Thursday, June 2, 2016

A Lows Ridge Bike, Hike, Swim and Climb

Lows-upper-dam-1Carol says I come up with my best trip ideas at the breakfast table. Since this was the last day of her Adirondack vacation, I felt the pressure to suggest something special. She likes to swim, I like to rock climb, and we both like to bike and hike. If I could combine all four of those activities, I might win her affection for all eternity.

It’d be worth a shot, anyway.

And so after we finished our cereal and tea, I spread the map on the table and pointed out the dirt road that leads to Hitchins Pond and Lows Ridge. We could bike down the road (which is closed to motor vehicles), hike up Lows Ridge to a spectacular view of the Bog River valley, and finish with a swim in the pond. Oh, and while on Lows Ridge we could check out a short rock climb called Without a Hitch.

As usual, we were getting a late start. For once, this wasn’t such a bad thing as we’d arrive on top of Lows Ridge about lunchtime. Since we had to pass through Tupper Lake on the way to the trailhead, we stopped at Larkin’s Deli and Bakery to pick up sandwiches.

From Tupper, we drove south on Route 30 for several miles before turning onto Route 421, which led us past Horseshoe Lake to the start of the gated road. There were two cars parked, and a third vehicle pulled up just as we were setting off on our bikes. I was a bit surprised as in my earlier visits I had not seen anyone.

The two parties ahead of us were hiking. We soon passed them and thereafter did not see anyone on the road. After two-thirds of a mile, we emerged from a corridor of evergreens into bright sunlight: to our left was a vast peatland dotted with cottongrass and the occasional tamarack tree. It’s part of a wetland complex that extends to Hitchins Pond and beyond.

Joan Collins, owner of Adirondack Avian Expeditions, often leads birding trips on the road. She said a number of boreal species dwell in the peatland, including yellow-bellied flycatchers, Palm warblers, Lincoln’s sparrows, and gray jays. A variety of warblers and other species also can be found in the forests and wetlands along the road.

“It’s one of my favorite places to bird in the Adirondacks,” Collins said.

Perhaps I should have added a fifth activity—birding—to our to-do list, but biking and birding strike me as incompatible unless you’re chasing an emu. Soon we re-entered the forest. Halfway up the road we passed a lovely marsh where Collins once spotted a rare black-backed woodpecker. We didn’t see any woodpeckers, but we did enjoy a nice view of the cliffs on Silver Lake Mountain.

At 2.4 miles, following an ever-so-gradual incline, we reached another vehicle barrier within sight of Lows Upper Dam. The short, rocky stream below the dam flows to Hitchins Pond. The flatwater above the dam is the start of Lows Lake. The first part of the lake is narrow like a river, but after a few miles it widens into an island-studded body of water that is a popular destination of paddlers.

After walking around the gate, we headed to the right to a register for the Lows Ridge trail (and stashed our bikes nearby). The sign says the trail is 1.1 miles long, but my GPS watch measured it at 0.9 miles. In any case, it’s a fine example of modern trail design, switchbacking up the slope in easy grades, gaining 450 feet in elevation.

At 0.75 miles from the register, we came to a short rib of rock with another view, to the northwest, of the cliffs on Silver Lake Mountain. Shortly we emerged from the woods onto the open bedrock at the top of Lows Ridge, with a gorgeous vista encompassing Hitchins Pond, the meandering Bog River, and countless mountains, including the High Peaks, in the distance.

The serpentine Bog“Now we’re talking,” Carol remarked of the view. “It’s more than 180 degrees. Look! You can see people canoeing.” Sure enough, people were paddling on both the pond and the lake. From our height, they looked like miniature figures in a diorama.

Turning left, we walked along the ridge’s narrow spine to a plaque commemorating Abbot Augustus Low, the son of a wealthy entrepreneur (of the same name) who founded the Horse Shoe Forestry Company. The elder Low sold timber, maple syrup, jams, and bottled water. In the early 1900s, he built the original Upper Dam and Lower Dam on the Bog River to generate electricity.

Nearby I saw something that I failed to notice in my earlier visits: someone had chiseled their name into the rock long ago—“F.M. Shemeley, Mt. Holly, NJ. May 1, 1908.” It made me wonder if F.M. would be envious of A.A.’s plaque.

Carol and I sat down to eat lunch and gobble up the scenery. Among the High Peaks we could discern were Whiteface Mountain, Santanoni Peak, Algonquin Peak, and Mount Marcy. Blue Mountain, recognizable by its flat top, lay about twenty miles to the southeast.

“I could have stayed up there for a long time looking at all the peaks and watching the tiny canoes paddling around below,” Carol emailed me after our trip.

