Updated trailhead offers southern access to High Peaks
NEWCOMB — The Adirondac Upper Works trailhead was busy Friday morning with hikers and campers embarking on and returning from trips into the High Peaks Wilderness as members of Open Space Institute showed off the new work they’ve put into the trailhead here.
There’s a new, larger parking lot, a short stone pathway to the trailhead, and plenty of signs around telling visitors about the historic mining community they’re walking through.
OSI hopes this trailhead will become a popular way to enter the High Peaks, alleviating the increasingly busy hiking traffic in the north end, as well as a destination itself for its abandoned mining communities and headwaters of the Hudson River.
OSI purchased the 10,000 acres in 2003 and later sold most of it to the state, keeping 212 acres around the Adirondac Upper Works trailhead for historic preservation. There are ruins from old mining operations for National Lead and McIntyre Adirondack Iron and Steel Company there — the remnants of the Adirondac village where miners and their families lived, MacNaughton Cottage where President Teddy Roosevelt once stayed, and a giant blast furnace right on the side of the road, a towering monument to a bygone era of iron mining.
The site also includes access to Henderson Lake, a serene paddling destination.
A historic, unique site
Dave Olbert, who owns Cloudsplitter Outfitters in Newcomb, said he grew up in the now-abandoned mining neighborhood until its residents moved into the town of Newcomb in 1963. He said his family was the last to move out after National Lead shut down the Upper Works. He was 8 years old, but vividly remembers what life was like for those living there.
“It was a blessed portion of my life,” Olbert said. “Everyone had two, three, four kids … so even though the village was small — maybe 20 families here — there were always kids your age to play with.”
He is pleased with OSI’s work maintaining, restoring and protecting his former home community.
“I can’t say enough good things about OSI,” Olbert said. “They are the type of environmental organization that has their focus correct. … I think they are the perfect blend in terms of acknowledging man’s interaction with the environment and preserving a piece of that history, as well as preserving the woodlands.”
Senior Vice President for Communications Eileen Larrabee said OSI’s goal is to create a “sense of place” here. It’s purpose is to protect the wilderness, allow access and promote its history.
“You can’t just protect it. You really need people to come here and experience it,” Larrabee said. “If they don’t experience it, they’re not going to develop a connection to it. If we want to build the next generation of stewards and people to care for these properties, you need to have them out here and experience all that’s wonderful about them.”
Adirondac Upper Works is a unique property for OSI, which holds 2.3 million acres of land up and down the east coast. Larrabee said OSI usually doesn’t hold on to land this long and typically doesn’t manage the land. Its role is usually “transactional,” she said.
When a tract of land goes up for sale, the state isn’t always ready to purchase it and add it to the Forest Preserve right away.
Larrabee said it seems obvious but, “You can only buy land when it’s for sale.” So OSI fills the gap.
This project has been in the works for years, since OSI purchased the land in 2003. Senior Park Project Associate Michaela Sweeney said it is OSI’s “legacy project.”
OSI has put around $1 million into the property so far, putting up signs about the history and nature there, developing a walking trail along the Hudson River, and improving access, parking and wilderness protection.
OSI is trying to promote Adirondac Upper Works as the southern access point to the High Peaks, and an alternative destination for wilderness recreation.
“We see this as a way to help protect some of the natural resources of the High Peaks, if we can disperse some people more,” Larrabee said.
She said this site is the closest High Peaks entrance for people who come from downstate.
She said it’s only two extra miles of hiking from the trailhead to the summit of Mount Marcy as it is from the Adirondak Loj. At the Loj, hikers often have to walk an extra mile down the road from South Meadows Road, as parking at the Loj fills up quickly.
“You can do it in the wilderness or on the road,” Sweeney said.
Sweeney said the southern entrance to the High Peaks was less known for a while, but now its getting more use.
From June 2020 to June 2021, Sweeney said OSI counted 30,000 people traveling through the three trailheads there.
In June, a 60-car parking lot with Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant parking opened, around a third of a mile away from the original lot, which held around 40 cars.
Olbert said he delayed opening his outfitters shop in 2020 because of the pandemic, waiting until the state campground opened. But after reopening he said business caught right back up.
“We actually ended up having our best year ever,” Olbert said.
OSI is working to reopen MacNaughton Cottage, which it is restoring after stabilizing its foundation to keep it upright.
The cottage was built in 1834. Theodore Roosevelt was the vice president of the U.S. when, while staying at the cottage in 1901, President William McKinley was assassinated in Buffalo. Roosevelt left the cottage to be sworn in as president in Buffalo.
Larrabee said OSI has applied for grants this week to restore the building.
Larrabee said they hope to turn MacNaughton Cottage into a visitor center with an outfitter to rent boats, equipment and, crucially, bear canisters.
She said the trailhead needs a hub and wants to give the DEC a “landing spot” there to prepare hikers for the wilderness.
The entrance is very remote — a 25 minute drive from town.
A state Department of Environmental Conservation forest ranger at the trailhead Friday said he spoke with a group going in to camp in the High Peaks for several nights. They had full packs with all the supplies, but no bear canisters. They had no idea they had to bring them, he said.
Olbert said the DEC usually sends these campers his way to get the needed supplies.
But the ranger said they are not always able to be right at the trailhead to catch these gear omissions. Olbert said sometimes rangers find people out in the Flowed Lands or Mount Colden who need bear canisters and they have to hike out to get one.
Larrabee said Cloudsplitter Outfitters may open a location there. Olbert said he’s still trying to see if this will be feasible, but said there’s need for a year-round presence there.
Sweeney said people in the town of Newcomb are “thrilled” with the improvements to the trailhead bringing tourism and people to the town.
She said OSI may eventually sell the property to Newcomb.