Mud Season—Now What?

What are the two most dreaded words in the English language?

Mud season.

The scourge of hikers. The nemesis of backpackers. The evil overlord of fun in the spring. What is it about mud season that brings about these feelings?

Well, for starters, hiking any High Peak (mountains over 4,000 feet) in the Adirondacks is out. And, for a good reason, I’d say. According to our friends over at the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), avoiding sensitive, high-elevation trails above 2,500 feet until they’re dried and hardened helps prevent irreparable damage.

But, what if you say, “To heck with it. I’m hiking. It’s only a little mud. What’s the big deal?”

It is a big deal—a pretty darn big deal, actually. So says Brendan Wiltse, and he should know: He’s spent the last seven years studying this kind of thing as the Science and Stewardship Director of the Ausable River Association.

“During mud season, trail conditions at high elevations often result in hikers deviating from the established trail or hiking along the sides, causing trail widening and erosion,” Wiltse says. “Soils at high elevations are often thin and prone to erosion. It only takes a few hikers walking on these thin, saturated soils to cause damage to the rare plants that live there.”

So, what can you do? You can embrace mud season. Realize that it will typically be you and very few other hikers out on the trails. Add in no bugs and warmer weather, and you have yourself a good time coming. And, during this season, please consider the following as alternatives until the Adirondack High Peaks have had the chance to dry out and get themselves ready for some boot-stompin’ summer hiking.

Credit: Kristi Brennan
Credit: Kristi Brennan

Baxter Mountain

How much summit fun can be packed into one tiny mountain? If your name is Baxter, apparently a whole bunch. The one-mile hike up is a pleasant stroll in the woods, with a 725-foot elevation gain before you pop up onto the summit. Make sure you find the path through the woods that will take you along the summit ridge line.

Hike: Hammond Pond Wild Forest, 2 miles RT, easy hike.

Credit: Kristi Brennan
Credit: Kristi Brennan

Hurricane Mountain from Route 9N

The best “Oh my God, no!” moment is when you step out for a view at 2.8 miles and see the fire tower still looks impossibly far away. Spoiler alert: It really isn’t that far—only 7/10ths of a mile to go! From here, it is a quick roller coaster of a hike through some pretty forest, before you get spit out onto the summit rock. Oh, and the views? They’re to die for. So, pack a lunch, and stay to enjoy the summit—in any season.

Hike: Hurricane Mountain Wilderness, 6.8 miles RT, moderate hike.

Credit: Kristi Brennan
Credit: Kristi Brennan

Jay Mountain

It ends in a 1.5-mile ridge hike. Need I say more? How about gentle switchbacks that your knees will thank you for, stellar views of Whiteface, and rock cairns taller than you? Still not enough? If a 1.5-mile ridge hike doesn’t make your heart go pitter-pat, then you probably should find a new outdoor hobby.

Hike: Jay Mountain Wilderness, 8 miles RT, moderate hike.

Credit: Kristi Brennan
Credit: Kristi Brennan

Mt. Jo

For a return on your investment, this is one of the best hikes out there. A mere 1.1 miles and 700 feet of elevation gain will get you some of the prettiest High Peak views from a non-High Peak summit. And, there are not one but TWO ways to reach the top: the Short Trail (steeper) or the Long Trail (less steep but longer).

Hike: High Peaks Wilderness Area, 2.2 miles RT for the Short Trail and 2.6 miles RT for the Long Trail, easy to moderate hike.

Credit: Kisti Brennan
Credit: Kisti Brennan

Ampersand Mountain

Which mountain do you summit when you want to feel as if you have worked for your hike AND you want 360-degree views? Ampersand. Not only are the sights gasp-worthy, but there is plenty of rock to pull up and sit a spell.

Hike: High Peaks Wilderness Area, 5.4 miles RT, moderate hike.

Credit: Kisti Brennan
Credit: Kisti Brennan

Haystack Mountain

No, not the High Peak. It’s mud season, remember? This one is just outside Saranac Lake and offers a mighty pleasant walk through the prettiest woods I’ve seen since the last time I hiked through trees and duff in the Adirondack Park. (Am I right? Isn’t every bit of the park absolutely gorgeous?) Don’t get too complacent, however, as the eventual elevation gain is serious enough to break a sweat, but the views from the open rock ledge are worth every droplet.

Hike: McKenzie Mountain Wilderness, 6.6 miles RT, easy to moderate hike.

 

Not sure what else is on the recommended “OK-to-hike-without-eroding-the-trails-further” list? Follow this link to a DEC page that will give you a full list of recommended mud season hikes, and make sure to also sign up for updates.


