So Much Work to Be Done

Part 4 of 4

Editor’s Note: The following is Part 4 of a previously-unpublished essay written in 2003 by the late Barbara McMartin (1931-2005). In her original vision, this was to be published as a pamphlet with the working title “A Short History of Adirondack Trail Building,” part historical survey and part advocacy. No such pamphlet was ever published, and her 7300-word draft has been aging in my email folders ever since. McMartin was an outspoken advocate for trails, and her response to crowded and “overused” trails was that more trails were needed to satisfy public demand. This “Short History” attempts to defend that position by arguing New York State has never developed a master plan for hiking trails, and that the hiking trail network as it existed during her lifetime happened more or less by historical accident. Although 18 years have passed since she drafted these words, and much trail building has indeed occurred that would’ve pleased McMartin, it still seems we are debating many of the same topics that occupied much of her career. Thus there is a timeliness in posthumously publishing one of her final essays now. –Bill Ingersoll

Part of a series on the history of Adirondack trails:

Part 1: A Short History of Adirondack Trail Building

Part 2: Trails in the Mountain Pleasure Grounds

Part 3: An Advocate for Trails

Part 4: So Much Work to Be Done

As a way to promote the building of new short trails, my guidebooks have pointed out a great many possibilities by describing bushwhacks where no paths exist or telling about secret fishermen’s paths. For two decades, I have championed creating footpaths out of many of these routes, paths that are barely marked — where existing foot tread shows the way — but where trailheads need to be marked and parking turnoffs identified.

My inability to turn good ideas into actual work has been the most frustrating of all. Recently, I have shifted my thinking about these trails and have come to the conclusion that identifying these as trails, even the short ones in Wild Forest areas, requires that they be marked. My reason is based on the fact that they would be used most frequently by people with little woods experience who need the assurance of a marked footpath.

I recently tried to make a list of the trails outside the eastern High Peaks region which went to mountain tops and were not former fire tower trails. I had trouble coming up with a dozen though I am sure I missed a few. (The list includes the Vista Trail, Rocky and Black Bear mountains near Old Forge, Baldface Mountain east of Indian Lake, Severance and Peaked hills near the north end of Schroon Lake, Sawyer Mountain north of Indian Lake, Castle Rock near Blue Mountain Lake, Haystack, Silver Lake Mountain, and Chimney, the geological wonder.) The trail up Peaked Mountain near Thirteenth Lake was marked in the early 1990s mostly because so many people kept getting lost there. The Adirondack Park Agency made possible lovely trails at the Visitor Interpretive Centers and on Jenkins Mountain. The latter may just be the best designed trail in the Park: interesting, varied, with gentle switchbacks, and fun to walk.

I started to list the mountains with views that have no trails — my candidates for the best easy day-hikes with views for family outings. I quit when my list approached seventy. The possibilities seem endless. They include Baldhead and Moose (northwest of Stony Creek), Moose (by Wells), Moose (southeast of Hammond Pond), Bearpen, Rand, Moxham, Pine, Forks and Kettle, Blueberry and two Huckleberry mountains, Barton, Bloody, Hail, Jay[1], Kate, Seymour mountains as well as Good Luck Cliffs and the Brothers. It includes Bald Pate and Owl Pate, Jones[2] and Peaked hills south of Hoffman Mountain, the Mayfield hills, Sweetfern and Harris hills, the cluster of a dozen or so little mountains in the Pharaoh Lake Wilderness, several mountains in both the Jay and Hurricane areas, Clements and Mount Fay, Ebeneezer and Rattlesnake mountains.

View from Moose Mountain near Stony Creek

The list of waterfalls without trails is shorter, but extensive: Cold Stream[3], Goldmine Stream, and Tenant Creek[4] waterfalls are examples. Years ago I tried to be the squeaky wheel that would stir the DEC into building trails to some of these scenic spots.

The state of Adirondack trails today is mixed. Trails for special interests have been developed, but trails for family fun are still scarce. The High Peaks trails have been badly eroded because they never were designed for heavy foot traffic. At first, the only attempt to put in switchbacks on a steep slope to minimize erosion was ATIS’ redesign of the lower part of Giant’s south trail. The new trail on Rooster Comb is another example of inspired trail building. Trails in the High Peaks have been routinely hardened with rocks and stairs without altering their routes to minimize grade and prevent erosion.

Suggestions for redesigning trails were rejected with the questionable argument that any new trail would erode. Hikers created multiple paths up the most direct routes to the trailless peaks. The High Peaks plan[5] calls for marking one route and I have been told that DEC will study the possible routes to assure that the most environmentally desirable one is chosen. Oddly enough, the plan does not mandate that DEC do this, so we will have to wait and see.

