Hoffman Notch Wilderness

The Hoffman Notch Wilderness is a perfect example of how true wildness can sometimes be hidden in plain sight. Although it directly abuts an Interstate highway, and although its size is rather middling, solitude and natural beauty abound. In other words, Hoffman Notch is Adirondack wilderness at its best – despite its accessibility.

Many people have seen this wilderness, whether they are aware of it or not – but few can say they know the landscape on an intimate basis. Ever since I-87 (known as the Adirondack Northway) opened in 1967, the Blue Ridge Range has been adorning roadside vistas for thousands of drivers every day. It is a place that seems so close to “civilization” that it can hardly be considered remote, by any standard. Indeed, several of its most popular destinations are barely a mile from the starting point, and the area’s most iconic scenery can be consumed with minimal effort.

But as one penetrates a little deeper, a rugged and lightly-traveled landscape reveals itself. Traffic sounds fade away quickly, and even the marked hiking trails become faint trackways. Trees of the deep forest grow to impressive dimensions, and streams tumble noisily through unseen gorges.

One might say this is the Rodney Dangerfield of wilderness areas, never getting the respect it deserves — a trend that began when the original planners of the Adirondack Park were considering the location of its boundaries. Depending on which map one views, Hoffman Notch was either bisected by the proposed “Blue Line” or placed right on its edge. When the state officially established the Adirondack Park in 1892, the approved boundary cut a tenuous line between Schroon Lake and the foothills of the Blue Ridge Range.

Some seven decades later, the area was overlooked entirely by the Joint Legislative Committee on Natural Resources, which was the first state entity to consider protecting portions of the Adirondack Forest Preserve as wilderness. While the committee did publish a map in 1965 listing twelve potential wilderness areas, Hoffman Notch was not among them. Perhaps it was because snowmobile trails cut through the area, including the eponymous Hoffman Notch, thus making the area seem less worthy of protection.

A proposal to create an “Adirondack Mountains National Park” in 1967 similarly placed Hoffman Notch square against the boundary. However, things began to look better in 1970, when the Temporary Study Commission on the Future of the Adirondacks proposed the creation of a “Hoffman Notch Primitive Area” in 1970, which would’ve been a stepping stone to an eventual wilderness classification. But the staff of the newly-formed Adirondack Park Agency skipped this intermediary step in 1972 and designated most of the area as wilderness.

Although it is now fully protected, the tendency to overlook this area continues today, even among wilderness enthusiasts. Location may be partly to blame. Sandwiched as it is between two of the most popular areas in the Adirondacks – the High Peaks and Pharaoh Lake wildernesses – Hoffman Notch seems pretty lackluster in direct comparison. While it does contain a few notable peaks, there is nothing quite on the scale of Mount Marcy, and the area’s ponds are too few and scattered to tempt people away from those gracing the ever-popular Pharaoh Lake Wilderness on the opposite side of Schroon Lake.

Nevertheless, this is an area that does bear close scrutiny. There is nothing but joy to be found in exploring its various corners, which display subtle variations along its east-west axis. The upland forests in the western expanse display a clear affinity for the central Adirondack plateau, to which they naturally belong. The eastern slopes, by contrast, are delightful in their playful experiments with Thuja occidentalis, the eastern white cedar, a tree that is not distributed evenly across the Adirondack Park. Underlying everything is the area’s anorthosite bedrock, which technically makes this region an extension of the High Peaks – even if its highest peaks fall 300 feet shy of “peak bagging” status.

Therefore this is a remarkably wild and diverse landscape, despite its relative accessibility and compact size. Hoffman Notch may not be the biggest wilderness or the most popular, but it never fails to impress those few people who do come to tease out its secrets.

Please click through the tabs below to learn more about the Hoffman Notch Wilderness.

Hoffman Notch Wilderness at a Glance

Size: 38,234 acres

First Designated: 1972

Unit Management Plan Status: Completed in 2012

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

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Perhaps the most distinctive feature of the Hoffman Notch Wilderness is its topography, with multiple north-south mountain ranges indented by parallel valleys. This rigid pattern is unlike the randomness of most other areas in the park, making it seem more like a traditional mountain range – even if this pattern is probably just a byproduct of fault lines in the bedrock, just like everywhere else.

