How to Hike During Mud Season in the 'Daks

The valleys and lower elevation mountains are starting to thaw, the grass is starting to appear again, and things are starting to warm up. All tell-tale signs that mud season is here.

In the Adirondacks, we know this also means that trails will soon be a lot more crowded. In the last few years, the number of people who want to get outside in the Adirondacks has steadily increased, and for good reason: It’s beautiful! Total visitors in the Adirondack Park has risen from 10 million in 2001 to more than 12.4 million in 2018. Of that, 88 percent of visitors come to the Adirondacks to hike, so we may see a record number of hikers this year.

But right now, just as hikers are awakening from winter hoping to get out and enjoy the trails, the trails are at the height of their vulnerability. Between mid-April and early June when the snow melts and the spring rain begins, the ground is still semi-frozen and it causes muddy conditions that cause irreparable damage to trails as people trek across them.

The good news is that there are a few things that you can do to stay on the trails this spring without damaging them.

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Follow Leave No Trace

The best way you can help protect your public lands is to Leave No Trace. Following the first principle—Plan Ahead and Prepare—will help you follow the other six, keep you safe, and protect the wild place you’re visiting:

  • Research your trip ahead of time, overestimate the difficulty of a hike, consider the needs of everyone in your group
  • Know the rules and regulations of the land you are visiting. Lots of public lands and specific trails are seasonally closed to hikers to prevent damage.
  • Check the weather and trail conditions before you go so you can pack and dress accordingly.

Walk Through, Not Around Mud

Wearing waterproof shoes will make sure that you’re always comfortably able to walk through, not around mud, preventing trail damage.

When hikers step through flat areas with insufficient drainage, it makes a mud pit. Then hikers tend to step around a mud pit, making the mud pit even larger, and larger. Then hikers will step around the mud pit, and trample vegetation around the trail, creating “herd paths”. Then these herd paths become muddy themselves and the cycle continues. Make sure to stay on the trail to prevent trails from widening needlessly.

Credit: Ryan Wichelns
Credit: Ryan Wichelns

Choose Your Hikes Carefully

Steep trails with thin soils are the most at risk for damage during this time of year, so picking a trail at lower elevation is the best thing you can do to help reduce your impact. A south-facing trail is generally a good pick because the trails are drier.

Near the High Peaks Region, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation suggests a few alternatives that will give you a great experience, without compromising the trails. These other hikes would also make great springtime alternatives. Or, for a different, less crowded experience, try one of the many low elevation loop trails in the Pharaoh Lake Wilderness, Cranberry Lake Wild Forest, or West Canada Lake Wilderness.

 

In the Adirondacks, we generally use this time of year to let the trails rest and plan our adventures for the next season. But if you must itch the hiking scratch and enjoy the Adirondacks, please do so responsibly.  


This Hike is a Blue Square: The Problems with NYS's Plan to Rate Hikes Like Ski Runs

The New York State Assembly is currently considering a bill that would rate the difficulty of hikes in the same manner in which ski areas rank the difficulty of their trails—black diamond for experts, blue square for intermediates, and green circle for beginners. According to New York State Assemblyman Chris Tague, the bill’s sponsor, the purpose of this trail-rating measure is to improve hiker safety. But this also begs the question—how does slapping a circle, square, or diamond at a trailhead do this?

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While the bill may provide a very generalized assessment of difficulty, it doesn’t say anything definitive about what a hiker is “in for” on a particular trail. Nor does it explain what hikers should be carrying in their packs in case of emergency. This is information that has historically been included in guidebooks and on signage found at many trailheads. Why not refocus this bill toward improving the existing information by consolidating it into an online region-by-region guidebook, then posting detailed trail descriptions at trailheads? That way hikers could easily research their objective before they left home and, if it was a last-minute outing, read about the hike at the trailhead. From websites giving detailed trail descriptions, (such as our Alpha Guides) to dedicated enthusiast websites, to personal blogs, much of this information already exists and consolidating these sources would give hikers a much better picture of what to expect (mileage, elevation, terrain difficulty, etc.) than a single symbol.

From websites giving detailed trail descriptions, to dedicated enthusiast websites, to personal blogs, much of this information already exists and consolidating these sources would give hikers a much better picture of what to expect than a single symbol.

