Owls Head outside Malone lives up to its counterparts
By Tim Rowland
I like to think that in the nineteenth century there was an Adirondack surveyor named Livingston Owlshead who went around naming mountains after himself, along with his nephews William Haystack and Chester C. Cobble.
All are found in abundance, and in some cases are within sight of each other.
The three most popular Owl’s Head (or Owls Head) mountains, if I had to guess, are in Elizabethtown, Keene and Long Lake, but to the north is an Owl’s Head that is located in the hamlet of — wait for it — Owls Head. None of the other O. Heads can claim that.
Owls Head the hamlet is a little over an hour’s drive north of Lake Placid, and with its lush ecology of brook, pond and mountain, you will not be worse for the drive.
Owl’s Head gained fame as the “Ice Box of the North,” a claim debunked by a couple of meteorological heretics from the Rensselaer Polytechnic institute who studied the matter in 1936 and concluded that other spots in the ADK were just as cold if not colder — although they allowed that, being on the northern rim of the mountains and exposed to wind-prone plains to the north, might have felt colder. (The moniker, though, was still being freely used in the 1970s, the catchphrase having apparently outlived the scientists.)
Owl’s Head is in the town of Bellmont, (about 10 miles south of Malone,) where in 1822 the state took an early stab at economic development incentives, offering free land to settlers who would clear and fence 15 acres and build a house, and even more free land to anyone who would establish a grist or sawmill.
Promotional activities seem to have ceased then, as there are no signs pointing to the mountain and no markers of any sort at the trailhead. The people in the charming community are warm and friendly, so one strategy is just to ask (there’s a farm/convenience store just east of greater downtown Owls Head with cold drinks and a helpful staff) but if you’re a guy and asking for directions makes you break out in a rash, just use the volunteer fire station as your guidepost.
Across the road is a lane heading north marked Dead End, so you follow it until it looks for all the world as if you are going to drive straight into some fellow’s garage, at which point you juke left-then-right onto a gravel road of sorts beneath a high-voltage power line. Just past the second wooden stanchion is an unmarked parking lot with an unmarked but well-worn trail heading off into the bush.
The trail is pleasant enough until it begins to climb the flank of the little 2,250-foot peak. You know those modern, sustainable trails that are hardened by digging out the duff and backfilling with crushed aggregate and mineral soil? This trail isn’t one of those.
Although not particularly steep, it is awash in rocks, rivulets, roots and about six different kinds of mud.
Predictably, parallel herd paths are developing alongside the trail proper, which in time will make the situation worse. My brother and I did our best to stay in the “main channel,” so while our socks were soiled our consciences remained spotless.
Just past the one mile mark is an interesting bit of history in the form of an old mine shaft that is now more popularly known as the “bear cave.” In fact, the small mine was operated by an early hotel owner and later abandoned due to the ore’s high sulfur content, but not before thousands of tons of rock had been mined from the underworld.
At the shaft, the trail dog-legs to the left, for the only real steep part of the climb. It soon moderates, and a spur trail on the right leads to an overlook of the hamlet and southwest toward the mountains around Debar Pond.
The trail continues on to the main view, reached at 1.3 miles. Looking due south is a wonderful view of the lakes and mountains of the Sable Highlands, stretching all the way to the familiar profiles of Whiteface and Esther, perhaps 40 miles distant.
Two hours is plenty of time for the project, and the unique views offered by this northerly corner of the park make the chore of getting there and negotiating the worn trail more than acceptable trade-offs.
- Elevation: 2,250 feet
- Gain: 750 feet
- Distance: 2.7 miles roundtrip