View from Watch Hill
The Jessup River Wild Forest is less a landscape unto itself, and more an association of Forest Preserve fragments sprawled along the NY 30 corridor from Wells to Indian Lake. Never remote, these lands nevertheless contain some outstanding features, with trails that range from enormously popular to barely known.
Its size rivals – and often exceeds – that of several protected wilderness areas, but there is no mistaking this discontinuous string of wild parcels as a connected landscape. The Jessup River Wild Forest consists of three major blocks of land, as well as a variety of isolated parcels. The largest “chunks” occur near Wells, Piseco, and Indian Lake, and none of it is far from a paved highway. In a way, these are the “leftover” lands orphaned after the creation of the adjacent Silver Lake, Siamese Ponds, West Canada Lake, and Blue Ridge wilderness areas.
But describing the Jessup River area as “surplus” undersells the outstanding quality of its forests, as well as its often rugged terrain. This is hardly a no man’s land, made up of scraps and wastes. Nor is it merely a backdrop to one of the most scenic state highways in the Adirondacks. This is a mature forest, much of it having been in state ownership since the 1890s, with boundaries that preserve many outstanding features.
If a designated Wild Forest, as defined by the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan, is intended to represent the less remote (and therefore more accessible) portions of the Forest Preserve, few such areas meet these expectations as well as Jessup River. One could quibble over some of the details of its boundaries, but for the most part the Wild Forest classification is well-earned. With parcels that bracket some of Hamilton County’s busiest hamlets, these lands offer recreational opportunities not available in the adjacent Wilderness areas.
Please click through the tabs below to learn more about the Jessup River Wild Forest.
Jessup River Wild Forest at a Glance
Size: 47,350 acres
First Designated: 1972
Unit Management Plan Status: Completed in 2006, with amendments in 2010, 2015, and 2017
Special Regulations: None; standard Forest Preserve regulations are in effect
The Jessup River rises from an obscure point in the West Canada Lake Wilderness and then flows eastward through the managed timberlands of Perkins Clearing. Its waters spend very little time in the river’s namesake Wild Forest, and somewhat surprisingly not a single mile is covered by the state’s system of Wild, Scenic, and Recreational rivers. But what has been protected is a stunning section of wild waterway, bisected by the short bridge carrying NY 30. Most of it is navigable by canoes and kayaks, though recreational usage is light.
Other features make a bigger impression, though. These include Indian Lake, a reservoir with a shoreline mostly in state ownership; the summit of Snowy Mountain, the highest in the Adirondack Park south of the High Peaks; and Fawn Lake, a large backcountry pond located just a short walk away from the county seat.
Snowy Mountain is not entirely within the Jessup River Wild Forest; its southern slopes (including the distinctive slides and scars visible from NY 30) fall within the West Canada Lake Wild Forest, and the northern slopes remain privately owned (though protected by a state-held conservation easement). Only a wedge on the eastern side of this 3899-foot mountain fall within the Wild Forest, but this includes the summit itself, and particularly the century-old fire tower overlooking Indian Lake.
The state acquired most of the lands in the Snowy Mountain Range in a single transaction in 1897, and judging by the current condition of this part of the forest it seems unlikely that much logging occurred prior to that date. The purchase was part of a deal made with Glens Falls loggers that permitted the companies to construct the dam at Indian Lake to regulate the flow of the Hudson River.
Although not entirely within the Jessup River Wild Forest, manmade Indian Lake is nevertheless its largest body of water. Named (indirectly) for Sabael Benedict, an Abenaki who fought in the American Revolution, this lake is often overlooked by paddlers, even though it is among the Adirondack Park’s most scenic large lakes. Like Middle Saranac Lake many miles to the north, Indian Lake is surrounded by large mountains, with a shoreline managed as though it were a campground; for a modest fee, boaters can reserve specific campsites. The fluctuating water levels may turn off some wilderness purists, but the lake is an underrated gem.
Mason Lake and Fawn Lake or more traditional bodies of water. The former is a scenic waypoint along NY 30, and the latter is a popular hiking and snowmobiling destination near Lake Pleasant. Dunning Pond near Gilmantown anchors the southernmost portion of the Jessup River Wild Forest.
A core parcel centered on Mason Lake was part of the original Forest Preserve and was likely never logged. But even if much of the remaining forest doesn’t technically qualify as “old growth,” it is nevertheless a noteworthy addition to the Forest Preserve, in public ownership for well over a century. Part of this acreage was ceded to International Paper in 1983 as part of a voter-approved land exchange, mostly to consolidate the state’s holdings in the nearby West Canada Lake region. But thousands of acres of primeval forest remain, much as it has since the last ice age. The observant explorer may even notice a few mature elm trees – rare survivors of an arboreal disease that has decimated this species across North America.