A second concern with the proposal is that it doesn’t account for seasonal and weather-related changes to trail conditions. Consider a situation common to hikers in the Northeast, where icy conditions, a winter snowpack, or a water crossing with high water turn a moderate hike into an epic. Diligent hikers do their research, seeking out an up-to-date picture of what to expect on the trail before they leave home. Is New York going to similarly dedicate staff to changing that green circle into a black diamond when conditions warrant? More so, where community-based websites are already filling this role, aren’t the State’s resources better allocated to helping foster a state-wide trail condition forum like NewEnglandTrailConditions.com or TrailsNH.com (which already cover some of the state’s higher peaks)?

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A third problem is that difficulty is incredibly subjective. Simply scroll through the comments on some of the hiking pieces we’ve written for goEast or on a website such as AllTrails.com and it quickly becomes clear that one person’s easy hike is another’s nightmare. And it’s not just the web where the subjectivity influences trail descriptions and level of challenge—hikers are rarely in sync with the suggested completion times found in popular guidebooks. Once again, the ever-changing nature of trails and weather can play a role in this. Dry conditions and mild temps can make for an easy ascent one day, while slick, wet trails or heat and humidity can lead to struggles the next. It’s not dissimilar to a problem shared by many ski resorts—shred a black diamond run that’s filled with snow and it may feel easy, but encounter it later in the day when the snow has been scraped off and the challenge rises exponentially.

Simply scroll through the comments on some of the hiking pieces we’ve written for goEast or on a website such as AllTrails.com and it quickly becomes clear that one person’s easy hike is another’s nightmare.

It’s not only the dynamic nature of trails that make using a single rating to define their difficulty a problem, but the question also arises, what do we, as hikers, think is difficult? Will the ratings merely be based on mileage and elevation gain? What about the quality of the terrain? After all, a rough and rocky trail is much slower to navigate than a smooth trail. What about how rapidly the elevation is gained? Many of us find a slow, gradual ascent easier than a steeper, more direct ascent. Then, of course, there are technical bits such as water crossings, ladders, and steep sections which, depending on experience and comfort level, will feel easy for some and turn others around.

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Finally, what happens if hikers are planning on using multiple trails? Do two greens equal a blue? Or, three greens equal a black diamond? It seems to us that this system could quickly cause more confusion than it helps to clarify. In addition to sowing confusion, could rating hiking trails like ski runs lead to complacency? For example, would hikers be encouraged to leave behind essentials such as a headlamp because a trail is a green circle?

Do two greens equal a blue? Or, three greens equal a black diamond?

Interest in hiking and exploring our wild places is on the rise and thinking about how to make our trails safer and more inclusive should be on the top of people’s minds, especially those in charge of managing these places. But, while we feel like the New York’s heart is in the right place, we don’t think that rating hiking trails like ski trails is the solution they’re looking for.


The Top 10 Things to Do Around Whiteface This Winter

Whiteface Mountain, in Upstate New York, has significant history. It is one of the Adirondack region’s 46 High Peaks, home to the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympics, and features a ski resort with the largest vertical drop in the East. With these factors in mind, Whiteface Mountain has plenty to offer the winter adventurer. But, while the mountain and nearby Lake Placid are well known as skiing and vacation destinations, you have plenty of other options for a winter excursion.

1. Ski or Ride “The Slides”

On the East Coast, The Slides are some of the only true double black diamond trails. These natural landslide routes run adjacent to Whiteface’s main resort trails. However, you will need to hit the mountain during a good weather period, as The Slides are only open a few times a year, based on snow and safety concerns. To go, have a partner, be sure you have the expert skills needed, and realize that these are the real deal. Added to this last point, have your avalanche gear packed and ready to use.

Credit: Aaron Courain
Credit: Aaron Courain

2. Tour the Highway

The Whiteface Veterans’ Memorial Highway climbs the backside of the mountain. Besides offering vehicle access to the summit in summer, it serves as a wonderful winter touring route for backcountry skiers and snowboarders. This is typically one of the first early-season spots to do some laps. So, slap on the skins and climb the highway for either a mellow trip down the same route, or for access to the slides that bisect the highway for a fast ride down!

3. Enjoy the Après Ski

Recent upgrades and renovations mean that the Whiteface Resort base lodges offer plenty of options to have a few drinks by the fire after you hit the slopes. However, for great drinks, hearty meals, and live entertainment, head just a few miles north on Route 86 to the four corners in Wilmington, where you will find the Pourman’s Tap House. Depending upon when you’re there, stop by for the après ski specials, live music on Saturdays, and weekly wing nights.

