West Canada Lake Wilderness

All of the Adirondack Park’s wilderness areas are unique in their way, each of them offering something that can’t be found in any of its siblings. But the West Canada Lake Wilderness is a rare blending of mountain and water, with no true equal anywhere in eastern North America, if not beyond: a galaxy of little lakes, all held up on a high-elevation plateau and surrounded by a lush temperate forest.

At 172,000 acres, this is the second largest protected wilderness in not just the Adirondacks, but in all the northeastern United States. It is second in size only to the High Peaks Wilderness, and these two giant regions are not without their similarities – particularly the deep layers of damp organic soils that tend to erode quickly with the passage of many hiking boots. Thankfully, though, the West Canada Lake Wilderness has managed to escape the unchecked visitation growth curve that has been plaguing the High Peaks since the 1960s, and thus wilderness adventures are still possible here in a relatively unregulated setting.

What is the primary environment of the West Canada Lake Wilderness? With a region so vast, there are several. The eponymous lakes are of course the most iconic, but the designated boundaries also include a broad range of settings: rugged mountains, wide valleys, and impenetrable fens. The snows are deep, and the rain is frequent. This is a true headwater area, with significant streams radiating off the plateau in multiple directions. Forests of balsam fir and red spruce sprout prodigious sapling nurseries that often fill the understory; these trees grow fast and sometimes die in waves, creating cycles of forest growth that can be observed in a human lifetime.

Much of the area’s recreational pressure is funneled through a small number of trails, and overnight visitors must contend with a starkly finite number of campsites. While the area hasn’t suffered yet from excessive visitor numbers, there are vulnerabilities that should be plain for any wilderness manager to see. No management plan has ever been written for this place, and that could itself become a problem if visitor numbers rise and no mitigation measures exist. And indeed we absolutely can anticipate a rise in visitor numbers soon as new long-distance trails like the North Country National Scenic Trail are extended across the wilderness.

Thus what we have in the West Canada Lake Wilderness is an outstanding natural resource, one that has been cobbled together over numerous land purchases into one of the most distinctive preserves anywhere. It is ours to enjoy, but also ours to protect – and the time might be coming to an end when we can passively sit by and let recreational management issues sort themselves out.

Please click through the tabs below to learn more about the West Canada Lake Wilderness.

West Canada Lake Wilderness at a Glance

Size: 172,025 acres

First Designated: 1972

Unit Management Plan Status: No management plan has been completed for this area

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


Of course, the features most associated with the West Canada Lake Wilderness are the lakes themselves. Specifically, the West Canadas are the trio of relatively large backcountry lakes clustered at the geographical center of the area’s northern half: West Lake, South Lake, and Mud Lake. Together they create the headwaters of the West Canada Creek, one of the major tributaries of the Mohawk River.

Mud Lake is exactly as advertised, but the other two are deep lakes with cold, clear water. The name “West Canada” derives from the creek, and how during the Colonial era the East Canada and West Canada creeks were the eastern and western boundaries, or “kanatas” in the Mohawk language, in an arrangement between early settlers of the Mohawk Valley and their Native neighbors. The trio of headwater lakes sits just above 2300 feet in elevation, which in an Adirondack context is remarkably high for lakes so large.

In common usage, though, the term “West Canadas” is often applied to the entire neighborhood of lakes, including Pillsbury, Whitney, Cedar, Sampson, Brooktrout, and Spruce. Even though several of these lie in completely different watersheds, all of them share many of the same attributes. From these lakes flow the Cedar River and two separate Indian Rivers.

Although something of an outlier, Little Moose Lake near the northern boundary is the source of the South Branch Moose River, and the remote northwestern arm of the wilderness contains the headwaters of the North Branch Black River. Even the Jessup River, the primary feeder of Indian Lake, rises in the belly of the West Canada Lake Wilderness.

If you could lay this region like a slab of stone on a table and eye it edge-on you would see a distinctive slant to the terrain, from the generally lower western regions to the enormous mountains in the northwestern arm, culminating with Snowy Mountain, highest in the region. The wilderness includes all of Snowy’s southern slopes, including the Griffin Brook Slide, but not the summit itself. A prize for the most distinctive mountain profile might go to Blue Ridge, another summit in the Snowy Range, for the grand backdrop it offers to the Cedar River and Little Moose Lake.

Farther east and south, many of the numerous smaller mountains do not even bear names. This attests to the outstanding wilderness qualities of the area: a place so remote and “out there” that much of its geography remains anonymous.

Forest quality is directly tied to the era in which a particular tract of land was acquired for the Forest Preserve. Large blocks of real estate in the southern region and in the Snowy Range were bought up by the end of the nineteenth century, and here are the best opportunities to view stands of old growth. The state acquired the northern core of lakes in the 1920s after that area had been logged for pulpwood; here the forest is aging well, but it has not yet achieved the same status as the older parcels.

Blockbuster land deals in the 1960s (Gould Paper Company) and the 1980s (International Paper) filled in the gaps along the northern and eastern boundaries, and made the West Canada Lakes more accessible than they had ever been by establishing key trailheads at otherwise remote points along the boundary. But these parts of the forest, with their more recent logging history, are only just beginning to reach second-growth maturity.

With so many lakes and ponds (by the state’s count there are 223 bodies of water, a number which probably includes ephemeral beaver ponds) this wilderness naturally has a long association with fishing. Indeed these waters were prized for their brook trout fisheries, and prior to wilderness status sportsmen often chartered floatplanes to reach the larger lakes.

By the 1980s, though, the chemical ravages of acid rain had rendered several lakes fishless – including the iconic Brooktrout Lake. It took years of lawsuits and interstate negotiations before airborne pollutions were reduced, thus allowing pH levels to rebound. The state first restocked Brooktrout with its namesake fish in 2005, and after success was encountered there other once-depleted lakes have been added to the stocking schedule.

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