Friday, May 8, 2020

Backpacking the Seward Range- Cold River Loop

My spring plans included a trip into Pennsylvania mid April to backpack the 85-mile Susquehannock Trail System.  The mountains in Pennsylvania are usually free of snow a little sooner than my backyard mountains in the Adirondacks.  Unfortunately COVID-19 changed the world.  Unessential travel wasn't recommended.  

With April fading into May, I looked for a trip close to home to avoid travel.  Luckily I live just a few miles from the largest Wilderness in the Adironacks and one of the largest in the eastern US.  I found a local backpacking loop that would keep me less than 15 miles from home.  With a window of decent weather for several days, I headed to the western side of the High Peaks Wilderness.  I planned for a 33 mile loop that navigated around the peaks of the 4,000-foot Seward Range.  About 1/3 of the loop would follow the Northville Placid Trail along the Cold River.  The trip stayed relatively low, barely topping above 2,500 feet to hopefully avoid any lingering snow.  Frequent campsites dot the loop allowing for many options.  I was hoping I would beat the black flies arrival for the season.  

With a route planned and a nice forecast, I headed to the backcountry May 6th.  Puma was nice enough to make me a chocolate chip pancake breakfast to fuel me up before my trip and around 830AM, I started hiking.

Typically I would have started this loop at the Seward Range Trailhead.  However, in mud season, the road remains gated three miles short of the trailhead.  I began my hike at the Raquette Falls Trailhead at this gate.  This required an easy three mile walk along the closed-to-traffic dirt road to the start of the actual trails and Wilderness.  

The road walk passed by quickly.  The road travels through the Ampersand Brook Primitive Area, which is a pleasant wooded corridor.  I heard a loon call from nearby Pickerel Pond and numerous turkeys chortling.  While wooded, a few openings allow for nice scenery along Ampersand Brook and another boggy brook.

Ampersand Brook
Creek along road, notice the glaze of ice

The start of the High Peaks Wilderness

The road walk passed by quickly and I reached the beginning of the actual trails.  The trail follows the border of private land for the first several miles.  With no foliage, many of the surrounding peaks were visible through the trees.  In the busy hiking season, this stretch of trail sees a fair amount of hiker traffic with peakbaggers seeking the 4,000-foot summits of the Seward Range.  I had the trail to myself.

Chipmunks were very common along the trails

I believe these are the Stony Creek and Ampersand Mountains

The trail features little elevation gain.  Numerous creeks cross the trail.  Although most don't have bridges, they were all easily stepped across with little effort.  Three camping areas with lean-tos can be found along the first 6 miles of trail.  Cairns mark the turnoffs for the herd paths to the 4,000-foot peaks.

Small, rocky stream crossing

A bridged water crossing

Bog bridges through a muddy section

Mellow trail

Ward Brook Lean-to

Beyond the first lean-to, the route follows the Ward Brook Truck Trail.  The trail is gravel packed at times and still wide from its days as a logging road.  Despite its name, the trail travels in the Wilderness area and has been closed for vehicular traffic for many decades.  The forest has started to reclaim the road and it now looks like a wide trail, especially the further it travels away from the last lean-tos.  Creeks frequently flow along the trail.  The occasional small waterfall adds nice scenery.  Because the trail was at one time used by logging vehicles, the elevation gain stays very gradual.

Ward Brook Truck Trail

Possibly Ward Brook

Small waterfalls

As the trail traveled above 2,000 feet, occasional patches of snow could be seen near the trail.  As the trail worked its way to its 2,500-foot high point, portions of the trail were snow covered.  At places the snow was unavoidable.  Luckily the snow was well packed and I could pass through it without sinking.  The snow never covered the trail for very long but the snow continued part of the way down the other side of the high point.

