SWIMMING THROUGH TREES: Visiting the rarely visited eastern Pharaoh Lake Wilderness Area
Meet time was 8:30 a.m., which put us at a 9 a.m. start — a bit later, but considering the drive time for Jim, it seemed pretty early.
We carpooled over to the campground and upon entering the campground, we located the secondary trailhead which does not allow parking. I wasn’t aware of that. The only option we had was to park at the day-use area near the beach and then follow the path and roadsides back to the trailhead we needed.
We quickly reached the campground road and then the trailhead. After signing in, we moved swiftly through the forest along the well-trodden trail and passed the intersection for Heart Pond as though it were not even there. As the trail began to rise ever so slightly over the shoulder of Sharps Ridge, we didn’t lose a step. We continued an easy climb as we approached the height-of-land which was right above Bear Pond just slightly further to the north.
The descent was a bit steeper as we lost nearly all we gained in a tenth of the distance, but it was fast and painless to us as we were still very fresh into the day. As we stood on the shore of Bear Pond, we were delighted in the vistas it created. Fragrant water lilies covered the inlet as a faint waterfall filled our ears, draining what looked to be a beaver pond up above.
We now climbed the slopes of Bear Pond Mountain, first by trail then we would finish the venture to the summit off-trail, to discover what this small 1,800-foot mountain had to offer.
As the unseasonal heat began to rise, my shirt was soaked and my skinned cured by the sun. My backpack trapping the heat against my body didn’t help, but it was something that you deal with on a regular basis especially this past summer. The forest atop the shoulder of Bear Pond Mountain was an open layer of pine needles and dead branches. As we stood a mere 0.2 miles from the summit, we hydrated and walked off into the unknown.
Passing by large pines and outcroppings of bare rock, we stood atop this wooded summit, slightly disappointed in the lack of views, but also grateful to just be here in the Pharaoh Mountain Wilderness once again.
We regained the trail just downhill of where we left it and continued descending toward Rock Pond. The descent was fast and slippery as the mountain dew still covered the bare rock along the trail. The forest that we stood in at the moment was shaded and cooler. It felt refreshing. Soon we would gaze out over the rocky shore of Rock Pond and see our next destinations out in the distance: Peaked Hill and Big Clear Pond Mountain.
We passed by the only stone walls and the abandoned mine shaft; the cool air drew us in almost as fast as the rusty smell of the water coming from within drove us back.
We climbed and descended the trail as it passed us over steep ledges, boulder jumbles and narrow walkways back to the shore, where we located the intersection for the Short Swing Trail. We needed this trail but only for a bit; it would access us Peaked Hill in fine fashion. We could see ledges on the western slopes of Peaked Hill from Rock Pond and planned a route accordingly.
Reaching an intermittent stream that drained the shallow valley between Big Clear and Peaked, we decided to use this as our initial approach to our second peak of the day. Jumbled in loose rock we opted to not hop the course but instead follow its cascade upstream on a dry footing amongst the hardwoods.
The brook soon turned to a faint waterfall, deeply canvased in a deep green, one of beauty we have not seen in some time, but we needed to start thinking about putting the stream behind us and start our steep climb up the western slopes of Peaked Hill.
We felt our course would make for a fine climb and surely would get us close enough to the cliffs we so deeply desired to visit. The heat and humidity weighing heavy on our legs, we pushed on, faster than we probably should have, but slower than usual.
Open sky is what we saw next, high above us atop open rock layered in loose needles shed by the white pines. Surely to be slippery, we took our time as we climbed the open rock. I was sure the views were opening up behind us, but I held back from looking until I was atop the open slopes and comfortably in the shade. Once I turned, the spectacular views over Rock Pond and far into the wilderness welcomed me. We were here. We could breath.
Only the faintest of breezes welcomed us as we walked about this open ridge and enjoyed the various views it afforded us, but we needed to summit. The open rock continued leading us to the top where a mostly open apex awarded to an Adirondack gem. The views seemingly never ending, we rested and reenergized for quite some time before we made the tough decision to move on toward Big Clear Pond Mountain.
As we pecked our way down the mountain over ledges and through the random red spruce, “steep” would be the best descriptor of the terrain we encountered, but it ended rather abruptly in the col. From the steep descent of Peaked, we saw what appeared to be open rock on this side of Big Clear and again we took a shot in the dark to try and locate it. A basic compass bearing pointed us in the appropriate direction. But would the forest settings cooperate? They did, and like the ascent of Peaked, we first saw the open sky above and slab rock creating a staircase to nature’s theater.
We sat here, pleased in our findings and slowly baking from the rise in body temperature. We had to push on to the summit. Big Clear Pond Mountain is made up of two nearly identically elevated summits, and only about 10 feet in elevation separating the two. The first we came to appeared to be wrong, according to our GPS.
The views here were limited anyhow, so we moved on to the other hoping for more. The second of the twins didn’t really register much difference in elevation, and the payoff was not all that dissimilar either. Which one was higher, we are still unsure, but no matter, we touched them both. We didn’t hang around too long here before we made a bearing to the trail 0.4 miles below us. We descended through open forest, atop sections of slab rock and witnessed a few small views out over Clear Pond as we pushed through fantastic fields of ferns. Soon upon the trail we knew our day was about over, and with a slight sort of sadness to see the day nearing an end.
We now had over 2-miles of trail in front of us to get us back to the campground and we took that as the gentle walk in the park that it was. The beauty of the narrows between Rock Pond and Little Clear Pond was spanned by a partially submerged floating bridge, what a place of splendor. Then, as if blocked from memory, were the small hills between us at the valley of water and the trailhead. While alone the climb is not difficult or demanding, but after three peaks and a couple thousand feet of elevation gain, we did not want to climb anymore on this day.
Even with the trail as lovely as it stands, we were happy to see the register and finally feel that breeze from the open car window blowing through our hair. We would be back, be sure of that, there is so much more to see, so much more to discover, and so many more mountains to explore.
(Spencer Morrissey is a licensed outdoor guide and author of a few Adirondack adventure books.)