Sunday, September 17, 2017

When The World Discovers Your Favorite Adirondack Spot

jay mountain Maybe 15 years ago, having completed the 46 High Peaks and just becoming aware that there were indeed other trails in the Park, I was searching for new options when I stumbled across a brief description of the seldom-climbed Jay Mountain, the capstone of the Jay Range, smack in the center of the Jay Wilderness off of Jay Mountain Road between the communities of Jay and Upper Jay. Everything in Jay is named Jay. People even name their goldfish Jay. Less to remember that way, I suppose.

It was a mountain that, it was said, only “the locals” climbed, but if that were the case, those rascally locals weren’t talking. People whom I was certain had hiked Jay clammed up, guarding the secret with the same passion as one trying to keep the nuclear codes away from President Trump.

Of course this only meant that I made up my mind that I would find the trailhead or die. Find it I eventually did, but it wasn’t within a hundred yards of where it was supposed to be, and was marked only by three sorry old stones masquerading as a cairn. I do believe it took longer to find the trail than it did to hike it.

It was technically “trailless,” although you know how that goes; there were no signs, but enough trampled vegetation to find your way without any particular problem. It was, however, an awful footpath, penetrating a thicket of unsightly brush near the top and marked by what I took to be a shrine to a dear departed. It was large and quite colorful, with flags and plastic flowers and a heap of stones that had obviously taken some time to assemble. You felt for the loss of a loved one, but there was nothing forever-wild about it, and the fact that it had not been respectfully removed told me that not even the DEC rangers hiked this mountain with any frequency.

jay mountain But it was the peak itself that stole the show. It was a mile and a half of spectacular open ridgeline, with fun, challenging scrambles and views to forever that included the High Peaks, Lake Champlain and the distant Greens of Vermont. Were it just over a football field higher, it would have qualified as a High Peak itself and, I was convinced, have been among the most crowded and popular mountains in the Park. Instead — nothing. The number of hikers I met on that glorious summer weekend day could have been categorized as less than one. Same with a couple of subsequent climbs in the early 2000’s.

Today it’s different. Five years ago, an official, civilized trail was cut up Jay to encourage more hikers, and it worked; on a July weekend I counted 34 cars at the trailhead.

Maybe Jay has simply been “discovered” or maybe it is emblematic of the overcrowding issues in the mountains that is on everyone’s mind.

Like a stock picker who has had that one big hit and is deluded into thinking he can find more, I set out to discover other lonely gems that the masses have not yet found, just as I had done 15 years ago with Jay.

It hasn’t gone terribly well. Any number of times this summer I’ve resolved to write about all the “undiscovered trails” I’ve found, where those seeking solitude — even in these days of overpopulated peaks — can still hike all day without seeing another soul. At times I’ve been encouraged, spending entire mornings on a trail traveled only by me. So I’ve crafted these essays in my head, filled with art and poetry, about the road not taken as I have hiked in seclusion on mountains like Hopkins or Marble. But just as I’m smugly putting the final punctuation to these odes to my own nose for wilderness, around the bend comes a troop of about eight million singing girl scouts and a half dozen Dartmouth boys shouldering 24-packs of Labatt’s Blue.

So maybe there’s something to the concerns about overuse. There is talk of a permitting system for hiking the mountains, and I hope it doesn’t come to that, largely because I’m not that organized. I do know that popularity comes in waves, and that perhaps in three our four years we’ll all be fretting over an unanticipated decline in tourism. I also fear I’m becoming one of those grumpy old men who pounds his cane on the floor and demands that kidsthesedays (spoken as a singular noun) get out from behind the computer screen in their parents’ basements and into the fresh air. And then when they do get into the fresh air, pounds his cane and demands they go away.

Today, with mobile technology, they can do both; they can stay connected while they are in the wild. So they are on Jay — and everywhere — and I try to see the good in that, even if it’s cost me a measure of solitude. I also know that with determination there are still places I can hike and be alone. I have not, for example, noticed a lot of selfies originating from Panther Gorge.

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Tim Rowland is a humor columnist for Herald-Mail Media in Hagerstown, Md., and a New York Times bestselling author. His books include High Peaks; A History of Hiking the Adirondacks from Noah to Neoprene and Strange and Unusual Stories of New York City. He has climbed the 46 high peaks, is an avid bicyclist, and trout tremble with fear when they see his approaching shadow. He and his wife Beth are residents of Jay, N.Y.

24 Responses

  1. Tyler Socash says:

    Tim, for starters: don’t give away the secret spots, which have chosen to do in this article.

