Pepperbox Wilderness

The Pepperbox Wilderness is a 23,813-acre parcel of Forest Preserve located very near the western boundary of the Adirondack Park. Pinched between the Beaver River to the south and the West Branch Oswegatchie River to the north, it includes numerous small ponds, wetlands, and streams. Partly because of its isolated location, recreational use has been very light. There are few marked trails, and the access points are far from the park’s main travel corridors.

For all of these reasons, the Pepperbox (as it is affectionately known) may be among the most exemplary of all the wilderness areas in the Adirondacks – in all aspects except size. It truly is a place where solitude has reigned supreme for many years, and probably will for some time to come, despite containing just a fraction of the acreage of the neighboring Five Ponds Wilderness.

When state officials first classified the Pepperbox as wilderness in 1972, it was an island of public land surrounded on three sides by blocks of private land. However, a series of key land acquisitions in the 1980s and 1990s filled in the gaps between the Pepperbox and Five Ponds areas, creating a large, almost continuous expanse of wilderness. In some places, the boundary between the two is indistinguishable in the field and exists only on maps. However, several remote inholdings of private land are accessed by a matching number of narrow access roads penetrating into this area, and here visitors may yet encounter some light motorized use.

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Pepperbox Wilderness at a Glance

Size: 23,813 acres

First Designated: 1972

Unit Management Plan Status: Completed in 1985, revised 2015

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

The Pepperbox is unique among Adirondack wilderness areas in its general lack of high mountain summits of any kind. Sure, there are various ridges scattered throughout the area, but none tall enough to provide much of a backdrop to any of the nearby ponds. Horizons are flatter here than perhaps most other regions.

This is not to say that summits are completely absent. In fact, there had once been a fire tower standing on a complex series of rocky ridges known as “Beaver Lake Mountain.” This is not a name you’ll find on any topographic map, but the “mountain” is easily identifiable as an area of parallel ridges west of Threemile Beaver Meadow. Although the vertical rise is relatively minimal, this may be the most distinctive “mountain” in the entire area. An unnamed bald summit near Shallow Pond, straddling the Five Ponds Wilderness boundary, is another standout landmark.

But no one expects this to be a mountainous landscape. The Pepperbox is a place of ponds and wetlands, with some 70 bodies of water totaling 617 acres, according to the official state count. They range in size from the small and obscure, to the outstanding Sunshine Pond, the largest in the unit. How any state official arrived at the above-mentioned count is a mystery, though, as the area is well-stocked with industrious beaver populations – and as we all know, beavers are quite good at making new ponds as they please.

For years, most of these ponds were too acidic to support natural fisheries; they were victims of the long-range, interstate pollution known as acid rain. However, there are signs the ponds may be recovering from this scourge; in 2018 DEC stocked one interior pond for the first time in decades after studies showed it had naturally recovered from the effects of acid rain.

The Pepperbox, with its dearth of marked trails or popular destinations, excels at providing the sense of solitude and remoteness we expect of wilderness. However, this could easily change as the fisheries recover (enticing more anglers to seek out the remote ponds) or if human activities increase on the easement lands to the west (thus shrinking the natural soundscape of the area). Indeed, this is hardly a static place; it has changed in the past, and it will continue to change in the future. The key will be to ensure those changes are all for the wilder.

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