Hiking to Snowy Mountain Fire Tower • May 12, 2017
Our time in New York is wrapping up quickly, and so we decided it was time to get serious about finishing the Fire Tower Challenge. The thing about the challenge is that you have to hike all 5 peaks with fire towers in the Catskills (Hunter, Overlook, Red Hill, Balsam Lake, and Tremper Mountains), but you can choose 18 out of the 25 peaks with fire towers in the Adirondacks. On the evening before, we were looking over all the potential Adirondack hikes we could do, knowing we only had to do 2 more. The closest to home was Snowy Mountain, just less than 2 hours away, and the rest were at least a 3 hour drive. However, Snowy was one that I was convinced I didn’t want to do. I had read reviews about it being incredibly steep, and with this being “mud season” it just didn’t sound like a good time to do it. And yet, after looking at our options, I decided out of thin air that we should do Snowy. It was supposed to have a good view at the top as it was the highest point around for miles.
Friday morning, we drove to the trailhead off of state highway 30, which is a small pull off right on the side of the road. I was sure that there would be others out on this beautiful Friday morning, but we were the first to arrive at the trail just after 11. The trail register showed that others had hiked it through the week, but not yet this morning. We set off on the trail, mentally preparing ourselves for the strenuous hike up.
This trail is similar to Owls Head Mountain and many of the other fire tower hikes, in that it begins relatively flat as you make your approach through the forest to the base of the peak for about half of the length, then the other half is a continuous climb. We have grown accustomed to this style of trail and are able to make great time for the first half, then take our time with the strenuous part. As we walked, we noticed many wildflowers blooming along the trail, and Curtis was able to identify most of them as we went along.
There were many stream crossings in the first half, with some a little longer and higher than we were expecting. There were always bridges or enough rocks to cross though, so we didn’t have much trouble with that. The trail was muddy in places, but overall we were noticing how green everything was becoming. One thing that I find is that the more we hike in the Adirondacks, the more I realize how little I understand and have seen of them. There are so many peaks, valleys, rivers, lakes, streams, trails — sometimes I find myself completely unaware of which direction we’re going after hiking for so long. I was definitely experiencing this after just walking for 2 miles into the wilderness.
The trail is about 7 miles round trip, so after nearly 2 miles we crossed the stream one last time and then began our big ascent. Like I said, I had read reviews on this trail and everyone comments that this last half is extremely steep and very challenging. The trail gains 2000 feet, with the majority of that being in the last mile. Honestly, as we were beginning, it didn’t seem too bad at all. We pushed as far as we could, then stopped for a bit to catch our breath. This isn’t to say that it isn’t strenuous — we have just grown accustomed to the steep trails in the Adirondacks, and our hiking over the past 9 months has prepared us well for challenges like this. The last half mile though…that was the real challenge. It came right after Curtis said, “This isn’t bad at all!” Of course, he had Charlotte on a leash, so she basically pulled him up the mountain and left me to climb it all myself. 😉 The last quarter-to-half mile or so was very steep with rock face and some loose rocks, and turned into more of a rock scramble/climb. The hardest part about this was the fact that the trail was basically a stream thanks to the snow melt from the peak. We only saw small patches of snow remaining in the shade, and I was very glad that we did not attempt to snowshoe this mountain in the winter! To anyone wanting to do this, I might recommend waiting more until summer or in the fall. (Then again, I would recommend hiking basically anything in the Northeast in the fall. Seriously. Haha.)
With one last climb up from the large boulders to a ledge, we made it to a large vista overlooking the mountains to the East/Northeast. There was a big grassy area and a few trails going off in different directions, presumably to different backcountry campsites or something. After admiring the view, we walked the final, much easier, stretch of trail to the tower. The tower itself is in a forested area so the only way to get a 360º view is at the top. We both climbed to admire the view, then went back to the vista to sit and enjoy some snacks.
We weren’t eager to walk back down the steep section of trail, but not having any other choice we finally began to make our way back down. I was just proud of myself for not sitting and scooting down the whole thing! During mud season, the temptation is always to avoid the muddy and wet trail and walk along side the trail, however this is not a good idea as it causes erosion. If you’re hiking in the spring, learn to accept muddy/wet boots, socks, and pants. I find my hiking poles very helpful, though sometimes grabbing onto trees, roots, or rocks can help give support in steep sections. We took our time and carefully made it back to the base of the climb, and it was easy hiking the rest of the way back. We made it back to our car in 4 ½ hours, counting breaks and time at the top.
Now, as we were hiking down, we both brought up the fact that we knew there was another nearby fire tower about ½ an hour away from Snowy’s trailhead, in the opposite direction of home. We started discussing how maybe it would be a good idea to hike it on this trip so that we could save ourselves a trip. The other peak — Wakely Mountain — was about 6 miles round trip and had a similar profile to Snowy, but wasn’t as high. We knew that it was supposed to rain the next morning around 10, and it was already about 3:30 at this point. So if we wanted to throw on another hike, our options were to either race over and hike it as fast as we could right now, or take our time up in the area, letterbox, and then car camp at the trailhead and do a sunrise hike the next morning (unfortunately we didn’t think ahead to bring any camping supplies). We started driving around just to see what we could do, if there were restaurants or gas stations where we could get some food (because we didn’t have any more food with us either). We saw the road that lead to the trailhead to Wakely, and rather impulsively I said “Just turn, let’s go!”
Curtis turned, and we began driving down the long road to the trailhead. At first I was all excited thinking about how cool and spontaneous we were being, but as the drive went on I began having doubts. Just because we were feeling fine sitting in our air-conditioned car right now, doesn’t mean that we’ll be able to basically do another hike just like we did again. I started to worry about Charlotte, who was already fast asleep on Curtis’ lap, completely unaware of what we were about to do to her. Then I realized that my camelback was empty, and Curtis’ water supply was running low as well. This seemed like a terrible decision, but I didn’t want to say anything and ruin the fun. We made it to the trailhead, Curtis said “Are you sure you want to do this?” I said “Yeah, let’s just go look at the trail sign,” grabbed my empty camelback (because I didn’t want him to know I didn’t have any water…) and started wrapping my mind around the insanity that was about to take place. News flash: sometimes we do really dumb things. Don’t use us as your “adventurous hiking couple” role models.
All I can say is that God was seriously watching out for us and knew way better than we did, because we walked up to the trail register and found a sign that said TRAIL CLOSED UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE. There was also a rope with a sign blocking off the trail. I felt a wave of relief come over me. I didn’t have to be the one to say no — we really tried, and we learned that the trail was closed, so now we didn’t have to go home with regret thinking “if only we had done another hike…” We were able to drive home knowing we did the most we could, without putting our lives at risk! 🙂
Looking closely at the trail register, we noticed that someone had hiked this just 3 days before, and the trail had literally been closed 2 days before this! We were totally baffled, wondering what that last person saw that led to the trail being closed. It sounded worse than just “mud season”, and it wasn’t hunting season. Curtis looked it up later and learned that the reason why was because the fire tower at the top is unstable and they are worried that one strong wind could knock it over, and they don’t want to chance having people at the peak — or worse, on the tower — if that happens. So, if you are in NY and thinking of hiking Wakely Mountain, maybe do some research to see if it’s reopened.