  2. Joe Hansen says:

    If peaks were not your hang up there could be a hundred years of solitude in the Adirondacks.

    • terry says:

      True .
      There is almost never a car at the Averyville lot for the Northville /Placid trail.The There was some old codger who saw your car by the trailhead for Jay mountain 15 years ago when You “discovered it” that probably pulled up that morning in his car and was pissed to see it being overrun.

  3. NoTrace says:

    “Any number of times this summer I’ve resolved to write about all the “undiscovered trails” I’ve found, where those seeking solitude — even in these days of overpopulated peaks — can still hike all day without seeing another soul.”

    Well, then, aren’t YOU the very problem that you fret about?

  4. Boreas says:

    This is one of the consequences of trying to get people to explore areas other than the High Peaks. As long as people have maps and cheap transportation, days of not seeing others on the peaks or trails will become scarce. The very nice CATS trail system is one example of a network to relieve pressure on the HPW, but sacrificed rarely visited gems on private property. We can’t spark interest in other areas of the Park without revealing these ‘secret’ gems. Tourism is a double-edged sword.

  5. Lorraine Duvall says:

    I’ve seen 50 cars – half Canadian.

    • Taras says:

      I think it’s fair to say that many northern trailheads have “half Canadian” content. Everything north of Blue Ridge Road is less than a 3-hour drive from Montreal.

  6. Martin says:

    Kayaked blue mnt. Lake then climbed blue mnt. Had the lake, trail & top all to my self. Spent 2 nights in old ranger cabin on top. Seen people on 3rd day. Exchanged snickers bar for bottled water.

    MRE’s were delicious. Probably wont get a chance to do it again. If I do hope to see ya there…

  7. Taras says:

    I understand the spirit of Tim’s essay, namely the loss of a favorite destination’s obscurity, but Jay isn’t the best candidate for this purpose.

    The 12th edition of the High Peaks guidebook, published in 1992, describes the route to Jay. That’s just over a quarter-century ago.

    I recall hiking it before the current trail was created (in 2012) and there was clear evidence many hikers had preceded me. The current re-routed trail has an official parking area, appears on maps, and is described in many places (in print and online). Its obscurity is long, long gone.

    The same is not true of the other peaks in the Jay Mountain Wilderness. So Tim, break out your map and compass and have at it! 🙂

  8. Todd Eastman says:

    Maybe you are not that special…

    … and lots of people enjoy being in the woods.

    Crowds have been learning and forgetting about Jay Mountain since the 1960s…

  9. I know the feeling. Quite a few years ago I stumbled upon Owls Head Peak off the side of Cascade. It quickly became one of my favorite hikes. I visited it several times per year, sometimes as a “desert” hike after tackling something more strenuous or just for the view that I could enjoy when I didn’t have a lot of energy. I made the mistake of telling others about it who apparently told more people. In the last two or three years, I have been dismayed at how the trail was being beaten to death and now, because of inconsiderate behavior of some toward the landowner’s property, the trail is closed. I don’t blame the landowners at all but I do regret telling anyone about my favorite short hike. If I find a suitable replacement, I don’t plan to tell anyone.

    • Taras says:

      So you’re the one to blame? 😉

      Don’t sweat it. That little peak is described in the 1992 edition of the High Peaks Guidebook. It’s been a known, and frequented, destination for many years. I believe my first visit was in the late 90’s, certainly by 2000.

      The problem is that it was despoiled by the accumulation of many little abuses. It’s not entirely the fault of the quantity of guests but how they behave. Instead of treating it like the gem it is, people took it for granted. Eventually the landowners concluded, enough is enough (quite rightly). It boils down to people not knowing what they got ’til it’s gone.

      • I don’t think I am entirely to blame, but it is one of those exponential things. I told a couple dozen people who each told a couple dozen, and so on. I’m sure my enthusiastic recommendations played a role.

        As for the peak being in the guidebook, Gilligan is in the guidebook too. Have you climbed it? I find that people tend to go to places that someone has told them about. They hear about it and then look it up in the guidebook.

        • Taras says:

          To be clear, I was being sarcastic (hence the winky) and don’t think you’re to blame at all, not in the least. Sharing favorite destinations with friends is a common practice. It just spreads a lot faster nowadays due to social media.

          I know of Gilligan, have read its description in the guidebook, yet have never been drawn to it … so, no, I have not hiked it. However, I have hiked less-frequented peaks north and west of the High Peaks (which shall remain nameless) and they’ve been very enjoyable destinations. Most were chosen after reading about them in a guidebook (old school).