Credit: Florin Chelaru
Credit: Florin Chelaru

4. Hike to the Top

Finished with a day on the black diamond runs and looking for more adventure? You can explore the other sides of the mountain by hiking or snowshoeing the marked hiking trails up to the mountain’s summit. To start, you have a choice of options. For one, begin from the Atmospheric Sciences Research Center and travel over Marble Mountain. Or, opt for a longer trek, beginning from Connery Pond and then ascending the mountain’s southwest shoulder. Just be prepared: The summit proper is open and exposed to the High Peaks’ notorious winter weather.

5. Spend a Night Out

If you are looking for a wilderness feel or are on a budget, check out the Wilmington KOA campgrounds, located just a few miles from the mountain and open year-round. The KOA offers everything from simple camping cabins to “rough it” to nice multi-room cabins with kitchens and fireplaces that are great for a group. Additionally, if you are up for a true outdoor experience, get your cold-weather gear dialed and camp in one of the lean-tos that surround the Adirondack Loj, about 15 minutes away.

6. Enjoy the Frozen Waterfalls

Just down the road from Whiteface is High Falls Gorge. At any time during the year, use the groomed trails, bridges, and walkways to view over 700 feet of waterfalls and dazzling displays of ice along the mighty Ausable River. Snowshoeing options exist here, as well.

7. Drink With the Locals

If you are willing to take the 15-minute drive to the sleepy village of Au Sable Forks, pick up some of the best hand-tossed pizza and specialty wings at a local favorite, Lance’s Place. If you are feeling a bit more adventurous, across the street is 20 Main, the area’s longtime backwoods watering hole. Here, you’ll find friendly bearded locals, cheap drinks, and an old-school indoor shuffleboard.

Credit: Chris Waits
Credit: Chris Waits

8. Be an Olympian

If you head just 15 minutes down the road from the mountain, you can make your way to the Olympic Sports Complex. Here, take a ride on a real Olympic Bobsled or Skeleton run. Or, hear the rumble of the sled rocketing down the track with a professional driver.

9. Meet Santa

If you are visiting with children, be sure to visit the North Pole. Who knew that the North Pole was just minutes away on Whiteface Memorial Highway? Home to Santa’s Workshop, the North Pole is a long-operated winter wonderland, where kids and adults alike can enjoy shows, rides, and attractions that center around Santa Claus himself.

10. Come Back in Summer

Many visit Whiteface to explore its wonderful winter history and activities. But, don’t forget about what it offers in summer. You’ll find world-class mountain biking in the resort itself, and the town’s system of trails has expanded greatly in recent years. As well, the Ausable River offers world-class trout fishing, and for taking a dip, you’ll find plenty of great swimming holes, including “Flume,” a local favorite just a few miles down the road.


Alpha Guide: Skiing the Whiteface Auto Road

alpha Guides | Better than beta.

A staple winter outing for cross-country and backcountry skiers in the Adirondacks, Whiteface’s Toll Road offers ease of access, a long route, and a large ascent, making it a great objective for those being introduced to backcountry skiing and for those looking to maintain their fitness for bigger objectives.

The Whiteface Veterans’ Memorial Highway is a five-mile stretch of paved road that ascends the opposite side of the mountain from the well-known ski resort. Every year, the Toll Road gates close for the winter season and re-open after all the snow melts in the spring, so winter access to the Toll Road is for non-motorized traffic only. This turns the five miles of eight-percent incline pavement into a long and flowing skiable trail.

As one advantage, the Toll Road doesn’t need much snow to be skiable. Because the base is smooth pavement instead of a rocky and lumpy trail, just a few inches of fluffy stuff transform the surface and make it one of the most reliable early-season ski tours. However, skiing to the top of Whiteface is only half the fun. From the end of the road, you have multiple options for descents, depending on conditions and ability.

NOTICE: There is work scheduled on the Whiteface summit elevator for the 2018/19 winter season. Because of this, the Toll Road will be plowed on weekdays. 

