I spent the past two weeks in near-total seclusion, perched up in the mountains and shrouded by pine trees, the night lights of Burlington, Vermont winking at me from across a six-mile stretch of lake just to remind me that civilization still exists. No cable, no internet, no neighbors.
Without the distractions, I rose naturally with the sun at the pink break of day, spent my days on the trail, unwound by the water with a book, and collapsed into a deep slumber by about 10 PM.
It was heaven – paradise found.
Where was I? I was nestled in the piney heart of the Adirondack Mountains, a six-million acre protected area in the northeastern corner of New York covered in forest and dotted with lakes. It is a deeply wild area amazingly within range of Montreal, New York City, and Boston.
I go there to hike, mostly, but even if hiking is not your game, have no fear. You don’t have to work very hard to appreciate the Adirondacks, for they are extremely generous with their views. From ground level, it is almost overwhelmingly serene at every turn, from its endlessly rolling, bucolic pastures to its forest-covered hills; from the black depths of Lake Champlain to the rushing glory of the Bouquet River.
But if hiking is your game, lace up your boots, spray on some Off! and get going. There are a hundred lifetime’s worth of trails of varying terrain to find within this park. One can scarcely drive 100 yards down the region’s winding two-lane highways without passing an inviting trailhead.
Hiking can be intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be. I am hardly an expert and I have knee problems that have haunted me since birth, so I know that there is something for every level, and that everyone can benefit from some invigorating exercise, clean air, and the peaceful quiet of the forest. Here are five of my favorite day-hikes that I did in these past two weeks, from easiest to the most challenging. All of them are beautiful and rewarding and unique, just like every hiker who traverses them.
1. Cobble Hill
Towards the beginning of my trip I needed a new pair of hiking boots, so we drove over to the Olympic village of Lake Placid, a cheerful and almost intimidatingly athletic little hamlet (you know you’re getting close to Main Street when you start having to swerve for the legions of bikers and sprinters hugging the shoulder). When you get new boots, it is a really good idea to break them in on an easy trail before embarking on anything bigger, or you risk finding yourself halfway up a mountain with a range of blisters blossoming on your poor, battered feet. The sales rep pointed us in the direction of Cobble Hill – a short loop whose trailhead you access through the parking lot of The Northwood School, a small, local boarding school for athletes.
All this to say, this trail is a quickie. You enter into sunny, bright green forest, cross a foot bridge over a sparkling creek, and soon come to a fork in the road. To the right is a quick ascent, just 0.4 miles, but a steeper climb with some scrambling. To the left is a 1.1 mile winding, easier amble up the hill by way of a small lake called Echo Pond. We decided to take the scramble up and the long way down, which I highly recommend. After a few minutes of walking, you do come to a couple of rock faces that require climbing but it’s just enough challenge to make it a fun afternoon. The view from the top of such a short climb is modest but pretty, characterized by the rich blues and greens of the region, and you can get a glimpse of the Olympic ski jump. The longer route is a peaceful walk up or down a couple of hills, followed by a beautiful stroll along the edge of Echo Pond.
The endeavor took about 1.5 hours, including a significant break at the top just to enjoy the silence. Best of all, there were no bugs.
2. Rattlesnake Mountain
I think of Rattlesnake Mountain as the ultimate starter climb. It is a short, flat-topped mountain right on Lake Champlain, and as a result of these characteristics it only takes about 45 minutes to summit and offers a plethora of breathtaking viewpoints from the top. I’ve taken (relatively fit) grandparents up this trail, reluctant roommates, and even cousins in flip flops. I don’t necessarily recommend the flip flops, but the point is she survived.
The trailhead is right off of Route 22 in Willsboro across from Long Pond and the first half of the hike is a relatively flat stroll through more sunny forest. You will hear a trickling stream, and this will signal the beginning of your true climb. For the next twenty minutes it is quite steep, but there is no scrambling involved.
