Sunday, September 3, 2023

The Adirondacks –Spectacular, Historic, and Geographically Unique 

The Great Forest – The Proposed Adirondack Park – 1891

Vast and Varied  

The Adirondack Park is the largest wilderness east of the Mississippi River. At more than 6-million acres, it’s the size of Yosemite, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Glacier, and Great Smoky Mountains National Parks combined. Within the Park’s boundary (commonly referred to as the ‘blue line’), are more than 3,000 lakes, 30,000 miles of rivers and streams, hundreds of mountain summits (two that exceed 5000 feet (1,500 m) in height (Mount Marcy and Algonquin Peak), and an exceptional variety of eastern hardwood and boreal forest habitats, including rare, old growth forests and freshwater wetlands (marshes, peatlands (bogs and fens), swamps, and open river corridors).

Unlike any other United States National or State Park, more than a hundred small towns and villages can be found inside the Adirondack Park. In fact, according to 2020 census data, more than 123,000 people live inside the blue line, year-round (5% fewer than in 2010). Still, population density within the Park is the lowest found anywhere east of the Mississippi River.

Interestingly enough, more of the land within the blue line is privately owned than publicly owned (3.4-million acres and 2.6-million acres, respectively). The park also contains several farms and agricultural businesses, as well as a wide range of small businesses and an active timber harvesting industry.

The boundary of the Adirondack Park more or less matches that of the Adirondack Mountain range; encompassing roughly 5,000 square miles (13,000 square km).


A Geographically Unique Mountain Range 

Although it’s commonly assumed that the Adirondack Mountains are part of the Appalachian Mountain range, they’re not.

In fact, they’re the only mountains in the eastern United States that aren’t geologically Appalachian.

The Appalachian Mountains were created by colliding tectonic plates. And tectonic plate boundary collision processes are relatively well understood. But the Adirondacks were uplifted; forming a more or less circular dome about 160-miles (260-km) in diameter and 1-mile (1,600-m) high. Uplift mechanisms are much less clear. And the Adirondack doming process, or uplift, has long been a geological mystery.

Interestingly enough, it’s still happening. The Adirondacks are still growing; rising by around 2- to 3-millimeters every year; a rate which is faster than the rate of erosion.

Glacial erratics can range in size from pebbles to large boulders, such as these, on the Heron Marsh Trail at the Paul Smiths VIC.

Glacial erratics can range in size from pebbles to large boulders, such as these, on the Heron Marsh Trail at the Paul Smiths VIC. Photo: Wild Adirondacks Organization (

A Hot Spot 

It’s been widely accepted that, approximately twenty million years ago, following a series of continental collisions and separations, an uplifting of, until recently, undetermined origin began.

Although the Adirondack Mountains lack areas of geothermal activity (e.g. hot springs, geysers), it has long been widely accepted that beneath the crust, a ‘hot spot’ of some kind; perhaps a bubble of magma; was responsible for pushing up the old basement rock and overlying sedimentary rock (sandstone, limestone, shale) that formed the Adirondack dome. But, tools for evaluating the formation mechanism, or rising, of the Adirondack Mountains simply didn’t exist.

Recently however, researchers, using an advanced seismic imaging method and the most up-to-date data available, discovered what they’ve described as a ‘pillow’ of low-density, relatively light rock material which, possibly expanded by heat, formed the dome-shaped Adirondack Mountain range. Addressing the results of their research, UMass Amherst geoscientist and postdoctoral fellow Xiaotao Yang said, “We propose that geologic processes triggered the flow of a lower density, relatively light and buoyant, low-velocity material from a large reservoir into a fracture or a vacant space and it accumulated there in a column and was lifted up. It also may have been hot and thermally expanded.”


New Mountains; Old Rocks 

The rocks we see on the surface today pre-date the rising, or forming of the Adirondacks. They are the ancient bedrock; risen to the surface.

Sometime around a billion years ago, under the intense heat, pressure, and buckling and folding of colliding continental plates, the pre-existing sedimentary rock began slowly transforming into a mixture of metamorphic and igneous rocks. For example, quartzite; a metamorphic type of rock that we often see lying on the ground; was originally pure quartz sandstone. The more common metamorphic rocks found in the Adirondacks include quartzite, gneiss, schist, and marble.

