A rewarding short hike that never gets old
By Lisa Ballard
I first tromped up trails in the Adirondack Park as a teenager in the 1970s, accompanying various friends who chased their 46er patches. Back then, trailless peaks were truly trailless. I fancied myself a hardcore hiker. I thought I’d become an expert on hiking routes in the Adirondacks but with maturity I realized that my knowledge of superlative hikes was limited to the High Peaks, which left 95% of the park to explore.
That’s when I found Bald Mountain-Rondaxe between Old Forge and Eagle Bay, a modest 2,349-foot peak that rewards hikers handsomely for the one-mile trek to its rocky top and fire tower. The mountain is actually a highpoint along a ridge that forms the northwestern shore of Fourth Lake. The 360-degree panorama from the fire tower atop Bald Mountain-Rondaxe is an eye-popper, though the main show is the Fulton Chain of Lakes below.
In recent years, I’ve hiked Bald Mountain-Rondaxe a half-dozen times, including a solo climb last summer while working on the third edition of “Hiking the Adirondacks.” However, I was hardly alone on this popular route, which attracts over 15,000 people per year. And though I’m older, this hike never gets old because fire towers fascinate me for their history and the fantastic views they afford.
Sixteen New York peaks are named “Bald Mountain,” including one in Lewis County, about 30 miles to the north. The suffix, “Rondaxe,” differentiates the Bald Mountain by Fourth Lake from the others. Though Rondaxe can be a person’s first name, in the case of Bald Mountain, it is likely derived from “Adirondack.” A lake just to the north of the mountain is called Rondaxe Lake. The trailhead is on Rondaxe Road, and the mountain is often referred to as Rondaxe Mountain, its official name in the early 20th century.
Regardless of its nomenclature, Bald Mountain-Rondaxe is a classic short mileage, big reward hike that’s perfect for families. The one-mile ascent comes with a reasonable 400-foot vertical gain. Each time I’ve climbed this mountain, parents with children on their backs, holding their hands or romping playfully up and down the rocks have been common company on the trail.
What’s more, I didn’t need to wait for the summit to get a view. Within the first half-mile, Fourth Lake appears on the left, with a first look at the entire Fulton Chain a few steps later. On the climb, several ribs of bedrock tested my balance, especially when I’ve taken my eyes off the trail to gaze at the view, adding another enjoyable dimension to the climb.
Though this hike is short, I always get excited when I break out onto the open summit and see the fire tower. It sits halfway across an elongated plateau. Built in 1912, it was one of 120 fire towers topping New York peaks in the early 1900s. The original one was made of wood. It was 20 feet high with an exposed platform on top. The firewatcher slept in a tent near the base of the tower. Only the heartiest could handle the job, which ran seasonally from April through November.
In 1917, the current steel tower, which stands 35 feet and has an enclosed room on top, replaced the original wooden structure. By then, the watcher lodged in a 12-foot by 16-foot cabin with a woodstove for heat and cooking. While on duty, the watcher looked for forest fires, of course, but he also chatted with hikers, helped with search-and-rescue operations and recorded the weather. The logs from the firewatchers across the Adirondack Park are now used to better understand weather trends and climate change. During World War II, the watcher also recorded any airplanes that he could see or hear as part of our national security.
The state retired the fire tower atop Bald Mountain-Rondaxe in 1990. It reopened in 2005 for the pleasure of hikers, thanks to the Friends of Bald Mountain who continue to maintain it.
Upon reaching the tower, I dropped my pack and climbed the steps, reveling in the breeze. I’m not afraid of heights, but whenever I ascend the narrow, airy steps of a fire tower, my heart beats a little faster, though perhaps on this day, my pulse quickened because I could see iconic Mount Marcy in the High Peaks, 55 miles to the north as the crow flies.
Then, I looked down at Fourth Lake. I spotted three kayakers and recalled when I canoed the Fulton Chain and glimpsed the fire tower above me. I wondered if those paddlers were looking at the tower from the water, too. At that moment, standing inside that landmark, I felt an intrinsic connection between the mountain and the lake, and realized that peaks and water were the essence of not only this place, but the entire Adirondack Park.
Satisfied and delightfully refreshed, I turned to descend the narrow stairs when some graffiti caught my eye. In black marker, someone had scratched a quote from Eden Phillpotts, an English author, playwright and poet: “The universe is full of wonderful things patiently waiting for our minds to grow sharper.” Indeed, I had found a wonderful thing.