Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Old Forest Roads In The Adirondack Backcountry

Negro Lake Jeep TrailBushwhacking is hard work. Trudging through dense forest, struggling with hobblebush thickets, climbing over downed trees, and dodging wetlands is no simple walk in the park; unless it’s the Adirondack Park.

An well-trod  path provides welcome relief from all this effort, whether it’s a herd path or a marked trail. Old forest roads offer another opportunity for respite, while still retaining that wilderness feel. In the Adirondack backcountry, these old roads are rather abundant.

The Adirondack backcountry is never quite as remote as it seems. Despite being seemingly miles from the nearest human being at such places as Sitz Pond, Oven Lake or Threemile Beaver Meadow, it’s nearly impossible to find anywhere in all of New York State that’s more than five miles from a road. Old topographic maps reveal that roads once crisscrossed the backcountry to an extent almost unimaginable today.

Undoubtedly, many of these roads never saw much traffic by modern standards. Most were used to haul logs, move goods or to transport a few wealthy people to remote camps. While some of these old roads live on today as dirt roads, snowmobile trails or footpaths, many are slowly being reclaimed into the forest. The remnants of even the remotest of these old roads are still used by wild animals, hunters, and the occasional weary bushwhacker.

Old logging road off Raven Lake RoadThe vast majority of forest roads are dirt (or gravel) covered. Some still are actively used by motor vehicles, but most were abandoned long ago.

Old skid roads are by far the roughest and most unimproved forest roads. Used to remove trees from the forest, they can go almost anywhere, and contain frequent deep ruts and wet seeps. They seem to branch out in a random manner that makes them frustrating for navigation – it’s usually easier to take a direct route with a map and compass.

Old logging roads, the trunk roads that connect skid roads with “real” roads, tend to have the more stable surfaces hauling massive loads of logs requires. These old roads typically are wider with hard flat surfaces; hence, they take longer to revert into anything that resembles a natural state.

Locating these old roads sometimes takes skill and practice. The classic tell-tale sign of an old road is two parallel lines of older trees separated by flat terrain filled with young trees. Other common clues include bisected hillsides, road bench cuts, and old bridge infrastructure near streams. An old car, truck, or other piece of machinery is an excellent (and obvious) clue as well.

Photos by Dan Crane: Old Jeep Trail north of Negro Lake, old logging road off end of Raven Lake Road.

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Dan Crane writes regularly about bushwhacking and backcountry camping, including providing insights on equipment and his observations as a veteran backcountry explorer. He has been visiting the Adirondacks since childhood and actively exploring its backcountry for almost two decades. He is also life-long naturalist with a Master of Science in Ecology from SUNY ESF and 10+ seasons working as a field biologist, five inside the Blue Line.

Dan has hiked the Northville-Placid Trail twice and climbed all 46 High Peaks but currently spends his backpacking time exploring the northwestern portion of the Adirondacks. He is also the creator of the blog Bushwhacking Fool where he details his bushwhacking adventures.

11 Responses

  1. Bill Ott says:

    Hi Dan,
    I cannot resist responding. Spruce thickets are very formidable. After sidestepping some of these guys (witch-hobble is my most frustrating), then one is cut off by a pond or other chance of wet feet. Since the early-mid eighties I have accepted wet feet. My rule is to keep dry socks for the night, and wear some wet ones tomorrow. I stay out for two weeks, so sooner or later I get to dry a few.
    Since you brought up the Five Ponds, my opinion is the ponds are getting wilder. There used to be three bridges over the Oz where there is now only the one on the Five Ponds trail. The trail at the downstream bridge (there is still a shelter there) has disappeared. I met some people several years ago who followed the old markers for awhile, but then lost the trail. Another trail was described to me by Jim Burnett from Cranberry Lake, the “red paint” trail. Somebody had blazed it with a can of red paint. In 1994 he told me where to find it; I followed it and even found the paint can, mostly rusted away. Whoever blazed the trail quit when the paint ran out. I could not even begin to say where to find it now, except it may have come off the present 5-Ponds trail.
    There are plenty of ponds and hills with no trails. I love bushwhacking to a no-name hill and staying the night. Even Big Five and Little Five in the Five Ponds have no marked trails, just some herd paths over the ridge. How many have actually camped on Big or Little Five? I have not. Take a jaunt to the Rob River. Talk about thick? Plan an extra day. Make sure to include Sliding Falls (still with deadfall from 95); not Sliding Rock Falls on the trail.
    Every body has where he(she) wants to be, and one will not find me here, I will just be somewhere, way off the trail, probably looking for my glasses. (Boy(Girl), do I digress).