    • Boreas says:


      I think Owl’s Head’s biggest downfall was its proximity to Cascade. Somewhere to go when there are 50 cars parked along the road. The trail was still somewhat mossy the first time I hiked it in the late 70s. By the mid-80s, it was getting much more usage.

  10. JMD says:

    I hear ya!

    I’m no High Peak adventurist, my knees can’t take it, but I am an avid canoe tripper. I have one blessed little spot in the central ADK’s that I fear will be found out someday by the masses. No cairns or signs mark the presence of the portages leading in from the east and west, and no signs on a well traveled road designate the parking area. Even though it is easily within reach of one of our popular canoeing wilderness areas, John Q Public heads upstream where it is easier to camp with coolers and 6 person tents. Thank God.

    In the 5 years I have spent camping by the waters of these lovely lakes I have seen but one other paddler, even on the well recognized high holy days of summer revelry. I amuse myself in thinking that those who publish the canoe guides and guide maps of the ADK’s keep mum about this area out of respect for the purity of the wilderness experience found there. If so, I earnestly hope that their silence remains steadfast.

    Where is it? I’ll never tell, and don’t you go lookin’ for it either!

    • Paul says:

      Central ADKS..
      Close to canoeing wilderness areas (only one of those?)..
      Easy to get into without a carry…

      Another clue?

      I’m thinking maybe something like on the Oswegachie (sp?) river?

  11. Pete Nelson says:

    Overuse is a serious challenge to various parts of the Adirondacks. Directing people to places other than the usual suspects is unlikely to relieve much pressure on those trails because the highest demand is already frequently more than the available parking capacity. Thus the only thing accomplished will be increased use of other areas. That’s not good: I accept the argument that we don’t want little-used gems to be overrun. If too many special places in the park lose their remote character the magnitude of the loss to all – and not just those of us lucky enough to have the privilege to know them – will be tragic.

    However to suggest that by writing a column like this Mr. Rowland is contributing to the problem strikes me as nonsense, not to mention that it is a judgmental critique which cannot feel too fun for him. As though he’s the enemy.

    After reading a few comments to that effect lately (not on just this particular column, to be sure), I reread his piece carefully to count the secret places he revealed: zero, unless by writing a name like “Hopkins” he was giving away a secret. I then determined to reread it again to see if I could accuse him of intending to give away secrets. But alas, he hints at writing rhapsodic poetry (probably mediocre, given his own description of his disposition as “smug”), whereas he offers no hint that GPS coordinates are forthcoming.

    I myself, as contributor of well over 100 columns to the Almanack, have waxed rhapsodic about myriad gems, including my own beloved Lost Brook Tract, somehow without inviting hordes of interlopers. What I think I might have done, however (albeit poorly, being no Emerson), is contributed in some small way to the ethos of sacred Adirondack spaces. If Mr. Rowland does that (spiced with his inimitable sarcasm), I see benefits, not harm.

    Overuse is a complex problem. It’s facile to blame it on tourist promotion, but the evidence that this is the primary cause is thin. Social media is an oft-mentioned culprit; from my point of view, that’s a contributor. The ease, rapidity and specificity with which people can disseminate information on hikes or jump on peak-bagging bandwagons in this Internet age, seems to me to be the primary cause. The increased mobility in our society, enabling more to fulfill adventurous dreams to explore the Adirondack wilderness, cannot be overlooked as a factor either (I’m ready with an argument for anyone who insists that is necessarily a bad thing).

    There are undoubtedly many other factors. This column isn’t one of them. Write on, Tim.


  12. Neil Luckhurst says:

    About 10 years ago an excellent article with detailed maps for parking and the trail, describing Jay was published in a free outdoors magazine that is widely circulated and read in Quebec. That could help explain the number of Quebec plates at the Jay trail-head.

    But, how does one define “overuse”. If I go to say, Marcy on a sunny Saturday in late September and I overusing the mountain any more than if I go on a cloudy Tuesday in late October? Regarding the 46 High Peaks, once you have done the list should you be prohibited from returning?

    In Quebec there is a popular trail that sees roughly 40,000 hikers (therefore 80,000 passages on this there and back route). On sunny long weekends there is a continuous line of hikers going up and down the trail (not my cup of tea but intense crowds don’t bother most people it seems). In spite of this intense usage the trail itself doesn’t look or feel overused. I attribute this to the infrastructure that has been developed to handle the load. Ie. the trail has had beautiful and extensive stone-work done and is in excellent condition. There are no side trails thanks to signage and the roping off of potential short-cuts. Also, the paved parking lots are big enough to handle the hikers’ vehicles.