Igneous rocks formed from hot, molten rock that crystallized before solidifying. Common igneous rocks include granite, obsidian, and basalt.

Over the next several million years the uplifted sedimentary rock was slowly worn away to expose the billion-year-old metamorphic and igneous bedrock that rests upon the surface of the Adirondack Mountains today.

The Adirondack blue line overlayed on the Adirondack Mountains - The Adirondacks are characterized by a radial drainage pattern, with streams and rivers flowing outward toward the edge of the dome.

The Adirondack blue line overlayed on the Adirondack Mountains – The Adirondacks are characterized by a radial drainage pattern, with streams and rivers flowing outward toward the edge of the dome. Photo provided by Richard Gast.

Mountains of Moon Rocks 

It’s interesting to note that the rock which makes up most of the High Peaks region is Anorthosite; an igneous rock that is 90–100% feldspar and, apparently, very common on the moon.

It’s also worth mentioning that we can find sedimentary rock containing fossilized plants and animals that lived 400- to 500-million years ago along the perimeter of the Adirondack range.



The huge boulders we often see along trails and in unexpected places, such as the summit of Mount Marcy or Mount Skylight, are known as (glacial) erratics. They were lifted by the movement of the advancing glacial ice that once covered the entire region and deposited where they now sit, when the glacier receded. Glacial erratics can be carried for hundreds of miles and often differ significantly from other rocks in the area in which they rest.


Photo at top: The Great Forest – The Proposed Adirondack Park – 1891. Photo Credit: NYS DEC.

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Richard Gast is a retired Extension Program Educator and has been contracted by Cornell Cooperative Extension Franklin County to continue his informative and thought provoking articles.

14 Responses

  1. Thank you! This is an interesting article, from both a conservation and geological perspective.

  2. Jim Leach says:

    Thanks to Richard Gast for this informative piece, especially for the current thoughts on Adirondack geology

  3. TomC says:

    Thank you for this. I learned some new things and was reminded of facts I had forgotten.

  4. Joan says:

    This was a very interesting article! I knew the Adirondack mountains were quite old, but this gives a more indepth knowledge of where the rock and mountains came from. Thank you very much Richard.

  5. ADKresident2 says:

    Thank you for the informative article!

  6. David Gibson says:

    Richard, thank you.
    Your article reminds me of the work of the late state geologist Yngvar Isachsen. His work on Adirondack geological uplift was similarly informative and almost as well written as yours. The award winning documentary film The Adirondack, the Land Nobody (1980) Knows benefited from Isachsen’s educational reports.

  7. Thomas Keating says:

    Many of the people who cherished the Adirondacks’ wild nature have passed on. Do the current leaders of the area understand they hold a fragile trust? Let’s hope so.

    • Steve B. says:

      Well, the people who set aside the Adirondacks and Catskills in 1892 were aware and cherished the region(s) and were able, thru a constitutional amendment, to pass along that love for these regions to multiple generations of New Yorkers, who still do cherish both parks. I don’t think we are going to lose that and the constitution provides for that,

    • Paul says:

      Since the amount of protected land within the park has expanded recently, and continues to expand. I would have to say – yes.

  8. Frances Haufe says:

    Excellant, Excellent, Excellent, very informative. Thank you for all your work.

  9. Michael Jukoski says:

    Loved the maps and info. Where can I buy?

  10. Linda M LaDuc says:

    I greatly value the information presented here. I grew up in Star Lake and I’m still learning about the Adirondacks.

  11. Bearclaw says:

    Unfortunately, due to a lack of forest management, the park is extremely stagnant and lacks diversity. When I attended ESF, the motto was “forever rotting”. The once abundant fisher has fled the Adirondacks to the southern tier as food availability is scarce. As a result, wild turkey populations have plummeted. No understory results in no seedling survival. Given the states relentless quest for solar/wind farms, its only a matter of time before they occur within the blue line. Given the vast footprint renewables require, the park will indeed be part of the states solution to the problem they created. We currently witness whales and dolphins dying in unprecedented numbers due to wind turbine construction off the coast. The Adirondacks will suffer the same fate.

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