Unavoidable snow

Views through the trees

A longer stretch of snow

Dropping from the high point the trail descended to a meadow.  Unfortunately beaver activity flooded the meadow leaving a section of water nearly knee-deep at places.  I anticipated a few deep stream crossing and brought a pair of Crocs.  I changed into my Crocs and avoided getting my hiking shoes and socks wet.  While letting my feet dry after the crossing, I enjoyed the view above the meadow and had a quick snack.

Flooded meadow

No avoiding wet feet in this one

Nice view above the flooded meadow

Not long after the bog, I reached the Northville Placid Trail (NPT).  The 138-mile Northville Placid Trail, as its name implies runs from the towns of Northville to Lake Placid.  While that is a goal in the future, I would enjoy the trail for the next 9 miles as it traveled through some of the most remote terrain in the High Peaks Wilderness.

Starting on the Northville Placid Trail

The first several miles of the NPT traveled through rolling forest with numerous creek crossing.  I took a break at Mountain Pond for a proper lunch.  Beyond the dam, the miles went by quickly crossing the many creeks and enjoying views of the surrounding mountains through the trees.

Mountain Pond

Southern end of Mountain Pond
One of many small creek crossings

Nicer section of trail on NPT

Another stream crossing

These small streams sound as pleasant as they look

Marker on the NPT

Fungus on a log

Santanoni Range through the tress

The sound of the Cold River comes within earshot at a bluff.  At the bluff a sign marks the site of Rondeau's Hermitage.  Noah John Rondeau lived a primitive existence as a hermit at this site for decades until a damaging storm closed the forest in 1950.  Besides a sign marking the site, rusty old metal cans and such are left in the area.  Otherwise 70 years of forest growth reclaimed the area.  Several books and articles about Rodeau have been written.  The Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain also has an exhibit with some of his original structures.  Rondeau's story is worth reading and quite interesting.

Rondeau Hermitage marker
Nice pool in the Cold River by Rondeau's

Looking down the Cold River

Beyond Rondeau's, the trail drops to the highlight of this trip, the Cold River.  The Cold River flows only 14 miles, but it makes every short mile count.  The Cold River is a wild mountain river.  The trail often follows along its banks.  The scenic river features numerous rocky rapids and pools.  The surrounding mountains often serve as a backdrop.  Four lean-tos along this stretch of trail offer beautiful places to camp right along the river's banks

The trail often follows right along the river

Mountain views above the river

This section is one of the most remote parts of the Wilderness

Lots of boulder strewn sections of river

The entire river section makes for a wonderful hike.  A few unique features are worth noting.  A creek crossing immediately south of Ouluska Lean-to is currently without a bridge and required an easy ford in ankle to shin deep water.  Another reason I was happy to have my Crocs.  Millers Falls features a small drop over ledges in the river with deep holes below.  Further downstream another ledge drops into a large pool known as Big Eddy.

Millers Falls
Looking across the falls

A look at the main falls at Millers Falls

It's easy to linger along the Cold River

The mountains always seem to loom over the river

The trail gets brushy along the river at places

Another ledge in the river

Looking into Big Eddy

River above Big Eddy

Falls at Big Eddy

Looking above Big Eddy

A suspension bridge over the river marked the end of my travel along the NPT.  The NPT continues over the bridge.  Two lean-tos sit within a short distance of each other near the bridge.  I continued along the river past the lean-tos to my next trail.

Bridge over Cold River

Rapids above bridge
The NPT continues across bridge

An overgrown section of trail led another .4 miles to the Calkins Brook Truck Trail.  Before reaching the trail, I came to a flooded section of trail with a fresh beaver dam.  I was able to skirt the dam without getting wet.  I was alerted with a slap.  A beaver smacked its tail alerting me of its presence.  It did this several times.  Since it surfaced and dove quickly I only managed to capture one photo.


At the junction of the Calkins Brook Truck Trail, I dropped to the river one last time.  I had just enough reception to call Puma to let her know my location before moving on to my campsite for the night.

