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Adirondack Hiking: Off the Beaten Path

27th April 2016 | Stephen Duncan

News Regions: Lake Placid

The view from Mt. Jo looking down on Heart Lake.

The view from Mt. Jo looking down on Heart Lake.

Copyright: Adirondack Mountain Club

Peak-baggers love to form clubs around numbers. There’s the Four Thousand Footer Club in New Hampshire celebrating the state’s 48 mountains above 4K. Two hours north of New York City is the Catskills 35ers Club for those who have climbed that region’s 35 designated peaks. In the West, Colorado has its 14ers, though the exact official number of summits that meet this qualification is still debated.

But the Adirondack High Peaks and its 46ers are perhaps the most legendary, with roots back to the 1920s when the original 4,000-foot peaks in Northern New York were identified. Despite the Adirondack Park encompassing 6.1 million acres—an area larger than Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier, Grand Canyon and Great Smokies combined—the High Peaks see a majority of the hiking action, with summer weekends sometimes filling trailheads by Friday afternoon.

The Johns Brook Valley, an access point to several classic hiking trails in the High Peaks region.  - © Brendan Wiltse

The Johns Brook Valley, an access point to several classic hiking trails in the High Peaks region.

Copyright: Brendan Wiltse

The popularity of these clubs is a double-edged sword: they encourage outdoor participation and environmental sensitivity, but also inevitably expose the mountains that are on “the list” to a significant beating and distract outdoor enthusiasts from spectacular views on the region’s other peaks. In fact, many of the lesser known trails in the High Peaks have better vantage points than their more popular cousins, with sprawling lookouts revealing Mt. Marcy, New York’s tallest point, and the rest of the Great Range family flanking her sides.

“We talk about that a lot as a part of our courses—that people should hike other areas to spread out the impact,” said Thea Moruzzi, Education Director for the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK), a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting the region’s environment. She has lived locally full-time since 2004 and lists Ampersand Mountain among her favorites. The rocky summit tops out at 3,352 feet, requiring a moderately strenuous climb of 2.7 miles one-way from the trailhead near Saranac Lake.

“It’s one of those ‘best of both world’ views,” Moruzzi said. “It’s on the edge of the High Peaks and has great views in that direction. But on the other side is Lake Country.” 

Local trail experts at The Mountaineer, the long-time go-to outdoor shop in the heart of the region, have several sub 4,000-foot favorites of their own, such as the summits of Hopkins, Hurricane and Rooster Comb.

“We don’t usually have a bias for or against 46ers, but if you asked my friends, most of them would say their favorite peaks are not 46ers,” said Jan Wellford, one of The Mountaineer’s sales associates and an area resident for nine years. “I personally like Rooster Comb just as much as any of the High Peaks.”

The southern reaches of the High Peaks Wilderness  - © Stephen Duncan

The southern reaches of the High Peaks Wilderness

Copyright: Stephen Duncan

Rooster Comb is a five-mile roundtrip trail with a series of relatively new switchbacks that lead to a long summit cliff at 2,700 feet, exposing hikers to the vastness of Adirondack Park. Stamped out less than a decade ago, the route is one of the region’s newest and a significant upgrade from the old trail, which was largely abandoned due to erosion. Hikers can start out along NY 73, eight miles from the US 9 junction.

A more remote option is Catamount Mountain, with a rock scramble through “the chimney” near the top revealing in-your-face vantage points of Whiteface Mountain and overlooking deep-blue colored Silver Lake and Taylor Pond. After trekking 1.8 miles one-way through lichen-blanketed forest, the trail progressively steepens on the way to the 3,168-foot summit, with nearby blueberries primed for picking late in the hiking season. 

“It’s off the beaten path and not as maintained as the others, but it’s a spectacular mountain,” Moruzzi said. “Catamount has a different feel than the other mountains. You can tell it doesn’t get a ton of use.”

The view from Mt. Jo looking down on Heart Lake.   - © Adirondack Mountain Club

The view from Mt. Jo looking down on Heart Lake.

Copyright: Adirondack Mountain Club

Other alternatives like Mt. Jo and Pitchoff Mountain may not avoid the issue of trailhead congestion, but they do offer desirable alternatives to the 46ers. Mt. Jo departs from the parking lot at Adirondack Loj and can be done as a two-mile loop leading to wide-open panoramas that may be the best in the entire park. The Great Range of Marcy, Algonquin, Wright and others are exposed in perfect sequence along the horizon. 

“I’ve hiked it a hundred times and I still get that ‘wow’ feeling,” gushed Moruzzi. “Huge views in front of you. One of the best in the High Peaks. You almost feel like you’re on one of them.”

Snack time on Mt. Jo overlooking the Great Range of the Adirondack High Peaks.  - © Courtesy of the Adirondack Mountain Club

Snack time on Mt. Jo overlooking the Great Range of the Adirondack High Peaks.

Copyright: Courtesy of the Adirondack Mountain Club

Pitchoff Mountain is best done as a five-mile traverse starting from the Cascade Mountain trailhead over an extended ridge that includes five sub-peaks and tops out at nearly 3,500 feet. A unique feature at 1.2 miles is the Balanced Rocks overlook, where two gravity defying boulders at the edge of a cliff appear to be seconds from falling over the precipice. There’s an added sensation of pleasure in knowing that those in the heavily-crowded parking lot from earlier are somewhere else, most likely Pitchoff’s neighbor and frequently-climbed 46er, Cascade Mountain.

“You park there with all these cars and go in a direction where no one else is going,” Wellford said.

The undulating horizon of the High Peaks from Adirondak Loj Road, an access point to several non-46ers.  - © Seth Jones

The undulating horizon of the High Peaks from Adirondak Loj Road, an access point to several non-46ers.

Copyright: Seth Jones

Mount Van Hoevenberg and Owl Head Lookout are among the additional mountains with a picturesque reward that won’t produce a checkmark on the list of 46ers. But where checklists can fail with blind or obstructed summits, there are often alternatives that can fill any photo album with calendar-worthy snapshots and deliver the environment a much-needed respite from the footprints of stomping hikers.

Gallery

Heart Lake - © Adirondack Mountain Club
A sunny porch and Adirondack chairs in Sundance, UT.
From Mt. Wright, looking out over Adirondack Park at several sub-46ers in the distance with equally pristine views. Photo by Steve Duncan
non-46ers - © Seth Jones

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