Wilmington Peak bushwhack may or may not be worth it
By Tim Rowland
Among Hurricane Irene’s lasting marks on the Adirondack landscape in 2011 was a slide down the eastern side of Wilmington Peak in the Stephenson Range in the town of Wilmington.
To be charitable, it’s not the best slide out there. The views are pedestrian, briars are thick and the loose surface gives the overall feel of climbing in a gravel pit. By the time I reached the top of the slide, I didn’t have any appetite for continuing on to the summit — I didn’t care if you could see all the way to Budapest from the top, I was done.
But not finished. An alternate approach to Wilmington Peak exists from the southwest from Cooper Kiln Pond, reached from Cooper Kill Trail, which has access points from Bonnie View Road or Gillespie Drive just off the Whiteface Memorial Highway.
If I’d been thinking, I would have used the Bonnie View trailhead, this route being similar in distance and certainly drier. If you can’t get enough of mud season and want to savor it not just in the spring but in summer and fall as well, the Gillespie approach is for you.
Multiple streams roll down the north side of the mountain range intersecting with the trail, which the rivulets appear to find more to their liking than the course they were on, gurgling heedlessly over the water bars intended to channel them back in their original direction.
I was breaking in a nice new pair of summer hiking boots, but even the attack dog chemicals that gear companies employ to keep their leather looking sharp for years suffered a TKO after just two rounds with the Adirondack muck.
From a small pullout signed Cooper Kill Trail, the route follows a wide snowmobile trail rising gently as you go, and becoming prettier, flanked by evergreens and small mossy glades. At not quite a mile, the hiking trail splits off to the right and climbs more seriously, with a stream down in the gorge below, more heard than seen.
At 1.88 miles the trail is as high as it’s going to get, and begins to descend through a beautiful open forest to the lean-to Cooper Kiln Pond, reached at 2.7 miles. The trail has been flooded by what the state euphemistically calls “beaver activity,” but the dam is load-bearing and easily negotiable.
Not that it’s anything to be proud of, but I’m a somewhat obsessive chronicler of things I find in lean-tos and last time I was here there was the largest bottle of ketchup I’d ever seen, probably of Costco origin where they sell stuff like Worcestershire sauce in 55-gallon drums. But this time it was gone.
The pond has a pristine, Deep Wilderness feel, and is a fine destination of its own. From here, the 3,450-foot Wilmington Peak is a scant one-mile bushwhack away and will appear as twin bumps on your topo map to the northeast of the pond.
A B-line to the point of the ridge will land you in some thick spruce, so it’s best to go a bit to the east, where the woods are more open. But not too much, because the eastern flank of the ridgeline is prohibitively steep.
If you’re really lucky, you can — oh forget it, at some point you will find yourself among spruce thick as prison bars on steep terrain in the midst of heavy blowdown and, in one spot between the knobs, a small swamp.
Bushwhacking is an emotional variant of oil and water, a grainy sense of qualified optimism that everything’s going to be pretty much okie dokie, even in the face of liberal evidence to the contrary. While these feelings may seem incompatible, somehow they keep you going, and on Wilmington Peak there is just enough in the way of views to make it worthwhile.
The ridge is quite narrow, and although you have to fight your way, you can bounce back and forth from one side to the other in search of overlooks. Most are obstructed, but there’s an interesting perspective of Whiteface you won’t find anywhere else, and nice looks toward the Champlain Valley in the east and rolling hills and mountains to the northwest.
There is something of a herd path, I guess, along the ridgeline. Just enough to convince you that you were not the first to travel here, but not enough to convince you that you won’t be the last. It continues over the summit and heads toward the slide, meaning that with two cars you could make an interesting adventure of ascending WP from Cooper Kiln Pond and descending by way of the slide, or the other way around.
Are the limited views worth the struggle? For dedicated bushwhackers, sure. But I sort of felt about it the way Mark Twain felt about a streetscape in Constantinople: “It is a picture which a person ought to see once — not oftener.”
- Elevation: 3,450
- Elevation gain: 1,624
- Distance: 7.4 miles