Last look at Cold River

Leaving the NPT with only 11 miles left on my loop

I planned on spending the night at Latham Pond.  I read good things about the scenery at the pond and my guide book mentioned campsites near the pond.  I reached the turnoff for the pond no more than 15 minutes after leaving the Cold River.  A very weathered sign marked the turnoff.  The trail leading to the pond traveled on a couple hundred feet.  The trail looked like it received vary little traffic and was quite overgrown.  I quickly reached the pond and as promised, the view over the pond toward the Seward Range was quite scenic.

Latham Pond

The Seward Range above the pond

Despite my guidebook's description, I didn't see any obvious place to camp.  The barely discernible paths near the pond disappeared. I searched but saw no place that looked readily suitable for camping.  I found a clear enough spot for my small tent between the trail and pond to make my home for the night.  I ate my dinner with a view by the pond.

While my campsite for the night was suitable, in the future, I'd probably stay near one of the lean-tos on the river.  I had hiked about 22 miles for the day and was in my tent by 830PM.  I enjoyed the chorus of spring peepers as they serenaded me for the night.  An occasional wood frog joined in the chorus.  Around 10PM I heard a different sound.  After hearing it a few more times, I realized there were beavers slapping their tails.

I slept wonderfully.  I woke up well after the sunrise around 7AM.  The temperature on my watch, which I didn't wear overnight, showed it was about 32F in my tent.  I'm guessing outside the tent it dropped into the 20s.  I ate my breakfast and broke camp.

Before heading off for the day I stopped by the pond one more time for the view.  I saw a disturbance on the water near the shore.  Two beavers swam in the water.  Unfortunately they swam away and I couldn't get a good picture.  The water that I drank the night the night before and in the morning came directly from the beaver water.  I guess I'll find out the effectiveness of a Sawyer filter in the next week or so.

The pond in the morning with clear skies

The beavers were by the log in the water when I saw them initially

Despite the cool temperatures overnight, the bright sun warmed up quickly.  The trail traveled past several attractive creeks and bogs.  Although the trail was generally wide and easy to follow.  At one point however an old logging road diverted from the main trail.  I followed the more obvious route, but for a period the trail became more overgrown and I briefly questioned the route.  Soon enough the trail became less brushy and I passed trail marker confirming my route.

Calkins Brook Truck Trail

Clouds reflecting in bog

Boulder Brook

Pleasant stretch of trail

Nice look at the Seward Range

I reached the Calkins Brook Lean-tos along their namesake creek about 90 minutes into my day.  Just over a mile past the lean-tos I left the Calkins Brook Truck Trail for the Raquette River Horse Trail.  Had the gate been open at the beginning of my hike, I would have continued straight on the Calkins Brook Truck Trail, which ends at the Seward Range Trailhead.  Since I parked at the Raquette Falls Trailhead, I followed the Raquette River Horse Trail, which leads directly to my starting point

Calkins Brook Lean-tos

The Raquette River Horse Trail began climbing along a creek.  Although not terribly steep, this was probably the steepest part of the trail as it climbed to a low saddle.  The trail featured some of the wettest terrain on the loop, but relatively tame for what is normal in mud season.  The trail also had a lot of leaves covering the trail making it difficult to see rocks.  This caused some tricky footing at times. Several views of the surrounding mountains could be seen through the leafless trees.

Raquette River Horse Trail
Very leafy trail

Once crossing the high point on the Raquette River Horse Trail, the route passed numerous bogs and creeks.  The trail became wider as it descended.  The trail descends close to Palmer Brook, which features some attractive, small waterfalls.

More clouds reflecting in a bog

Palmer Brook

Another waterfall on Palmer Brook

Boulders on Palmer Brook

Not long after passing the falls, the trail reaches another junction.  To the left eventually leads to Raquette Falls.  My route headed right, the final 2.2 miles of my loop.  The trail travels close to the Raquette River, but the river usually remains just out of view.  Another lean-to sits near the river a 1/2 mile from the trail.  The final section of trail featured long stretches with Spring Beauties along the trail.  These are typically one of the first wildflowers seen in the spring.  A couple of more bogs and glacial erratics keep the scenery interesting to finish the hike.

