Pretty Please, with a Fire Tower on Top

Pillsbury Mountain's fire tower

Has this happened to you on an Adirondack hike? You’ve forded streams, scrambled up loose rock, been whacked by branches and finally emerged atop a peak only to discover the view is pretty much what you’ve witnessed all the way up the trail—trees and more trees.

Even in the High Peaks there are summits that are shrouded by vegetation, offering only the faintest glimmer of a view. If you’re out to bag one of those, the appeal is adding another number to the magic 46.

Many of us, though, go uphill because we crave a majestic panorama that unfolds full circle around us. It’s the psychic reward for our physical struggle, the pleasure that comes after a bit of pain. Some bare-topped mountains, like Mount Frederica, overlooking Lake Lila, or Pitchoff’s long, open ridge, near Keene, present this kind of vista quite naturally. Other high spots need an assist.

That’s where fire towers come in. On almost two dozen Forest Preserve peaks, from St. Regis in the north to Hadley in the south, these metal structures allow for unobstructed sightseeing. Now their use is recreational, but as the skyscrapers were built in the early 20th century they played very important roles in spotting fires across thousands of roadless Adirondack acres.

Hamilton County has five refurbished fire towers, including the very popular one on Blue Mountain, which attracts thousands of hikers year-round. Snowy Mountain, just 101 feet shy of joining the 4,000-foot High Peaks, is the tallest setting for a fire tower in the state. On 3,744-foot Wakely Mountain, the 70-foot-tall tower is by far the highest building in the county and among the very tallest structures in the Adirondack Park. (Others include senior high-rises in Saranac Lake and Lake Placid’s nursing home, which have elevators, of course.) Wakely’s tower is not for the faint of heart and presents the summiteer with dozens of metal steps to ascend. But the feeling you get as you step toward the clouds is exhilarating.

Tackling the handful of central Adirondack fire towers has an added incentive beyond seeing the West Canada Wilderness from a lofty and lonely perch on Pillsbury Mountain or glimpsing Long Lake coil like a fat snake below Owls Head. Hamilton County has its own fire tower challenge and you and your family can earn a cool patch when you’ve completed them all. There’s a simple form to fill out and no fee at all to join this special group.

There’s a more extensive circuit of 23 New York fire towers you can read about in Gary Allen VanRiper’s article for the 2011 Annual Guide to the Great Outdoors.