Trails in the Mountain Pleasure Grounds

Part 2 of 4

Editor’s Note: The following is Part 2 of a previously-unpublished essay written in 2003 by the late Barbara McMartin (1931-2005).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

So, how did all these routes get to be state trails? The Laws of 1895 authorized the state to lay out paths in the newly created Adirondack Park. There is little evidence that anything was done at that time. In 1909 Governor Hughes advocated trails and roads to give greater access to the “mountain pleasure grounds.” As it turned out, recreational trail building by the state began a few years later, not because of Hughes’ plans, but in a rather circuitous way.

The state began building fire towers in 1909 in order to protect the forest resource. The fires of 1903 and 1908 had convinced the Forest Commission that the towers were a necessary part of fire control. Roads or trails were built to the mountain tops to bring up the construction materials for the towers. The state began designating trails, starting with ten in 1912, along these fire tower access roads, so the views from fire tower mountains could be enjoyed by the public.

The next year the Forest Commission adopted rules for constructing lean-tos. Bureaucracy had begun to recognize the growing demand for recreation in the Forest Preserve. By the time the last Adirondack tower was built in 1950, five dozen towers had been erected. These became the state’s most popular mountain climbing trails, rivaling the High Peaks routes. (Since 1970 all the towers in Wilderness areas have been closed and most have been removed. For a few years even the towers in Wild Forest areas were neglected, and as the towers began to deteriorate those mountains lost much of their views. In recent years, this has begun to change, although mostly with the help of volunteers. ADK helped restore Hadley Mountain’s tower. Blue Mountain’s tower has a part-time ranger. Groups are working on Azure Mountain and Mt. Arab towers[1].)

Arab Mountain Fire Tower

The mention of trails in the 1919 through 1922 Conservation Commission reports meant fire trails to decrease fire hazards, in other words roads primarily for access or for protection, not recreation. The 1919 Conservation Commission report notes that a few side-trails to vistas had been built from some fire tower trails. The 1920 report talked about a comprehensive trail plan, and indeed the commission began using circular disks of various colors to identify trails. The state’s most notable effort at trail building in this period was a new route to Colden, constructed in 1923 by State Forester Arthur S. Hopkins and Ranger Clinton West.

In 1922 the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK) began building the Northville-Placid (N-P) Trail, at 134 miles, the longest trunk trail in the Park. In 1929 the club turned the trail over to the Conservation Department. Many existing trails were similarly donated to the state, and, according the Norm VanValkenburgh[2], “Many of the trails in the Adirondack Preserve were acquired by the Department by this method.” That is to say, individuals or groups built trails that were later given to the state to maintain.

VanValkenburgh also observed that the state constitution was not violated because the trails built by the public followed established routes — abandoned woods-roads and trails that existed before state ownership[3]. Certainly the Northville-Placid Trail did; it generally followed old logging roads through valleys, and that accounts for its level, sometimes muddy course. Likewise the privately built trails constructed before 1894 can be excused from the constitutional limits on tree cutting, but I cannot imagine that all the privately built trails constructed after the Park was established managed to avoid tree cutting.

The N-P Trail was mostly built on Forest Preserve land or along town or county roads. The few sections were it crosses private land (near Long Lake, north of the Cedar River Road, both north and south of Tirrell Pond, and near Stony Creek) could present problems if they are not dealt with by easements. Part of the trail still follows roads used by vehicles. The paved section from Northville to Upper Benson, the part past Piseco Airport, and the dirt road portion along the Moose River Plains Road, past Wakely Dam, and on to McCains both should be rerouted. Fortunately people are now discussing these reroutes.[4]

In 1922 ADK and the State tried to establish a trail along the old Red Horse route in the Five Ponds area. Because the southern part of that wilderness was never logged, it would have been one of the few areas where long trails do not follow old logging roads. The reason the Red Horse route did not survive in full may be attributed to the fact ADK concentrated on the building of the Northville-Placid Trail in 1922 and 1923. A decade later George Marshall proposed building a trail to connect Lake George with Lake Placid, but that also failed to gain support.

Throughout the 1920s the state’s efforts continued to evolve without visible planning. The early 1920s saw a great leap in trail building. From 103 miles of trails in 1921, the total grew to 286 in just two years, but almost all of the added mileage came from the state’s takeover of privately built trails. ADK proposed but never completed a great circle trail of forty miles over the Great Range, incorporating ATIS trails with an extension connecting Skylight, Allen, and Pinnacle.

Great Range from Pyramid Peak

The miles of hiking trails leveled off or grew very slowly through the 1930s, actually declining slightly in 1937 and 1938 with the designation of some hiking trails as ski and truck trails. From 1937 to 1961 the number of miles of trails grew slowly until the surge of designating snowmobile trails in the 1960s. But that is getting ahead of the story.

The 1930s saw a spate of decisions concerning the cutting of trees — trails and vistas were deemed not to violate the constitution if the trees were not cut to any material degree. This exception allowed the state to build more miles of truck trails for administrative use and many new ski trails, including the one down Marcy, which was built in 1936.

Notice the pattern to all these trails. With the exception of the Northville-Placid Trail and the fire tower trails, they were virtually all built in the High Peaks region and the adjacent Giant and Dix ranges. This pattern has continued until today. In 1990, the total Adirondack hiking trail mileage was approximately 800 miles. Half of that total is in the eastern High Peaks. Half the hiking trails in the Park are concentrated in a little over fifteen-percent of the area of the Forest Preserve! (As of the beginning of 2003, the state did not have a complete inventory of either hiking or snowmobile trails. Many people assumed that informal sportsmen’s paths were unmaintained state trails.)

