Adirondack Mountain Club’s trail crew upgrades the Long Trail
By Tim Rowland
For decades, feisty little Mount Jo has served as the training wheels of the Adirondack High Peaks, introducing newcomers to a microcosm of all that is good about backcountry hiking — and all that is not so good.
Located in the backyard of the Adirondack Mountain Club’s commodious outpost south of Lake Placid, the short jaunt up Mount Jo opens a heavenly window into the dramatic mountain skyline dominated by the state’s two greatest peaks and all their lower but no less regal attendants.
It is the first mountain thousands of Adirondack visitors will hike, said ADK Deputy Director Julia Goren. And for many it will set them on a wilderness journey that will last a lifetime. But it has also been an introduction to the steep, muddy, rooty, rocky mess that is endemic to Adirondack trails.
On Saturday, ADK officially cut the ribbon on a newly designed Long Trail that, while not adding much in terms of distance, ascends the mountain in a more gradual and scientific way and shows off modern trail building techniques that — even after six inches of rain the previous weekend — resulted in a trail that could be negotiated without the usual knee-high spray-pattern of black Adirondack muck.
At a ribbon cutting ceremony that included club members and trail volunteers along with state legislative and tourism dignitaries, Goren said it’s the mountain club’s hope that the new trail will also lead to a new era in Adirondack trail building that will one day make many of the Park’s 2,200 miles of trail more durable and more pleasant to hike.
“This shows our vision for trail work in the Adirondacks,” Goren said. “Instead of rebuilding a trail every decade we can build to a better standard today.”
Located on the shore of Heart Lake, Mount Jo rises to an elevation of 2,832 feet and was named by Henry Van Hovenberg, builder of the original Adirondak Loj in the 1880s, for his fiancée Josephine Schofield, who died shortly before they were to have been married.
Without handy tools like topo maps and GPS, early Adirondack guides tended to follow vertical mountain drainages that would reliably get them within shouting distance of the summit. These trails are also reliably wet and subject to erosion to the point they are virtually indistinguishable from the streambed itself.
ADK Trails Director Charlotte Staats said modern trails are more horizontal and gently shed water along the rim instead of channeling it straight down in a torrent. Hikers invited to climb the new route commented on the easier rises in stonework that are easier on shorter legs, and the soft duff that brought remembrances of trails 40 years ago before tens of thousands of hiker boots had aided and abetted the poor designs.
“You don’t feel like you’re working that hard, but you’re gaining elevation on this hike,” Staats said.
Trails 2.0 also adds a new glossary to the Adirondack lexicon, with terms like “benching,” “turnpiking” and “mineral soil,” describing techniques and conditions that the ADK hopes hikers will become familiar with and recognize in these new creations, including the new trails up Mount Jo and Mount Van Hoevenberg.
If hikers, for example, see a bog bridge or stepping stones on Mount Jo and learn to use them – instead of walking off of the trail to avoid a muddy section – Staats said they will be conditioned to do the same on other trails in the park.
The soft duff of a modern trail can be deceiving — beneath can be a layer of egg-sized stone, arduously broken by hand out of rock dragged to the site.
Along with thanking financial backers, club members and supporters of programming that brings thousands of fourth graders to Mount Jo, the day was a joyful celebration of that rare breed known as professional trail builders, who all have trail names and go to some rather extraordinary lengths to move boulders and construct hardened infrastructure without motorized help.
Andrew “8-ball” Guerci, who graduated from SUNY-Plattsburgh in 2020 with a degree in environmental studies, said the trail includes a “legendary staircase” — trail builders gathered around a boulder the size of a washing machine like big game hunters around a fallen wildebeest — and recalled the effort it took to wriggle it into place.
Such labor-intensive trail construction is expensive, and funding comes from donations to ADK, as well as from North Elba’s Local Enhancement And Advancement Fund (LEAF).
The length of the trail depends on the starting point, but generally consider it to be about a three-mile round trip from the High Peaks Information Center Lot with 650 feet in elevation gain. The Long Trail can be done as a loop, returning on the Short Trail that stands in contrast to the more modern trail building methods.