Quick Facts

Distance: 10.5 miles, out and back to the summit.
Time to Complete: Half-day for most
Difficulty: ★★
Scenery:★★★★


Season: November through April
Fees/Permits: None.
Contact: https://www.whiteface.com/activities/whiteface-veterans-memorial-highway

Download

Turn-By-Turn

From I-87 North, Take Exit 30 for 73W. Drive through Keene Valley and into Keene, bearing right onto 9N North. Take 9N into Jay and make a left onto 86, which will take you into Wilmington. At the main intersection of 86 and 431, follow 431 straight and up the hill to the toll house, following signs for the Whiteface Veterans’ Memorial Highway.

The parking area to ski the Toll Road is right at the Whiteface Memorial Highway toll booth (44.402276, -73.877192). In winter, the road is plowed up to this point. The toll booth will have its gate down and locked. Park to the side of the road, but be careful not to pull too far off the shoulder into the soft snow.

Credit: Aaron Courain
Credit: Aaron Courain

The Ascent

The Toll Road keeps a constant eight-percent grade for the entire 2,300 vertical feet, so the climbing begins immediately from the car and never lets off. Although the climb is consistent, however, it never feels steep. This lets you find a rhythm for efficient and consistent uphill skinning. It also helps those new to skinning get the basic motions down.

The road stretches and winds for a few miles. Along the way, the roadside picnic tables offer a few opportunities to take a break and enjoy the view. The higher you climb, the more the snow depth increases, and the trees become more and more buried. At 3.3 miles in, the road opens up to a northwest-facing view, with a picnic table. This spot also makes the base for the upper slides that run between the switchbacks (44.371359, -73.905634).

Credit: Aaron Courain
Credit: Aaron Courain

The Switchbacks

Here, you’ll spot the top of the mountain, so it might seem like you are just about finished, but you still have 1.7 miles of road and 700 feet of elevation to climb through the switchbacks. So, don’t get too excited yet. As you continue onto the switchbacks’ first turn—aptly names the Lake Placid Turn—you will find that the road opens up to a fantastic view of Lake Placid and the High Peaks. On a clear day, it’s easy to spend a lot of time here soaking in the sun and the views.

Past here, the road continues up, with a 0.8-mile stretch until the next switchback, which offers views of Lake Champlain, the Green Mountains, and beyond. Finishing the second switchback sends the road back west and into the final stretch to the Castle. This last section is just about at treeline, so expect high winds for the final stretch. The Castle (44.367348, -73.906213) is normally an operating cafe with warm drinks and food, but in the winter season, don’t expect to find any unlocked doors or hot meals waiting for you. As one benefit, it offers some shelter from the biting winds.

From the Castle, unclip your skis, and make the final ascent up the shoulder trail to Whiteface’s summit (44.365852, -73.903005). This section of the mountain is often windswept, so expect to find both bare ice or rock and deep snow drifts. Traction aids are highly recommended.

As is the case with any Adirondack summit, the top of Whiteface can offer spectacular 360-degree views on a clear day, or you could find yourself completely socked in with dense clouds. The summit may also be windswept and bitter cold; if you are trying to stay for more than just a few moments, the weather station, although locked, provides the only break from the biting winds. If you are fortunate enough to be up top on a clear day, the views of the surrounding High Peaks are crystal clear, and peering even farther to the east reveals the Green Mountains of Vermont and even New Hampshire’s Presidential Range beyond.

Lake Placid from the road. | Credit: Aaron Courain
Lake Placid from the road. | Credit: Aaron Courain

The Descent

Here is where skiers get more opportunities for backcountry fun. For skiers who are on Nordic setups or who are looking for a mellow descent, simply turn around and make your way back down the Toll Road. The mild pitch doesn’t make for fast skiing, but if you stay in your uphill skin track to build up momentum, you can shoot into the deeper snow to link a few turns before you slow down.

For backcountry skiers or snowboarders who are prepared and have the right abilities, and for when the conditions are good (having advanced avalanche knowledge is necessary), the top of the Whiteface Toll Road provides access to multiple slides. The previously mentioned slide that cuts through the Toll Road switchbacks is the obvious choice if you want to easily end up back at your car.

The slide begins at the top of the Toll Road near the Castle. However, entrance to the slide requires a careful hop over the stone wall into the snow. Be sure not to hop over at the wrong spot; otherwise, you will have a long fall. Once at the base of the Toll Road wall, clip or strap in, and make your way down the slide to the Toll Road’s first crossing. The slide’s upper portion is steeper than the lower portion, and may have an icy base obscured by a thin layer of snow.