My suggestions for design on the steepest parts of the new route up Jay, where it traverses highly erodible, red-pine slopes, have not been heeded — the best route is described as straight up! Parking and access remain a problem[6].

In the last few years, there have been some notable bright spots in trail building. The Adirondack Conservancy has stepped in to build family trails on some of its preserves and has begun producing trail guides to wonderful natural areas like Silver Lake Bog, Everton Falls, and Clintonville Pine Barrens. Silver Lake Bog has a superb trail that features a half-mile boardwalk. The Conservancy has also built trails to three great mountains: Cook Mountain overlooking the north end of Lake George and Coon Mountain and Split Rock mountains near Lake Champlain. The results are excellent. Coon Mountain has a great trail with rock staircases through the steep draw part way up and a new parking lot provided by the town in a joint venture with the Conservancy.

The DEC has followed suit by marking a nature trail with boardwalk leading out from the Cranberry Lake Campground and another in Willie Marsh on the southern edge of the Adirondack Park.

I have even noticed that the hiking public has worn a few trails, really footpaths, with their feet, to places I originally described as bushwhack routes. Goldmine Stream waterfall has a super path, so does Coney Mountain[7].

There are no current plans to develop trails to the scenic outposts that dot the otherwise heavily wooded southern Adirondack slopes. The hikers who want high adventure — hikers with equipment, youth and strength — have places to go. The hunters and fishermen who learn the secret routes to their favorite perches or streams find a way into the woods and return each year to a familiar spot, often without trails.

There are virtually no trails for the disabled, except at the APA Visitors’ Centers; although because of a court order, DEC will shortly be building wheel-chair accessible trails. Moss Lake and Lampson Falls will receive the first ones.

Even more devastating than the shortage of trails for the elderly or the disabled is the almost total lack of interpretive trails. Again the Visitors’ Centers have shown the way, although the Adirondacks suffer in comparison with state and National Park Service trails on the west coast from San Francisco north through California and Oregon to Washington’s Olympic rain forest. Coastal accesses with short trails dot the coast highways; nearby trails lead up into the mountains to old growth forest stands. The interpretive trails are spectacular. The hiker is introduced to trees, forest succession, ferns, ecology, climate, rainfall, and human impact.

Interpretive trails in the Forest Preserve could describe natural phenomenon, tree species, ferns, bogs, rare plants communities, and old growth tree stands. Signs could describe the geological and altitudinal reasons why stands vary from place to place. Short trails could lead to places of historic interest such as tannery ruins and describe man’s history in our forests. Signs could tell why the Forest Preserve was created and the need to preserve forests to protect water resources. Such trails would not only educate, they could inspire an appreciation of the Forest Preserve that will increase the number of people who support and protect it.

The vast majority of outdoors people can find places to go, but rarely are they finding marked routes. They are enjoying the unmarked paths and bushwhacks that could become state trails.

Thinking Big

After talking about the many short trails that could be built, my lack of success made me think it was time I changed tactics and started thinking “big,” instead of many small routes for family hiking. Maybe in suggesting some really challenging trails outside the High Peaks, ones that rival anything within that region, I could call attention to the lack of new ideas and planning. Maybe I could inspire others to begin to focus on the rest of the Park’s potential.

To do this, I have proposed or adopted a few wild new trails and I now have quite a list. George Washington Sears, Nessmuk of canoe travel history, came from Pennsylvania. He first enjoyed the out of doors in Pine Creek Gorge. Years later, an advertising campaign to promote the area described it as the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania. With its rim trails and great views, it became a magnet area for hikers.

Why not create the Grand Canyon of the Adirondacks in the Hudson River Gorge? A new trail that takes off from the existing one connecting Huntley Pond and Blue Ledge would traverse three mountains with open summits. Kettle, Pine and Forks mountains all have great views. A descent from Forks in a long traverse would take the hiker to the Boreas River valley. After crossing the road bridge over the Boreas and walking east on the North Woods Club Road, the trail could continue up Dutton to its famous gun-sight rock overlook. Here, the hiker can look at both rivers and the railroad bridge over the Hudson.

OK Slip Falls Viewed from Kettle Mountain

In the 1930s, Kim Hart, writing in Adirondac, proposed a trail over the mountains east of Route 30 and north of Speculator. He called it the Little Great Range. A trail from Pillsbury north over Blue Ridge, the knobs of Cellar, Lewey mountains, and on to Snowy would traverse a series of peaks that each have small cliff-top overlooks. The trail might traverse Buell and Panther mountains before descending to its northern terminus at Wakely Dam. Several of these mountains are just short of 4,000 feet in elevation so this trail would also have a cumulative change in elevation that would rival that of the Great Range in the High Peaks.