    Perhaps the term overuse could be replaced by “insufficient infrastructure”.

    • The problem is a conflict in terms. I suspect the trail in Quebec is not defined as “wilderness”. Aside from NYS’s inability (unwillingness?) to sufficiently harden the trails of the high peaks to withstand the level of usage we call “overuse”, doing so would violate the meaning of wilderness. DEC required the removal of the 46er canisters on the summits and only reluctantly agreed to signs indicating the summits in order to limit the inevitable web of herd paths that would occur without them as hikers search to be sure they had hit the highest point. The kind of trail improvements you suggest would certainly be in conflict with the concept of wilderness, untrammeled by man.

      • Neil Luckhurst says:

        I’m not necessarily suggesting these improvements be made in the HP’s but drawing a comparison within the context of “overuse”. The trailwork on in the Park in question (Parc des Hautes Gorges) was done using native materials, ie. rock found in situ.

        However, infrastructural changes are happening at an increased pace in the HP’s. A recent example are the 6 or 7 staircases (one or two are very long) and ladders that have been bolted into the rock on Colden’s Lake Colden side. People were clinging to and killing the vegetation alongside the slabs and the bare rock was getting progressively wider. There is the cable route on Gothics – metal cables bolted into the rock that have been there for years. And we are seeing increasing amounts of planking over chronically wet areas, including on minimum maintenance trails such as to Iroquois. As for proper parking lots I have no idea how a big one could be built legally, say at the Cascade trail-head.

  13. Charlie S says:

    Boreas says: “days of not seeing others on the peaks or trails will become scarce.”

    There’s more to the Adirondacks than just the peaks and the trails Boreas. There’s being off-trail and there are lesser peaks and ten-thousand little peaks and ridges and surely there’s a million places to sneak off to in them woods to be alone, to have the whole place to yourself, to take-in the magic. Trust me I know.

  14. Charlie S says:

    Taras says: “I think it’s fair to say that many northern trailheads have “half Canadian” content.”

    I climbed Goodnow Mountain last July 25 with my precious little one Chenoa. The day was clouded over with light rain showers off and on throughout. By the time we got to the top everyone had cleared out except for Walter the Fire Chief from Colchester, Connecticut. He was just coming down from the firetower as we arrived at the top. After a while a Canadian couple showed up who were very cheery people. It was just us five atop that mountain. It was peaceful and the gentle rain added to the serenity. We got along great and there was plenty of reminiscing and humor flying in the air between us. Per instance, Walter said to the Canadians, “Are you guys gonna build a wall to keep us Americans out.” Humor adds character to a person I must say.

    • Taras says:

      We Canucks have no plan to build a “big beautiful wall”. However, there is some grumbling about the Safe Harbor agreement our two countries have.

      A refugee accepted into the US from abroad cannot then proceed to Canada and apply for refugee status again. Same hold trues the other way around (from Canada to the US). It makes sense; you’re already accepted into a “safe” country and can’t hop to another “safe” country.

      There’s a loophole. If you cross illegally the Canadian system is obliged to arrest you and consider your application, usually under the heading of an asylum seeker (refugee no longer applies). In 2017, over 12,000 people have chosen this loophole to leave the US and enter Canada illegally.

      They don’t do this in secret but in plain sight. They want to be detained and placed in the queue for consideration as asylum seekers. Most won’t qualify but some will (and have been accepted).

      They take a bus to Plattsburgh then a taxi to a well-known spot west of the Champlain border … where they are immediately arrested by the RCMP, transported to a temporary holding facility at the Champlain border (military tents), then moved to housing in and around Montreal to await a decision on their claim by the overwhelmed Canadian Border Services Agency. Of the 12,000, 6,000 entered into Quebec in August.

      Our government is trying to get the message out that there’s a misunderstanding in circulation. Although we’re a welcoming, immigrant-friendly country, we don’t accept everyone who applies for entry or just crosses our threshold. However, it’s not a message that appears to be getting much traction.

      Many of the recent wave are refugees from the 2010 Haitian earthquake who were accepted into the US on humanitarian grounds (Canada had a similar program but the clock ran out last year). Your program’s clock finally runs out in January 2018.

      These people have lived in the US for years and see no future in returning to Haiti (given its corruption and unrecovered status). It’s no surprise they will seek whatever avenue offering them a chance to build a life outside of Haiti (like in Canada). Not all will be accepted but some will and that chance is seen as being better than nothing.

      So, no physical wall but the legal one has a hole. There are negative consequences to closing the hole … but I’ve already talked your ears off!

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