By Russell Dunn
The Adirondacks are blessed with spectacular and stupendous boulders that were left behind by glaciers at the end of the last Ice Age, some 10,000–12,000 years ago. Geologists call them glacial erratics.
These glacial boulders come in a variety of shape, sizes, and configurations. Some are of immense size, larger than cars and houses. Others are improbably balanced, one on top of the other, seemingly ready to be dislodged with the slightest push, and yet having stood for centuries, and are likely to endure for centuries more if pesky humans can resist giving them a push. Some boulders are poised on rounded mounds of bedrock, teetering, as if they could be toppled. You should know that during the nineteenth-century in the Catskills, it was considered great sport to roll lesser rocks off the top of massive escarpments to hear them bouncing and crashing below. Fortunately, the Adirondacks have few escarpments like the Wall of Manitou in the Catskills.
Some boulders have split in half over the eons, creating a space between the two often wide enough for a human being to walk through. These are called Split Rocks. Some boulders resemble human faces. They are called Profile Rocks, suggesting the possibility that Nature has a sense of humor, and repeatedly demonstrates it in her rock creations.
Some rocks have been painted by artists to look like an animal or some kind of critter. In such cases, the artists have enhanced a feature that already existed in the rock, such as a crack or contour line. Lastly, there are historic boulders, notable because a famous event took place there, or because a historic plaque was affixed to the rock face.
Let’s head out and take a look at a few of the amazing boulders that the Adirondacks have to offer.
Split Rocks – We start with the Johns Brook Split Rock, which thousands have passed by, many unknowingly, while driving up Adirondack Street/Johns Brook Lane to the Garden—one of the main entry points into the High Peaks Region. To get there from the center of Keene Valley, turn west onto Adirondack Street/Johns Brook Lane at the DEC sign reading “Trail to the High Peaks,” and head west for 0.6 mile. You will see the split rock to your right just before crossing over the bridge that spans Johns Brook.
The Johns Brook Split Rock is a sizeable, 10–12-foot-high boulder, far wider than its height. The boulder is split near the middle, but curiously has a tree growing up in the crack. It’s entirely possible that the boulder may have split apart sometime earlier and that a tree seedling seized the opportunity to thrive in this available space. It’s also possible that a sprouting tree took root in what was initially a tiny crevice and, as it grew bigger and wider, split the rock apart like a carpenter’s wedge.
The most famous Adirondack split rock is located on Split Rock Road in Hague. The boulder is approximately 18 feet high, 40 feet long, with an estimated weight of 500 tons. The space between the boulder’s two halves is so wide that a human can easily slip through. There is even a legend about an evil sorcerer having once lived in a den under the rock.
In past years, Split Rock was a major Lake George tourist attraction. Don’t bother going to look for this boulder, however. It is on private property and off limits now.
These glacial boulders come in a variety of shape, sizes, and configurations. Some are of immense size, larger than cars and houses.
Balanced Rocks – There are a number of balanced rocks in the Adirondacks, one of them being on Blue Ridge Road (Route 2), 1.2 miles east of the Boreas River. Perhaps the most famous and, historically, most frequently visited balanced rock in the Adirondacks is found on 2,350-foot-high Bald
Mountain, aka Rondaxe Mountain, near Old Forge. This boulder is over 6 feet high, and delicately poised on a sloping mound of bedrock. In all fairness, the boulder might better be called a perched rock, since it rests on an inclined section of bedrock as opposed to lying atop another boulder. Still, it is an amazing rock to see first-hand. Were this boulder any smaller, it is highly likely that pesky humans would have toppled it by now, just for the impish joy of watching it thunder down the mountain into the valley below.
The boulder is located near the top of Bald Mountain, not far from the fire-tower. A spur path leads to it.
Painted Rocks — When it comes to notoriety, the most famous Adirondack rock arguably is Pig Rock, located just 5.0 miles north of Speculator along the east side of Route 30. This painted rock of a pig’s head so distressed Barney Fowler, a journalist, that it prompted him to write up an article called “The Pig Rock Syndrome” in his book Adirondack Album, in which he decried the proliferation of too much graffiti in the Adirondacks. Despite Fowler’s protestations, however, 5-foot-high, 10-foot-long Pig Rock has endured for many decades, and is repeatedly given a fresh coat of paint by local High School students who have taken it on as an annual project. In a way, the rock has become a recognizable landmark in the Adirondacks, grand-fathered in, so-to-speak, despite its questionable origin.
Likewise, there is Elephant Rock near Hague, which can be seen along Route 8 approximately 4.5 miles from the junction of Routes 8 & 9N in Hague. Here, a section of bedrock has been enhanced to resemble the head and trunk of a road-facing elephant. Painted tusks and eyes have been added to complete the illusion. All in all, rather tastefully done.
Like Pig Rock, Elephant Rock has been around for many years and has probably become accepted as part of the Adirondack landscape by most passing motorists. This is not to say that graffiti in the Adirondacks should be encouraged. Hopefully, artists will be content to let the historically significant painted rocks stand as they are, without adding any new ones to the ranks.
Historic Boulders – There are a number of historic boulders in the Adirondacks. At the Monument Falls pull-off along Route 86, for instance, are two medium-sized rocks (actually monuments) whose plaques commemorate the 50th and 100th anniversaries of the State Forest Preserve.
Of particular interest is a historic rock along Route 73, virtually opposite Upper Cascade Lake, called Stagecoach Rock. This medium-sized boulder even has its own roadside pull-off, with guardrails around it so that careless drivers won’t careen into it. Chances are, most people have never paid attention to the boulder. Hopefully, this will change in the future if the rock becomes better known.
The boulder is called Stagecoach Rock because of the image of a stagecoach and a team of horses that has been sandblasted into its face. This was done in the 1930s when a district engineer noticed the large boulder and decided to have it commemorate the importance of stagecoaches in the development of the Adirondacks during the mid-to-late 1800s.
Massive Boulders – Lastly, there are places where mammoth boulders seem to group together in great numbers. Indian Pass, for instance, contains legions of colossal-sized boulders but requires a long hike to get to. Much closer and more easily accessed are the multiple, inter-connected sets of boulder fields near McKenzie Lake, not far from the Village of Saranac Lake [the unmarked trailhead being off of McKenzie Road (Rte. 33) some 0.6 mile from Rte. 86. The parking area is 150 feet away on the opposite side of the road]. Some of the boulders are the size of houses and barns! It’s as if the last glacier grew suddenly overburdened and dropped its load all at once before retreating farther north.
One nice feature about the boulders is that they are located in a forest with little underbrush, allowing you to stroll around and between the big rocks without having to thrash through undergrowth. Don’t be surprised when you visit to see a rock climber or two, for the spot has grown increasingly popular with boulderers.
We have visited now just a smattering of the fascinating and amazing boulders the Adirondacks have to offer. If you don’t get out immediately to visit them, don’t worry. These rocks are going to be around for a long time to come!
Russell Dunn is author of the soon-to-be-released Rambles to Remarkable Rocks: An Explorer’s Hiking Guide to Amazing Boulders and Rock Formations of the Greater Capital Region, Catskills, and Shawangunks, and co-author with Christy Butler of Rockachusetts: An Explorer’s Guide to Amazing Boulders of Massachusetts.