The largest grouping of mountains here is the Blue Ridge Range – an uninspired name for a chain that nevertheless forms a stunning backdrop to several communities along the Schroon River. Its apex is Hoffman Mountain, which at 3693 feet in elevation makes it much more than just a foothill of the High Peaks. Its graceful, pyramid-like profile enchanted the Hudson River School painter Thomas Cole, who reimagined the mountain as a place of sublimity when he painted his 1838 masterpiece View of Schroon Mountain, Essex County, New York, After a Storm (The Cleveland Museum of Art, Hinman B. Hurlbut Collection). It also inspired the local towns to propose a major ski development here in the 1960s, but this idea was happily defeated by the state’s voters during a 1967 referendum.

No trails lead to the mountain, and its summit is notorious for its thick forest growth; only the most diehard of peak-baggers subject themselves to its hardships. But Hoffman is orbited by its own cluster of foothills, some of which atone for the harshness of the main summit: Severance Hill is one of the mildest climbs anywhere, Jones Hill is steep and narrow, and the various Peaked Hills are bushwhacking delights.

Within the wilderness boundaries there are at least three major fault valleys dividing the mountain ranges, with Hoffman Notch being the most distinctive. This “notch” is far less rugged than the various mountain passes that indent the High Peaks to the north, with more than enough width for scattered beaver flows. Forest quality is quite good here at the heart of the wilderness, and the hike from Loch Muller to Blue Ridge Road leads from recovered farmland to deep woods and back to managed timberlands in quick succession.

The area does feature several ponds, all of them scenic in their way, but most are found near the outer fringes of the area. Marion Pond is the highest, and the closest to being a true trout pond. The rest are low-elevation bodies of water, and except for Big Marsh none of those are located more than a mile from a road.

This wilderness is rich with streams, but the designated boundaries fall short of including any of the large rivers in the immediate vicinity – except for the briefest section of the Boreas River in the far northwestern corner. Thus one’s attention is drawn to features such as Durgin Brook, Platt Brook, Trout Brook, and Seventeenth Brook, among others. Those in the central and western valleys are typically tannic, just like practically every other stream in the central Adirondacks. However, the brooks that tumble down the eastern slopes are clear mountain streams, each of them slipping unseen through tunnels underneath the Northway.

Despite the relatively compact size of the Hoffman Notch Wilderness, its forests display a remarkable amount of diversity. These begin with the pine-heavy reforestation areas near Bailey and Big ponds, which in the nineteenth century were extensions of human settlement. Much of the northwestern corner of the wilderness is blocked by a thick growth of spruce, pine, and fir, seeming to defy the very notion of human access. The mid-slopes exhibit the typical stands of northern hardwoods mixed with red spruce and eastern hemlock that are common throughout the Adirondacks. And if one persists up to the highest summits, it will be spruce and balsam fir getting in the way.

These patterns fall apart on the eastern slopes, where eastern white cedar – known to gardeners as arborvitae or “the tree of life” – comes into play. Cedar groves are everywhere, and like a reactive chemical element they interact with their neighbors to form new and unexpected forest combinations. For instance, they grow beside white pine along the shore of North Pond, with balsam fir along the lower reaches of Platt Brook, and with hemlocks at Seventeenth Brook’s narrow gorge — each combination offering its own aesthetic delights. At a few select sites, cedar grows in almost pure stands.

The durability of its wood means these trees tend to linger long after they die, imparting an atmosphere of desolation to the ponds, bogs, and wetlands where fluctuating water levels have doomed entire stands of cedar.

Human habitation pushes against the wilderness boundaries along its southern edge, and the Northway permanently limits the potential for growth along the entire eastern boundary. The mountains push back at the northern frontier, though, where even today settlement is restricted to the narrow valley of The Branch. A drive along Blue Ridge Road offers several exciting glimpses of the Hoffman Notch Wilderness.

The western boundary is a different story, though. Here nothing but the Minerva Stream Trail defines what is otherwise an arbitrary line through the landscape; the forest itself extends seamlessly into a trackless section of the Vanderwhacker Mountain Wild Forest to the west.

All photos © Bill Ingersoll. Site visitors are permitted to download an unlimited number of images from our website for personal, educational, scientific, or professional use only, with attribution. Commercial use and further distribution of images is prohibited without express written permission.

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