The Hike In A Nutshell:
The ascent of Esther is a very good and rigorous Fall hike when the leaves are on display. In the past (the mid-nineties) Esther was a confusing maze of herd paths. While this situation has been remedied you will find some very wet, boggy terrain that suggest you wear a good pair of boots!
Also, Esther has a mystique associated with it brought about by a teenager named Esther Macomb who got lost and ended up being the first person to summit this peak, hence its name.
On a sunny day it can be a nice walk in the woods, particularly the ascent from the trailhead at Wilmington Reservoir to the summit of Marble Mtn, which comprises nearly half of the total distance to Esther, and consists of open hardwood forest, making Fall a good time to tackle this peak. Others, looking for a faster way up will elect to follow the chairlift route.
My preferred route to Esther begins at the Town of Wilmington's water reservoir. This is on the left about a mile out of town on the Whiteface Memorial Highway (well before you come to the toll gate). Park at the reservoir parking lot. You'll see the red trail marker and register at the start of the trail to the left of the pump house. From the reservoir, the hike begins gently on the RED , heading W and then S, rising slowly through an open forest of mixed hardwoods. After roughly 1.5 miles the trail turns W and begins a stiff climb for about 0.8 miles to a point very near the summit of Marble Mtn. If it's your first hike of the season, as it was mine, this section might knock you on your can despite its sunlit beauty and nice breezes. From Marble's summit you will continue upward until you are almost at the summit of Lookout Mtn. The trail levels, and you intersect the herd path to Esther. If you choose not to take one of the herd paths to Esther, and just continue onwards, you'll ascend Whiteface as described on the Whiteface page.
Despite my preference for the route starting at the reservoir, there is a shorter and easier route. From the crossroad of Rtes 431 and 86 at the center of Wilmington head as toward Whiteface on Rte 431. You'll quickly pass by the reservoir to your left and then drive a total (from the 431/86 intersection) of 2.3 miles to the left turn that takes you to the old ski-lift and some sort of scientific center.
As has already been noted, Esther was part of a two-mountain hike, coupled with Whiteface Mtn. By all means, climb both of these peaks on one hike. Overall, it was strenuous, although the individual peaks were each moderate. The initial climb from the reservoir is steep, although it is only a 770 ft elevation change. On the return, the descent seemed endless, but I suppose I was just ready to get to the car and drive to the A&W down the road for an ice-cold root beer. As I recall, I drank two.
Esther, if taken by itself, is a moderate hike that follows the ridgeline from Lookout Mtn. out to Esther's summit. It is characterized by a narrow, often wet, but always clearly defined herd path (ADK n/a, McM #80).
At Marble Mtn., there are some views from its rock summit. While you will agree that they aren't anything to write home about, get used to the fact that they are waaay better than what you will find on Esther. You will also find at Marble's summit, some long-abandoned ski lift machinery that serviced the former ski lift that passed away back before the days of the rape of Whiteface's slopes by the State of NY. The walk on the herd path to Esther offers a few inconsequential views, but the trees are very seldom sufficiently open to see any distance. At Esther's summit in 2001 the conifers obstructed most of the view and I'll bet you they haven't grown smaller since then.
Important Notes for Esther:
Watch for a very large cairn on the right side of the trail that marks the start of the herd path out to Lookout and Esther Mtns. (This cairn has been moved a couple of times, so use good judgment.) When you get to the cairn hang a right and you're good to go for Esther. Bob Langston reports that you will also see two much smaller cairns before the big one. These smaller cairns apparently mark a short path to a campsite and a path out to Marble Mt., respectively. We have heard (Nov 03) that these two small cairns may be gone now.
Once you've turned right at the big cairn, you'll quickly pass the summit of Lookout Mtn. on your right. Just look for the naked rock and more open space through the trees. If you have a camera and aren't going on to Whiteface today, this is the best and the only spot for photos. Once past Lookout, the trail will bear about 300° magnetic, gradually swinging right to about 330° by the time you reach the saddle. As the ridgeline slowly drops off Lookout into the saddle, you will get occasional glimpses of its rise to Esther's summit to your right. In the Lookout-Esther saddle you will run into a bog that will surely fill your boots if you aren't careful. Keep to the left and test each step before you put all your weight on it.
You may find reports elsewhere that are quite emphatic about the difficulty and nastiness of ascending Esther, due to the existence many confusing herd paths. Burnside's book, Exploring the 46 Adirondack High Peaks, is generally excellent, but in this case it is seriously misleading. While once there were many herd paths, today Esther's herd path is one of the better herd paths, both easy and unambiguous from start to finish.
If you plan to climb both Whiteface and Esther on this hike plan to bring along a hydration unit, preferably a 100 ounce bag. This is a dry hike all the way to both peaks with the exception of the small bog mentioned above. As that is still-water with a nasty appearance, we suggest you avoid drinking it. A true hiker, though---as we are sure you are---will prefer to risk poisoning himself at the bog, than to buy the bottled water and cokes at the refreshment stand at the summit of Whiteface. (The machine takes only correct change.)
Now that you have conquered Esther, go to the Whiteface Page to continue on to that summit. This hike was completed in the summer of 2001.
1. From Wilmington Reservoir ascend Marble and Lookout Mtns RED (ADK #82, McM #79)
2. Detour on herd path to Esther (ADK n/a, McM #80)
3. Ascend Whiteface Mtn RED (ADK #82, McM #79)