Friday, October 9, 2020

Split Rock Mountain

Lake Champlain from the Ore Bed Overlook on Split Rock Mountain
4 miles round trip, 800 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no entrance fee

Split Rock Mountain is a quiet hike near the shore of Lake Champlain at the edge of New York State's Adirondack Mountains. This is not a standout hike, delivering just one limited view of Lake Champlain and the surrounding countryside, but it is still an enjoyable jaunt through the forest and you're very likely to have most of this hike to yourself. While multiple hikes are possible in the Split Rock Mountain Wild Forest, a state-managed property that is part of Adirondack Park, and a loop trail in the park heads north over the summit of Split Rock Mountain, most of the trails in the park don't have views; the best hike is perhaps the round-trip journey from the trailhead to the Ore Bed Overlook, which is just south of the mountain's true summit and overlooks the lake.

I hiked Split Rock Mountain during an early October visit to the Adirondacks. Split Rock Mountain abuts Lake Champlain just south of the town of Essex, where a ferry crosses the lake to Vermont; the mountain is the tallest to rise directly above Lake Champlain. The trailhead is about two hours from either Montreal or Albany. To reach the hike from I-87, take exit 31 and follow Highway 9N east to the town of Westport. In town, turn left onto Champlain Ave- New York Route 22- and follow 22 north for a third of a mile. Turn right onto Lakeshore Road and follow it north for 4 miles to the trailhead, which is on the right (east) side of the road and is marked by a hanging wooden sign for the Split Rock Mountain Wild Forest. There is a small gravel parking lot here; the property is administered by the State of New York, which provides online maps of the area.

The first 0.3 miles of the trail follows the Lewis Clearing Bay Trail, ascending gently on a former roadbed through the forest. At 0.3 miles, I came to a junction with the North Rim Trail and I took the left fork, heading off on the North Rim Trail, a logging road which started a slightly steeper ascent as it climbed up the slopes of Split Rock Mountain. In early October, most of the trees here still had their green summer foliage, although a few trees were showing hints of yellow as they started their autumnal transition. Peak fall color along the Adirondack Coast usually comes in mid-October.

North Rim Trail through the forest
After a steady 400 foot ascent from the trailhead, the North Rim Trail dropped downhill slightly to reach a junction with the Robin Run Trail one mile from the start. At the junction, I took the right fork to stay on the North Rim Trail. Continuing along the old roadbed, the trail alternated between gentle ascent and flat hiking through the forest along the ridge for the next 0.6 miles until it reached the base of Split Rock Mountain's summit bump. Here, I started the steepest ascent of the hike, a thankfully short 200-meter stretch that packed in nearly 200 feet of uphill. At the top of the ascent, about 1.8 miles from the trailhead, I came to a junction where the trail to the Ore Bed Overlook split off to the right. The high point of Split Rock Mountain was just about 40 feet higher, another fifth of a mile north along the North Rim Trail and covered with trees, but I skipped tagging the high point to instead visit the Ore Bed Overlook, which has the best view on Split Rock Mountain.

The Ore Bed Overlook Trail was a narrow single-track that circled around a rounded bump on the mountain to reach the top of a small rock outcrop. Trees are growing up and beginning to obscure this view, but there were still pretty views down the length of Lake Champlain, the largest lake in the Northeast outside the Great Lakes. Lake Champlain fills the Champlain Valley, which itself is the northermost extension of the Great Appalachian Valley; the lake is fed by Green Mountains and the Adirondacks and drains north to the St. Lawrence River. Across the lake, I could see some farmland on the Vermont side. A narrow and long lake, Lake Champlain almost looks like a fjord from this angle- it's quite scenic. The lake had great strategic importance to both the Continental and British Armies during the American Revolution and was best known for military engagements at Fort Ticonderorga at the lake's southern end.

View of Lake Champlain from Ore Bed Overlook
The view at Ore Bed Overlook also stretched to the west to encompass some nearby farms and the Adirondacks in the distance. Cloud cover was unfortunately quite low on the day of my visit, preventing me from seeing the High Peaks of the Adirondacks, but the lower foothills near Lake Champlain were still quite pretty. There was a smattering of fall color that appeared to be more intense in the deeper areas of the range.

View of the Adirondacks from Ore Bed Overlook
Adirondacks from Split Rock Mountain
I saw a single other hiker on this trail during about two hours of hiking and didn't see anyone else at the overlook; this did not seem to be a heavily used trail. This is somewhat understandable as the scenery is nice but not amazing, but the lack of crowds did make my experience here more enjoyable. Rattlesnake Mountain, another short hike to the north near Willsboro, is a better option for views of Lake Champlain, but if Rattlesnake is crowded then the hike up Split Rock Mountain to Ore Bed Overlook is a good alternative.

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