When the slide reaches the Toll Road, cross and find a weakness in the trees on the other side of the road. The entrance to the slide’s lower half is steep, but it soon mellows out. Keep in mind that this section seems to collect snow more easily, due to having more vegetation and less wind exposure. When you get to the Toll Road again at the switchbacks’ bottom, you have reached the end of the slide. Now you can opt to head back up for another lap, or continue back to your car.


Credit: Aaron Courain
Credit: Aaron Courain

The Kit

  • Every backcountry adventure requires a place to stash your layers, food, and extra gear. The Osprey Kamber 32 Ski Pack has all the durability, volume, and accessories you need to hold your skis and equipment for whatever tour or winter adventure you find yourself in.
  • Proper layering is key to a happy day of ski touring. The EMS Feather Pack Hooded Jacket is a lightweight, packable, and very warm down jacket, which itself is a crucial component of any layering system. You will be happy to have the low weight on the uphill and the extreme warmth on the downhill.
  • While a simple pair of sunglasses suffices on Whiteface’s summit in the summertime, in the winter, you will want the added protection of a pair of ski goggles, like the Native Eyewear Spindrift. These goggles have a wide field of vision and offer an easily interchangeable lens system, which lets you choose the right lens color for the conditions ahead.
  • While countless skis are appropriate for skiing the Toll Road and more routes, the Fischer S-Bound 112 finds a happy place between a Nordic touring ski and a true backcountry ski. The waxless base with a scaled mid section allows for plenty of grip on the uphill, and for steeper tours, the ski is also compatible with climbing skins for when more traction is needed. The shaped cut with a 78mm waist provides plenty of float and turning ability for the downhill in all but the deep powder days.
  • Collapsible trekking poles often have an advantage in the backcountry over a solid ski pole. But, any pole needs to have a set of powder baskets at the bottom, or else, it will basically be useless in deep, fluffy snow.

Credit: Aaron Courain
Credit: Aaron Courain

Keys to the Trip

  • It’s always a good idea to check the ski conditions and recent snowfall before a day of backcountry skiing. Too little snow means scraping your skis up and down pavement for miles. After a big dumping of snow, however, the Toll Road’s mellow grade may require just as much effort to go downhill as it does for uphill. The NERFC provides plenty of snow forecasting and data, so that you can make informed decisions on the best time to ski.
  • If you are venturing into Adirondack slide skiing, avalanche safety and preparedness are a must. Unlike Tuckerman Ravine, the Adirondacks have no avalanche forecasting. Nonetheless, having the proper knowledge is crucial for a safe day of backcountry skiing. Thankfully, the EMS Schools offer avalanche training for those who want to venture into the snowy backcountry.
  • When you come back down from the summit, head right back down the hill into Wilmington to stop at Pourman’s Taphouse. They have delicious, warm food with plenty of beers on tap to get the creative juices flowing for planning your next trip.
  • There is work scheduled on the summit elevator for the 2018/19 winter season. Because of this, the Toll Road will be plowed on weekdays. However, if a Friday or weekend snow fills in the Toll Road for the weekend, then, it’s game on!

Credit: Aaron Courain
Credit: Aaron Courain

Current Conditions

Have you recently skied Whiteface’s Toll Road? What did you think? Post your experience in the comments for others!


The Rescue Report: Falls On Ice in the High Peaks

Accidents happen and plans go awry—That’s just part of what makes an adventure. But when they get really bad, oftentimes hikers need a little help. Thankfully, across the Northeast and the country, there are experienced professions in place to lend a hand when an adventure makes a bad turn. In New York State, that comes in the form of Forest Rangers from the Department of Environmental Conservation. But no matter how well they do their job, we would all probably prefer to not need their services and get out of the woods on our own. Luckily for us, the DEC is also a resource of information, regularly sharing the incidents that rangers respond to. Necessary reading for Adirondack explorers, we’re taking them a step further and adding commentary from experienced rescuers, emergency personnel, and backwoods folk, so that you might know what not do to the next time you’re outside, and how to avoid needing a rescue and being in the DEC report yourself.

Would you do something differently, have another suggestion for ways to avoid these situations, or a question about the best thing to do? Leave a comment!

View more incident reports from the DEC, here.

