June 2018 - HIKING
A Family-Friendly Way to Stay Active and Enjoy the Outdoors
By Thomas O’Grady
Hiking is a great activity to introduce children to the outdoors while developing their physical fitness and self-confidence. As a parent it was one activity that I was looking forward to participating in with my children. My goal was to gradually build their ability level, and then introduce them to more challenging hikes, so they would continue as they got older.
Last summer I found myself looking at a copy of “Views From on High: Fire Tower Trails in the Adirondacks and Catskills,” by John Freeman and Jim Schneider. This sparked my childhood memory of hiking Hadley Mountain when the fire tower was decommissioned. However, I had remembered learning several years back that efforts had begun to restore many of New York’s fire towers, including Hadley. Upon further research, I found that 25 towers throughout the Adirondacks, another five located south in the Catskills, and several more located “beyond the lines” were restored.
Fire Tower Challenge – As I read through the book I noticed info on how to complete the Adirondack Mountain Club’s Fire Tower Challenge. An individual aspiring to complete the challenge would need to climb 18 of the 25 Adirondack peaks and all five of the Catskill peaks for a total of 23 fire tower visits. The challenge offered a patch for those who had documented their climbs and had the option of completing the challenge in the winter. As a competitive runner, my two young sons had been to numerous races, and usually enjoyed participating in the kids’ runs. They particularly enjoyed the different race medals and awards. The patch for the Fire Tower Challenge would be a good long-term goal to work towards as a family, while enjoying the outdoors and building physical and mental strength along the way.
Where to Begin: Each of the hikes in the Fire Tower Challenge is rated on a scale according to difficulty. This four number rating system takes into account the total length and elevation gain of the trip, then assigns mountains with ratings of easy, moderate, strenuous or difficult. We made our first family trip in November, when our newborn daughter was over three months old. In planning this first trip, I wanted to start with an easy or moderate hike so that everyone would feel challenged, but not overwhelmed and disappointed if we did not make it to the top. I also wanted to make sure the travel time in the car was manageable so that the boys would stay occupied and the baby comfortable. To point out the beauty of nature to the boys, a good view of any remaining foliage at the top was another consideration. Based on all this criteria we decided to begin on Hadley Mountain in the Lake George region.
The Mountains: We set out to climb up Hadley on my son Theo’s birthday and the boys were excited about this adventure. The drive up to Hadley offers a great prelude to the views you will see once on the summit, particularly if you are coming from south of the mountain, once you get to the final segment of the drive beyond Lake Luzerne. Our late start meant arriving at the trailhead in early afternoon. Not wanting to return to the car while it was getting dark, I understood that this trip would take a delicate balance between keeping the kids moving, and allowing them to explore the trails. Early on we stopped more to acclimate to the trail, take in the surroundings, and check out every rock and stick the boys could get their hands on. The trail was easy to follow because of adequate marking and that it had previously been an old jeep trail. Hikers over the years have kept the path wide and easy to navigate. It was much like I remembered from the last time I had hiked Hadley, approximately 20 years ago.
After a good walking stick was found by both boys we kept pace until the halfway point. At this point the cold weather had already started to turn some of the water on the trail into ice. Keeping aware of the footing and encountering the steepest part of the climb slowed our progress a bit but the boys began to get their second wind as the trail leveled out near the top. It was a clear day and the bald summit did not disappoint as everyone was impressed with the view atop the bald summit. It was windy so we inspected the Fire Tower but decided not to climb it for safety. Prior to making our trip back we made a slight detour over to check out an old ranger cabin just below the summit. Coming down the mountain we stressed the importance of being quick but safe to the boys, so our trip took the same amount of time as the trip up and we were able to beat the setting sun. Our first family adventure on the Fire Tower Challenge was a success and after we stopped for dinner on the way home to celebrate the accomplishment and our son Theo’s birthday.
Our next adventure brought us back to the Adirondacks to hike Spruce and Kane mountains in February. On a long weekend that coincided with warmer weather we decided to set out on hikes two and three in our challenge. Spruce was an easy choice because it was a close neighbor to Hadley, and was easy for the boys to visualize how long the car ride would be. Located slightly to the south, Spruce is a shorter round-trip hike than Hadley by a half-mile and has about 500 feet less climbing. The hike up Spruce was our first winter hike so the boys were excited to see how snow and ice change your hiking experience.
The trail was well packed so it was just a matter of walking with our hiking boots and maneuvering around ice sections to reach the summit. The summit of Spruce is full of pine trees except for an opening leading to the fire tower. It is important to be careful at the top as there is an access road that leads up the other side of the mountain that is used by snowmobilers. The day we chose to hike we encountered more snowmobiles at the top than hikers. The fire tower itself is well maintained and the kids were excited to finally climb up one. As the tallest of the Adirondack towers, we were above all the surrounding trees with a breathtaking view of many snow-covered mountains. I was able to direct attention north towards the approximate location of Hadley.
We chose Kane Mountain for our third hike on the challenge. Kane is rated as a moderate hike, however at only 1.8 miles round-trip, and with 620 feet of climbing this is a rather unassuming moderate. The shorter distance and climb allowed the boys to really enjoy playing with the snow and sticks on the well-packed trail to the summit. As their second winter hike, the boys didn’t think much of trekking around icy areas and through melted streams. Another tree covered summit, Kane offered spectacular views of Green and Canada lakes from the cabin of its fire tower. Our return trip brought us down the north side to complete a nice loop. The trailhead to Kane offers several paths to other well-marked trails should anyone want to add on to their trek. We were tempted to continue on more paths, however the boys were wet from playing, so we returned to the car and changed into warm clothes. Hike number three was completed.