Although much of the Jessup River region consists of mature, nearly untouched forest, it adjoins an area that was settled in the earliest decades of the nineteenth century. Several sites within this Wild Forest feature an interesting backstory, as noted below.
Mill Ruins at Dunning Pond
Dunning Pond is a small wetland complex that was once the site of a mill. The mill ruins at the pond’s outlet are subtle. According to History of Hamilton County, David Dunning opened his sawmill here circa 1835, on land that was then owned by Joseph Spier; it was sold by Dunning to Silas Call in 1871. Today, the most obvious remaining features are the abutments of the former dam, which were carefully built rock walls, unlike the more temporary crib structures built by loggers.
You may find evidence of a stone bridge and other foundations on the spruce-covered rise between the nearby snowmobile trail and the outlet, and a stone fence further downstream along the east bank. There is also what appears to be an old spillway at the easternmost end of the dam. The lack of a more extensive outline of the mill suggests that it might have been propped up above the ground, rather than fixed to it with a permanent foundation.
Colonel Peck’s Grave
Loring Peck was a Rhode Island native who served as a major during the American Revolution; when he retired from his regiment in 1797, he held the rank of lieutenant colonel. In 1811 he and his oldest son, William Burke Peck, acquired adjoining farms southeast of Lake Pleasant near the foot of Speculator Mountain. The entire family — including three other sons, Loring Jr, George, and Richard — moved to this remote Adirondack community and became some of its most prominent citizens. As Ted Aber and Stella King wrote in Tales from an Adirondack County:
Diligently, they cleared the land and built their houses, fastening together the rough-hewn boards with carefully hand-wrought nails. Painstakingly, they planted orchards and tilled the rocky soil. Back-breaking work was performed to make roads past their properties. At length, they were rewarded by thrifty mountain farms, with cattle, sheep, horses and hogs.
The Peck sons served in the War of 1812, and then returned home to take on civic roles in local government; William became the first clerk for the Town of Lake Pleasant, and Richard Peck became the first Hamilton County judge. Their mother, Jane Peck, died in 1825 at the age of 71. The colonel passed away in 1833 at age 90. Both were buried in a family plot on their homestead, where Loring Peck, Jr., would also later be buried. This is now located on state land, about 0.6 mile from South Shore Road outside Speculator.
The Adirondack Trail
Early in Hamilton County’s history, its roads were little more than wagon tracks that did little to encourage commerce. The first settlers might not have been concerned by this, because for them the region’s extensive waterways were a suitable substitute. But county officials recognized that there could be no prosperity without roads, especially in a remote and mountainous region where the northern residents had no direct route to the county seat in Lake Pleasant. When the state did not act to provide adequate transportation corridors, the county did what it could.
It first began to spend money on the maintenance of a through road from Lake Pleasant to Long Lake in 1878, with a total expenditure of $4,000. The chosen route passed Lewey Lake, Indian Lake, and Blue Mountain Lake as it travelled point-to-point across the heart of the county. Surveyed and cut by the individual towns it passed through, it followed a portion of the “old military road” that had been built by the state in 1812, from what is now Speculator to Perkins Clearing. The county’s funds were enough to effect a few repairs, but as historians Ted Aber and Stella King noted in their History of Hamilton County:
It was a noble undertaking at best, but a mere drop in the bucket of immediate needs. Much of the route cut directly through raw wilderness territory, over rocky ledges, up the steepest of grades, through swamp land and across often swollen streams. Countless additional appropriations of equal size would be required.
The road did open some opportunities for prosperity, however. One example was at Lewey Lake—named for Lewis Elijah Benedict, son of Sabael Benedict—which had long been a favored destination for local sportsmen and guides. Prior to the road, Lewey Lake was a very remote and secluded place, attractive to people who sought a solitary existence. Alvah Dunning, for instance, briefly settled there in the early years of his hermithood. But in 1882, four years after the opening of the north-south road, Dunning’s camp was purchased by Ellen Locke McCormack, who with her husband James turned the property into an inn called the Lewey Lake House. A small community eventually grew around this enterprise.
A few years later, in 1887, the state opened a fish hatchery to the south, where the road crossed a tributary stream of Sacandaga Lake. The hatchery provided brook trout and other types of fish for early stocking programs, and it remained in operation for fifteen years under the direction of E. F. Boehm. The stream where it was located is now called Hatchery Brook.
