A couple of years ago, the fire tower on Wakely Mountain had some structural damage. Because it is so tall, it takes quite a beating from winds. The four support posts of the tower had weakened over time and it was determined to be unsafe for climbing. Wakely is in a remote area of Moose River Plains, so materials had to be flown in and a work crew scheduled, all of which takes time to organize. But a few weeks ago, the repairs were completed and the Wakely tower is back open for business!
To get to the Wakely Mountain trailhead from Indian Lake, turn onto Cedar River Road at the cemetery just west of town and past the Cedar River Golf Course. Drive on Cedar River Road for 11.6 miles and you’ll see a trailhead sign on the left that points to a dirt road to the right. Note: If you find yourself in a big field area with two brown buildings flanking the road, you have missed the trailhead. Turn right onto the dirt road. A short distance in there is a small parking area for about 10 vehicles. The trail is a continuation of the dirt road, which at this point is blocked by some large boulders. Remember to sign the register before your hike!
The first two miles of the Wakely Mountain hike are on an old jeep road. Back when this was used as a lookout post, this section was a truck trail for transporting supplies in and out of the woods. The trail has some mild uphill climbs but it's mostly level hiking. There are also several bridges that cross streams.
I have read there are approximately 50 Eskimo words for snow. I feel like here in the Adirondacks we need almost as many words to describe the color green. As I hike now in early summer, there are few other colors — the spring wildflowers in the woods are finished, the berries aren’t quite ripe, but the greens are everywhere. Maybe it’s because our green season isn’t very long, only four months max, but when things do get green in the Adirondacks it’s a kaleidoscope of green! Every shade imaginable is accounted for here.
Today the trail is quiet; there were only two other cars in the parking area. But it’s easy to make new friends on the trail, especially when I’m accompanied by my best hiking partner and lover of everyone, Peaka. A short distance in, I come upon a family from Saratoga on their second attempt to the top of Wakely: Nathan, Sara (about 6 and 8 years old, respectively), and their parents. They tried this hike a couple of years ago but it just didn’t quite work out the way they expected. This time, they are ready! Fully primed with good attitudes, they are fully equipped for a day on the trail. Their plan is to take breaks as needed, eat snacks whenever necessary, and drink plenty of water. Dad clues me in that the kids have been told there is a surprise waiting for them at the top, so I am careful not to say the word “tower.”
At the 2-mile marker, there's a signpost where the trail takes a right turn. There is also a rock cairn marking this point. From here on, the trail is significantly steeper.
Closer to the top, there is one last signpost pointing to the trail as it turns sharply right again. Shortly after this, there is a 2-by-8-foot railing and a wooden ladder to help with the steep rocky sections. These aids have been put in place by DEC (Department of Environmental Conservation) workers to help hikers stay on the trail and to protect the fragile flora off the trail.
Near the top, the trail levels somewhat. I see a spur trail heading off to a clearing to the right. Peaka and I walk a short distance to a large platform — the DEC helipad. Even though the fire tower isn’t used as an observation point, supplies for the radio tower and any necessary repair work are still regularly flown in. It also doubles as an evacuation spot.
We walk back to the main trail and continue on. From this point, it is just another five minutes, a sharp turn to the right, and then — wow! The fire tower looms majestically to my left, framed with a magnificent blue sky as a backdrop. There is a new picnic table at the top and a quaint ranger cabin to the right. We relax and have a quick drink of water on the porch of the cabin, out of the hot sun. Then, I leave Peaka with her collapsible water bowl filled and head to climb the tower.
Wakely is one of the highest fire towers in New York state. I take my time climbing the narrow wooden steps. Every 12 steps or so, there is another landing. Step, step, step, turn, and repeat. Finally I reach the last landing and come to a short ladder. I climb the ladder, then go through the opening and up into the observation room at the top. The view is simply amazing! I can see Raquette Lake, Blue Mountain and Blue Mountain Lake, and the High Peaks towering off to the northeast in the distance. I get my map out, line up the orientation, and try to figure out which mountains are which.
This is the same view (minus some buildings) that forest rangers would see 100 years ago when they made their observations every day from early May until sometime in October or November.
As I hike back down the trail, I am happy to see Nathan, Sara, and their parents still hiking away! I congratulate them on being “almost there.” They are all smiles as they continue on past me — after, of course, stopping for one more pic with Peaka Dog!
A brief history of Wakely fire tower **
Devastating fires in the Adirondacks in 1908, mostly caused by sparks from trains, led to a public demand for protection for the forests and the small communities amongst the forests of New York. A new system of fire patrol districts was set up: three in the Adirondacks (it increased to four in 1912) and one in the Catskills. By the end of 1910, 20 observation towers had been erected throughout these four districts. These original towers consisted of a flat and open platform atop a scaffolding type structure that was anywhere from 15 to 35 feet tall. Some towers were even built using discarded windmills, as they could be easily taken apart and were quite lightweight. At the bottom of every tower, in a weatherproof box, was a telephone box, the only means of communication from the tower.
- In 1912, the first year-round forest rangers were hired as a dedicated fire fighting force in the forests of New York.
- In 1911, an observer’s platform was built at the top of Wakely Mountain. For the first 5 years, the observer would climb a log ladder to the open platform several times a day to check the surrounding forests.
- In 1916, a 70 foot steel tower replaced the open wooden platform. In 1930, steel stairs replaced the wooden ones on the tower.
- In 1972, the state built the helipad so supplies could be flown in by helicopter.
- The tower was officially closed in 1988 because air surveillance had become the primary means of observation.
** History details paraphrased from: "Adirondack Fire Towers, Their History and Lore: The Southern Districts" by Martin Podskoch; published 2003 by Purple Mountain Press, LTD