Our fourth successful fire tower was Overlook Mountain in the Catskills. We had tried to climb Overlook on Easter weekend, however we arrived ill-prepared for how much snow was still remaining on the mountain. We used that experience as a learning lesson. Overlook was the most challenging of the hikes we had climbed as a family so far, in terms of distance and elevation gain. The kids were only able to make it about a mile up the mountain and were eager to make it to the summit.
During the drive down on Mother’s Day weekend we took NY Route 32 to avoid traffic, take in the views, and point out some of the differences between the Catskills and Adirondacks. The trip on Route 32 from Albany takes you past Hunter Mountain, which is the tallest mountain on the fire tower challenge, and at 4,040 feet it’s one of only two 4,000-footers in the Catskills. Overlook is one of the busier mountains and we met a full parking lot at the primary trailhead. A new overflow parking lot is a half-mile away through a newly constructed trail.
The climb up Overlook is steady though never very steep. And because the trail is another old jeep road it is well worn. The kids knew they were working but the effort was never too strenuous. In fact, their confidence from previous hikes had caused them to jog ahead during several portions of the trip. Overlook is a gem of a hike, especially for a family. The fire tower at the top is one of the sturdiest I’ve come across and the views from the top of the tower are magnificent. In addition to the fire tower views, there is an old observation cabin as well as a path to overlooks that provide the mountain with its name – and give the viewer some more panoramic scenes. After enjoying our time at the summit, we headed back down but we took a short break to explore the remains of Overlook Mountain House. This detour provided the kids with an opportunity to explore and prepare them for the descent.
Why the Challenge: The fire tower challenge was appealing to me for many of the reasons I was looking forward to introduce my sons to hiking. For me, hiking is a great way to stay physically fit and enjoy the outdoors. Because a majority of the Adirondack High Peaks are challenging, I did not feel comfortable taking a five- and seven-year-old out on these mountains to begin with. The challenge offers many suitable hikes that build a child’s physical fitness and confidence. The climbing hike itself creates a leveling effect so that a fit adult also walks away feeling challenged.
The challenge also offers hiking options in nearly every region of the Adirondacks and Catskills. During each of the outings I’ve pointed out the differences in terrain, vegetation and other features. This variety offers a great opportunity to explore and provide learning experiences to people of all ages. The presence of a fire tower at the top of each mountain offers a tangible reward to work towards on each hike and also adds to the exploration involved. Checking off each mountain on the list offers a more long-term goal to work towards. Each time we go on a hike, the children gain more experience and I look forward to allowing them to become more involved with the planning. After each hike we typically stop for food, ice cream, or another treat or activity to complement the trip.
Considerations: Many things must be taken when planning the hikes involved in the challenge, including the length and elevation of a hike. Because of the climbing involved and the uneven nature of trails, it will take considerably longer to walk a mile on a mountain than it will on a flat-paved surface. The gear you need or want to bring will largely depend on the season. Later spring hikes will typically require bug repellent and sunscreen. Winter hikers should bring snowshoes and be prepared for shorter daylight. Because the mountains are carry-in/out it is important to plan appropriately for the amount of food and water to bring. Several of the hikes have places to stop and picnic, although you should consider all the added weight you’ll be carrying.
The Views: None of the hikes have disappointed so far with their views. Whether the summit is bald or not, the fire tower will raise an individual above any trees. Not all mountains on the challenge list are particularly high, although they contain a tower at the top because they are usually the highest mountain in their particular region or range. This combination ensures very nice views.
Other Hiking Challenges – I first picked up “Views From on High” with the intention of working on the adventures with my children. I saw the challenge initially as way to get them active and enjoying the outdoors. I also thought the hikes would be a good prelude to bigger trips to the Adirondack High Peaks. But after starting the challenge I quickly realized that each of the hikes were enjoyable on their own. Having done most of my hiking in the High Peaks and Lake George region, the fire tower hikes were making me as aware of other enjoyable places to visit as they were my children.
Additionally, I began to become aware of other hiking challenges in northeastern New York. For those who are interested, you’ll find that some of the challenges listed have at least one hike that overlaps with another. For instance, several of the hikes in the Fire Tower Challenge are included in other challenges. Because you are hiking one mountain and the trip counts as two, this proves as a good jumping off point. ADK Adirondack Fire Tower Challenge (adk.org) – One of six ADK challenges. Adirondack 46ers (adk46er.org) – Their own club for climbing the 46 High Peaks.
Lake George 12’ster (lakegeorge12ster.com); LGLC Round the Lake Challenge (lglc.org); Saranac Lake 6’er (saranaclake.com); Moriah Challenge (lakechamplainregion.com); Tupper Lake Triad (tupperlake.com); Chester Challenge (townofchesterny.org); Hamilton County Waterfall Challenge (adirondackexperience.com); Indian Lake 4-3-2-1 Hiking Challenge (indian-lake.com).
Thomas O’Grady (email@example.com) of Slingerlands is an avid runner, hiker, and lover of the outdoors. He’s a public health expert by training. With a lifetime of racing experience, Tom is USATF and Jack Daniels certified to coach distance runners and endurance athletes.