Old forest roads get more use than one would think in the Adirondacks. Although they see few motor vehicles these days, many see enough foot traffic, whether it be boot or paw, to maintain their existence in perpetuity. This resiliency is especially useful when planning backcountry adventures, where old roads often allow efficient access to some rather remote areas.
The Five Ponds Wilderness Area contains some of the most remote areas within the entire Adirondack Park. Although it is one of the larger wilderness areas, it only gets a modest number of visitors, most of which congregate within its northern half, where the bulk of its human-friendly infrastructure is located (trails, lean-tos, etc.). Its size, limited access and relative lack of love with the outdoor crowd provide for a vast array of opportunities for remote backcountry adventure.
However, appearances can be deceiving. A closer inspection reveals a healing wilderness rather than a pristine one, once heavily impacted by human activity. Old machinery, discarded junk, trash heaps, and other evidence abound in the area, acting as monument to past use. Although much of this past abuse lies hidden beneath years of leaf litter and downed trees, forest roads remain one of the more obvious impacts not so easily concealed.
Although these old roads appear as scars on the landscape, they are not without their uses, especially for those brave souls that bushwhack through the remote backcountry.
My recent trek into the remote southern Five Ponds Wilderness best exemplified the usefulness of old roads while exploring the backcountry. The larger water bodies east of the Red Horse Trail were my main goal, and a number of different old forest roads provided a convenient way to access them without unduly impacting my remote wilderness experience.
My journey began on Raven Lake Road, which provided access to the Five Ponds Wilderness north of Stillwater Reservoir. Although this well-maintained right-of-way is closed to public motor vehicles (it allows access to an in-holding along the shore of Raven Lake), it offered a pleasant walk through the forest over undulating terrain, with an occasional distraction of a stream, vly or marked canoe carry.
A series of old logging roads extend well-beyond the end of the maintained road, where they provide further access to the Wilderness Lakes Tract portion of the Five Ponds Wilderness. Motor vehicles are completely unwelcome here, as numerous boulders and a sign concealed in vegetation attest. Foot traffic remains frequent enough passed this point, as the well-worn path that climbs up the steep slope indicates.
Although the forest has reclaimed the old road in places, with young trees crowding in so only a narrow footpath remains, at other times, a wide-open grassy path revealed a past life when it facilitated logging before it became part of the Forest Preserve in the 1990’s. The farther north the road penetrated into the wilderness, the less use it apparently received, as evidenced by the frequency of footprints left behind in the muddy sections.
The main logging road provided access all the way to Bear Pond, where it finally fizzled out at an old camp near the outlet of Diana Pond. From there, I eschewed old roads for a while, until a few days later when I encountered for another one north of Negro Lake. Any old roads encountered along the arduous two-day bushwhack between Diana Pond and Negro Lake went unnoticed due to their ancient age and/or my own ignorance.
According to my mid-1980’s topographic map, a series of old roads or unofficial trails exist east of the Red Horse Trail. These trails appear connected to a road/trail network off to the east, most of which are on private property.
Searching for the old road north of Negro Lake was one thing, finding it turned out to be something else altogether. The road was designated for four-wheel drive vehicles on the topo map, so I expected it to be more indistinct than the old logging roads used earlier in my adventure. A narrow open area bordered by younger trees and a gravel pit left me with the feeling I finally found the road, despite my handheld GPS’s insistence it was closer to the shoreline. A gouge about three-feet high on a mid-aged yellow birch sealed the deal though, despite my gadget’s protests to the contrary.
The road followed along the entire length of Negro Lake, through both wetland and forest alike, until it finally ended at a still active jeep trail that came out of the east. A short side road traveled down to the shoreline along a peninsula where once a cabin resided. Much of my trek along the road can be viewed on this rather lengthy video, while the area around the old cabin site can be seen here.
The jeep trail traveled a short distance to the west where it ended at a small clearing on the eastern shoreline of the lake, apparently at the site of an old camp. An obscure intersection before the old campsite linked this road network with another one to the south.
The old roads south of Negro Lake provided an easier way to get through the area but they were harder to follow. In many places, clusters of conifers crowded the path, which were difficult to force through, especially when wet. The old road south of Wilder Pond took on more of a skidder trail feel, with frequent ruts and very wet sections, although to be fair, it did rain hard earlier in the day when I went through.
After Wilder Pond, much of the remainder of my trip involved bushwhacking until my return trip back toward the Stillwater Reservoir dam. Near Hidden Lake, a web of old skid roads scoured the forested landscape all the way north to Ginger Pond, where I regained the old logging road network that returned me to Raven Lake Road.
Old forest roads abound in the Adirondack backcountry, even in some of the most remote wildernesses, like the Five Ponds Wilderness. Although some may get incensed by their presence, they actually show the resilience of the Adirondack forest to undue the works of mankind given enough time. In addition, they offer a welcome break for a weary bushwhacker, providing a whole different type of route finding. They truly are the roads less traveled.
Photos by Dan Crane: an old logging road south of Slim Pond, and the old road to Wilder Pond.