Raquette River

Spring Beauties

Bog near end of the trip

Another view of the bog

I finished my hike about 1230PM.  While this wasn't my first choice for backpacking trips this season.  I'm extremely happy that I hiked this loop.  It exceeded my expectations.  While there was plenty of pleasant forest scenery, the real highlight was the hike along the Cold River.  Latham Pond's pretty view was another nice highlight.  I enjoyed the numerous little streams and small waterfalls as well.  Although I hiked this 33 mile loop in two days, the abundant campsites would make this loop a great place for a slow-paced, several-day trip allowing time to enjoy some of the excellent campsites.

Cold River

 Cold River rapids

Big Eddy 

The terrain on this trip never got too difficult.  The shorter distance and easy terrain would make this trip suitable for beginners.  Despite the mellow terrain,the scenery and remoteness offer enough for experienced backpackers to enjoy this route.  Unlike sections of the High Peaks Wilderness that see plenty of overuse, once past the Seward Range peaks access, the loop takes hikers into some of the more remote sections of the Wilderness with less traffic.  I would definitely recommend this trip to Adirondack backpackers.

Rugged section of the Cold River

Latham Pond

Latham Pond in morning light

While I enjoyed the scenery, I had a good combination of conditions to make the trip even better.  An early start to spring seemed to dry out much of the route.  Typically mud season would have made this route much wetter this time of year.  I encountered very little mud.  Better yet, I managed to get my trip in before the dreaded black flies came out for their annual spring hiker torture. Best of all, I had the entire loop to myself, not seeing another person since I left the trailhead.  I always appreciate solitude. Finally the weather held out for my hike.  I had some cloudiness but no rain and comfortable temperatures in the 50s while hiking.  My only inconvenience was blisters on my heels from a new shoe and sock combo that I never used backpacking.

waterfall on Palmer Brook

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  1. A real fine report of a wonderful trip.

  2. Beat the bugs and no other hikers! Worth some wet feet.

    1. I know the bugs will be out soon. I'm surprised I had the entire loop to myself.

  3. Did this loop in reverse order end of Sept, that flooded area was up to my knees. Great loop!

  4. i am planning on this hike mid August. DEC recommends parking at the Seward trailhead. As I was planning on 2 or 3 nights I wonder if it is OK to leave a car there that long. Thanks.

    1. It's pretty common for people to leave cars there for a multiple days. I left mine at the Raquette Falls Trailhead only because the gate wasn't open to the Seward TH when I was there. Good luck with your hike.

  5. Planning to do this loop next weekend - will we need our bear canister? Thanks!

    1. I recently wrote an article about the NPT and spoke to three different people in the Ray Brook DEC office and all confirmed that this section now requires a bear canister. The DEC website however, still doesn’t make this clear so you may have leeway. Either way make sure you have your bug protection this time of year. Have a great trip. Thanks for reading my website

  6. Thank you for a great write-up Tomcat. My husband and I would love to try this loop out, maybe in the early Fall. We are both in our early 70's, but your article gave me the confidence that I needed to go for it :). We used to backpack all the time, but life got in the way for too many years. Now it's time to get back to it!!

    1. Thanks for reading. I’m glad my write up was helpful. Feel free to reach out if you have any questions not answered in the write up. Good luck with your trip.

  7. This is super helpful. I'm hoping to do this loop in October. Where did you find the information for the loop? Is there a map somewhere?

    1. Thanks for reading. I recommend the ADK High Peaks map. It’s the most up to date and the one I prefer for this area.

  8. Hey Tom. Just stumbled across your trip report. I have done this loop quite a few times, and variations over the years. Cool report and photos. See you on the trail. -dT

    1. Thanks for reading! Glad you enjoyed. I enjoyed that loop. I caught it that magical time after the mud subsided and the bugs didn’t wake up. I had the loop to myself. Happy Trails