Hamilton County. It’s a place of small towns and big outdoors. In fact, well over half the county is classified as Forest Preserve. That’s a lot of space to explore!
And it’s all beautiful.
However, in the early 1900s huge forest fires swept through this area. In the falls of 1903 and 1908, the landscape may have looked a little different than it does today. In an early fire detection effort, New York state began to implement a fire observation station program. Some mountains were badly scarred and observers could stand atop bald, rocky summits and see for miles. Others needed a way to see above the trees on the summit. Enter the steel fire towers we know today.
Hamilton County is home to five fire towers with hiking trails, and more are just a short drive away. At the end of the 1990 fire seasons, the state Department of Environmental Conservation ended the fire tower program and closed all observation stations that were still operating. But with mounting support, many towers still stand today and exist as out-of-doors museums, odes to a past time when hardy men and women stood watch over the land. These towers that remain standing are perfect outings, and, in winter, their beauty is unmatched.
Check out each of these fire tower hikes in the area. Do one, do them all. Either way, you’re going to have a great adventure.
For a long time, Blue Mountain has been one of the most popular hikes in the Adirondacks. It towers above the region and has a commanding view of the surrounding mountains and lakes. In winter, it makes for a challenging snowshoe with a 1,550 foot ascent, but the 2.0 mile trail to the summit is one of the shorter fire tower hikes in the area. Given this hike’s popularity, the trail will likely be broken out after a snowstorm.
Owls Head Mountain
“Owls Head” is a common name in the Adirondacks; there is more than one Owls Head Mountain on the map. However, only one has a fire tower! Just outside the hamlet of Long Lake, this mountain is made up of separate peaks, giving it an appearance similar to a Great-horned Owl. In winter, this trail is especially snowshoe-friendly. One stepper section near the summit may be icy but overall, it’s a fantastic hike that isn’t overly challenging. A snowmobile trail intersects with the hiking trail, so sledders can get a head start on the hike and stretch their legs right from the sled!
Wakely in winter is for the extremely adventurous. Due to the later portion of the access road being closed to vehicular traffic in winter, an additional 4.6 miles, one way, are added to the trip. Since this tower is less frequently climbed in winter, it may not be broken out so you may have a workout ahead of you, breaking trail through deep snow. That’s all part of the adventure, right?
This mountain may have the most winter-appropriate name. As one of the Adirondacks’ 100 Highest Peaks, Snowy Mountain is a serious winter climb! The views are beautiful, but this hike in winter is not recommended for beginners due to the rugged, steep terrain. Those who do venture into the wild forest here will find the over 2,000-foot vertical ascent challenging but rewarding. And who can beat those sunrise and sunset views? (Don't forget a headlamp!)
Like Wakely, the road to Pillsbury Mountain is closed in the winter, resulting in a 15.8 mile trip in total. We recommend packing your cross-country skis and turning this into a unique two-for-one outing! You’ll want to switch to snowshoes once you reach the summer trailhead; the trail is not the best for cross-country skis.
Other nearby fire towers
These three fire towers sit just outside Hamilton County and are great additions to any itinerary. Bald Mountain is short, only about one mile to the summit, and when combined with two other hikes in Inlet, it is part of the Fulton Chain Trifecta.
Kane Mountain is a popular shorter hike in Caroga Lake, not too far from Piseco. This would be a superb beginner snowshoe hike. With two trails up the mountain, a loop hike is possible; the shorter approach is only 0.9 miles, one way, to the summit.
Goodnow Mountain, in Newcomb, is a bit longer than Bald and Kane mountains, but makes for a great intermediate hike. In winter, snow makes the trail level, covering up roots and boulders, and before you know it, you’ll be at the summit!
Fire towers in winter
All winter hikes have added elements to consider (dressing for colder temperatures, bringing enough water, using the correct gear), but here are a few things to keep in mind when visiting fire towers in winter:
- Please remove snowshoes or traction devices before climbing tower stairs.
- The steps may be icy and the wind can be powerful; be prepared.
- Remember, you don’t need to climb the towers themselves for the mountain to count toward a patch challenge!
So, now you're ready to hike a fire tower trail this winter! If you need to get some gear, stop by a local shop. Or get some food to go! Above all else, remember to Love Your ADK and enjoy. Happy trails!