Author discovers a hidden treasure not far from her hometown.
By Lisa Densmore
I grew up in Saranac Lake and have been hiking in the Adirondacks for much of the last four decades. However, until this spring, I had not hiked up Jay Mountain, actually Jay Mountains, plural. My hiking calendar always seemed to omit this double-peaked ridge east of Upper Jay. At 3,600 feet, it ranks an obscure seventy-ninth highest in the Adirondacks, which is one reason I paid it little heed. Not that I limit my local peak bagging to four-thousand-footers. A candidate for my guidebook, Hiking the Adirondacks, Jay was because it doesn’t have an officially maintained trail.
While I was looking for a hike in celebration of my fifty-first birthday, several friends unexpectedly and enthusiastically suggested the Jays. “Jay Mountain is my favorite hike in the Adirondacks,” said Phil Brown, the editor of this magazine.
That was a weighty statement coming from one of the more widely hiked people I know in the Adirondacks. Was Jay Mountain the best hike in the Adirondack Park? I doubted it. How could this relatively unknown mountain be better than the grand bald summits of Marcy, Algonquin, Wright, and Phelps, to name only a few of my beloved hiking destinations. But if Jay were close, I had made a regrettable error skipping it for the last forty years. I needed to find out.
My day on the Jays dawned cloudless. When I arrived at the trailhead, the sun had already warmed the mid-May morning into the eighties. It took a moment to find the start of the well-used herd path, which was marked only by a sturdy metal pipe topped with yellow paint. Immediately upon loping up the initial hump from the stake, I came to a sign-in box, which surprised me. In addition, a string of yellow blotches on the trees blazed the obvious path (and the state property line). For a trail-less peak, Jay certainly started out well marked.
In 1991, the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) acquired this portion of the route, providing easy access into the Jay Mountain Wilderness, the smallest Wilderness Area in the Park at 7,951 acres. The original access went across nearby private land, which the landowner closed as the hike became more and more popular. “Popular” is a relative term in the case of Jay Mountain. Only a handful of locals and hardcore hikers come here, as one has to dig deeply into the Adirondack Mountain Club’s Guide to Adirondack Trails: High Peaks Region to get a brief underwhelming explanation of the route.
That will likely change. In 2010, DEC finalized its plan for the Jay Mountain Wilderness, proposing a small parking area and an officially marked, somewhat rerouted trail to the summit to minimize soil erosion and the impact on vegetation. Perhaps DEC should add reducing the risk of heart attack to its goals for the new trail. Like other old bushwhacks in the Adirondacks that morph into footpaths, the one up Jay Mountain is direct and steep, gaining about 2,300 vertical feet in about 3.2 miles, much of it in the first half of the route. This was my first hike of the season. Within ten minutes, my heart pounded through my ears, but it felt good to be hiking.
Soon a few sporadic faded pinkish blazes replaced the multitude of bright-yellow ones, and the rock-strewn path turned from a steady upward grade to an intensely steep climb. As I ascended, a woodpecker tapped an uneven rhythm while mourning doves cooed and songbirds chirped an uncoordinated chorus. The new leaves on the maple, beech, and oak filtered the rays of sun onto patches of columbine. The delicate arching red flowers sprouted through the old fallen leaves on the forest floor, adding subtle splashes of color to the woody landscape.
I had hoped the wildflowers would be blooming. The wild garden beside the Jay herd path exceeded my expectations. At about 0.7 miles, as I crossed a shoulder of the mountain, I found a carpet of trout lilies interrupted by clumps of clintonia and trillium. Spring beauties and smooth yellow violets bloomed alongside paper birch logs. A few white baneberry blossoms bowed slightly toward the trail, brushing my leg as I passed.
After glimpsing a tall rocky hump ahead, I descended to the bottom of a gully where the trail abruptly faded. Left looked slightly more used. I headed that way, then spotted a tightly tied bow of surveyor’s tape on a dead maple sapling. As the trail became clearer, it dipped again, passing through a swampy area before climbing to another yellow-topped pipe. Beyond the pipe, a number of fallen trees had been cut to keep the route open.
