Ha-de-ron-dah Wilderness

The Ha-de-ron-dah Wilderness is a southwestern Adirondack landmark, an old familiar friend to which people return again and again. With an engaging trail system and destinations spaced just far enough away from civilization to serve as backdrops for comfortable weekend hikes, this wilderness is comfort food for the adventurous soul.

As popular and pleasingly wild as it is today, it is easy to forget that today’s Ha-de-ron-dah Wilderness was pieced together from yesterday’s discarded lands; it might not even exist as part of the Forest Preserve had it not been burned to a crisp in 1903, the victim of a stray spark from the nearby Adirondack Division Railroad in Thendara. Its timber value all but destroyed, the state snapped up this acreage in 1909. The forest has since grown back, but not without changes; graceful stands of tall black cherry trees would not exist today had the fire not cleared places for them to flourish as saplings.

This is a subtle landscape, more richly populated with beaver ponds than large mountains. The small lakes for which the area is best known have an understated appearance, many of them fronted by open hardwood forests – completely unlike the thickly coniferous shorelines found elsewhere in the Adirondacks. Hills are abundant, although the 1903 fire bared fewer summits than one might expect. But the streams! They trace such complicated courses they are essentially liquid mazes; just try sorting out which watershed is which on a topographic map!

Small size and proximity to a major tourist hub do have its effects on how the area is perceived and used, but few people who visit Ha-de-ron-dah have cause for complaint. Despite its compact size, this “pocket wilderness” has much to offer.

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Ha-de-ron-dah Wilderness at a Glance

Size: 24,892 acres

First Designated: 1972

Unit Management Plan Status: Completed in 1995

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


There really is nothing superlative about Ha-de-ron-dah; its ponds are small, and the hills are rarely rugged, except for a few rocky flourishes here and there. Most of the land had been swept bare by a devastating forest fire in 1903, meaning today’s woodland consists almost entirely of maturing second growth. At nearly 25,000 acres, it is ranked 11th in size among Adirondack wilderness areas – almost exactly in the middle. State officials count forty-three bodies of water, but they add up to only 405 total acres – an average of less than ten acres each.

Nevertheless, Ha-de-ron-dah is an important wilderness oasis in a region otherwise devoted to snowmobile trails. Rather than “small,” a better word to describe this landscape is “compact,” which is to say there are many interesting features crammed into these 25,000 acres.

The best known of these features are Middle Settlement Lake, a small pond with rocky ledges at various points along its shoreline, and its near twin Middle Branch Lake. If there is any characteristic that distinguishes these ponds from a typical Adirondack body of water, it’s the lack of a barrier of thick hardwoods along the shoreline. Sure there are pines, spruces, and hemlocks here and there at the water’s edge, but open hardwoods account for much of the shoreline. This is unheard of in the deeper backcountry of the central Adirondacks.

Many of the ponds, including Middle Branch and Middle Settlement, are augmented by seemingly permanent beaver activity; older topographic maps show Middle Settlement as being much smaller, but the long beaver dam on its outlet has been sustaining a steady water level for decades. Do the beavers also play a role in sustaining those open hardwood forests along the shoreline? It certainly seems likely.

These larger ponds are what most people remember after a visit to Ha-de-ron-dah, but a few of the smaller ones are worth seeking out as well. Secluded little Rock Pond, with its whopping five acres, is one of the most distinctive of all with its namesake ledges and talus slopes.

Ha-de-ron-dah is hardly “flat,” but even its highest point can’t really be considered a mountain. This is a gently rolling landscape, with more than a few rocky ridges but no soaring summits. The highest point, Moose River Mountain, is a gentle bump on the horizon with a wooded summit. Six Mile Hill and Quarry Mountain both have openings, but only Coal Hill has anything even vaguely resembling a “peak.” No, this wilderness is hardly an alpine environment!

In terms of forest cover, much of Ha-de-ron-dah is cloaked with second-growth hardwoods, with pockets of softwood in the wetter valleys. True old growth is almost non-existent, thanks in part to the 1903 forest fire and to the small mills that once existed near its western boundary, using this forest as sources of lumber. However, recovery from these events is far along that most people may not notice the effects anymore, all these decades later.

But if there is one lingering legacy from 1903, it’s the presence of stately black cherry trees throughout the forest fire footprint. These trees, whose namesake fruit grow well out of reach of humans, are native to the Adirondacks but require abundant access to sunlight to flourish. In places one may still find pure stands of black cherry, with an understory only of ferns. However, as the years progress and natural forest succession has its way, new growth is slowly penetrating even these stands.

Streams are numerous, but they tend toward the small-to-moderate side of the size scale. The largest stream is the two-mile section of the Independence River, which cuts through the northernmost corner of the wilderness — but so far from the nearest marked trail that the average visitor never comes anywhere near it.

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