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From the October 2010 Conservationist

A hillside with fall foliage and mountains in the distance

Photo: Robert M. Goodwin

Colors of Fall

Leaf Peeping at Prospect Mountain

By Bernadette LaManna

Hikers enjoying the view of a lake and fall foliage from high on a mountain
Photo: Scott Thomas Photography

When my older brother and I were kids, it was considered an accomplishment to climb Prospect Mountain. We didn't refer to it as "hiking." For his efforts, my brother was rewarded with a commemorative coin. Several years later, I became the proud holder of a signed and dated, wallet-sized card to attest to the fact that I, too, had "scaled the mountain." We had achieved our respective feats during summertime, when we spent much of our school vacation at family camps in Lake George. By now, the coin and the card are long gone, but the mountain and our memories remain.

Back then, our family cleared out of the north country by Labor Day, and I never even glimpsed the Lake George area in any other season until I was a young adult. When it came to viewing fall foliage, Vermont was the destination of choice, if for no other reason than because of all the publicity it received-deservedly or not-for having the most glorious colors of all. I've since visited the Adirondacks in all seasons, and, in autumn, the foliage is every bit as beautiful as in our neighbor state, particularly from the vantage point of Prospect Mountain.

The viewmobile climbs the road to the top of Prospect Mt.
Visitors can take the continuously
running "viewmobile' from the third look-
out to the summit. (Photo: Scott Thomas

Access to Prospect Mountain by motor vehicle is via the Veterans Memorial Highway, renamed from Prospect Mountain State Parkway after a long and contentious debate. The roadway opens in late May and closes around Columbus Day in mid October, well beyond peak foliage time in the Adirondacks. For a small fee, motorists can make the nearly six-mile drive to access the summit, which stands 2,030 feet above sea level. Due to limited space, visitors are asked to leave their vehicles at the third lookout on the mountain. From there, you can either take the continuously running "viewmobile" up to the bucolic summit, or hike on the trail-described as a 10-15 minute challenging walk. For serious hikers, there's a marked trail that begins on the western edge of Lake George Village and crosses the Northway (I-87) on a screened-in bridge, eventually ending near the summit.

On a clear day, the 100-mile view from Prospect Mountain's summit encompasses five states. It also includes Lake George Village with the backdrop of Black Mountain; New York's Adirondack High Peaks; Vermont's Green Mountains; New Hampshire's White Mountains, and, on a VERY clear day, the Laurentians of Canada.

Visitors to the summit can also view remnants of the world's largest cable railroad and the fireplace of the long-gone Prospect Mountain Hotel (successor to a previous facility that also burned to the ground). The hotel was built by Dr. James Ferguson of Glens Falls in the late 1800s. Accessible only by horse-drawn carriage, the location of the hotel was popular with wealthy nature lovers and people who had respiratory problems, such as tuberculosis. Although the hotel burned down only a few years after its construction, it was quickly rebuilt.

By 1895, a Mr. William Peck had become the new owner of the property. He and the Horicon Improvement Company arranged for the Otis Engineering Company (of elevator fame) to build a cog railway, known as the Prospect Mountain Incline Railway, on the mountain.

About 30 years later, it was rumored that the hotel would become a gambling casino. Disturbed by this prospect, George Foster Peabody, who had acquired the mountain in 1904, gave it to New York State for public use.

View of a blue lake and lakeshore towns seen from a mountain in fall.
Lake George Village (Photo: Robert M.

Fred Pabst, Jr.-founder of what is now known as the Bromley Ski Resort in Vermont and whose father established Pabst Blue Ribbon beer-built small, "J-bar" ski areas throughout the Northeast, including on Prospect Mountain in 1938. Some people familiar with the mountain are unaware that, at the time, it had the only overhead cable lift in New York State, which may also have been the longest one in the country. Although the ski area closed around the time of WWII, another one was operated during the 1950s, but little is known about it.

Decades after the Prospect Mountain House burned down a second time and a steel fire tower was erected in its place, proposals and plans for the area waxed and waned until 1954, when Governor Tom Dewey signed legislation to build a highway up the mountain. Finally, Governor Nelson Rockefeller made funds available for this purpose by signing the necessary legislation in 1964. Five years later, the Veterans Memorial Highway opened.

Now, everyone can enjoy spending time on Prospect Mountain. So pack a picnic and your camera, gather family or friends, and practice your "oohs" and "ahhs" for the spectacular fall colors you'll see on and around the mountain.

Bernadette LaManna is a contributing editor of Conservationist.