Black River Wild Forest

The Black River Wild Forest is in many ways a gateway area, occupying a prominent point of entry for the Adirondack Park where many people acquire their first tastes of backcountry adventure. It was also the site of some of New York State’s first attempts at resource management, several decades before the creation of the Adirondack Park and the Forest Preserve. And it just so happens to be one of several wild forests in the southern Adirondacks that contain pockets of outstanding wilderness.

In some respects, none of this area is remote, and it has been traveled by wheeled vehicles since at least the 1790s. These traits lend weight to the area’s wild forest designation. The original settlers of John Brown’s Tract – at the site of what would later become Old Forge – followed a primitive “road” from the Remsenburgh Patent to the Middle Branch Moose River, much of it through the Black River Wild Forest.

And when managers of the state’s canal system sought sources of water for the Erie and Black River canals, this was the first place they looked.

Compared to other regions of the Adirondack Park, this area at first glance seems to offer nothing particularly outstanding or unique. The mountains are little more than hills, and the ponds are not unlike others you will find elsewhere. The landscape is pleasing, to be sure, as well as vast and wild, but there is nothing going on here that isn’t outdone elsewhere.

Or is there?

Appearances can be deceiving, and even though much of the area is apparently shackled to a history of reservoirs and logging railroads, its southern reaches constitute a de facto wilderness – protected not by law and policy, but by an absence of public attention.

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Black River Wild Forest at a Glance

Size: 127,135 acres

First Designated: 1972

Unit Management Plan Status: Completed in 1996

Special Regulations: None; standard Forest Preserve regulations are in effect


The Black River may be its namesake, but this chunky block of state land is arrayed across a variety of prominent features, including two branches of the Moose River and several noteworthy lakes.

But, yes, the major watershed here is the Black River, of which even the mighty Moose is a tributary. The river itself flows for only a few miles through the Forest Preserve, but its reach is extensive nonetheless – with all but the southeastern area (located in the West Canada Creek watershed) contributing its water to the Black and ultimately the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Otherwise, the wild forest is trisected by three west-flowing streams: the Black River, Woodhull Creek, and the South Branch Moose River, with the Middle Branch Moose and West Canada Creek forming distant bookends. Between each of these major waterways is a distinctive section of forest: the subtleties surrounding Nelson Lake, the recreational hub between McKeever and Woodgate, the near-wilderness along North Lake Road, and the pockets of true wilderness surrounding Cotton Lake.

The entire area is richly populated with small lakes and ponds, including several with man-made origins. The most prominent may be the twin North and South lakes, each a reservoir which remains in nominal service to the state’s canal system even though the major use today is recreation. But away from the road lurks an entire constellation of tannic ponds, most accessed by a locally-popular trail.

Such mountains as there are seem hardly worthy of the name, although elevations do swell to interesting heights in the hinterlands between the Black and West Canada watersheds. Woodhull Mountain may be the area’s sole summit of note, if only because of its fire tower, although Ice Cave Mountain (located on a conservation easement just outside the wild forest boundaries) should also be mentioned. The definitive feature of the latter mountain is a deep fissure in which ice really may linger well into the summer.

Forest quality forms an almost perfect gradient from north to south, following the pattern of land use and state acquisition. The wilderness-like southern region was acquired early, including a strip of virgin forest east of Twin Lakes, and therefore much of this region is typified by mature stands of grand proportions. North of Woodhull Creek, however, one encounters a forest that was logged more recently – as well as the bed of a logging railroad paralleling the Moose River. The northernmost region, between the two forks of the Moose River, was acquired the most recently and therefore exhibits the most signs of logging activity.

Otherwise even the best forests here are standard fare when considered in the context of the entire Adirondack Park, with stands that may be notable but are hardly unusual. Indeed, in the vast areas with no significant elevation change, one will observe consistent growths of northern hardwoods mixed with baseline amounts of hemlock and spruce. These “plain vanilla” forests obscure the truth of the area, though: the deep interior is truly wild and rugged, and the wild forest classification belies the wilderness potential of this resource.

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