By Phil Brown
On most of my outings in the Sable Highlands this year, I rarely saw a fellow hiker or mountain biker. The exception came on a hike up Owls Head Mountain on the northern edge of the Adirondack Park.
The trail up Owls Head is the only well-known hiking trail on the Sable Highlands easement lands. It developed as a herd path, but in recent years the state Department of Environmental Conservation has marked it with blue disks.
The 1.3-mile trail climbs 725 feet to ledges with broad views to the east and south. The vista takes in Indian Lake, Mountain View Lake and a number of peaks in the Sable Highlands—among them Norton Peak, Ragged Lake Mountain, Sugarloaf Mountain, Wolf Pond Mountain and the Elbow Range—as well as many more peaks in the distance.
I hiked Owls Head on the first Saturday in May. Because the trees had yet to leaf, the landscape was brown, but the views were still impressive and well worth the hike. It was a warm, sunny day, and people were out in force. I counted 15 other parties, most of them with young children.
In 2008, New York State paid $10.8 million for conservation easements on 84,000 acres of commercial forest known as the Sable Highlands in the northern Adirondacks. The deal lets logging continue, but it also allows public recreation in 14 “public use areas,” totaling 21,100 acres, and on “linear recreation corridors” connecting them. The state so far has failed to implement much of its plan. This spring, the Adirondack Explorer spent many days exploring the Sable Highlands on foot, by car, and on a mountain bike. This is one in a series of articles meant to open a window on a land partly owned by the public but rarely seen.
On my 18 other outings in the Sable Highlands, I can recall seeing only two hikers (walking on a logging road) and three bikers. Most of the people I encountered on the easement lands were riding all-terrain vehicles.
In its 2009 recreation plan for the Sable Highlands, DEC said it intended to build a parking area for Owls Head and reroute the trail to avoid private land. Eleven years later, neither project has been undertaken.
The plan also called for building several trails elsewhere on the easement lands, including up Norton Peak, but likewise most of this work remains undone.
I did find two trails that have been created and marked by DEC. Both follow old woods roads, so they entailed little, if any, tree cutting.
The better of the two leads through a beautiful forest to a wheelchair-friendly campsite on a rocky stretch of the North Branch of the Saranac River. The site has a privy, fire pit and fishing platform. The woods road is gated, but disabled people with a special permit are allowed to drive to the campsite on ATVs.
The hike to the river takes only about 20 minutes. It’s a pleasant stroll under tall white pines, often within earshot of the river.
DEC’s plan also calls for building an angler’s path along the riverbank. If the department gets around the building this trail, visitors will be able to hike in a loop from the parking area off Goldsmith Road in the town of Franklin.
The other trail leads to another trout stream. The recreation plan says the trail provides “fishing access to Plumadore Brook,” but judging by my GPS route, the trail ends at the Fishhole Pond outlet, which is a tributary of the brook. In any case, it’s an easy walk of a third of a mile to the stream. The forest along the trail is not as attractive. The trailhead is on Franklin County Route 26, the highway that runs through the community of Loon Lake.
Unless you’re going fishing, neither of these new trails is a destination to plan a day around. However, if you happen to be driving past, either is a pleasant diversion, an opportunity to stretch your legs.
Owls Head Mountain, in contrast, is a bona-fide destination, a moderate hike suitable for families with young children. Yet an even greater opportunity for hikers in the Sable Highlands remains unrealized: a long trail going to Norton Peak’s summit and continuing to nearby Haystack Mountain and Wolf Pond Mountain. It’s the sort of big outing that could draw hikers away from the overcrowded High Peaks.
DEC says it has not abandoned its recreation plan, but it has offered no timeline for when the Norton trail or other projects will be undertaken.
For Owls Head Mountain: From the junction of County 27 and Ragged Lake Road in the hamlet of Owls Head, drive east on the latter for 0.2 miles to Station Road. Turn left and park on the shoulder of the road. Walk down the utility corridor a short distance to the start of the trail on the right.
For North Branch: From its junction with NY 3, drive down Goldsmith Road for 1.6 miles to a parking area and register on the right.
For Plumadore Brook: From the junction of NY 3 and County 26, drive north on the latter for 9.1 miles to a parking area on the right.