Fire towers have become such a phenom that the Glens Falls-Saratoga Chapter of the Adirondack Mountain Club has created the ADK Fire Tower Challenge
I can recall hiking up mountains in Adirondack Park in New York state as a youth and thinking to myself about what a surreal experience it was at the summit. However, reaching the top and seeing the looming shadow of a metal tower with a box on top of it was daunting — yet fascinating. Working up the courage to climb the rickety metal steps, hanging onto the chain link fence (which was red with rust after years of abuse from the elements) and reaching the metal enclosure at the top was rewarded with amazing 360-degree views of the surrounding landscape. Getting that extra height above the summit was incredible!
While up there, peering out across the miles and miles of land, it was easy to imagine what the observers underwent daily. They were up there alone for extended periods of time, with only an occasional hiker breaking their solitude. The tower, which was attached to the mountain by what seemed to be only a few strands of metal wires, must have been something during a windstorm.
The Adirondack Fire Towers date back to the early 1900s, and while they were primarily used as observatories to detect forest fires, they also offer spectacular views. They were the result of two fires in Adirondack Park in 1903 and 1908, which led New York state to re-think its methods of fire prevention and containment. The first tower was built upon Mount Morris in 1909 and was constructed from logs. Steel replaced logs around 1916, with towers ranging from 40 to 70 feet tall. The metal shack atop the tower contained a large circular map and pointer tool that enabled the observer to identify the source of smoke.
Of the 57 original steel Adirondack towers, 34 are still standing today. Several groups, who appreciate the historic significance of the towers, have been working to restore the structures, making them safe and accessible to the public. Some of the peaks that have restored towers include Blue, Goodnow, Poke-O-Moonshine, Hadley, Kane, Snowy and Mount Arab.
According to one group, the most recent restoration was the Stillwater Fire Tower in the western Adirondacks, which was finished in 2016, complete with a hiking trail. There are amazing views of the High Peaks, Tug Hill and Five Ponds Wilderness. Please take note that Stillwater Fire Tower is closed from Oct. 11 through Dec. 20 because of hunting season. Located on leased hunting club property, hikers should not attempt to reach the tower during this time. Other restorations are in progress, but the future of un-restored towers currently appears to be grim, which is unfortunate.
Fire towers have become such a phenom that the Glens Falls-Saratoga Chapter of the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK) has created the ADK Fire Tower Challenge, even offering a special challenge for treks made in the winter. According to the website, the challenge begins with the guidebook, Views from on High: Fire Tower Trails in the Adirondacks and Catskills by John P. (Jack) Freeman. The trails are described in detail and include a historical description of Forest Preserve fire towers from preservationist Wesley H. Haynes. One needs to summit 23 mountains to complete this challenge. If you would like more information, see this website.
There are numerous mountains in the Adirondacks that have fire towers. The trails to each vary significantly in terms of miles, elevation and ascent. Although I have not completed the challenge yet, I have crossed a few off the list, particularly the ones I’ve felt are the most family/canine friendly. That said, I have not done any of these during the winter months:
- Blue Mountain: 3,904 feet, 6.0 miles roundtrip
- Vanderwhacker Mountain: 3,386 feet, 6.0 miles roundtrip
- Owls Head Mountain: 2,748 feet, 3.1 miles roundtrip
- Goodnow Mountain; 2,685 feet, 3.9 miles round trip
- Bald Mountain: 2,350 feet, 2.0 miles roundtrip
A special note that you don’t need to climb to the top of the tower in order for you to cross the mountain off the list, according to the Glens Falls-Saratoga Chapter of the Adirondack Mountain Club guidelines, but the experience and history will be something to remember for years. Eventually though, you will want to see what the views are like.
Who’s up for the challenge?
Joel M. Herrling is a freelance outdoors writer/photographer in central New York. He enjoys spending time in the outdoors with his family.