Recently I celebrated the heavy snowfall by visiting the Hurricane Mountain Primitive Area. The first part of the visit was a hike to the summit along the trail that begins at Route 9N between the Keene Valley and Elizabethtown.
What a glorious day in the woods! The beauty of the snowfall, clinging to every branch, brushed and sparkled in the higher elevations with hoar frost, worked in concert with an utterly luminous winter light, to make it one of the loveliest winter climbs I’ve ever done.
I began before dawn, having planned some extensive bushwhacking after the climb. There was no traffic on 9N and the silence of the forest was snowy perfection. Only near the trailhead on the way out did I see a soul; the rest of the time I was blissfully alone. The trail was broken and nicely packed, except at the summit where a relentless wind had drifted it into oblivion.
This has to be one of the easiest trails to a major summit in the entire park. Considering how much vertical Hurricane Mountain has, this route has remarkable lengths of essentially flat hiking. The parts that climb are steady, but never steep. Only a tiny bit of scrambling near the top prevents this from being akin to a long woods stroll. This happy circumstance is due to the route being a long ridge walk, all other directions to Hurricane being quite steep. It is also due to the nature of the trail itself, laid out with an excellent series of switchbacks throughout its course. The sole troubling section in the past, a slog past a series of beaver ponds, has been rerouted to dryer ground.
Consequently I highly recommend this trail especially to those who fear their physical capacity could not get them up a High Peak, or for families with younger children who want to try something more serious and remote than Mount Jo. Hurricane also makes for an excellent first winter ascent.
Those who try it won’t be cheated out of a real climb, either. Hurricane’s prominence and relative isolation from other peaks gives lie to the notion that only High Peaks give you real Adirondack summit experiences. Hurricane may only be the seventy-fourth highest mountain in the Adirondacks but it is the tenth most prominent, making the experience of being on top equal to any peak in the park. The downward arc from the summit rocks is precipitous and spectacular.
The trail proceeds through an interesting range of forest types. Almost all of the Hurricane area was logged more than once, initially in the 19th century and then again near the turn of the 20th. Lime kins and potash operations proliferated. The legendary fires of 1903 burned most of it to the soil. Indeed for much of the hike you can see that the forest is young – trees are not large and stands of white birch are common. But there are surprises.
The initial ascent takes you up over a ridge to a flat section that leads to the beaver ponds. The first part of this flat section is quite mature, with sizable white pines, cedars and the occasional thick yellow birch. It is surely not old growth, but a mature recovered forest – likely this patch did not burn in 1903. Higher up one travels through the usual transition zones, from spruce-balsam up to a montane balsam forest near the summit. All of it looks pristine, undisturbed by human activity. The beaver ponds are lovely and there is a delightful open plateau in a col about halfway up the climb. Overlooks are few but near the top there is a corker toward the Champlain Valley that emerges unexpectedly from the forest.
Such pristine beauty always invites intimate surprises, individual gifts to each hiker on a particular day. My day dawned cold and crisp and much of my ascent occurred before the sun rose high enough to break through the cloud-shrouded ridges to the southeast. But on the bushwhack down the ascendant sun began to exert its warmth on the snow-laden branches.
This circumstance is perhaps my favorite time to be in the Adirondack forest. Clumps of white, loosened from the warming, would dislodge, sending wispy, crystalline contrails down from the green needled branches. Spreading like zeniths below the sunbeams they would briefly catch the light and explode into silver-white colors like tiny fireworks before diffusing to silence.
At first there were only a few here and there, but as the bright day wore on they began to fill the forest around me, little explosions and streams proliferating amid a growing chorus of “thwumps” as larger burdens gave way and flattened themselves into the snow pack below. Everything about Nature was alive and beautiful and perfect. I could have stayed forever.
For me the magic of a remote Adirondack trail in winter is without peer. The Hurricane Mountain trail in any season is a delight not to be missed. But in this lovely start to winter it is magnificent.
By the way, the view from the top is pretty good too.
Photo: Hurricane Mountain from Amy’s Lookout