Trail to forgotten fire tower is a secret worth spreading
By Lisa Ballard
Loon Lake Mountain (3,279 feet) in the Debar Wild Forest doesn’t exactly roll off most hikers’ tongues as a must-do climb. I hope it never does. It’s one of my little secrets, though the peak is not small. The 2.8-mile trail climbs 1,651 feet, of which 1,200 feet comes in the last, eroded 1.5 miles. The reward is a superb view, which includes Whiteface Mountain to the east, with no one sharing my lofty picnic spot.
Lest you think me selfish, I have shared this hike with friends and relatives on occasion, such as one of my crushes as a teenager, back in the 1970s. Full disclosure, he introduced me to the mountain on a casual date, with the promise of showing me a fire tower that no one knew about.
His family had a camp on Loon Lake, so he knew the mountain well, though back then, the route up it was mainly an old woods road that devolved into a bushwhack through stiff hobblebushes and other dense shrubs, and then up a streambed. When we finally dragged our sweaty, scratched bodies onto the summit slab, I had second thoughts about venturing up the tower.
“Come on.” he urged, “There’s a great view from the cabin.”
The 35-foot fire tower, built in 1912, had seen better days. The rickety structure looked as if it would fall over in a strong wind. I dared not climb it for fear of breaking through the steps. It was our only date.
My second climb up Loon Lake Mountain went better. In mid-May 2009, Phil Brown, the former editor of this magazine, invited Jack Ballard, my sweetheart at the time who’s now my husband, and me to climb it on an exploratory outing. After being closed to the public for many years, the Lyme Adirondack Forest Co. had created the 19,000-acre Kushaqua Tract Conservation Easement, which included Loon Lake Mountain. The easement allowed public access on the tract for a variety of outdoor activities, except on 31 1-acre parcels surrounding camps that it leased to private entities. Lyme Adirondack also retained the right to continue managing and harvesting timber there. We counted on the logging roads to aid our trek, at least part of the way.
It was early enough in the spring that the forest had not leafed out yet. The wood sorrel, violets and trout lilies bloomed to either side of a broad woods road. Then, as we turned onto a herd path for the steeper part of the climb, the hobblebushes, which had been my bane 30 years earlier, bloomed in pale bunches to the side of the path, brightening the airy woods. The sprouting leaves on the maple saplings hinted at the vibrant hues they would show off in another five months, though in more pastel shades of red and gold. And the ferns unfurled almost before our eyes.
I was braver on this climb. The tower had weathered another 30 years, but the three of us climbed it anyway, though pieces of steps, railings and struts had blown away. It was a glorious day, with an endless view in all directions. That’s when I made Loon Lake Mountain my confidential climb, though it would be another decade before I had the chance to go back.
Almost 10 years to the day, I returned to Loon Lake Mountain, this time with my son, Parker, who had just graduated from St. Lawrence University a week earlier. An avid hiker after his 46-er badge, Loon Lake Mountain was not on his radar.
“It’s a well-kept secret,” I said. Parker liked the idea of hiking to an uncrowded fire tower.
Things had changed again. In 2013, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation had created a parking area and trailhead at the base of the mountain, and yellow DEC discs now marked the route both along the woods road and up an official footpath.
The first half of the hike was very pleasant, through the budding forest. A well-constructed footbridge kept our feet dry over one stream. A bog bridge elevated us over another marshy area. That said, we were glad for our Gore-Tex hiking boots as puddles drenched parts of the path due to a rainstorm the previous day and snowmelt not yet having completely run its course.
While crossing one meadow, we could see the fire tower perched on the summit. Similar to my last visit, a plethora of wildflowers, including painted trillium and wake robins, bloomed here and there.
About 2 miles into the hike, a pretty cascade flowed toward the trail to our right. Then we made our final push to the summit, up the same rocky, eroded route I had climbed twice before. Water dribbled between the oversized cobbles. Moss coated the rocks, the forest floor and the tree trunks. Most of it was turning green, though patches of stubborn snow still filled a few nooks and crannies. It made the near vertical path rather slick, but we finally broke onto the summit slab.
Upon reaching the tower, we were disappointed to find the bottom steps disconnected and prone on the ground. It was a gray, cloudy day, so much of the view was obscured from the summit slab, but at least we could see Whiteface Mountain.
Then, as we ate our lunch, the clouds began to lift. Within 15 minutes, sunshine reflected off the metal cabin atop the tower, and a stunning panorama of the northern Adirondack Park revealed itself. It was an unexpected, magical moment.
“Nice spot, even if we can’t climb the tower,” Parker said.
I smiled, enjoying the view and the warming rays of the sun. Forget keeping it secret! After all, some sweet places, like Loon Lake Mountain, are meant to be shared.
From State Route 3 north of Bloomingdale, turn northwest on Franklin County Route 26 (old NY Route 99) toward Loon Lake. Continue around the lake, staying left on County Route 26 (Mud Pond Road). The trailhead is on the east side of the road. GPS: N44 35.135 W74 07.476