitate because of possible enhancements in such protections.
Murphy Lake was selected to give the convention’s Committee on Natural Resources and Agriculture, which was evaluating the “forever wild” clause, their first experience in the Adirondacks. On a hot and steamy July 15, 1967, the group of 35—committee members and aides, reporters, the president of the Adirondack Mountain Club and a state trooper — started at Creek Road and hiked to Pumpkin Hollow Road.
They saw evidence of lumbering, the abandoned mine, deer and a European hare. During a lunch and swim at the Murphy Lake lean-to, the group discussed the future of the forest preserve and “forever wild.” Three days later, the committee voted 14-9 to continue the protection of the forest preserve. Voters rejected the proposed new Constitution that November.
The trail showed the committee that Adirondack hikes offered variety beyond the best-known High Peaks’ trails, according to news reports from the time. A Bronx committee member who had never been in the forest preserve said of the hemlock forest along the Murphy Lake outlet, “It’s another world,” while another committee staffer declared that “this is what people are talking about when they want the woods kept ‘forever wild.’”