National Trails Day in the Adirondacks

A little over a month ago I set out to hike Mount Haystack, which, at 4960 feet, is the third tallest High Peak of the Adirondacks. Following last year’s hike up Mount Marcy (5344 ft), this would be my second of the 46 High Peaks.

I planned my approach to Mount Haystack from the Garden parking lot, in Keene Valley. Having read that the lot fills very early this time of year, a call to the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK) revealed that no shuttles would be running to the lot that weekend. So, I arrived as early as a Friday night drive with a decent sleep would permit. At around 6:45am, I was fortunate to find a parking spot, but only a few remained.

I signed the trail registry and was on my way. The morning was cold — around 40 degrees — at least this is what I remembered reading on my car’s dash on my way into Keene Valley from the Interstate. I was wearing a pair of shorts, a base layer, and a fleece (though my pack had a pair of pants, and other winter gear, if needed for the summit). I contemplated putting on gloves, but knew I would warm up quickly.

The trail was very damp, and within the first half mile I spotted a red eft, but refrained from taking a photo — I was in the zone. Before I knew it the sun was peaking through the trees. It was 8:00am and I had hiked three miles, leaving me at John Brooks lodge, a back-country hostel of sorts for hikers to sleep, eat, and get ready for their day in the mountains. It seemed as though many hikers had hiked in on Friday night and were beginning their day hikes from here. Not a bad idea…

I pressed on up the trail following along John’s Brook until I eventually crossed near Bushnell Falls, where the trail led me into what felt like a rain forest near the Slant Rock shelter, and eventually took me up the mountain where the ridges around me began to stand tall. Here, downed trees had trunks several feet across, covered in thick beds of moss that looked shaggier than an old 70’s VW rug. The sun was higher now, and fog was lifting as the forest warmed. Before reaching the ridge, which the trail would eventually climb over, dipping down the other side, the hike presented some steeper wet and rock-face challenges, which foreshadowed what I would encounter after my descent from Haystack.

Up and over the ridge, I followed the trail. Just a little down the other side and I was rewarded with my first view, facing South: Layers of mountains stood before me — an unknown peak to the East (on my left), and in the West, Mount Haystack and Little Haystack. Definitely time for a photo and a candy bar.

I could see two hikers at the top of the unknown peak to my left, and wondered if it, too, were one of the High Peaks. I pressed on, and arrived at “T” in the trail. Presumably, left would take me to the unknown peak. I stayed on course and turned right, approaching the alpine zone, and the base of Little Haystack. A lengthy section of boulder-riddled trail led me toward the alpine zone, but the rocky path which resembled a washed out stream bed was beginning to nag at my feet and spirit. After a fast morning hike, I had a ways to go to reach the summit, but my body was beginning to feel the weight of my pack, the soaking sun, and the pains of what would be a long day hike.

After reaching the treeline, I changed into my colder weather clothes, and climbed Little Haystack. As I walked into the cold air, a hiker greeted me and warned of the gusty summit of Haystack that was ahead. Little Haystack itself brought the reward of clear skies, with Mount Marcy to the West, the next mountain over. Mount Haystack’s summit was a short valley away, and was now within reach. I pressed on and was greeted by another hiker who was descending — he was only wearing tshirt and pair of shorts! I was chilly even with my layers, a reminder that you can never be too prepared in the mountains.

When I finally reached the top of Haystack, two more hikers greeted me. After helping each other out with photos, I found out that the man who took mine was celebrating Mount Haystack as his 46th summit on his 50th birthday! What a great way to complete the last of the High Peaks. I took a few photos from the top of Haystack, then hunkered down on the Southern side of the summit. A nice dip that was protected from the wind made good place to eat some lunch. Two down, 44 to go.

Moments later a handful of other hikers reached the summit, and a group joined me to eat their lunch. They too were seeking a break from the gusts. We talked a bit, and I asked about the unknown peak to the East where, earlier in my hike, I had seen two hikers at the top. They pulled out a map and explained I could take an alternate path back to John Brooks lodge that would let me knock out two more peaks, Basin Mountain and Saddleback Mountain. In that instant, my return hike had changed.

The trail to Basin and Saddleback would turn my hike into a loop, but not without challenges. Coming down Haystack was no problem, but I began to tire during Basin’s ascent. Basin offered steeper sections of wet, rock-faced, Adirondack trail, requiring more calculated steps, and occasionally grasping for tree trunks and exposed roots to maintain balance. Hiking with trek poles was not an option on the rock faces, so I strapped them to my pack for most of the climb. I reached the top where a group of three hikers warned me that Saddleback would be a rough one, considerably worse than my hike up Basin. One of the hikers pointed out they had already been to the Basin summit (where we stood) earlier in the day — they chose to backtrack from their summit of Saddleback instead of going down the other side. Another hiker added, “and I was puckering the whole way down”. Yikes.

At best, I would climb up and over Saddleback. At worst, I would have return and climb back to the top Basin, just as they had. Knowing that the shorter way back to the car was to press on, I did just that.

Basin’s ascent was more treacherous than I expected — steep, bare, and wet rock-face. I took my time, but had no idea what to expect of the ascent (and descent) of Saddleback. The trail continued down the ridge, poked out of the trees, then began its way up Saddleback. This was quite possibly the most dangerous portion of hiking trail I had ever encountered. It was steep rock-face, but there was a section or two that felt more like a climb than a hike. The ascent up Saddleback was certainly something I did not want to come back down. At the top, I snapped a few photos and took a breather. Four down. I was tired, but despite the unknown that lied ahead, I needed to press on.

As the trail descended, I ran into a group of hikers who were making the climb up the the other side of Saddleback which I had chosen to go down. (The map showed more than one route, but this one was the only reasonable path thad would complete my hike within the day.) Upon seeing them, I was immediately relieved that the descent would not be impossible, and a short conversation revealed that the worst section on the way down would be bridged by a ladder. Phew — this would be possible. I made my way down, and hours later reached the Garden lot.

Three summits in one day, bringing my total to four of the 46 High Peaks.