Unfinished Business

We dug in with our hands, kicked in with our feet, and essentially crawled our way up a ridiculously steep pitch. It wasn’t pretty, but we made it to the top and to level ground. To give my arms and legs a break, I lay down on my back, breathing heavily, and asked, “Is this it? Are we close to the summit?”

Dan, hiking buddy extraordinaire, pulled out his map and compass. “The enemy is here,” he said, pointing to a spot on the map. “And, we are here,” he continued. “We shall circle around and surprise them.”

“Shut it,” I said. “Seriously, are we close to the summit?”

Dan and I were in the midst of a bushwhack up Eleventh Mountain in the Adirondack Park. The day was heavy with humidity, the temperature was as equally unattractive, and I have a tendency to sweat—copiously. I was drenched. And, although turnaround times are common, mine was for a reason most hikers probably don’t need to address. I was meeting my ex, three hours away, to pick up my boys after they had spent the weekend with him.

We didn’t have much time left, and I was antsy to bag this summit. Plus, word on the street was that there were some pretty great views to be had from the ledges nearby.

“No,” Dan said. “We still have another mile to go. If we go for it, we won’t make your turnaround time.”

I groaned, rolled over, and hid my face in the pine duff. “Damn,” I thought. “Second summit in a row I’m going to miss.

Credit: Kristi Brennan
Credit: Kristi Brennan

Two in a Row

Failing to summit one mountain—well, that can happen. Failing to summit two in a row makes you start to wonder what you’re doing, and why it matters so much.

A couple weeks earlier, I had been in Wyoming. My childhood friend, Betty, and I meet up once a year to backpack. She’s on the West Coast, and I’m on the East Coast, so we meet somewhere close to the middle. This year, we chose to hike all around the Medicine Bow National Forest, with the coup de grâce of summiting Medicine Bow Peak. Snowy summits in August? You had me at snow.

Bad weather plagued most of our trip. Drenching rain chased us into our tents at 3 p.m. one afternoon and didn’t clear until 6 a.m. the following morning, which also happened to be our summit day.

Clouds were pushing up and over the peak early, but we both agreed to climb to the saddle and reassess the weather at that time. Up we climbed, through boulder fields and past picas who chirped threats at us for daring to walk near their homes, until we made it to the saddle at 11,000 feet.

What had started out as a near-perfect hiking morning was now dissolving into dark clouds that streamed over the summit. The darkening skies tinted our hearts, as well. Another mile of hiking up 1,000 feet would put us on the summit—but at what cost? So, we made the decision to turn back. Heading down, I kept casting glances back. Was it still cloudy? What if we hunkered in our tents for a couple of hours? Would a window open up later today? No matter how much sense the decision made, it hurt to turn around and leave unfinished business behind me.

Everyone who has climbed a mountain knows summit fever—the compulsion to reach the top at all costs.

So, what is it about failed summit attempts that eats at us? Is it merely a feeling of failure? Or, perhaps, a sense that we have lost control? Is it actually a refusal, on the part of those of us who like to challenge ourselves, to admit that something is actually too difficult for us?

Credit: Kristi Brennan
Credit: Kristi Brennan

Sometimes, the Only Way to Win is to Admit Defeat

“This hike will not be in my top 10 hikes,” I announced to Dan as we went back to the car. I was feeling off. Moody. Not only was our attempt unsuccessful, but the whack back off the mountain was longer than either one of us anticipated. I was scraped and scratched from my thighs to the top of my knee socks. Dried blood covered each knee from hitting branches sticking up from dead and downed trees that hid sneakily beneath the ground cover. Typically, these things don’t even register on my radar, but today, man—a second missed summit.

“So, I’m thinking this will be a nice hike in cooler weather,” Dan said as we neared the car. “Plus, the leaves will be down.”

This was Dan’s second attempt on Eleventh Mountain. Getting to a summit is partly why he hikes, too—partly. I asked him why he had wanted to try this peak again. He replied, “Wanting to do Eleventh Mountain is not because it’s a mountain summit, but because I wasn’t successful at doing something I can do and tried to do.” Dan went on to say, “Not completing something is unfinished business. It requires closure.”

Unfinished business. That phrase rang true enough, like the nagging self-doubt that whispers in your ear when you aren’t successful at your first attempt: “If you only had started earlier in the day, if you had hiked faster, if you didn’t take that long break…” Improve on any of these, and for this hike, there wouldn’t be any unfinished business—all the more reason to get back out and try again.

“Yeah. That’s true. With no leaves in the way, the views will be even better,” I answered. Already, the frustration and pain were ebbing and being replaced by the all-to-familiar rising feelings of excitement over another challenge, the next adventure, the hopeful sense of accomplishment, and earning that end-of-the-hike grin.

Credit: Kristi Brennan
Credit: Kristi Brennan