Doable day trips and in-town destinations along the Northville-Lake Placid Trail
The Northville-Lake Placid Trail conjures up images of life on a long distance thru-hike; 60-liter packs loaded with gear, filtering water by a mountain-fed stream, and dreams of drier socks and deep-fried foods. It’s all part of a rich culture on one of the oldest long-distance trails in the country, designed and built as one of the Adirondack Mountain Club’s first large-scale projects. But, what if I told you that the 138+ mile long NPT doesn’t have to be attempted in the typical 7-10 day thru-hike? Stretches of the trail that weave its way through Hamilton County’s high mountains, connecting countless small communities, can be enjoyed in creative and adventurous ways that don’t require all your vacation days. From plans around Piseco, to locating the lean-tos along Long Lake or swimming in the backcountry, here are some unique ways to enjoy the NPT and its trail towns!
Piseco: A lake, a vly, and a stream
Piseco is a quiet and quaint community, and like the town, the stretch of the NPT south of it is equally quiet. No boasting is being done about towering peaks or powerful waterfalls, the Silver Lake Wilderness’ appeal, to put it simply, is its wildness. Starting at a small parking lot marked by a DEC sign on the south side of NY-8 in Piseco, a wonderfully green and water-featured 7 mile round-trip trail leads to a lovely picnic spot. You’ll be hard-pressed to find information on the highlights of this nature walk, unless you’re reading blog posts on someone's thru-hike of the NPT! After about 1.25 miles of hiking along gently rolling hills, the outlet of Buckthorn Lake is reached. To your right, a path leads you on a short walk to the bottom of a small cascade, and to your left, you can even follow the stream for 0.2 miles to the quiet shoreline of Buckthorn Lake, with untrailed Poplar Mountain perched above. With the first highlight down, you then make your way to Priest’s Vly. This highlight is like the hiking lottery, as is the very nature of vlys, with the amount of water present in these swamp-like landscapes fluctuating depending on many factors. You’ll either see several species of wetland grass waving in the wind, with low water levels turning the vly into what looks like a farmer's wheat field in the middle of the wilderness. If there’s a combination of beaver activity and high precipitation, it’s possible to have some running and pooling water dotting the vly. Just under a mile after this, slowly descending downhill, you reach one of my favorite little lean-tos in the park, Hamilton Stream lean-to. Any time a lean-to is within earshot of a stream, relaxing with lunch and listening to the sounds of the wilderness are a must. Read through the logbook for this well-maintained and knoll-situated site, there are endless stories.
The town is perhaps the most welcoming community to hikers in the region. With people like Piseco Bob assisting to shuttle hikers and help them out with food and water, and the owners of a few businesses welcoming thru-hikers with open arms and offering to stash their food caches. One of those places is the Inn at Piseco Lake, which you should plan on stopping at for breakfast or dinner before a hike out to Hamilton Stream lean-to.
Blue Mountain Lake: A backcountry swim, a campground, and live music
At the center of the Adirondack Park, Blue Mountain Lake has long been a hub for culture and a crossroads of travel, both by vehicle and by foot. Thru hikers, often choosing to stay the night at Lake Durant Campground, can kick it over to town for a resupply from the post office, some snacks at the Corner Store, and even a meal at the locally-loved Chef Darrell’s Mountain Diner. Far and away my favorite scenic swimming hole on the entire NPT is along a beautiful stretch of the Blue Mountain Wild Forest. Combining the swimming hole with some activities in Blue Mountain Lake, and maybe even a frontcountry night of camping at Lake Durant, can ultimately give you a condensed feeling of what the thru-hike is like. There is a shorter trail to Tirrell Pond, one that runs around 6 miles round-trip, but the best way to experience Tirrell Pond, and its connection with the NPT, is to take the long way that starts near Lake Durant Campground. Parking across the road and just north from the campground, the winding trail works its way up and down hills, through historically and currently logged lands, across a footbridge three quarters of the way in, then starting a few hundred foot ascent up the eastern flanks of Blue Mountain. Once up the shoulder, the trail trends right and down to the scenic southern banks of Tirrell Pond, where the first lean-to at O’Neill Flow is. There are a few sandy spots for swimming on the southern end, but the best beach is nestled on the northern end of the pond. From the O’Neill Flow lean-to, which is a worthy stop to see the outlet of the pond, it’s a flat one mile foray over to the gem of all backcountry swims. Lounge at the beach, which seems out of place for the amount of meandering miles you just hiked into the hills, and snap some photos of the cliffs on Tirrell Mountain.
After all that hiking, a cook-out at the day-use area of Lake Durant with all the fixings from the Corner Store in Blue Mountain Lake is one way to extend the stay, and you may even be tempted to book a stay since the sunset views on Lake Durant are undeniably good. Blue Mountain Lake is also home to the Adirondack Lakes Center for the Arts, and they have a weekend concert series that happen later in the evening, giving you time to hike, cook dinner, shower at the incredible facilities at Lake Durant Campground, then head over to listen to everything from funky jam bands to classical string music.
Long Lake: Lean-tos, events, and the Last Stand
Historic Long Lake, one of the Adirondacks’ oldest communities, is situated on a striking lake that cuts through the heart of the Park. Viewing the body of water from the surrounding peaks, especially from some of the summits in the western High Peaks, the name lives up to its simple origin. The Northville-Placid Trail hugs nearly the entire eastern shoreline, and sitting on islands, in coves, and on hillsides, are lean-tos often visited by thru- and day-hikers alike. Creating your own half-day itinerary is easy on this section of the NPT, with options to explore anywhere from one to several lean-tos at a time. The trail for the eastern shore lean-tos starts just outside of town, off NY-28N on Tarbell Road. Your target? The Catlin Bay lean-tos! The first half mile you’ll spend descending to a “grand entry” for the High Peaks Wilderness Area, where two large yellow/brown signs welcome you to this unique access point. Keep following the well-loved trail across Polliwog Ponds' outlet and bridge crossing, before ascending and descending a small rise to the Catlin Bay area. You’ll do some rock hopping across a usually-dry outlet that leads to a viewpoint of the lake, before you end up at one of two lean-tos at the bay. The lean-to on the peninsula, which is at times an island when inundated with water, is one of my favorite spots in this slice of the Preserve. Have lunch, take a dip in the water, or even continue on with your hike to Hidden Cove lean-to, which happens to be a half-mile hop if you keep going on the NPT. If you have the time, the proximity to water of this little lean-to is alluring, and listening to the waves come across the shallow, rocky area in the cove is a magical Adirondack experience.
A calm day of hiking on the famous trail can give you a chance to explore the town, which has a packed calendar of unique events. The farmer’s market, which happens every Thursday during the summer, is a superb way to connect with the area and its folks. At the Mt. Sabattis Recreation Area, plenty of live music, craft fairs, plays, and classes for kids happen throughout the summer. Plan a visit around the NPT and these events, and you’ll have good reason to visit Custard’s Last Stand. This cleverly named Long Lake mainstay still holds that retro feel and charm that it undoubtedly had when it opened up to tourists and locals all those years ago. Come for the ice cream, and the always-friendly staff make you feel at home visiting this icon of Long Lake.
Strapping your hiking boots up for these shorter sections of the NPT lets you experience the storied trail, without the commitment of a colossal pack or planned-out 8 day trip. Get creative, choose a section (or book a stay and do a few hikes!), and connect with the trail and its little communities in a fun and enjoyable way. Who knows, it might even spark your interest in seeing the entire trail one day!