The state, through the Conservation Department and its successor, the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), gradually took over maintenance of the early routes depending on pressure for their use. The High Peaks received the greatest pressures, and with the help of the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK), the old mountain trails became the densest network in the Adirondacks.

Mid-Century Trail Building

In 1933, in the depth of the depression, the Federal government established the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to give employment for those with no hope of finding work. Four camps were located in the Adirondacks, at Lake George, Speculator, Eighth Lake, and Fish Creek Pond. In addition to reforestation and work on campgrounds, the corps was assigned to build and improve trails.

Carriage trails such as those in the Knapp estate along the east shore of Lake George evolved into great hiking trails after the state acquired that land, thanks to the work of the CCC, which extended these trails to many peaks and ponds. The corps also worked on trails on Tongue Mountain.

The 1950 blowdown resulted in logging in the northwestern High Peaks region. The work to reopen trails and truck trails after the blowdown was paid for by the salvage operation, but the salvage also permitted the construction of 21 new miles of truck trails to add to the existing 86 miles of truck trails within the park.

Most of the truck and fire trails were built in the western High Peaks region and some of them survive today as trails. These later fire roads were hardened and built by heavy equipment, which made them quite permanent. Many, like the trails from Coreys to the Cold River at Duck Hole and the one to Shattuck Clearing, are horse trails. In 1963 when the Conservation Department closed many roads in the Adirondacks, the result, in 1965, was the instant addition of 46 miles of newly designated horse trails.

In the late 1960s, when there was discussion about making core of the Adirondacks a National Park, the Conservation Department countered a Federal proposal by examining the region’s trails from the perspective of the National Park System. In 1968 the Conservation Department suggested a plan that would create a network of trails to sites of interest — ponds, rivers, mountains, and so on — with trailheads spaced as closely as every two miles along highways. That bit of planning never amounted to anything either but it could have added many thousands of miles of trails.

1967 National Park Proposal

The rejection of the Federal proposal, the subsequent Rockefeller Commission[5] study, the passage of the Adirondack Park Agency Act, and the separation of the Forest Preserve into Wilderness, Wild Forest, and four other categories, resulted in the adoption of a snowmobile trail network in Wild Forest and the closing of such trails in Wilderness areas. In the 1960s, the Conservation Department had eagerly responded to the demands for trails by snowmobilers. Suddenly, the official trail mileage within the Adirondacks doubled, with the addition of snowmobile trails. The mileage remains approximately the same today: 800 miles of hiking trails, 850 miles of snowmobile trails.

The surge of building trails for snowmobiles in the late fifties and early sixties rejuvenated a tremendous number of the early roads. Trails were cleared, bridges built, culverts installed, and signs were erected. But — and it is a big but — in all this period the state rarely even designated trails for hikers outside a few wilderness areas. A few of the snowmobile trails removed from wilderness areas became ski trails; the trail past Big Pond toward Hoffman Notch is one such. The state has put hiking trails along some of these routes, but again, the state followed the work of others by adopting old routes; the state was never the leader in developing new trails. The state has failed to advertise the fact that some snowmobile trails such as the trail from Piseco Airport past Fawn Lake to Sacandaga Lake [in the Jessup River Wild Forest] or the circuit from Irving Pond past Holmes Lake to Peters Corners [in the Shaker Mountain Wild Forest] are really great hiking trails — multiple-use at their best.

DEC’s response to pressures by organized hiking groups has continued to focus on the High Peaks. These efforts have been at the expense of casual hikers, people who are not organized, who just want a marked trail to an inspiring destination somewhere else in the park. The disparity between mileage of hiking trails and snowmobile trails is greatest in the southern Adirondacks. For instance, the Ferris Lake Wild Forest with its many miles of snowmobile trails has one mile of designated hiking trail[6].


[1] These were the conditions in early 2003 when McMartin wrote this essay. Most fire towers still standing in the Adirondack Forest Preserve in 2021 either have been restored or will be in the near future.

[2] No citation was provided in McMartin’s original draft. However, Norm VanValkenburgh was a DEC forester who wrote extensively on the history of the Adirondack Forest Preserve.

[3] The nuance McMartin is establishing here is that in the early days of the Adirondack Park, land managers probably avoided cutting trails in the Forest Preserve due a strict interpretation of the “Forever Wild Clause” of the state’s constitution, which states “nor shall the timber thereon be sold, removed or destroyed.” By using existing trails and logging roads, no tree cutting was required — in theory.

[4] Again, these concerns expressed by McMartin regarding the N-P Trail reflect the year this essay was written, 2003. All of these reroutes were completed circa 2009-2014, except for the section through Piseco where no feasible route exists to get the hiking trail off the paved road.

[5] The Temporary Study Commission on the Future of the Adirondack Park, during the administration of Governor Nelson Rockefeller.

[6] It’s not immediately clear what that one mile of foot trail was; possibly she means Broomstick Lake. However, in the intervening years several additional foot trails have been added to this roster: Good Luck Mountain, Big Alderbed, DeBraine / Trout Lakes, Sand Lake, and Jockeybush Lake being the ones that most readily came to mind. In some cases these are former snowmobile trails that have been “retired,” or former unmarked trails that now have official signage. McMartin did err, however, when she failed to count Echo Cliffs near Piseco, which is in Ferris Lake and was very much known to her.

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