Google Maps link: https://www.google.com/maps/place/Ampersand+Mountain+Trailheademail@example.com,-74.2303987,8133m/data=!3m1!1e3!4m5!3m4!1s0x4ccb176ef7433815:0x3a34d3548147bc3c!8m2!3d44.2512627!4d-74.2396215
Ampersand is the quintessential classic Adirondack hike. It surely must place in the top 10 most hiked mountains in the Adirondacks. Driving by the trailhead on a summer weekend will give you an idea of its popularity. The hike is short (compared to many of the high peaks) but rugged & steep. Adding to its popularity is the fact that it is part of the Saranac 6er challenge. This is a six- peak challenge consisting of Ampersand (3,353 feet), Baker (2,452 feet), St. Regis (2,874 feet), Scarface (3,054 feet), Haystack (2,878 feet), and McKenzie (3,822 feet). There are several options for “patching”.
For more info on this: http://www.saranaclake.com/activities/outdoor/saranac-lake-6
So, you should prepare yourself for a hike up Ampersand. Along with your standard gear of boots, day pack, map & compass- bring a camera. The 360-degree view from the summit is nothing short of spectacular. Also, be prepared for a good workout- you will be climbing 1,775 vertical feet.
Ampersand is in the town of Harrietstown NY (Franklin county), between Tupper lake and Saranac lake. It gained its name from Ampersand creek, which is said to resemble the ampersand symbol (&). A fellow by the name of W.W. Ely was the first known person to climb the mountain. This was in 1872. Later, Ely and four others cleared the summit of trees and vegetation. More clearing was done a year later as Verplanck Colvin worked at his surveying of the high peaks. Today the effects of erosion, fire and the elements find the summit bald, only the bare rock remains. The sub-alpine forest continues to grow on the slopes of the mountain.
In 1911 the state constructed a fire observer’s lookout on the bare summit. Originally a small stone hut was constructed to offer some relief from the elements. By the early 1920’s the surrounding forest had grown enough to warrant the building of a 22’ Aeromotor fire tower.
While there were many observers to man this station, probably the most famous of those was Walter Channing Rice, the “hermit of Ampersand”. Rice was the observer from 1915 to 1923. The hermit would spend all his time on the mountain from early spring when the forest became dry enough that fires could become a threat, until fall when winter would grip the peaks in a cover of snow and ice. In a November 14th, 1917 article in the Malone Farmer newspaper, Rice stated “I’m never lonesome. I have the whole Adirondack range as company. There are trees upon that are almost as intimate as my friends: birds that come and sing for me during the long hours: squirrels that greet me with chirps of welcome every day. I have lived in the Adirondacks all my life and I love the trees and the mountains and the lakes as much as man can love men.” Rice then in his seventies, would leave his position after eight years due to health issues. Within one more year he would pass away. In 1930 his sons had a plaque placed on the mountain. The inscription read: “In loving memory of Walter Channing Rice 1852-1924 ‘Hermit of Ampersand’ who kept vigil from this peak 1915-1923 erected by his sons 1930”.
For more on Walter Rice, follow this to a 1978 article from the Franklin Historical review by Seaver Miller Rice >
Another fire observer that gained notoriety, was 25 years old Richard Bomyea. In September of 1959, Bomyea was attacked by a bear on his way down from the summit. He recovered from his wounds, but the attack was talked of for some time afterwards.
August of 1977 was the end of the fire tower era on Ampersand. Fire observation was handled by aircraft from then on. The tower was then disassembled and removed from the mountain.
Another bit of history worth noting is that in 1915, Ampersand was the first mountain climbed by 14-year-old Bob Marshall. Marshall would later become an important wilderness writer and activist. He would start the wilderness society, and along with his brother George and Herbert Clark would be the first people to climb all of the forty- six high peaks (over 4000 feet of altitude in NY). These three were the original 46ers.
The trailhead is a small parking lot on the north side of NYS rt3. This is roughly 12 miles from Tupper lake (heading east towards Saranac Lake) or about 8 miles from Saranac lake (heading west towards Tupper lake). The parking area is opposite of the trailhead- so use caution crossing the state highway.
