Azure skies on Azure Mountain
ST. REGIS FALLS — Spring hiking isn’t the easiest thing in the world, and the state Department of Environmental Conservation asks hikers to avoid certain areas during mud season. But after only using my snowshoes once all winter (I skied a lot), I felt the need to get out and climb something.
I picked Azure Mountain, near St. Regis Falls, because it’s lower in elevation and I hadn’t been up there since college. And with the weather breaking after a couple days of rain and snow, it seemed like a good idea to climb a fire tower as forecasts predicted bluer skies.
Starting out from the parking area, the ground was wet and there was quite a bit of what the DEC calls “monorails,” hardened ice and snow that lingers in the trail due to hikers and snowshoers compacting it all winter. The monorails were nice since I didn’t want to damage the relatively wet trail, and between the ice and some conveniently spaced rocks, I was largely able to stay off the wet sections of trail.
At four-tenths of a mile, the trail reached the remnants of an old fireplace and picnic table before it crossed a small stream. The stream required a little rock hopping, but during the summer it’s probably just a step-over trickle, if it’s running at all.
After the stream, the trail started to climb. This is also the first place I noticed the red DEC trail markers. At the two-thirds of a mile mark, the trail began a series of switchbacks, and the surface changed frequently between rocks, snow and ice and wet leaves and mud. I did my best to stay on the snow and rocks, since hiking in mud season can lead to more erosion than is healthy for an area.
Following the switchbacks, I also followed a downy woodpecker that was banging away on dead trees. He would knock on the wood, I would get closer, he would move to another tree a little farther up the trail. We did that dance for a few minutes before it flew over my head back to a large widowmaker, and although I was sorry to mess up his chances of finding a mate, the hollow ring of the wood made for a pleasant soundtrack.
As the woods opened up and I could see the sky — about two-tenths of mile from the tower — the snow was still surprisingly deep. I had left my snowshoes in the car and really didn’t post-hole, although someone who had hiked recently did. Post-holing is a no-no in the winter, but with the snow clearly on its way out, it’s probably not that big of a deal in mid-April.
I reached the tower, trying to remember the last time I was up there. I know it was with my uncle Brad, but have no idea when. It was probably at least 15 years ago, and maybe longer. Long enough, anyway, where the hike seemed new and fresh.
I climbed into the restored tower and took in the view as the wind, which was non-existent at the base of the structure, ripped through the open windows and moved the clouds along at a brisk pace. The Azure Mountain Friends group responsible for the restoration of the tower has done a great job, and the fact that the fire spotter’s table and map are there is a nice touch. It’s not too often that towers still have features like that, and the map is in great shape (the group celebrated the tower’s centennial last summer).
I snapped some pictures and made my way down the tower steps. I had hiked up with no gloves or hat, but put on gloves and microspikes so that I wouldn’t slip on the way down.
Making my way through the snowfield and down the trail was easy, and as I got close to the fireplace, a couple of robins — that sure sign that spring is here — bounced through the woods and flittered across the trail in front of me.
I signed out at the register, and made my way back to the car, happy with my care on the trail and with the simple act of hiking again.
The DEC recommends that hikers avoid the High Peaks during mud season, and asks that hikers refrain from venturing above 2,500 feet in elevation. With a summit height of 2,518, Azure may be just a hair outside that recommendation, but still makes for a pretty good early season hike.