Hudson Gorge Wilderness

The Hudson River may be New York State’s most famous river, but long before it widens into the Tappan Zee and floats past Manhattan it spends its youth roiling through the Adirondack Mountains. During its Adirondack phase, from the High Peaks to Glens Falls, the river gathers up the waters of many other mountain streams to become the largest in the region.

By any measure, though, the Hudson’s wildest moment lies deep within the gorge that stretches between the Indian and Boreas confluences. The Hudson Gorge seems like a shoe-in for a wilderness classification: it is difficult to access by foot in many places, and until the river reaches the railroad bridge at the Boreas River junction there is nary a visual blemish. The Hudson is confined within the deep passage it has carved for itself, and the mountains on each side grow taller with every mile. When you are on the water or taking refuge on the river’s banks, your horizons are separated by a mere fraction of a mile.

Indeed, the gorge is a unique feature in the Adirondacks, longer and deeper than any other river valley in the park. But the 22,906-acre Hudson Gorge Wilderness is not a one-dimensional landscape, defined by its singular namesake feature. There is a complex geology on display here, resulting in numerous topographic features compressed into a relatively small space.

More than a dozen named ponds haunt the highlands that flank the river, for instance, ranging in size from tiny bog holes to glorious waterways with rock-ledge shorelines. The population of small mountains outnumbers the ponds, and several summits feature outstanding views. Underfoot, you may notice a slightly different collection of wildflowers taking advantage of the gorge’s soil chemistry, which is distinct from any other location in the central Adirondacks. Heck, there are even a few caves hidden here and there, the results of erosion and a curious geological history.

Of course, with such dramatic changes in elevation there are bound to be a waterfall or two. And in this regard the Hudson Gorge Wilderness does not disappoint, for it is here you will find OK Slip Falls, easily one of the most famous landmarks in Hamilton County since it was acquired for the Forest Preserve in 2013.

On the other hand, the wilderness is not as large as it should be. The Hudson Gorge Wilderness is a nature preserve caught between two bridges, and its designation in 2013 disappointed many wilderness advocates who thought much more eligible acreage should’ve been included.

Please click through the tabs below to learn more about the Hudson Gorge Wilderness.

Hudson Gorge Wilderness at a Glance

Size: 22,906 acres

First Designated: 2013

Unit Management Plan Status: No management plan has been completed for this area.

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

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The Hudson Gorge doesn’t exist on the same vast scale as the Grand Canyon, nor do its walls reveal layers of geological time. But geology does explain the nature of the gorge: fault lines in the mountain bedrock and intrusions of marble, which crumbled away under the forces of the ancestral Hudson River, are what gave this place its shape.

At the point the river turns eastward to begin its journey through the gorge, picking up the waters of the Indian River in the process, its elevation is 1424 feet; the surrounding hills are only about a hundred feet higher. But when it reaches the mouth of the Boreas River about 9 miles later, the Hudson has dropped roughly 260 feet while the surrounding mountains have been climbing to elevations 900 feet and higher above the level of the water. The river and its neighboring mountains seem to have opposing ambitions, the one steadily declining while the others reach skyward.

Until it bends southward at the foot of Dutton Mountain, the Hudson is tightly enclosed by its northern and southern walls, leaving little room to maneuver. Steep slopes are the norm, and at Blue Ledge the south side of the river is a sheer cliff. Elsewhere, a natural rockfall on the western slopes of Harris Rift Mountain once dropped enormous boulders on the banks of the river, piled on top of each other and then covered by centuries of forest growth. Sites such as these make it difficult to navigate the bottom of the gorge by foot, though not impossible.

The forces that helped shape the gorge can be observed on smaller scales elsewhere, particularly at Virgin Falls – although the exact location of Virgin Falls seems to be open to debate. River guides will tell you that this cascade sits on the outlet stream of Mink Pond, just before it tumbles into the river; indeed, there is an impressive waterfall at that spot, very much worth seeing. Modern USGS maps, however, assign the name Virgin Falls to a nearby spot on the outlet of Huntley Pond, where it spills into natural cave and flows underneath a small knoll. Like the ancestral Hudson, this stream has eroded its way through a dike of softer minerals to find the shortest way through the landscape.

Neither version of Virgin Falls holds a candle to OK Slip Falls, however, in terms of height and volume of water. Its vertical drop is only 100 feet or so, and there are certainly taller cascades to be found in other Adirondack regions, but few of them seem to carry as much water.

Most of the ponds of the Hudson Gorge Wilderness fall within the hilly highlands south of the river, where the terrain is broken by the same grid-like fault lines that helped create the gorge itself. Each body of water has its own character, although most visitors only see the handful of ponds directly accessible by trail.

Some of the mountains in this area offer splendid views. The broad opening at the top of Big Pisgah Mountain, located at the western end of the wilderness, seems to be the result of a 1903 forest fire. Great ledges can be seen on the twin summits of Black and Starbuck mountains from NY 28, and these, too, offer outstanding vistas. Perhaps the most unique summit, in terms of its view, is Kettle Mountain on the gorge’s northern rim; the view of OK Slip Falls from this perspective is set against a backdrop of distant mountains.

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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