Silver Lake Wilderness

The Silver Lake Wilderness is named for its largest interior lake, but perhaps the feature that best defines this large and rugged area is the West Branch Sacandaga River, sometimes called the “West River” for short. From the mountains southeast of Silver Lake, the West Branch coils for about 36.5 miles in and around the wilderness core to join the main branch of the Sacandaga at Wells. Throughout this entire length there are only three road bridges and one footbridge. This is a wild and free-flowing river.

The state acquired most of the land that now comprises the Silver Lake Wilderness at a very early date in the history of the Adirondack Park. Therefore even though nearly all of the forest was logged in the nineteenth century, enough time has passed that most of the area has been able to return to near old growth conditions. The traces of dams and old tote roads are the most obvious signs of past human activity; naturally speaking, this wilderness has probably changed very little over the last few centuries.

There are no alpine summits to entice throngs of sightseers, nor are the lakes plentiful enough to lure a navy of paddlers. The charms of the Silver Lake Wilderness lie in its vast open spaces, its many miles of wild streams, its spruce and hemlock groves, the traces of its traditional trail system, and the relative lack of crowds. The open forests that grace much of the area are highly favorable to off-trail wandering. Some locations may go years without hosting any human visitors at all.

If there are any crowded places here, they will be found along the Northville-Placid Trail corridor and at some of the outlying areas close to roads. A 27.7-mile section of the NPT traverses the Silver Lake Wilderness from Woods Lake near Benson to Route 8 in Piseco, with three lean-tos along the way. This route and one connector trail near Upper Benson are currently the only marked state trails in the entire 107,731-acre area. Easy access to Woods Lake and Whitehouse makes these two locations popular summer camping sites.

The rest of the wilderness is only lightly traveled and little known outside of a small number of repeat visitors. Therefore in terms of its generous size, grand forests, and low recreational use, this area is among the best examples of true wilderness in the entire Adirondack Park.

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Silver Lake Wilderness at a Glance

Size: 107,995 acres

First Designated: 1972

Unit Management Plan Status: Completed in 2006

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

Documents

The Silver Lake Wilderness is hardly a land of superlatives. Its mountains are middling, its ponds are scattered and small. In terms of size, it ranks fifth among the wilderness areas of the Adirondack Park. Visitation levels fall far short of many of the more popular areas.

But as anyone familiar with the area will tell you, the most impressive feature is the forest itself. Despite the human history, much of the backcountry seems to be untouched. The logging that did occur was often selective; because of the area’s isolation, the lumbermen were economically driven to harvest only the largest trees of certain species. And these activities ended so long ago that the forest has had plenty of time to recover.

The tanneries were less selective in the hemlocks they felled, but even in the Arietta region these trees still grow large and plentiful.

Hemlocks are perhaps the most notable trees in the Silver Lake Wilderness, occurring in groves throughout the area. Although accounting for a comparatively small percentage of the forest cover, red spruce nevertheless grows to enormous heights throughout the southern Adirondacks. Among the hardwoods, white ash grows in numbers and proportions that are uncommon elsewhere in the Adirondacks. Northern red oak is more common along the river valleys, but it also extends up to several of the summits as well.

This is a region that is not known for its mountain heights. Nevertheless, there is an elevation differential of over 2400 feet from the banks of the Sacandaga River near Hope (approximately 820 feet in elevation) to the summit of Hamilton Mountain, a former fire tower summit (3250 feet). But most of the highest mountains in the Silver Lake Wilderness have thickly forested summits, and thus are essentially unknown to climbers. In this wilderness, it’s the peripheral foothills that steal the show, because that’s where the best ledges and cliffs are found: Francisco, Southerland, Finch, Southerland, Sherman, and Trout Lake are all outstanding little mountains, none of them very remote at all.

There are 29 named ponds and lakes, ranging in size from an acre to Silver Lake’s 75.1 acres. Once a vibrant trout fishery, Silver Lake was rendered fishless in the 1960s due to the effects of acid rain, which lowered the pH levels until the water became chemically unsuitable to sustain fish. This continued until 2002, when reductions in acid precipitation permitted DEC to resume stocking the lake again.

Topographic maps show many more small bodies of water than just the 29 named ponds. However, most of these are ephemeral flows subject to the whims of the beavers; instead of ponds filled with water, they are just as likely to be grassy, stump-filled meadows. These ubiquitous landmarks sometime bear the name vly, pronounced as either “vly” or “fly,” a word imported by New York’s early Dutch settlers to connote a marshy area. Vlies are found along nearly every stream, and some are regarded as prominent local landmarks, such as Priests Vly near Piseco and King Vly near Blackbridge.

The most dominant feature of this wilderness, though, is not a mountain or a lake or even a vly, but the West Branch Sacandaga River, which begins as a small stream high in the hills and exits as a raging river near Blackbridge. Since all but the southwestern corner of the Silver Lake Wilderness falls within the Sacandaga watershed, this area would be more appropriately named the “West River Wilderness.”

The upper half of the river is characterized by long, gentle flows through open wetlands, including one highly scenic area alongside NY 10 in Arietta—an area that state officials once deemed so “worthless” they planned to flood it in an enormous reservoir. The lower half is a much different river. Below Piseco Outlet, it spills over a series of small cascades and disappears briefly in a deep, forested gorge. It pauses for only a few hundred yards at Big Eddy; otherwise, from Whitehouse to Wells the West Branch is mostly rocky and raucous. It even has the attention of some whitewater enthusiasts.

In 1916, the New York State Museum published a bulletin entitled “Geology of the Lake Pleasant Quadrangle, Hamilton County, New York.” Although this publication is more than a century old, it remains the most comprehensive natural history study of the Silver Lake Wilderness and its immediate environs, covering topics from the composition of the area’s bedrock to the location of extinct glacial lakes.

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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