On the trail
After crossing rt3, the trail leads through a mixed hardwood forest of yellow birch, soft maple and a few beech trees. The trail is marked with red markers. You will cross Dutton brook on a well-constructed foot bridge a few minutes into the hike. Further on, the hemlocks signal a wet spot ahead. There is a boardwalk through the wettest parts of this section. Soon you will start uphill, with moderate to easy grades. The trail becomes stonier and the timber get smaller.
At around the 1.6- mile mark, a small clearing comes in to view on your right. At first glance this may appear as nothing more than a pile of stone rubble, but look closer and you will see more. This is Walter Channing Rice’s campsite. This small camp was where he would live when not at the observation post on the summit. All that is left are a few pipes, a bed frame, and a sink. You can see the stone foundation, and that will show just how small this cabin was, probably less than 10’ by 10’. His bed was just a small cot. Certainly, it was a meager and modest camp to say the least. In later years, the state made provisions for the observers to have better accommodations. There were several cabins/camps of various size and design on Ampersand. This is the only ruins that I have been able to locate.
From here the trail starts to get more intense. You are about a mile away from the summit, and have over 1300’ of vertical climbing ahead of you. The trail becomes mostly stone and is slippery and miserable when wet. Occasional some views of middle Saranac lake can through the stunted spruce trees. The footing can be rough in places, so take your time and enjoy the views and catch your breath. There are a few spots where you will be using your hands to help make it over some of the pitches. Despite the steepness of the trail, state crews have done a wonderful job keeping the highly traveled trail in shape.
In some places they have literally constructed stone staircases in the worst sections. Close to the summit you will get a welcomed respite as the trail levels off. This section is much easier to navigate through, and the scenery is among my favorites in the Adirondacks. You walk through some ledges and boulders that are amazing, some covered with a carpet of green moss- others just the cold, weathered granite. This is a great place for some candid photos (remember, I told you to bring a camera?). The cracks, crevices and boulders are as memorable as anyplace I have seen in the Adirondacks. Past this, the trail winds easily to the summit. The summit has three distinct “peaks”, the western one being the first. Each has its own set of incredible views & vistas.
My favorite is from the middle peak, looking northeast over the eastern peak. The eastern peak was the location of the fire tower, and over 17 miles distant is the magnificent Whiteface mountain. As you take in the entire 360-degree panorama around you, the stress and strain of the hike up the mountain simply fade away. Remember the map & compass I mentioned bringing along? Now is the time to get them out and identify the mountains and lakes around you. The Seward Mountains to the south, The Saranac family of lakes to the north, and a map full of others wait for you to find them.
The trail back is still a challenge. The steep pitches that you climbed on the way up are not much easier descending. Take your time, watch your step and enjoy yourself. All said and done this hike is about 5.5 miles round trip. It falls short of the 4000’ high peaks status, but is still every bit as challenging (or more so) than some of the famed 46. The views are better than many of the 46 as well. On you way down, think of Walter Rice’s daily walk to the summit, or Bomyea’s brawl with an ill-tempered bear. Think about the views you took in along the way. Another thing to ponder is the fine efforts that the trail crews have put forth to keep this trail open and passable. It had been twenty years since I had last hiked Ampersand. My most recent Ampersand hike was this summer, this time with my daughter. I’m sure the trail has gotten steeper in those twenty years. I hope you enjoyed this, and if so- please share so that others might too.
Roster of Ampersand observers
References & Sources
Forest Fire Lookouts Association FFLA NY Chapter
Rooster of Fire Tower Forest Fire Observers in New York State
New York State Department of Environmental Conservation
Fifty Hikes in the Adirondacks– by Barbara McMartin
About the Author
I am a life-long resident of the north country, calling Edwards my home. I have always had a passion for the outdoors, and for local history. I recently started this site to share places that have been part of our local history and heritage. I hope you get a chance to hike some of these trails for yourself, and reflect on the rich history of those that walked here before you. And if not, sit back and experience these from where ever you are right now. Either way, enjoy!
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