GLENS FALLS, N.Y. (NEWS10) – Hiking the Adirondacks is certainly a challenge. For many, the 46 Adirondack High Peaks are the pinnacle of accomplishment – but raw height isn’t the only way to classify adventure in a 6-million-acre park. For some, it’s about what lies at the summit.
“It’s real simple: There’s a guaranteed view,” said Jim Schneider, one of the creators of the Adirondack Mountain Club Fire Tower Challenge – more commonly known as the Adirondack Fire Tower Challenge. “I’ve been on them all tons of times, and my heart still skips a beat any time I see the top of a tower crest the trees.”
Since 2001, the Adirondack Mountain Club Fire Tower Challenge has been thus: Scale 18 trails that have fire towers awaiting at their tops, and send in proof of your efforts. There are 25 mountains in the Adirondack Park’s wild forest preserve and wilderness areas that have fire towers sitting atop them. At one time, they were used to keep the forest safe. Now, they keep it interesting.
Most of those towers have just recently celebrated their 100th birthday, placed around the park so that observers could keep an eye out for fires. After decades of use keeping the Adirondacks safe, the towers were closed gradually across the 1980s, ending with Blue Mountain, near Blue Mountain Lake, in the early 1990s.
Ironically, it would be Blue Mountain’s fire tower that would be rehabilitated just a few years later, with advocacy from the Adirondack Mountain Club and advocate Jack Freeman. Freeman would go on to write the first edition of “Views From On High: Fire Tower Trails in the Adirondacks and Catskills” (which Schneider would later put his own mark on for the second edition). The Glens Falls/Saratoga chapter of the mountain club, of which Schneider was a member, quickly took an interest in the closed-down towers. In 2001, the challenge was born.
Every tower has its own story. The one on Hurricane Mountain, located near the town of Keene, was scheduled to be removed, at a point when several other towers had been successfully saved from the same fate by advocacy groups. In the end, the Department of Environmental Conservation worked with the state police aviation unit, using a helicopter to ferry materials to the summit to keep the tower alive.
“Now we have a beautiful fire tower, freshly painted. A Friends group funded a perfect replica of the center map table that observers used to sight fires,” Schneider explained.
Why make the climb?
The view from the top of one of the 25 Adirondack fire towers – joined by five more in the Catskills – is hard to match. Even many of the High Peaks end with trees on all sides, which creates a different kind of beauty. Hurricane Mountain, for example, even boasts professional photographs lining the inner rim of the tower ceiling, marked to tell climbers exactly what they’re looking at in all directions.
It’s not just about those pristine views, though. In a mountain range full of great heights, the fire tower trails are a great accessibility choice for the whole family.
“Kids are extremely into it,” said Schneider. “They get to the top of one tower, and they want to get right to the next one.”
And depending on where you are in the Adirondacks, you can get two or three done in a single day. There are certainly demanding hikes – like Snowy Mountain, clocking in at an elevation of 3,899 feet and sitting as the highest point in Hamilton County. At the other end of the spectrum, Cathedral Rock’s fire tower sits at 1,680 feet – just about two miles there and back.
On many trails, the walk itself is wider than on some other trails. When in use, fire towers had cabins nearby, where observers would live during the field season. Many observers would drive up the mountain by Jeep, as far up as their cabin, and then walk it from there. Once the towers were closed, the observers who had spent their seasons out in the wilderness would become DEC forest rangers.
Like any hiking challenge, the fire towers also sew a community together. An “Adirondack Fire Tower Challenge” Facebook group sparked up some years ago (Schneider notes that the group’s name is technically incorrect, as it doesn’t incorporate the Catskill towers). Today, it boasts over 8,600 members, who post about their successes, ask questions and share their enthusiasm for the Adirondacks.
“What I’m finding there that’s very different from other Facebook groups is that it isn’t a brag board,” Schneider said. “People are very genuine, asking questions and getting answers that are full of joy.”
Fire Tower Challenge 2.0
Currently, those who have scaled 18 out of 25 towers pay $5 to get a patch commemorating the climb (kids get one for free). They get a letter of congratulations, too. In 2001, the fire tower challenge was one of the first hiking challenges in the game, along with the High Peaks.
“The hiking world has changed in the last 21 years,” Schneider commented. “So, for the last two years, we’ve been working on embracing a new mindset.”
That mindset’s focus is on stewardship. Hikers who scale the fire tower trails love the experience, sure, but it would be naive – especially for a preservation and advocacy group like the Adirondack Mountain Club – to act as though everyone takes as good care of the mountains as they should. Rangers have found discarded beer cans and other trash around the fire towers and their trails, and even graffiti sprayed across some of the structures.
In response, the Glens Falls/Saratoga chapter – still the main group responsible for the trails – is reinventing how its membership works. Sometime next spring, the organization plans to raise the price of membership, with the vocal understanding that 100% of that money will go into a fund for future stewardship – replacing fencing, windows, or whatever else needs some love.
They also plan to promote awareness of the 7 “Leave No Trace” principles, a framework used nationwide to enforce keeping trails clean. The principles include planning ahead, leaving what you find in the woods, and disposing of waste properly. The club will start asking hikers for photographic or written evidence that they exercised one or more of those principles while on a hike, to be submitted as part of the membership application process.
“As we all enjoy recreation, it’s important for us to be mindful stewards and know why this place is special,” Schneider said. “We need to work on getting people to treat these special places with the care that they deserve. Fire towers attract a lot of new and novice hikers, and along the way, we want them to leave the hike with more information and mindset, so they’re ready for what’s next.”
The club chapter has eyed some new towers to emerge. One, in Speculator, is climbable, but not part of a hike. Another is undergoing work near Long Lake, with a trail being developed along Buck Mountain. Cat Head Mountain has a tower currently in use with communication equipment (as are a couple already on the challenge list), but the Hamilton County Board of Supervisors is working to change that. A fourth and final point of interest is Bramley Mountain, in Delaware County, whose tower was removed, and was later found in a barn. That tower sits on ground not in the forest preserve, and partially covers the New York City watershed, so the mountain club isn’t yet sure how to proceed.
The history of the fire towers lives on with every step taken by a visitor up one of their restored stairways. To help that history live, the Adirondack Mountain Club recently released its ADK Voices website, an oral history project encapsulating stories of the Adirondack Park’s past and present.