The freedom of Pharaoh Lake
Your Adirondack Basecamp

Let’s talk about finding a sense of solitude.

I’m used to spending my time among the higher peaks of the region. I love the mountains, but so do lots of other people. That’s generally OK, but sometimes I want something different, something that feels more remote.

For years I’ve seen the pictures of a place called Pharaoh Lake Wilderness Area. I’ve drooled over the Milky-Way-splashed night sky, the forested shores, and the maps detailing the trails that crisscross the area’s 46,283 acres. This summer, I decided it was time to visit.

Planning

Since this was our first trek into Pharaoh Lake Wilderness Area, I figured we’d camp next to the lake it’s named after. That decision was easy enough; now for the fun part — planning. I love poring over the maps, calculating mileage and elevation changes, and picking the best route. This area is perfect for that. There are a dozen ways to approach Pharaoh Lake — some more direct than others — that are accessible from the many parking lots dotting the area’s perimeter.

The shortest route, the Pharaoh Lake Trail, approaches the narrow outlet of the waterbody from the south in 3.3 miles. I decided against this, as I was more excited to spend time on the much wider northern portion of the lake. At 441 acres, Pharaoh Lake is one of the largest in the Adirondacks, and since it’s in a designated Wilderness Area the shore is void of houses. That sounded perfect, because I wanted to gaze across open water beneath a starry sky.

After some deliberation, I chose to approach from the northwest, a 5-mile route that climbs slowly to a height of land at the base of Pharaoh Mountain before descending to the northernmost tip of the lake, where there are several primitive camp sites available on a first-come, first-served basis.

A road less traveled

My wife, Anna, and I left Saranac Lake in the morning and took Route 73 to the highway. On the way, we passed lines of cars parked near some of the region’s most popular trails. It was the beginning of a nice summer day, and the mountains were already busy.

We hopped on Interstate 87, heading south, and took Exit 28 toward Schroon Lake. We met our friend Gabe at a gas station and headed south along Route 9, then took the first left on Alder Meadow Road. After a few miles the road forks — we veered left onto Crane Pond Road.

The road became hard-packed dirt and we soon reached the parking area and trailhead. The road does continue past this so it’s possible to shave a mile or so off the hike, but I don’t recommend this unless you have a high, four-wheel drive vehicle that can handle mud, big rocks, and deep trenches.

Into the wild

I can’t say enough good things about Pharaoh Lake Wilderness Area, so I’ll just outline my favorite parts. The dirt road climbed gently from the lot, running parallel to a raging stream at the base of the hill we were skirting. Through the trees we could see rapids and waterfalls as walked. After more dirt road — and more uphill — we were delivered to a stunning wetland area with open water in its center. Dragonflies darted in front of us and birds called from every direction. Then came Crane Pond and its beautiful outlet, which is crossed on a well-constructed wooden bridge.

After a little more climbing and some twists and turns, we saw a sign for Pharaoh Mountain. There were a couple more small ponds, each different and each stunning, that provided the perfect excuse to rest. At the first one, our pause was greeted by a great blue heron, which skirted the water’s surface as it flew along the far shore.

It was up and up again, this time along the wildlife-rich Glidden Marsh, before we descended to our destination. The lake was everything I expected it to be — open, blue, and remote. We only saw a couple of small hiking groups on our way in, something the mostly-vacant campsites echoed.

Out of site

I dropped my pack and eagerly explored a few camping options before discovering one situated on a piece of forest that juts into the lake. It’s probably the most idyllic campsite I’ve seen in the Adirondacks. As we set up camp, a couple of cedar waxwings made their presence known by flitting about on their creamy-gray-colored wings. That was how the rest of the evening went. We startled a sunbathing garter snake, saw another great blue heron, and watched as a beaver left its cove, which bordered our campsite, and made a beeline toward some destination across the lake.

The loons arrived around sunset and delighted us with their calls, and shortly after sundown I watched the biggest moth I’ve seen awkwardly make its way along the shore. The next morning I was up shortly after sunrise. I jumped into the lake, swam around for a bit, then made a cup of coffee. A loon family that included two little loonlings swam by not 20 feet from where I sipped my coffee as a pileated woodpecker drummed in the distance. The forest’s day shift was just waking up, and I was in heaven.


Instead of climbing Pharaoh Mountain, we enjoyed the campsite for a few hours before packing out. We will be back, after all, and the mountain could wait. There’s something to be said for finding peace and a sense of solitude, and we were all perfectly content seizing the moment before returning to the rigors of adulthood.


Schroon Lake is close to Pharaoh Lake Wilderness Area, making it an ideal stop after a backpacking adventure. Go swimming at the public beach then have dinner. If you need more ideas, check out these sample itineraries.


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