    Bill Ott
    Lakewood, OH

  2. Curt Austin says:

    I enjoy your pieces about your bushwalking adventures, but I wonder if there are folks who think it is wrong, that you are invading a place that is otherwise the rare bit of genuine wilderness. Disturbing moss on the forest floor, startling innocent animals, depositing noxious waste products. Wilderness is the absence of humans, after all. Humans should stick to the trail if they must venture into the wilderness. Go only where the authorities have granted you explicit permission, in conformance to a Unit Management Plan developed with due regard to flora and fauna, consistent with the State Land Master Plan, etc.

    If you are one of those folks, I’m afraid you’ve fallen for the appealing simplicity of absolutism, the attempt to minimize human impact. Enjoying wilderness means accepting a fundamental compromise. It’s OK.

    You haven’t enjoyed the wilderness fully until you’ve experienced its true natural state. It is formidable; you will probably be the most delicate party in the encounter. I recommend a long-sleeved shirt, long pants, gloves, and eye protection.

    Don’t get lost, and don’t trample the Pink Corydalis and other delicate things, of course.

    • AG says:

      The native Americans used the wilderness centuries ago. In fact – when the Europeans arrived they taught them to follow the buffalo and deer into the woods. Why? Those animals knew where the salt deposits were. Those animals would go get salt in their diet (like they do with the road salt we use to keep ice off roads). The city of Buffalo we know now was reached by trails the buffalo made to salt deposits.
      Point being that humans have ALWAYS used forests. The key is not destroying it or abusing it.

  3. Tim-Brunswick says:

    Normally I pick on Dan Crane’s inordinate focus upon “Illegal Trails”, but Mr. Austin is a bit off the scale with his picayune “disturbing moss on the forest floor” and ….really….kids…what exactly are “innocent animals”??

    Other than Walt Disney, anyone got a clear definition??

    Glad to see that Dan is acknowledging the fact that the ADKS have been criss-crossed by old roads, trails and paths for over 200 years. It should be part of the history and a welcome respite for us bushwhackers when we stumble upon them. The least likely to be impacted are the full-time residents of these wild areas………

    Thank you

    • Dan Crane says:


      Inordinate? I challenge you to count the number of Adirondack Almanack articles where I’ve focused on “illegal trails,” it would surely be a small minority. I think the outrage you subscribe to me, is more of a reflection of your own beliefs than my own. I use illegal trails, old roads and just about any other means to get from point A to B in the backcountry.

      The Adirondacks is a healing wilderness, claiming otherwise would be a rejection of the facts. Old roads are part of the landscape, and though in many cases they are being reclaimed, some still get a lot of use, even by innocent animals (but rarely by moss).

      In fact, I would like to see more old forest roads in the remote backcountry. Increasing the number of old forest roads means condemning more currently active ones, allowing them to slowly heal and return to the forest that they once were. The roads in proximity of the Essex Chain of Lakes would be an ideal place to start this process.

      I’m sure you could join me in supporting that.

      • AG says:

        I agree. You should also do a story on humans following the paths animals make. The Native Americans did it here (and taught the Europeans). I read about it in a book called “Salt” by Mark Kurlansky. I’m now looking further into the wondrous idea. Even just yesterday watching a documentary on animals in Africa – the predators learn where the salt deposits are and follow the paths the herbivours use to get to them.

    • Curt Austin says:

      You read my note too quickly, Tim.

  4. Bruce says:

    When I look at 19th century maps of the Adirondacks, I’m amazed by some of the roads taken by travelers in relatively primitive conveyances (buckboards and stagecoaches) to get where they were going: the Brown’s Tract Road between Big Moose settlement and Fulton Chain (modern day Thendara) for example. 13 miles of hell. One writer said a “crow would shed tears to fly over it.” George Washington Sears (Nessmuk) preferred to carry his canoe the Sairy Gamp, the entire distance for fear it would get smashed up on the buckboard carrying the rest of his gear.

    The route taken by train passengers from North Creek to Eagle and Blue Mountain Lakes wandered through what is now the Moose River Plains…overnight stop near Cedar River Flow, along the Cedar River, up by Sprague and Cascade Ponds to Eagle Lake, then on to Blue Mountain Lake along what is now Rte. 28. When Rte. 28 became a hard-packed, all weather gravel road between North Creek and Blue Mtn. Lake, it must have seemed like a super highway.

    These old, well traveled roads are still somewhat in evidence, showing as trails on modern maps.

    • Curt Austin says:

      I think you meant to write “The route taken by *stagecoach* passengers from North Creek to Eagle and Blue Mountain Lakes”.

  5. Bruce says:


    Yes, of course.

    I like to speculate that if motor vehicles hadn’t come along when they did, someone would have built a RR spur over to Blue Mountain Lake, considering the numbers of folks going there and the amount of supplies required to handle the logistics. Over 500 visitors staying in the Prospect House alone.

  6. Tim says:

    Would you be able to tell me about any jeep trails in the northern Adirondacks? Thanks


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