Saranac Lake has a unique attraction which is readily accessible for almost everyone. It's like a village. Made of boulders.
The McKenzie Pond Boulder Trail is just a few minutes from town, but has so much to offer. Whether we are looking for a quick and scenic hike or we are brushing up on our rock climbing skills, this easy trail, which is also easily accessible, is a delightful destination.
It would make anyone want to Rock Out.
GLACIAL ERRATA FANS
I love a giant hunk of granite. The Adirondacks is a great place to find these huge boulders, dropped here by glaciers a quarter of a million years ago. (Approximately.)
Unlike most other mountain systems, the Adirondacks are formed from a circular dome that is 160-miles wide and 1-mile high. While it emerged about five million years ago, it is formed from rocks which are more than one thousand million years old. And when something is that old, it gets a bit fragile. Big chunks break off when water seeps into cracks. Add a few zillion freeze-thaw cycles, and presto! It's a boulder.
The weight and pressure of accumulated snow and ice can cause the lower layers of a glacier to stop being solid and become something more like thick molasses. This let the glaciers move around, and when they thawed, many giant boulders broken from existing mountains fell into place.
While the glaciers contained these boulders like chocolate chips in a cookie, they would tumble all over the landscape once the glacier was no longer there to hold them in place. One such place is the Boulder Trail.
From the Saranac Lake Visitor Center, at 193 River Street, take a left out of the parking lot down the short street of Brandy Brook. Turn right over the railroad tracks and check the odometer. At the 1.8 mile point, on the right, there is a parking spot for the Boulders.
The trailhead is about 100 yards further on, across the street, marked by a telephone pole. Be careful on this curvy road.
GET A GRIP
One of the most popular uses for these boulders are for practicing rock climbing, without getting very far off the ground. MountainProject.com has noted an incredible sixty one climbing routes, with names like Great Roof of China, Flux Capacitor, The Actual Edge Of Gumby, Ian's Favorite Problem, and McMidgetson.
I love rock climbing names. However, being on the clumsy side, I've never indulged in the sport myself. I'm better off with the mountain firmly under my feet at all times.
For those who do love this sport, McKenzie Pond Boulders is considered "the best bouldering in the Adirondacks." This works out quite well, since the Saranac Lake area does not have rock climbing cliffs, the way other regions of the Adirondacks do. When the glaciers came through here, they seemed to concentrate on digging lots of places for paddling, instead.
Our many round ponds and abundant wetlands, known as Kettle Holes and Kettle Ponds, come from icebergs which broke off as a glacier was thawing. These giant ice chunks would then be ground into the earth as the glacier moved on its "bed of molasses" lower layer. As the glaciers melted, these holes would fill up with water, and if this was below the water table, it would form a permanent pond from this steady supply.
Find out more about a local trail which features such formations in our blog post, The Kettle Trail.
There are actually four sets of boulders, though only the first three are climbed enough to have named routes, and have set paths to and fro. Still, the last set (east and downhill from the third set of boulders) is considered to be worth checking out for their height and clean lines.
There's also some mild summiting to be had, even if our only experience is some rock scrambling from hiking peaks. Some of the larger rocks have easy routes to reach the top, where there can be a blanket of pine needles, a carpet of moss, or a rugged little tree (like in the popular Bonsai technique) to enjoy. The trees are too thick for a vista type of view, but will create a new viewpoint for the adventurous.
EASY YET STUNNING
The closeness of the park to the road is another attractive feature. We can see our first boulder as soon as we step up to the trailhead.
The paths themselves are well-worn and easy for even small hikers to navigate. Even the slantier routes usually offer an easier alternative on the other side of the set.
Photographers will appreciate the abundant clean granite backdrops of these features. Many hikes, such as St Regis Mountain, have larger examples, but they tend to be covered with vegetation, and only reached by an hour, or more, of trekking. The boulders are also set closely enough to allow for large shafts of sunlight in almost any kind of weather. This creates a bit of drama that is often missing from denser paths.
Small children will find the hiking payoff to be almost instant, an excellent selling point for hikers with short attention spans. Once they are done with exploration, it's a fast trip back to the car, too.
While birch is always an abundant tree in the Adirondacks, the boulder park lets us view it at more abundant sizes than the usual. While it is a fast growing, and short-lived tree, with longevity of no more than 140 years, some of the rocks have friends which have been stunted from the scarce soil on their surfaces. The Paper Birch (also known as White, Silver, Paperbark, or Canoe Birch from its use in Native American watercraft,) is a "pioneer" of the trees, being the first to take root and hold soil when an area of forest becomes clear enough for sunlight to reach its floor.
The bright white bark is an indicator that a tree is older than ten, since younger trees have brownish bark. Dark triangular markings, known as chevrons, appear where branches have aged and fallen off. The broad strips will have a pinkish underside.
A wintergreen scent, and thin curling strips, indicate a yellow birch. This much larger species can live to be more than two hundred years old. This is an easy way for children to distinguish between the two, and can be another fun activity. But do leave the birch bark on the trees.
On the next visit to our village, be sure to visit this village.