“A trail sleekens to its end,” American author Robert Moor writes in On Trails, an insightful meditation on the oft-overlooked routes beneath our feet. “An explorer finds a worthwhile destination; then every walker who follows that trail makes it a little better.”
I consider sharing this literary wisdom with my 11-year-old twin daughters as we ascend, slow and sweating, up the western flank of Cascade Mountain in New York State’s Adirondack Park. The 2.3-mile trail to the summit, just outside the resort town of Lake Placid, is described online as “fairly moderate” with “a couple short steeper pitches,” but turns out to be pretty much straight up, with a couple (i.e., two) short flat sections amid the constant climbing. (The vertical gain, I would later learn, is just under 2,000 feet.) Instead of quoting Moor, however, I opt for more plainspoken encouragement: I tell the girls about the importance of perseverance when facing obstacles, and the need to confront challenges one step at a time. “Think about the sense of accomplishment you’ll feel when you reach the top,” I say. They sit down in the shade atop a bolder and demand water, and then refuse to continue.
Adirondack Park is a six-million-acre patchwork of public and privately owned wilderness, the largest protected area in the contiguous United States. Its mountains, forests, lakes and rivers are linked by more than 2,000 miles of hiking trails, the largest network in the country, but despite living only a three-hour drive away in Ottawa, this is our first non-winter visit. And now my plan — to get to know the park by cajoling the girls along as many trails as possible — has hit a snag.
Our first hike, one and half miles up Castle Rock, had elicited only minor protest. The day was hot and humid, with no breeze in the thick woods. But a woman at the trailhead promised “maximum views for minimal effort,” and she was right. The sunbaked granite summit gave us a panoramic view of Blue Mountain Lake, dotted with islands and sailboats, and a small beach in the hamlet below allowed us to cool off after our descent.
We swam mid-hike the following afternoon. After packing up our campsite at Lake Durant State Park, we drove up a dead-end road to the Tahawus Mines trailhead and explored the dilapidated abandoned houses of an old iron mining town before following a gently rising path beside Calamity Brook for a couple hours. The girls scooped up toads and snakes, and we submerged ourselves in a sparkling pool tucked into one of the rocky creek’s many elbows.
From Tahawus, it’s only about 15 miles by foot to Lake Placid—the region’s biggest tourist town, two-time host of the Winter Olympics. The route, on the edge of a dense web of trails, skirts some of the state’s highest peaks, including the big one, 5,344-foot Mount Marcy. There are more trails here than roads, and I’m jealous of the guy inspecting his pack in the parking lot, gearing up for a week of walking. That feeling intensifies after our looping 90-minute as-direct-as-possible drive to Lake Placid, where we check into the High Peaks Resort; within seconds, the front desk clerk is telling me about his 30-day hike in the Adirondacks.
We reboot with a golden-hour jump into Mirror Lake and some splashing in the hotel’s waterside pool, carb load at the Lake Placid Pub & Brewery, and the next morning are ready for Cascade Mountain. The climb is steep from the start, and then gets steeper. Our pace slows after an hour, our water breaks become more frequent. I’m trying every trick I have to keep the girls going. Ice cream when we finish! You pick a restaurant tonight! More pretzels? But, really, it’s the first hint of a view, a ledge less than half a mile from the summit, that gives them a boost. That, and the hikers heading down, including many families with kids, who insist it’s worth it.
The last couple hundred feet are a scramble up smooth windswept rocks. At the top, we have a 360-degree view of all the surrounding mountains, a blue-green sea of serrated peaks and ridges spanning the horizon. As if on cue, a pair of ravens soar toward us and circle above, riding the thermals. To the south, you can see Mount Marcy and Algonquin Peak, the second-highest in the state. “I love climbing smaller mountains like this one,” says a woman who ran up with her tiny terrier. “It gives you a sense of being among the gods.”
On our way down, the girls literally have springs in their steps. They’re leaping off rocks and skipping over roots. They’re singing and scavenging through the trees for walking sticks. They’re following a route that many have travelled, and are making the trail a little better.
Dan Rubinstein is the author of Born to Walk: The Transformative Properties of a Pedestrian Act (ECW Press, borntowalk.org).