On Adirondack trails

Ampersand trail

So much of what we see when we follow a trail is the trail itself. Between watching our feet to avoid tripping over rocks or getting bogged down in mud, and keeping an eye out for trail blazes, it’s a wonder we ever manage to notice anything else.

roots and leaves

For some people, this is an argument for bushwhacking, but in fragile ecosystems and/or treacherous terrain with lots and lots of hikers, going off-trail doesn’t seem too responsible an option. And if you read accounts from early hunters and climbers in the Adirondacks, it’s obvious that their trail-free excursions often entailed a great degree of flailing about, wielding axes with abandon to extricate themselves from a blowdown or patch of krummholz, and sometimes ending up on the wrong peak.

angled bridge

Still, one feels a little guilty just adding to the numbers who hike these trails every year. When I visited the High Peaks region with my hiking buddy last week, we found many of the more-traveled paths to be virtually indistinguishable from streambeds but for the greater quantity of mud they contained. Even the dry parts had been gullied out by decades of waffle-stompers, exposing networks of roots and the bare granite that’s never more than eight inches down.

Ampersand trail 2

The Adirondacks were polished clean by glaciers during the last ice age, so soil has been building only for 8000 years. Even without any help from humans, landslides are a perpetual risk on the steep slopes. A lumber boom in the mid to late 19th century led to raging forest fires, and in some of the burned-over areas the soil, no longer held in place by living root systems, subsequently washed away. Luckily, the unique “forever wild” provision in the New York state constitution that protects the Adirondack Park explicitly bans logging.

Ampersand trail 3

Ironically, the man who deserves the lion’s share of the credit for that protection is also responsible for some of the bare summits we see today. Verplanck Colvin (delightful name!) was the state surveyor whose yearly reports to the New York legislature built the case for protection, accurately observing the capacity of mountains covered in old-growth forest to retain water like a sponge, thereby guaranteeing the water supply for rivers and canals down-state. Heavily influenced by George Perkins Marsh’s seminal 1864 study Man and Nature, Colvin was a true visionary, who could see in a moss-covered rock the source of life and industry for millions.

trail to Nippletop

But surveying the peaks meant establishing lines of sight from one to the other, and this often entailed cutting and/or burning everything on the summit higher than five feet. Sometimes the erosion that followed was as severe as that following one of the clearcuts Colvin decried. Where today yellow paint marks a trail across bare rock, Colvin and his men might’ve camped among dwarf spruce, sometimes for days, as they waited for clouds to lift on an adjacent peak.

from Ampersand summit

The highest peaks, of course, rise above treeline, exposing delicate alpine vegetation to generations of view-hungry hikers. The last time I visited the Adirondacks, I was surprised to be greeted by a “summit steward” — a plant cop — when I finally reached the top of the second-highest peak. That’s the way it has to be, though, I guess. I was touched to see how many hikers had carried a small rock all the way up to the top of Algonquin Peak (I’d missed the sign at the trailhead) to extend the borders of protected, wild gardens where native alpine plants were slowly being reestablished.

The Garden

Most hikers do want to do the right thing. We wouldn’t go out there if we didn’t love nature — though I sometimes wonder at the backpackers who soldier along at a rapid clip, sans binoculars or camera, and rarely seem to lift their eyes from the trail until they get to the next official view. Probably they in turn wonder at day-hikers like me, dawdling along, not seeming to care how much ground I cover — and often pointing my camera at the ground right next to the trail. But I think we’re both walking, literally and figuratively, in Colvin’s footsteps.

mushroom stump

17 Comments


  1. I love all those exposed roots and rocks amidst the forest, then such a magestic view up top! I’d be one of those dawdlers with camera pointed down and out and everywhere. Sounds like you had a great time.

    Reply

    1. I did! And I thought of you and some of your London photos with the very first photo I shot on the trip — see my photo blog.

      Reply

  2. Dave! This is wonderful! I grew up in the Adirondacks, and I am only now beginning to appreciate them. Your writing and observations both educate and make me homesick! I am also an eye roving over the trail sort of hiker. I’ve evn got the children trained to spot what I call “art pictures” bark that looks like a face, roots that resemble snakes…

    Reply

    1. Hey, it sounds as if you’re raising them right! I did take some photos of arboreal grotesquerie in the Adirondacks, and hope to feature them in another post soon.

      We lived in central Maine until I was five, so even though Appalachian forest types and geology are much more familiar to me, I did imprint on bare granite and evergreens at an early age. So going to the Adirondacks does feel like a return to some kind of lost purity, that hazy paradise of one’s earliest memories from a happy childhood.

      Reply

      1. i didn’t know you grew up in maine! where?

        the adirondacks are in my backyard (ish) and now that the boys are old enough we hope to start hiking more and building our way up to some of the more challenging hikes as the years go by!

        the pictures are wonderful!

        Reply

        1. Glad you liked the piece, and I hope you manage to infect your kids with the hiking bug. From what I’ve seen, I’d say that clambering around on big rocks — and big, rocky mountains — is never too hard a sell for kids.

          My dad worked at Colby College, and we had a place in the country near Winslow ME from 1967-1971.

          Reply

  3. I have never hiked a trail with a summit as my goal. That might be an interesting thing to do every now and then, but the pure delight of being out there is seeing every little detail along the way. The last pic you posted here says it all to me.

    Reply

    1. Summits are fun to climb to if they promise cool rocks and plants, and if the weather’s clement enough to enjoy them. That was mostly not the case last week, so we only climbed the one, relatively low summit pictured here, and stuck to lower elevations the rest of the time. The trail up Ampersand Mountain ran mostly through old-growth or very mature second-growth forest, too — very diverse and interesting.

      Reply

  4. Delightful story and photographs. Thank you for taking me to a place I’ve never physically been.

    Reply

  5. We went to Lake George last year and hiked up Prospect Mountain. We took our time and it was a delightful climb. Around 1200 feet elevation. My only trip to the Adirondacks so far.

    Loved this post. Didn’t know much about the geological past and the conservation efforts. Now when we go back, I’ll look at the area with new eyes and make sure we don’t spoil things further with our visit.

    Reply

    1. I haven’t spent any time over on the eastern side — sounds nice.

      I didn’t really go into the geology much, but in a nutshell it’s a very recent orogeny involving very ancient rock, a bursting of a 160-mile-diameter boil.

      Reply

  6. Looks like a beautiful hike. Nice shots, and report. So long since I’ve hiked out in *real* woods (not just the local wildlife sanctuaries).

    Reply

    1. I guess it would be a bit of a drive for you. Here, we have enough pretty impressive forests locally that we have to make a special effort to go farther afield.

      Reply

  7. Gorgeous! I’m still taking most-weekly hikes through the Shenandoahs (Virginia), and glad to have the opportunity — the foliage has just been starting to turn.

    Reply

  8. Wondrous. The shot with the fungi and the caterpillar made me go ‘Oh!’ out loud.

    Reply

Leave a Reply