Big Pisgah Mountain
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
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.
Any discussion of the human history of the Hudson Gorge must begin with the log drives of the nineteenth century. Across much of the Adirondack forest south of the High Peaks, the Hudson River was the lumbermen’s primary conduit for transporting logs to the great sawmills at Glens Falls. The practice of “log drives,” during vast quantities of timber floated to their destination, persisted on the Hudson River for decades. The gorge, however, was a problematic place known to lumbermen as the “jam stretch.” Here the river drivers were all too often required to break up tangled masses of logs that had snagged on the ledges, huge boulders, and other obstacles.
One witness to this river-running era was the painter Winslow Homer, who frequented Mink Lake for many years beginning in 1870. Originally owned by the Rev. Thomas Baker, this remote property north of the gorge later became a destination for sportsmen, some of whom bought up some 5000 acres to establish the Northwoods Club, which still exists today. Homer was among its most famous members, and during his visits he captured many iconic scenes, including a watercolor painting of a log jam on the Hudson at Blue Ledge.
Some of the activities that occurred within the gorge, as well as the people who lived and worked here, left traces of themselves in the form of local toponyms. Bell Mountain, for instance, refers to an early settler who lived on the road between North Creek and Indian Lake. Likewise, the name Starbuck Mountain does not refer to a science-fiction character, but rather to another family with ties to the area.
One of the more unusual names is OK Slip, which has been applied to a pond, the brook that issues forth from that pond, and the spectacular waterfall where the brook spills into the gorge. The meaning of the name is clouded by wild theories, and confounded by the possibility that it is based on a misunderstanding. The “slip” probably refers to a log sluice, on which logs were slid down the steep slopes of the gorge to a staging area beside the river. “OK,” on the other hand, might be a corruption of “O. Gay,” a man’s name – presumably the lumberman who operated the slip. If so, then O. Gay might have been a relative of Pete Gay, whose name lingers as the toponym of a nearby mountain.
A garnet mine also existed within what is now the Hudson Gorge Wilderness, although this enterprise was not as successful as the nearby mines at Thirteenth Lake and Gore Mountain. Unlike those operations, which excavated large open pits, this mine resulted in a deep shaft burrowed into a hillside.
Despite this history of logging and mining, however, much of the land that now constitutes the Hudson Gorge Wilderness had already been acquired by the state by 1894, the year when voters approved a constitutional amendment granting the Forest Preserve an unprecedented level of protection. Half a century later, though, the federal government superseded those protections when it carved a railroad right of way through the preserve from North Creek to Tahawus during World War II, passing the eastern end of the Hudson Gorge. Although the original purpose of that railroad has long since expired, the tracks remain and the future of the road remains in limbo.
There are multiple ways to enjoy the Hudson Gorge Wilderness: by foot, by raft, and by rod.
Of course, many people associate the gorge with whitewater rafting, an activity that has been occurring on the Hudson for many decades. Inspired by the old log driving days, and coupled with the modern taste for thrill-seeking, several guiding services now offer regular tours of the gorge, beginning every spring and extending into the fall. Normally the low water levels of summer would be a problem, making a trip down the rocky river a long, tedious affair. However, an upstream dam on the Indian River makes it possible to release pulses of water throughout the dry months, thus sustaining the rafting trips during the peak tourism season.
However, the dam releases have been known to rankle some of the other visitors to the Hudson Gorge: fly fishermen who come in pursuit of trout. They contend the releases of warm water from Lake Abanakee flush out the cold-water refuges preferred by trout, thus harming the river’s fishery. When wilderness managers at DEC began studying the Hudson Gorge in 2002 in preparation for a unit management plan, they were unable to answer this question – one reason why a UMP has never been completed for this area.
Trail access is readily available for most of the year. The most popular hiking route by far is OK Slip Falls, which opened to the public for the first time in 2014. Another nearby trail network leads to a trio of ponds to the west, and each of these bodies of water comes equipped with at least one scenic campsite (although none are distant enough from NY 28 to fully escape its traffic sounds).
On the north side of the wilderness, Northwoods Club Road is open year-round despite its sometimes rugged nature. Most visitors follow the trail from Huntley Pond to Blue Ledge, but accessing the eastern boundary of the wilderness via the quasi-abandoned railroad tracks along the Boreas River is a much shorter and easier way to sample the Hudson Gorge.
Despite the wealth of mountain views found throughout the wilderness, none are reached by trail. Nevertheless, the relatively small size of the Hudson Gorge Wilderness puts most of its features within easy reach of the nearest road. Good to excellent views can be found on Big Pisgah, Forks, Kettle, Black, and Starbuck mountains.
In recent years, rail bikes have operated on the railroad tracks from North River as far as the Boreas River confluence. However, the continuation of this activity depends in part on the future of the railroad itself. Although not currently used for train traffic, the railroad is not entirely abandoned in the legal sense. This means trains could theoretically resume service to Tahawus, although some people would prefer to see the rails removed and the route converted into a multi-use recreation trail.
A management plan for the Hudson Gorge Wilderness has never been completed. There are several unresolved issues will someday need to be addressed, although resolving them may force the state to reconcile economic and environmental priorities.
Dam Releases and Trout Refuges: When DEC began the work of planning for the Hudson Gorge in 2002, it became evident insufficient data was available to study the effect of dam releases to the river’s fishery. Timed releases from Lake Abanakee are considered essential for the rafting services, who otherwise couldn’t operate as effectively during the peak tourism months of summer. However, trout require cold-water refuges to survive, and fly fishermen were providing anecdotal evidence that the warm water released through the dam was destroying these habitats. This is a topic that has been studied several times since then, and data should now be available to help inform a decision.
Railroad Status: The Tahawus Railroad along the eastern boundary of the wilderness was established in the 1940s under wartime emergency measures. The land was already part of the Forest Preserve at the time, and per state law it was “forever wild.” However, the federal government asserted a wartime necessity for access to the mine at Tahawus, stating this need preempted the state laws protecting the forest.
While the original need for the railroad has long since passed, and while there is no regular train service on the tracks, its operational status remains uncertain. At one point the owner used the rail to store empty tanker cars, but this practice ceased after it raised much public complaint. For its part, New York State has not asserted its own claim to the tracks as a part of the Forest Preserve. Assuming the tracks are eventually abandoned, there are proposals to remove the rails and convert the route into a multi-use recreation trail.
Essex Chain Snowmobile Trail: When the state designated the Hudson Gorge Wilderness in 2013 from a combination of newly acquired lands and the old Hudson Gorge Primitive Area, it declined to extend the wilderness north of Blackwell Stillwater or west along the Cedar River and Essex Chain of Lakes. Instead, the state deferred to desires to route a snowmobile trail through the Essex Chain purchase, thus limiting the wilderness to a fraction of its potential size. However, completing this snowmobile corridor would require building a substantial bridge over the Cedar River, and this aspect of the proposal has seen legal challenges. A ruling on this issue could conceivably impact the wilderness boundaries.
The above maps show the modern boundaries of the Hudson Gorge Wilderness (left) as well as its historic features (the two USGS maps at right; the Hudson Gorge area occupies the lower half of each sheet). Click to enlarge, or download to view the full resolution.
The following links leave the AWA website and take you to various pages on the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) website with more information on the Hudson Gorge Wilderness.
Hudson Gorge Wilderness Information Page. Learn important contact information and peruse a list of facilities.
Backcountry Information for the East Central Adirondacks. Trail conditions updated weekly for the Hudson Gorge Wilderness and neighboring areas.
State Land Regulations. Review the complete list of DEC regulations.
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