Despite the benefits it provided, the highway still had its detractions. It was not passable at all times of the year, and people from Long Lake who needed to reach the county offices in Lake Pleasant often preferred a three-day journey by way of Glens Falls and Amsterdam, rather than the direct route through Speculator. The advent of the automobile only made perceptions worse, for this new mode of transportation highlighted just how archaic the towns’ road really was. Some of the hills were too steep to be safely traveled by car, and horse teams were sometimes recruited to tow stuck vehicles up them.
The first proposal to pave the route between Speculator and Indian Lake came in 1916, during a time when the county was making efforts to modernize its highway infrastructure. But most of the road would remain unpaved — and seasonally impassable — until mid-century, when the state finally began construction on the modern highway as we know it today. This newly realigned corridor opened to the traveling public in 1955. It was part of a longer route that not only formed a north-south axis across the county, but extended clear to Canada. A triumphant Hamilton County Board of Supervisors designated it the Adirondack Trail, a name that was later adopted by the state legislature in 1962. The highway has been called that name ever since — along with its numerical designation, NY 30.
The first recorded settler in the Indian Lake area was Sabael Benedict, an Abenaki who arrived with his family during the Revolutionary War after hunting moose here for several years prior. Half a century would pass before other permanent settlers arrived, and by then the Benedicts had become so identifiable with the region that the new immigrants named several key landmarks for them — including the three original Indian Lakes. Nearby Snowy Mountain was originally called Squaw Bonnet, a reference to Sabael’s wife. Their son, Lewis Elijah Benedict, favored a lake to the south that is now called Lewey Lake. The wife was buried near the mouth of what is now called Squaw Brook, and the settlement that grew where the Benedicts once lived became the hamlet of Sabael.
Lumbermen inevitably discovered the area as they followed the Hudson River up from Glens Falls into the heart of the Adirondacks. In 1846 they built the first of several dams on the Indian River, which united the three natural lakes into one larger flow. The loggers also cut roads to make it possible to transport men and materials, which in turn facilitated the ingress of settlers. By Sabael Benedict’s death in 1855 his solitary home (described as a “wigwam” by one contemporary observer) was now on the edge of a bustling frontier community. One can only imagine his reaction to all of these changes that came within such a short period of time.
Certainly, not all visitors were impressed. One sportsman wrote of a trip down the Indian River flow in May 1853, at a time when these developments were still relatively new. The writer plainly expressed his dismay at how the wilderness was succumbing to progress in this excerpt, which describes the passage from the outlet of Lewey Lake to a farm at what is now Sabael:
The river is very winding, the current slow. It was rather monotonous and uninteresting. Much of the timber is dead from a dam constructed at the foot of Indian Lake, which backs up the water for many miles. It was about 3:30 P.M., when we got to Porter’s clearing. What a place for a man to select and bring up a family in. I wish he had kept away, for the stumps and log buildings were an eyesore and detraction from what otherwise would have been magnificent scenery. Still the wild rugged mountains are all around and many a peak may be seen fading in the distance.
The original Indian Lake dam was deemed too small by the lumber interests that built it, so Finch & Company enlarged it in 1861 as part of a system of dams intended to augment log drives on the Hudson River. A log might take two years to get from this point down to the Big Boom near Glens Falls, where nearly all of the mills were located. When water levels receded in the summer, no log driving could occur; dams like the one at Indian Lake helped to expedite the process by extending the high-water period in the spring.
Later, the dam was operated by the Indian River Holding Corporation, which was jointly run by the area’s two biggest landowners, Finch Pruyn and International Paper. In 1897 the state purchased 42,000 acres from the holding company for the Forest Preserve, including both the lake and the dam. However, as part of this deal the corporation reserved the right to build an even larger Indian Lake dam. The new structure — this time built with stone — was completed in 1898, along with a caretaker’s residence located on state land.
Log driving had already reached its peak by that time, and would slowly decline through the first half of the twentieth century. It came to an end on Indian Lake in 1942 when International Paper boomed logs from the Jessup River to a jackworks near the dam, where they were loaded onto trucks. Finch Pruyn was the last company to operate on the Hudson River; their last drive—10,000 cords of four-foot pulp logs—occurred in 1950. An improved highway system had taken the place of the river as the preferred route for transporting timber to Glens Falls.