I made steady progress upward, passing delicate Dutchman’s breeches hanging over more spring beauties. At about 1.1 miles, I reached a hump of bedrock where two small rock cairns marked a turn to the right across a length of slab. From this vantage point, I got my first clear look deep into the High Peaks toward Mount Marcy and the Great Range. From the next rock hump, I could see Lake Champlain. From then on, the views kept coming. It was tough to take my eyes off Whiteface standing so stately to the west, but Marcy, Algonquin, Gothics, Big Slide, Giant—all of the biggies—stood like layers of rounded teeth to the south. It was tough to decide where to feast my eyes.
At about 1.6 miles I reached a false summit that marks the start of the ridge. I would have been satisfied to stop here, savor the spectacular scenery, then return to my car when a Canadian couple caught up to me.
“Nice view,” said the woman, with a strong French accent.
“Incredible,” I agreed, “Are you going further?’ From our rocky perch, a couple waves of bare rock rolled away to the east. I could see more rock cairns heading toward two peaks of the same height, the farthest about 1.5 miles away.
“Oui. Zees ees onlee ’alf way,” said the man, in a tone that implied they hadn’t remotely considered stopping here.
With such an expanse of open rock beckoning, I suppressed my temptation to turn back and followed the French couple. In places the rock was oddly blackened. Was it old char from the 1903 forest fire that exposed it, or was it a dark lichen? I marveled at how close and large Lake Champlain looked. From this angle, Whiteface, which I always considered a stand-alone from the other four-thousand-footers, appeared connected to the rest of the High Peaks by a string of numerous lower summits.
I soon discovered that the Jay Range ridge was less flat than it looked. It heaved up and down, including one rock chimney that required an impromptu butt-slide to descend. In many places, the footing was as much rocky rubble as slab. About halfway to the first summit, I passed a piece of “cairn art”—a rock man complete with a face and hair.
The ridge wasn’t completely clear of trees either. Periodically it dipped into the ash and firs. There were numerous flowering bushes along the way, and a wide lawn of mountain cranberry (though no berries yet, or even blossoms).
The route swung behind the first summit, but I scrambled atop it, not wanting to miss the highpoints of this intriguing hike. To the southeast, I caught sight of the remnants of an old microburst that leveled a swath of trees on a steep hillside. The logs lay like giant pick-up sticks down to a swampy pond. Interestingly, on the opposite side of the ridge, an old ice storm had sheared off many acres of paper birch. The evidence of both microburst and ice storm reminded me of how fierce the weather can be on an exposed ridge such as this one even if it is not the highest point of land. But not on this lovely day.
I met one other couple while traversing a high meadow known as Grassy Notch in the saddle between Jay’s twin summits.
“Nice view,” the man echoed back to me. “Are you a Forty-Sixer?” He later revealed he had done all of the High Peaks several times, both summer and winter.
“No,” I replied, “I’ve done most of them, but I don’t want to climb the trail-less peaks. They’re lots of work without a view.” My proverbial hiking boot lodged fully in my mouth. This was technically a trail-less peak with a view!
I finally reached the last cairn, marking the top of the second peak about three hours into my hike. As I dug in my pack for my lunch, I reflected on this “trail-less” hike. Though it had been a stiff climb, what a reward! A glorious 360-degree panorama. Wildflowers galore. Half the route on an open rock ridge. Few people. What more could a hiker desire? Perhaps I had found the best hike in the Adirondacks. ■
DIRECTIONS: From NY 9N in Upper Jay just south of the bridge over the East Branch of the Ausable River, turn east onto Trumbells Corners Road (CR 85). After 2.8 miles, Trumbells Corners Road becomes Jay Mountain Road. Continue another 0.5 miles. The trailhead is just past the junction with Upland Meadows Road on the opposite (left) side of the road. Look for a pipe with a generous splash of yellow paint marking the start of the route. There is no parking area, but the shoulder is plenty wide on this lightly used road to accommodate three to four cars.