Next it was time for the third phase of our adventure: rock climbing.

Lows Ridge boasts a wide slab, but people don’t climb there much. It’s a long haul to get there with ropes and other climbing paraphernalia. My guess is most people, if they climb it at all, solo the slab—that is, without any protective gear. Years ago, before the state cut the hiking trail, that was how my son and I got up the ridge. No doubt that used to be a fairly common practice.

I didn’t plan to solo on this trip. We brought a short rope, helmets, climbing shoes, harnesses, carabiners, and other gear. The second edition of Adirondack Rock describes three climbing routes, ranging in length from thirty-five feet to two hundred feet. All are considered easy—which was essential, since Carol is new to climbing.

The shortest route, Without a Hitch, lies below the point where you emerge from the woods on the hiking trail. It’s a narrow crack, first climbed (as far as we know) in 2008 by Daniel and Kate Mosny. Looking down at the lichen-encrusted rock, I wondered if anyone had climbed it since.

I anchored the rope to a tree and rappelled to the base of the climb. The dusty lichen on either side of the crack made the rock slippery. I didn’t think Carol was ready for this. So I climbed back up, and we decided to head down the trail for Hitchins Pond.

From the upper dam, we followed a wide trail past the stone foundations of Low’s once-grand home to the southwest corner of the pond. A couple with two young children had beached their canoe in preparation for the carry to Lows Lake. It’s a nice swimming spot. The shore is sandy, and as you enter the pond, the water deepens gradually.

Carol MacKinnon Fox cools off in Hitchins Pond.As usual, Carol jumped right in, while I followed more timidly. Once in, I felt fully refreshed. There’s nothing like washing off the dust and sweat from a bike-hike-climb in a beautiful body of water in a (largely) wild landscape. We dove a few times to find the cool water beneath the surface and then returned to dry land.

Carol, who is an expert on swimming holes, rated Hitchins Pond quite highly: “It’s clear and unmucky. Contemplating the pretty view across the pond as you float and splash around is a lovely experience.”

Finally it was time to retrieve our bikes and ride back to the car. The return trip went surprisingly fast. Although we barely noticed the elevation change on the way in, the road at the dam end is nearly a hundred feet higher than the trailhead. On the return, we were coasting or pedaling leisurely for much of the way.

Lows RidgeDIRECTIONS: From Tupper Lake, drive south on NY 30. After crossing the Raquette River, continue 6.9 miles to NY 421 and turn right. For the bike trip, take NY 421 for 7.5 miles to a gated road on the left. This is reached 0.9 miles after crossing the railroad tracks. If you want to paddle to Hitchins, take NY 421 for 5.9 miles, then turn left onto the Lower Dam access road and drive 0.7 miles to the end of the road. If coming from the south, drive north on NY 30 for 13 miles after crossing the bridge over Long Lake. NY 421 will be on the left.

Photos from above: A large tamarack bog lies along the dirt road leading to Lows Upper Dam; photo by Phil Brown, The Serpentine Bog River as seen from Lows Ridge; photo by Nancie Battaglia, Carol MacKinnon Fox cools off in Hitchins Pond, photo by Phil Brown, Lows Ridge; courtesy of

This story originally appeared in the Adirondack Explorer, a nonprofit newsmagazine devoted to the protection and enjoyment of the Adirondack Park. Get a full print or digital subscription here

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Phil Brown is the former Editor of Adirondack Explorer, the regional bimonthly with a focus on outdoor recreation and environmental issues, the same topics he writes about here at Adirondack Almanack. Phil is also an energetic outdoorsman whose job and personal interests often find him hiking, canoeing, rock climbing, trail running, and backcountry skiing. He is the author of Adirondack Paddling: 60 Great Flatwater Adventures, which he co-published with the Adirondack Mountain Club, and the editor of Bob Marshall in the Adirondacks, an anthology of Marshall’s writings.Visit Lost Pond Press for more information.

3 Responses

  1. Scott says:

    That gated road that is closed to vehicles and designated for bicycles is in a Primitive Area. That is horrible !

  2. Curt Austin says:

    Has a travesty been visited upon the wilderness here? Some will consult DEC regulations, APA rulings, the “SLMP” and relevant “UMP”, and finally Article 14 – and conclude “yes”. Some will consider actual Nature, notice that two people had a delightful and appropriate experience, and reach a different conclusion.

    (This is part of my steady effort to dissuade people from getting so lawyerly about the proper use of the Adirondacks that their common senses [sic] are overwhelmed.)

  3. Paul says:

    This one sounds pretty cool. Thanks.

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