Tony Goodwin has proposed a trail along the eastern Adirondacks that would go up and over a string of smaller mountains. The mountains themselves are mostly on state land, and the connecting links would involve road walking, but the sum would be a mountain walk overlooking Lake Champlain that would be even more exciting than the proposed lakeside trails.

The New York New Jersey Trail Conference has pushed the Long Path, which began as Vincent Schaefer’s dream, from the George Washington Bridge north to the Mohawk River. Advocates for the Long Path want to finish the trail by continuing on to Whiteface.

Whether the NCNST crosses the southern part of the West Canada Lake Wilderness going north of the Metcalfs and on to T Lake Falls or whether it traverses Ferris Lake Wild Forest, hiking would be wonderful. Either route would pass through old growth forests, including some rare old growth spruce stands. There is another area with alternate and equally desirable links: the trail could either pass through the southern Silver Lake Wilderness or head across the top of the Shaker Mountain Wild Forest. From either route a trail through the Notch would take the hiker to Sacandaga Campground. Across the highway, the trail through Wilcox Lake Wild Forest would begin with a climb of Moose Mountain. The eastern part of the NCNST would take advantage of the chain of mountains in the Hammond Pond Wild Forest, Owl Pate, Bald Pate, Moose, Bloody, and Hale[8]

View from Jones Hill

None of these wonderful ideas can happen without planning, regional planning for the whole park and specific planning in the form of the Unit Management Plans (UMPs). The failure to create UMPs for all of the Park’s regions was addressed by Governor Pataki in 1999. He called for the completion of all UMPs by 2004. The fact that Region 6 has been able to do so much good work in this regard for the western Adirondacks only emphasizes the breakdown of planning in Region 5, where so few plans had been completed. The eastern Adirondacks have the most problems and the greatest need for new recreational opportunities. An equally serious deficiency on the part of DEC has been that for years, it was so focused on individual plans that little thought was given to a comprehensive plan, one whose time had come given demand for recreational trails and the overuse of areas that have extensive trail networks.

The UMPs probably will not be completed on time; budget shortfalls, staff cutbacks, and the complicated nature of the plans make this likely[9]. As DEC has worked on plans, the complications have multiplied. Planners have to complete inventories of natural resources and facilities with little base material available. There is little information available about use levels. Planners need to have a deep understanding of an area in order to suggest the kinds of new trails that will really enhance recreational use of the various units while at the same time ensuring protection of the natural resource.

There is so much work to be done and it is so precedent-setting. As this short history shows, DEC has never made a comprehensive recreation plan for the Adirondacks; it has almost always adopted the work of others. Further, so much information has been developed by the National Park Service on building backcountry trails, but DEC has not adopted even the most important criteria available for trails standards, particularly with respect to grades. The current push to finish the UMPs is a last chance to bring to the Adirondacks a recreation plan, particularly directed at hikers, which will lead to realizing the great potential of this wonderful park.

Final Thoughts

I believe that it is important to know the history of Adirondack trails in order to participate in the public process of creating plans for the units of the park. So, I have written this to give perspective to those who will do the planning. This article distills thoughts I have had over the years and my experience walking and writing about the park for my guidebooks. It incorporates articles I have written for Adirondack Life on the history of trails and on possible new trails. It relies on Norman J. VanValkenburgh’s The Adirondack Forest Preserve and on Eleanor Brown’s The Forest Preserve. I have included thoughts from my Perspectives on the Adirondacks and from my experience on the Forest Preserve Advisory Committee. It expands a subject on which I have lectured many times in recent years. The subject could become a book, but I think this short version has the best chance of bringing needed insight to Adirondack planners.


[1] Jay Mountain now has a marked trail as far as its first bald knob.

[2] Jones Hill near Schroon Lake now has a foot trail in construction (2021) that will be part of the North Country National Scenic Trail when completed.

[3] I had the pleasure of introducing Barbara to the waterfalls on Cold Stream near Piseco in 2001.

[4] A trail to Tenant Creek recently had to be rerouted by DEC due to a landowner conflict.

[5] A reference to the original High Peaks Wilderness management plan completed in 1999.

[6] McMartin is referring to a prior unmarked trail up Jay Mountain, which indeed was straight as an arrow. The current marked trail, completed years after her death, does include switchbacks – although parking is still a problem.

[7] This small summit, too, now has a marked foot trail.

[8] All of these ideas for the North Country Trail were rejected in favor of a route through the central Adirondacks, currently in construction,

[9] Regrettably, this prediction has proven to be all too true.

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