Hiking to the St. Regis Mountain Fire Tower • May 17, 2017 • Completing the Fire Tower Challenge!
2 days after hiking to Tremper, we set out on another very exciting hike…what was to be our final hike in the Fire Tower Challenge! Like I’ve said before, in order to complete the challenge you must hike all 5 peaks with fire towers in the Catskills, and then choose 18 out of 25 of the peaks in the Adirondacks. Knowing this was our last peak, we wanted to go out with a bang and pick a good one. We went over our options, and picked one that was in an area we had not yet visited, no longer covered in snow (yes, some still were!), and had a bald peak at the top with supposedly great views: St. Regis Mountain, in the Saranac Lake area.
On Wednesday morning, we packed up our camping gear (because we were really going to camp this time!) and drove 3 1/2 hours North to the trailhead. We hadn’t driven through the high peaks since last September when we hiked to Hurricane Mountain and through the Giant Mountain wilderness, and now I’m regretting not spending more time up here. The mountains really are so much taller than the ones we’ve been hiking, and the views are so much grander. I don’t regret not hiking the high peaks themselves though: it is further away, and I know that the hikes are much longer and more challenging, and we weren’t exactly ready for the challenge that is hiking these in the winter. I just loved being able to drive through these scenic highways again. It’s not just the mountain views that are great, it’s the valleys in between, the grassy fields and farms, and the still lakes perfectly mirroring the mountains around them. The Adirondack park is truly incredible, and I hope we find our way back here someday!
We drove through Lake Placid for the first time, which several people had recommended to us when we found out we were moving up here. It reminded us of Gatlinburg in the Smokey Mountains…even in the middle of the week in mid-May, it was packed with people on the tourist-trap streets. Not exactly our scene, though it would have been fun to check out the Olympic sites there. We passed through and continued on our way to Saranac Lake.
We finally reached the trailhead after noon, and were greeted with gnats even in the parking lot. We applied bug repellant and then began our hike. This hike is 6 miles round trip, and the trail profile for St. Regis is similar to Owl’s Head and Snowy Mountains, with half the hike being a gradual approach and the second half the steeper ascent to the peak. St. Regis wasn’t nearly as steep and challenging as Snowy though, with an elevation of just over 2800 feet above sea level, and 1600 feet elevation gain.
The real challenge for us today was both the heat and the gnats. The day we had chose to hike was expected to get into the 80’s and possibly set a record high for Upstate New York (the Capitol Region was reaching the 90’s!). Curtis carried an extra 2 Liters of water just in case, and we stopped at the stream crossings for Charlotte to cool off — she had no hesitations in wading into the flowing water and taking a long drink. After about 2 miles, the trail became much steeper…and the gnats much worse. The last half mile consisted of a long upward path made of rocks, and there was a stream of water flowing down on this spring day. It really got my heart rate up and I wanted to stop for a break so bad, but even just slowing down made the gnats swarm around my face. Curtis wasn’t nearly as targeted by them as I was, and I ended up with many bites from this hike.
One exciting form of nature that Curtis witnessed on the way up was a big snake eating a much bigger toad. He kindly and calmly told me what it was and told me to go around the rocks another way to avoid it, and got a good picture. Poor frog.
The last stretch of trail evened out a bit and was a bit more muddy, but Curtis and Charlotte waited for me to catch up so that we could summit our last fire tower together. We were greeted by the best thing ever: a very strong wind that kept both the heat down and the gnats away! We spent nearly an hour at the top relishing the feeling: We did it! We completed our first hiking challenge together! Our official summit time was 2:34 PM on May 17, 2017. We took turns climbing the tower despite the even higher winds at the top — I was fairly certain the whole thing would collapse, so I didn’t spend long at the top. Luckily we survived that, and we sat down to take in the incredible view surrounded by lakes and enjoy some snacks. Charlotte waited patiently for me to give her a cracker with peanut butter spread on it, then decided I just wasn’t moving fast enough to give her seconds so she just took the peanut butter jar and found herself a nice grassy spot to enjoy it. It was adorable, and since we were celebrating, we let her have it. It was mostly empty anyway. 🙂
After we got all the pictures we wanted, we began our walk back down. Right away we spotted another garter snake slithering off the trail. I’m certain the gnats were even worse this time heading back down the steep part, and I was constantly hearing buzzing in my ear the entire way back to the car. We’re going to have to find a better way to repel gnats! Once we were passed the steep part, we were at least able to move a lot faster.
But the most interesting thing happened about halfway back to the car, when we witnessed something we hadn’t seen before while hiking. We stopped for some reason in the forest, just for a second, when suddenly we heard a loud CRACK — we turned and watched a giant tree split and come crashing down. There wasn’t a strong wind or anything that we felt would prompt that, and we were far below the peak’s elevation with the high winds! We looked at each other, and Curtis laughed. I wasn’t too freaked out until moments later, when we heard ANOTHER crack, and another tree fell, far away and completely unrelated to the first one to fall. I’ve never worried about being crushed by a tree while hiking, but now that we had seen not one, but two trees fall, I was definitely in a rush to get out of this forest! Before the trees fell, I had been just praying for a good breeze to cool off and make the gnats quit, but now I knew the dangers of having a strong wind come through!
Thankfully no more trees fell, and we made it safely back to the car. It was around 4 at this point, and while we could have done another shorter hike, I wasn’t feeling up to it with all the bugs and my new bug bites. Curtis was hoping to do another peak in the Saranac 6 Hiking Challenge, but that will have to wait until next time we find ourselves in Upstate New York. Instead, we drove to a secluded camping spot along the Saranac River, where we enjoyed a warm, quiet night with all the tent windows open.
If you’re interested in reading our entire journey to complete the NY Fire Tower Challenge, you can read through all the posts here: New York Fire Tower Challenge. Of course, this is one of many hiking challenges in NY, not to mention the Northeast. If we ever find ourselves living here again, we’ll definitely have enough to do, including the Winter fire tower challenge, which we already have a nice start on. 😉 But for now, we are so thankful we were able to experience so much of what the Adirondacks and Catskills have to offer through these 23 peaks. Our favorite part about the fire tower challenge is that it encouraged us to drive and hike all over these beautiful mountain ranges to places we might not have visited otherwise, and see so many different views from the peaks. The hikes themselves have a nice range in difficulty and length that we were always able to pick one, whether we had an entire day or just a couple hours to hike. Honestly, while it’s easy to pick out our favorites, there wasn’t a single hike that we didn’t enjoy. We had heard negative things (such as with Tremper) but even then we came with low expectations and ended up pleasantly surprised. But if you’re looking for a place to start, our personal favorites were Hurricane, Black Mountain, Owls Head, Balsam Lake, Poke-O-Moonshine, and St. Regis — some for the view, some for the hike itself, and some just for the memorable experiences we had. I hope that wherever we end up will have similar challenges that will motivate us to hike peaks we wouldn’t think about otherwise. And I can’t wait to have our patches that we can show off and wear together while hiking — Yes, of course we’re getting one for Charlotte too. 🙂