November 2018 - HIKING & CAMPING
West Stony Creek
Well-Suited for Late Fall/Early Winter
By Bill Ingersoll
For many years, West Stony Creek was an unknown landmark. It flowed for several miles through a secluded valley near Benson, in the southernmost corner of Hamilton County, without drawing too much attention to itself. It was peaceful, unvisited and perfectly wild.
In 2015 the Adirondack Mountain Club realized its long-term goal of rerouting portions of the 130-mile-long Northville Placid Trail. One priority was replacing an unpopular walk along Benson Road with a new trail to the south, in the Shaker Mountain Wild Forest. Inevitably, that trail led straight to West Stony, which has now become one of the through-trail’s scenic highlights – and at some times of the year, one of its more notorious obstacles.
There is no bridge across West Stony. The creek is simply too wide, and its banks too low, for trail stewards to build anything but some mammoth suspension bridge. Currently, the only way to cross it is to take your boots off and ford - which at this time of year is apt to be a cold and uncomfortable proposition.
But you don’t need to ford West Stony to enjoy it as a hiking and camping destination. In 2018 the state built a lean-to on its north bank, making this an enticing destination for a weekend hike, and not just a route for through-hikers. Since it sits in the woods sheltered by hills on both sides of the creek, it seems particularly well-suited for a late fall or winter campout if you’re inclined to try such an adventure. But the hike to the West Stony Creek lean-to from Benson is so nice that you’ll enjoy this as a day trip, too.
Fording the creek in cold weather is in no way recommended, and in my observation the waterway doesn’t freeze well enough in the winter to walk across. Therefore the best approach is from the north, at a popular trailhead on Benson Road. From here it is a 3.9-mile hike to the lean-to. There are hills in both directions, but the most notable is the 540-foot descent from the last height-of-land into the valley.
Follow NY Route 30 north from Northville for 3.3 miles to the start of Benson Road, a county highway that leads west through its namesake town. Follow it for 4.6 miles to the popular Northville-Placid Trail parking area, located on the left side of the road.
The trail to West Stony Creek begins at the east end of the parking area, dipping immediately through a hemlock-shaded glen. But then it climbs to the southeast, zigzagging about 200 vertical feet up the side of a hill, and then contouring along it. There are hardwoods at first, and then glorious stands of hemlocks. In character, this area is essentially a southward extension of the Silver Lake Wilderness to the north, with forests just as grand and open. But if the forest pest known as the hemlock woolly adelgid ever finds its way to Benson, the effects could be catastrophic.
There really are no landmarks to watch for along this hike. Just enjoy the subtle changes in forest cover, the small hills, the tiny streams, and the rock outcrops. If you are following along on your map, you may notice that the trail is contouring along the first hill south of Benson Road, keeping to high ground until it descends and begins to traverse the broad plateau north of the creek. The forest is alternately shady hemlocks and open hardwoods. The latter sections feature some nice specimens of ash trees. These are currently healthy, but like the hemlocks they face the potential for extirpation as another invasive pest, the emerald ash borer, creeps its way closer to the Adirondacks.
At 2.4 miles the N-P Trail curves around a small swamp that is apt to be partially flooded this time of year. The trail keeps clear of the wetness, swinging right around the little woodland pond, then left, and then right to begin an ascent of another hill. Like the first ascent you encountered, the purpose of this one is to get you onto high ground, not to climb to the highest point.
There is a distinct forest change after passing the swamp. The soil seems shallower and rockier, and the hardwoods are less grand. Instead of northern hardwoods like maple and yellow birch, there are now more poplars and red oaks. These will accompany you all the way to West Stony. The combination of the rocks and the forest cover change suggest that a long-ago wildfire swept through this area, perhaps originating at one of Benson’s old farms and extending southward until encountering the creek, a natural fire break.
At 2.9 miles the trail passes a rocky knoll that almost offers a view of the valley toward which you are walking. I say “almost” because the knoll is not bare, although in the fall and winter when the leaves are gone, you can sense the distant hills.
The final descent begins slowly at first, almost imperceptibly. The trail heads east, but then at 3.3 miles it makes a sharp turn to the right, south. Now you are like a plane coming in for a landing, making a long approach into the valley. The way is never steep, but the trail is rockier here than at any other point since leaving Benson. It drops over 300 feet in the final 0.6-mile, reaching the creek at 3.9 miles. On average, it takes 1-1/2 to 2 hours to reach this spot.
West Stony Creek is not very deep. In summer you can step across the exposed cobbles without ever getting your feet wet, but it is remarkably wide; the continuing trail on the south bank is about 150 feet away. The north bank is almost entirely forested with hardwoods, particularly beech, oak and poplar. The south bank is a wall of evergreens, mostly hemlocks. Long, narrow meadows grace each bank, kept clear of tree saplings by the build-up of ice every winter. The best time to view these meadows is late summer, when they are ablaze with wildflowers.
A sign points left, east, to the lean-to. As of October 2018, the path to the shelter was not very well defined, but this will certainly change over time. The lean-to stands about 300 feet off the main trail and 200 feet back from the water. There is no view but it is a fine place to take shelter from the cold weather. It has the potential to be a prime winter campsite, with one caveat: when West Stony freezes, there are no other nearby source of running water.
Bill Ingersoll of Barneveld is publisher of the Discover the Adirondack’s guidebook series (hiketheadirondacks.com). For more information on this region, consult Discover the Southern Adirondacks.