Just keep putting one foot in front of the other and you will be rewarded. Be sure to explore the top thoroughly – my favorite lookout point over the valley is to the far right of the summit and is nearly concealed by trees. An extremely narrow, but well-worn footpath will lead the keen observer to this promised land, and if you press on you will find a veritable gallery of cairns built by fellow hikers. Add your own! We did 🙂
This mountain is a moderate hike up to a 2,200 foot summit and takes about twice as long as Rattlesnake, but in return you get twice the view and some very neat wildlife on the way there. There are two trailheads and I am partial to the one off of Route 9.
Halfway through the hike you will encounter a completely submerged – that is, completely useless – old foot bridge. This is because this enormous valley on the side of the mountain has recently been developed into a veritable beaver metropolis by those rascally engineers of nature. Conveniently, their excellently constructed dams work pretty well as a fine substitute bridge, so you don’t have to ford the reservoir. You probably won’t see a beaver (if you somehow do, I’m jealous!), but you’ll see evidence of their lifestyle everywhere. Their territory is mindbogglingly huge. After a few more steep climbs you will come to an upper beaver enclave. A quarter of a mile later you reach the fire tower at the top, and a few steps beyond that a gorgeous panorama of the lake and the green mountains of Vermont to the left and the blue ‘dacks to the right is waiting to dazzle.
4. West River Trail to Rainbow Falls
This was an incredible day. The West River Trail follows a section of the Ausable River through mossy forest and past four water falls, each more spectacular than the last. It begins at a trail register manned by a park ranger. This is unusual in the Adirondacks, which is generally one of the most laissez-faire state parks I’ve ever encountered. He informed us that it was about a 4-mile walk to Rainbow Falls. About a mile and a half in we passed a vigorous middle-aged couple returning from a morning hike who told us, to our surprise, that we were “almost to The Falls!” Sure enough, within a few minutes we could hear rushing water, and we nearly stumbled into the first gentle falls. This was where we lunched, a bit confused, but still immensely enjoying our Snickers and the view. We pressed on and found signs pointing towards Beaver Meadow Falls, and soon enough found a second set of cascading rapids along a rare steep section of trail. After a little trail blazing to nose around on the rocks, my hiking companion declared “Well, if this isn’t Beaver Meadow Falls, Beaver Meadow Falls will have to be pretty spectacular.”
Well, friends, those weren’t the Beaver Meadow Falls, and Beaver Meadow Falls, once we found them, was indeed so spectacular and unexpected it made us gasp aloud. We lingered for 20 minutes in wonderment, and then we pressed on. The trail beyond turns into a true sunny meadow that requires some mild rock hopping to traverse. Eventually you reach a dam (built by humans this time) and this signals the last gasp to Rainbow Falls off to the right. We couldn’t believe it, but Rainbow Falls was at least four times the height of the Beaver Meadow Falls with which we had been so impressed and enamored. We ventured up to the slippery foot of the majestic cliffs and reveled in the cold spray. It was an amazing experience to behold. Amazing!
We returned by crossing the dam and walking down the gravel Lake Road. It’s supposed to be a 3-mile walk, but a trail maintenance worker stopped and offered us a ride. Hey – we like to hike, but we’re only human. We gratefully clambered inside, sticky, sweaty, and satisfied.
5. Hurricane Mountain
Hurricane Mountain was our big kahuna. At 3,678 feet, it was the tallest mountain I had summited on foot and it was, therefore, my first true 360-degree view! It is an amazing climb, friends. We ran into a very fit 60-something man who was on his way down with two very happy dogs as we were on our way up, panting like dogs, and he told us that the trail had been completely re-done in the past few years, extending the length by about a mile adding many new switch-backs and eliminating some of the tougher scrambles.
It is, indeed, a long hike but rather gentle and lovely. The forest on the way up is brilliantly mossy green and the air velvety sweet, and we discovered yet another enormous beaver settlement. There is a fire tower at the top, but, truthfully, we did not quite feel the need to mount it. We were above tree line and the wind was howling and the fire tower was a bit, well, creaky. The view from the ground was plenty spectacular for me.
It is such a privilege to live on this earth! Do your best to explore it, wherever you are! And if you can, try to get yourself to the Adirondacks. It’s worth it.