After the state’s purchase, Indian Lake’s primary use began to shift towards recreation. Beginning in 1916, the state operated a permit system through which individuals could erect semi-permanent camping structures called “tent platforms” on state land. Permit holders could place canvas cabins on these platforms that, in theory, were open for anyone to use. This was a popular program for guides, who were known to build such camps at backcountry locations for the comfort of their clients. But it was even more wildly popular along prime shoreline locations like Indian Lake. Individuals were not only able to obtain permits to put up a small camp, but also to return to that same site year after year and transfer their permits to other family members. Some of the camps developed into elaborate structures with glass windows, partial wooden walls — and padlocked doors.
Many people considered the permit camping program, in practice, a form of private occupancy that was a clear violation of the Forest Preserve’s wilderness nature and its legal protections. Indian Lake was among the first places in the Adirondacks where this program was curtailed, perhaps because of the uncontrolled tree cutting and small forest fires that were occurring there. In 1959 the state began cleaning up the sites and removing the piles of refuse that had accumulated for more than forty years, and in 1960 it opened the Indian Lake Islands Campground as a means to offer controlled camping to a wider section of the public.
The Jessup River Wild Forest consists of three main sections, each with its own character.
The southeastern section between Wells and Speculator is the smallest and perhaps least-visited portion. The only hiking trail of note is the former snowmobile trail to Dunning Pond, which can be accessed from both NY 30 and Gilmantown Road. As interesting as the pond might be, the old mill ruins at the outlet are also worth an off-trail visit.
The most complex trail network can be found in the southwestern parcel between Sacandaga, Oxbow, and Piseco lakes. Most of this trail mileage is dedicated to snowmobiling, and unfortunately a popular winter loop trail connecting the three lakes is unavailable to hikers when the waterways are no longer frozen. But the short hike to Fawn Lake’s natural beach remains ever popular, and the Foxy Brown Ski Trail surrounding the runway at the Piseco Airport provides one of the best ski experiences in the region.
The northern half of the Wild Forest is a strip of non-wilderness lands stretching from Mason Lake to Lake Abanakee, with an outlier at Pillsbury Mountain. This region features the most varied recreation opportunities, from the car-camping sites at Mason Lake to the hiking trails at Watch Hill and Baldface Mountain – the latter being accessible only from a remote trailhead on the east shore of Indian Lake.
Two other prominent mountains share a boundary with the West Canada Lake Wilderness, but are noteworthy landmarks in the Jessup River Wild Forest as well. Snowy Mountain is the tallest peak in Hamilton County at 3899 feet in elevation; although only a narrow wedge of the mountain falls within the Wild Forest, the restored fire tower on the summit prevents a full wilderness classification.
Pillsbury Mountain shares a similar status. This remote summit was the subject of a vigorous public debate in 1983, after the state completed a voter-approved land exchange with International Paper. A split classification added the lakes to the north of the mountain to the adjacent Wilderness, but the state’s forest ranger force convinced the Adirondack Park Agency board the Pillsbury fire tower was required a communication relay. Today the public may hike the mountain and climb the tower, but the observation cab is locked to protect DEC’s radio equipment.
The Jessup River Wild Forest includes several outstanding paddle routes, from Falls Brook near Piseco to the Jessup River itself. Canoes and kayaks can be launched on Mason Lake and Gilman Lake, as well as any of the larger bodies of water in the area, including Sacandaga, Lewey, and Pleasant lakes.
The biggest of them all, of course, is Indian Lake, which abuts the Siamese Ponds Wilderness. The shoreline area is technically managed as a fee campground, with sites that may be reserved online during the summer. Indian Lake is so big that it favors motorized watercraft, but lake-worthy canoes kayaks also do well.
In addition to the Indian Lake Islands Campground, two other facilities lie within the boundaries of this Wild Forest: Lewey Lake and Moffitt Beach. See the External Links tab for more information.
1899 – 1907 USGS Topographic Maps
1954 USGS Topographic Maps
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 Jessup River Wild Forest.
General Recreation Information
Jessup River Wild Forest 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 Jessup River Wild Forest and neighboring areas.
Learn about the available facilities and make campsite reservations at these sites within the Jessup River Wild Forest:
Indian Lake Islands Campground (All campsites are boat-access only)
Jessup River Wild Forest Unit Management Plan (2006). Download DEC’s official management plan, approved in 2006. The UMP has been amended three times: in 2010 (PDF) to classify snowmobile trails, in 2015 (PDF) to propose a short public motor vehicle road, and in 2017 (PDF) for a short trail connection.
State Land Regulations. Review the complete list of DEC regulations.
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