Poke-O-Moonshine Mountain can be recognized by its stunning cliffside that faces east against the Adirondack Northway. Located in the Taylor Pond Wild Forest, this 2,180-foot mountain is a popular destination in the northeastern Adirondacks. There are two trails that lead to the top, and this description follows the Observer’s Trail. In the winter, this is a 5-mile round-trip route often covered in snow that climbs approximately 1,500 feet to the summit. Snowshoes and/or snow spikes on this trail can be very helpful. Atop this momentous peak stands a fire tower with incredible 360-degree views that span from the High Peaks, across Lake Champlain, and to the Green Mountains in Vermont. In the winter, the snow-covered view is exquisite.
The trail begins south of Keeseville on the west side of Route 9. Look for a sign on the road and a small parking area with an information kiosk. A few steps down the trail there is a short bridge over Cold Brook, followed by a registration box. Follow the path for about a mile to the west as it climbs up a gradual ascent. The route turns right as it joins an old jeep road and gains elevation in a northward direction.
This area is part of a 200-acre annexation that was purchased by the Adirondack Land Trust in 2008. About halfway up the mountain, there's a wide wooden bridge that may be submerged in water and ice. A flourishing local beaver community maintains a series of dams here that have flooded this narrow valley and turned it to marshland. The wide clearing is scattered with dead trees soaked by these flooded lands. To keep your feet dry, you may have to break off from the identified path. Look left, upstream, and find an area where others have walked across one of the several dams. But first, don't miss the opportunity to take a good look up to the highest pond area where there is a beaver lodge.
Get back to the main trail as it wraps around the beaver pond. The route becomes steeper as it gains elevation, and there may be muddy sections where the snow is melted due to water runoff. The trail will make some wide switchbacks and come to another beaver pond. It almost comes as a surprise to see another constructed marsh this high up, but this particular beaver seems to have selected a very scenic spot backed by the southern wall of the main peak.
The trail levels out, and arrives at a lean-to. This is at an intersection with the Ranger Trail. Turn left and follow the red markers past the rock chimney, which is part of the foundation of a former ranger’s cabin. Up the mountain, the faint outline of the fire tower emerges through the barren trees. The trail narrows, and there is another steep climb ahead that emerges at a small rock outcropping and overlook to the southeast. Whiteface Mountain and faintly lined ski slopes are visible. The Adirondacks span all across the horizon to the southwest.
The trail continues to meander through the trees and turn back to the east as it gains more elevation. A 60-foot aerometer steel tower will appear through the trees. There are beautiful views all around and rock outcroppoings to sit on and enjoy the spectacular scene. The winter months can present some beautiful light conditions through snowy overcast clouds. This is the edge of the Adirondack Mountains along the eastern border of New York state. Ascend to the platforms of the fire tower to get above the tree line and look out in all directions.
During the summer months, a summit steward may be found on duty, but the cabin is typically closed during the winter months. To the north is Lyon Mountain, and to the south is Deerfield Mountain with the Jay range behind it. Hurricane and Giant mountains and Gothics can also be seen. The Adirondack Northway can be seen far below weaving between the mountains.
Return on the same path and make note of the right turn at the intersection by the lean-to. The Ranger Trail was the original route up the mountain, but it was recently re-routed by the professional ADK Trail Crew and the Tahawus Trails group. The new route has several wooden bridges and many constructed stone stairways with intricate design and rock placement that would be cumbersome with snowshoes but effective with snow spikes. The project was completed early last summer. Please omit: The Adirondack Mountain Club Trails Program and Tahawus Trails are responsible for the work and are on track to complete the project. Although this path is much steeper than the Observer’s Trail, it has many more viewpoints and lookouts, including great views of the mountain’s dramatic eastern cliff bands. Unfortunately, some highway sounds can be heard on the traverse. The starting point for this trail is about half a mile north of the Observer’s Trailhead, so it is possible to do this hike as a loop and trek back to the parking area on the road.
The Algonquin Native Americans were among the first people to inhabit this region. They named the mountain “Pohquis Moosie,” which has a rough translation to “place of the broken smooth rocks.” The cliffside created a valley pass from the lake to the mountains, so it was frequently used as a location for trade and diplomatic meetings among tribes.
The first fire tower atop Poke-O-Moonshine was constructed with wood in 1912 as part of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s initiative to monitor and extinguish fire activity throughout the logged mountains in New York state. In 1917, the tower was replaced with a steel aerometer tower.
In 1940, a guidebook was produced by the Federal Writers’ Project that promoted a local legend about the mountain from the Prohibition Era. At that time, it was said that the mountain was a popular place to distill and sell illegal liquor to loggers. Hence, the mountain’s original name became augmented to end with “Moonshine.”
The fire tower was closed in 1988, and the observer’s cabin was burned down 3 years later, leaving only the fireplace and foundation. There were plans to dismantle the tower in 1995, but like many of the state’s fire towers a local group formed to preserve and renovate the structure so it could be enjoyed by the public for years to come.
For almost a century, observers staffed more than 100 fire towers throughout New York state located primarily on the highest peaks in the Catskill and Adirondack regions. This was in response to the intense logging and tannin harvesting operations that would leave virgin forest barren, dried, and very susceptible to fire. Rangers would often reside in nearby cabins while keeping a regular lookout for smoke and flames throughout the surrounding valleys. If a fire was spotted, a message was sent to the nearby town, and the location of the suspected fire would be triangulated and confirmed by other fire towers in the area.
Beginning in the 1980s, the towers were systematically closed as monitoring from planes became more cost-effective. Some towers have been dismantled, others remain in disrepair, while a select few have been revitalized by the Department of Environmental Conservation or purchased and renovated by the general public. Restorations continue throughout the state, and there are many assistance programs that support and maintain these historic icons. Each tower offers a new and unique perspective of New York and serves as a monument to forest protection throughout the state. Challenge yourself to visit them all!
Winter backcountry adventures can be dangerous outdoor activities that pose significant risks as conditions affecting safety (i.e. weather, snowpack stability, avalanche hazard) are constantly changing. Prior to engaging in these activities each individual should get the proper training to make safe decisions and be equipped to use avalanche safety resources and tools. Please visit our Backcountry Skiing and Avalanche Safety post to learn more.