Tuesday, June 9, 2015
Chimney Mountain and Eagle Cave: 06/07/2015
With brilliant blue skies, crisp morning temperatures and the bright green foliage of early summer, this weekend brought hiking conditions that easily rivaled the best days of fall. I get why hikers rave about fall, but I’d rather have the longer days, wildflowers and the promise of an entire season ahead.
Our family hike Sunday took us to Chimney Mountain. Despite its relatively low summit elevation (2700’), Chimney boasts a spectacular panoramic view of the central Adirondacks. But what really makes Chimney Mountain unique in the Adirondacks is its fascinating geology.
The hike itself is a piece of cake – 700 vertical feet and 1.5 miles to the summit. The trail climbs steeply at times through open hardwoods, ultimately emerging at the namesake rock formation and lookout ledges just below the true summit.
Much has been written about Chimney Mountain’s natural history (Discover the South Central Adirondacks has excellent coverage of Chimney Mountain’s geology). Looking out from the chimney, it’s easy to see what happened: the entire summit block was undercut during the last ice age and eventually toppled, creating a giant rift (600 feet wide and 250 feet across) and leaving behind the 80 foot tall chimney.
The rift is filled with a jumble of talus that has created a number of caves, some of which hold snow and ice well into summer. Exploring the rift isn’t easy (there is no marked trail and the footing can be tricky among the talus), but I knew the prospect of finding some of the caves would be right up the kids’ alley. And if all went well, I kept an ace up my sleeve – the possibility of checking out Eagle Cave on the west side of the rift, considered to be the largest and most spectacular cave in the Adirondacks.
We hung out and had lunch at the chimney lookout before descending into the rift. Although I’ve hiked Chimney several times, I had only once briefly explored the rift, so I told the kids upfront that we were on an exploratory mission with no guarantee of actually finding any of the ice caves. But within ten minutes or so we found a very cool (literally) opening in the west wall of the rift with snow and ice. Hardly a day has gone by since ski season ended that Daniel hasn’t asked me if there’s still snow on Marcy or Whiteface, so actually finding snow in June brought an ear-to-ear grin to his face.
We worked our way around the west wall of the rift, finding several more interesting caves, some of which were 30 or more feet deep and contained snow and ice. Eventually we came upon the entrance to Eagle Cave. Discovery is half the thrill of any adventure, so I won’t give the specific directions. There’s no marked trail to the cave entrance, but if you’ve done some research you’ll know when you’ve found it (PM me if you want more beta).
The entrance is awkward and a bit claustrophobic, requiring a belly crawl through a diagonal fissure that’s less than 18 inches high and 10 to 15 feet deep. Once inside, the cave opens up into a huge chamber. It takes some time to navigate the length of the main chamber. There is rockfall to scramble over, under or around, and several steep ledges to negotiate. Eagle is a multi-level cave, and we eventually reached a spot where we’d need to rappel down a 15’ drop in order to continue. We turned around at that point and retraced our steps back to the entrance, having spent well over an hour inside.
Needless to say, the kids were thrilled. They’ve been to commercial caves like Howe Caverns and Natural Stone Bridge and Caves in Pottersville, but those are nothing like the experience of a wild cave. We’ll definitely return to Eagle Cave to explore further. It’s a fascinating place.
If you go: Exploring Eagle Cave is not a casual adventure. Be prepared to spend some time searching for the cave entrance. Be familiar with the basics of safe and responsible caving (caves.org is a good place to start). Above all make sure that each person in your party has 3 light sources, at least one of which should be a headlamp (we had 4 headlamps and 5 small flashlights among us). Three is considered the minimum safe party size. Make sure your party stays close together at all times. Although helmets are recommended, the main room can be explored without helmets as the ceilings are high and the walls are slabs with minimal loose rock.