Union Falls Ponds and surrounding highlands are a picturesque retreat away from the crowds
By Mike Lynch
From Lake Flower Dam in the northern Adirondacks, the Saranac River drops roughly 1,500 feet before it empties into Lake Champlain. Along the way, it meanders through the mountains, rushes through canyons and spreads out into ponds and lakes behind dams.
That variety of terrain can cause headaches for people trying to paddle the entire river in one journey, but it offers plenty of options for day-trippers.
Permanent Rapids in Bloomingdale is popular in spring among whitewater enthusiasts. So are stretches downstream in Plattsburgh.
About this series
Throughout November, we’re publishing a series of stories about the effect dams have had on two of the parks’ important rivers, the Boquet and the Saranac.
As beautiful as these rivers are and as wild as they seem, dams have changed them, blocking the natural movement of fish for decades and, in fact, centuries.
Flatwater paddlers have plenty of routes they can explore. Near Saranac Lake, the river winds through forests and wetlands and offers spectacular mountain views. A little farther downstream, the waterway backs up at dams at Franklin and Union Falls ponds, offering up lake-style paddling in a place that is scenic and remote-feeling but more frequently visited by anglers than by paddlers.
In August, I headed to Union Falls Pond with Chris Morris, a Saranac Lake native who now serves as communications director with the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, a 740-mile paddling trail from the Adirondacks to Maine. Morris grew up paddling with his father Don, who co-authored “Adirondack Canoe Waters: North Flow” with Paul Jamieson. The out-of-print Adirondack Mountain Club guidebook dates back several decades and provides a detailed description of rivers such as the Saranac.
After arriving at Union Falls Pond in midafternoon, Morris and I parked in a little car-camping area near the dam at the northern end of the waterbody. The parking, which is in the Taylor Pond Wild Forest, isn’t great here and if you drive into the car-camping area, you probably want to have a vehicle with pretty high clearance. Otherwise, you should park alongside the road and walk your boat for a few hundred feet to the water. But the good part about the launch and lake is we basically had it to ourselves.
There were no visible boats on the water and only one guy on shore. He was camping at the site near the launch.
Morris and I headed out toward one of the islands in the middle of the lake. The wind was gusty and made for slightly challenging conditions. The trip was still worthwhile because the sky was mostly clear and blue, giving us open views of the surrounding hills and mountains. Soon after launching we saw an eagle soaring in the southeast. Down the lake a little more, we could see Whiteface Mountain on the horizon.
Morris said it’s not a water he has paddled much. Many other paddlers often head elsewhere, too. “Anecdotally, it probably is one of the least popular paddling spots because it’s off the beaten path,” he said. “Here you have a lot more locals that like to fish.”
He did say he had spent time as a kid fishing at Franklin Falls Pond, just upstream from Union Falls Pond.
The only time I can remember paddling Union Falls is when I through-paddled the NFCT. The water trail starts in Old Forge and follows a series of ponds, rivers and lakes to Fort Kent, Maine, including the entire Saranac River. I recall the New York stretch felt much different once I got to Franklin Falls and ran into the hydroelectric dam. Up to there and Union Falls Pond, the portages were well marked and maintained, and so were campsites. At this point, there were zones where one lost that feeling of being in the Adirondack Park.
The route seemed less maintained the farther I floated down the Saranac. Portage paths became less apparent and were blocked by downed trees or other obstacles. Numerous campsites and fire rings appeared on the land but not on maps.
Once Northern Forest paddlers get past the Union Falls Dam, they often wind up doing a lot of walking—or dragging of their boats—for long stretches because the river’s water levels fluctuate significantly in whitewater sections. Spring freshets can bring dangerously high water, while summer drying can make them too low.
On the day I paddled Union Falls Pond with Chris, that was none of my concern, as we stayed on the lake. The only challenges were the strong waves and gusty winds pushing us around. We decided to settle in behind one of the islands to take a break and relax in the calm waters.
“View-wise, it’s great,” Morris said as we sat there in our boats. “There’s not a lot of spots where you are on the back side of Whiteface.”
Yes, the view of the mountain was excellent this day.
As I looked around, I wondered if there was a place to camp. The islands appeared to be private, and so is much of the land along the shorelines. But when I got home I revisited the NFCT map, and it shows two campsites that you can paddle to on the eastern side. I hope to return to them in the future.
While resting beside the islands, we decided it would be best to head back to the launch. Chris had an appointment, and the wind had picked up, making any explorations challenging.
As we headed back, I contemplated hiking one of the surrounding hills or mountains to see if I could get a view of Union Falls Pond.
I later contacted a friend who frequently bushwhacks, and he said there weren’t many hills close by that offered a vista of the Union Falls Pond or the river. After looking at a map, however, I remembered that Catamount Mountain had what I was looking for. So on a Sunday morning in September, I headed to the mountain.
Located east of Union Falls Pond, the 3,169-foot mountain is surrounded by flatlands and stands out when seen from Forestdale Road. On the cold morning when I hiked Catamount, there was only one other vehicle in the parking lot when I arrived. I was surprised, because the hiking trails elsewhere had been overrun all summer, and the conditions were great for hiking—or at least I thought so.
The first section of this 8-mile-round-trip hike is pretty flat, and then you have to scramble up some steep sections on the way over one hill that eventually leads to the main summit. I didn’t see another person during the flat section and enjoyed the woods, noting a few hemlocks (now threatened by invasive insects elsewhere in the Adirondacks).
As I headed up the steep section, I ran into two people, including Paul Casson, who works at the Whiteface Mountain Atmospheric Sciences Research Center. He, too, was surprised at how quiet the mountain was this morning.
Once at the peak, I found what I was looking for: a view of Union Falls Pond spread out in the forest below. I had forgotten how little development you could see from this peak.
I ran into a couple of men who had hiked Catamount Mountain, and asked them what drew them there. They said it was the trail’s relative quiet. On the way out, I saw a dozen more hikers.
Steve Pedulla, an Adirondack 46er from Peru, said the mountain has a little of everything. It’s challenging, he said, with maneuvers over rock and scrambles up steep hills, and it has “a beautiful view.”
I agreed. Plus, the mountain allowed me to see the Saranac River from a different perspective—one from which it looked wild and free.