Falls On Ice in the High Peaks

Town of Keene, Essex County: On Oct. 23 at 1:22 p.m. DEC’s Ray Brook Dispatch received a transferred 911 Essex County call from an injured hiker in the High Peaks. The hiker, a 42-year-old woman from Nederland, Texas, was descending the Algonquin trail just below MacIntyre Falls when she fell on ice and twisted her ankle. The injury was described as non-weight bearing. Seven Forest Rangers and two members of the Ray Brook DEC trail crew responded to assist with a possible carry out. The first Forest Ranger reached the injured hiker at 3:10 p.m. After applying first aid and warming the hiker, the Ranger assisted her walking to the junction where the old Algonquin trail meets the existing trail. Rangers Daniel Fox and Kevin Burns arrived with a UTV and evacuated the woman and her gear out to the Adirondack Loj by 4:40 p.m. The hiker declined further medical care.

Town of Keene, Essex County: On Oct. 28, a 19-year-old Mount Sinai man and a 20-year-old Syracuse man reported to DEC Ray Brook Dispatch that they were near the summit of Mount Marcy when one of the men injured his knee after falling on the slippery terrain. Six Forest Rangers and the Lake Colden interior caretaker were dispatched to evacuate the pair. A rescue by helicopter was prohibited because of cloudy, rainy weather. The pair met up with one Ranger during their descent and continued to slowly hike out to Marcy Dam. Within five hours of their call, the pair were transported by UTV to the Adirondack Loj parking lot, where both men said they would seek further medical attention on their own.

Analysis: These two scenarios are similar as they both involve a slip leading to a fall, a lower extremity injury, and the cold winter-like weather that we had been experiencing at the end of this October. In the case of the first rescue near MacIntyre Falls, the rescue effort was roughly 4-hours shorter because of easy access to a road. In more remote terrain on Mount Marcy, the injured person was much farther away from definitive medical care.

In both cases, weather is an important factor to consider. The Fall season in the mountains sees many accidents and injuries. The combination of a change in weather and the decisions of how to prepare for a late-fall hike in the mountains both seem to be significant factors. Often times the weather in the valleys can be quite pleasant at a lower, less exposed elevation, but in the High Peaks, conditions are much more winter-like with snow, ice, rain, cooler temps, and wind chill. One of the best ways to prevent slips and falls as the ground begins to freeze is to use a traction device on your boots such as Microspikes. Remember to look closely at the mountain-specific forecast for a more accurate depiction of expected weather to help guide your gear and route selection for a fun day out.

Waiting On A Rescue

Town of Newcomb, Essex County: At 5:36 p.m. on Sept. 30, DEC’s Ray Brook Dispatch received a call from a hiker reporting his partner had injured his knee descending a steep, eroded section of the Mount Adams Trail. The 71-year-old hiker was located less than a quarter mile from the summit of the peak and was unable to put any weight on the leg. Under the authority of Lt. John Solan, several Forest Rangers and one assistant Forest Ranger were requested to assist with a night carry-out of the injured party. At 10:08 p.m., Forest Rangers arrived at the hiker’s location and provided patient care. Once the patient was stabilized and secured in a litter, Rangers began the difficult carry out to a staged six-wheeler at the base of the mountain. With slippery, steep, and hazardous conditions, the rescue required low-angle rope rescue techniques. At 1:20 a.m. on Oct. 1, the man from Tolland, Conn., was out of the woods and Newcomb Volunteer Ambulance transported him for further medical treatment.

Analysis: This is an example of how a of a rescue in remote, rugged terrain can significantly affect the time it takes to evacuate an injured person.  It took 5.5 hours for help to arrive to the location of the injured person. If this person had been ill prepared in inclement weather, a 5.5 hour wait without moving can easily lead to other injuries such as hypothermia. Additionally, had the party not had cell service, response time could double from going to get help rather than calling for help. Consider a GPS communicator for reliable communication and access to emergency help.


Lessons on Grace: Lost in the Dix Range

On August 19th at 9:30 a.m., I entered the Dix Range, solo, for an intended 18-mile traverse over its five High Peaks. I was running late. Many attempt the loop hike as a day trip, albeit a long one, so I had intended to start hours earlier than I actually did. Rather than change my plans, I would just have to hike faster. Simple.

My gear consisted of three liters of water in a CamelBak, three apples, two Clif bars, two lighters in a Ziploc bag, a Swiss army penknife on my keys, a great pair of Scarpa boots, and an athletic T-shirt and shorts. En route to the trailhead, I texted my father the GPS coordinates and told him that if he hasn’t heard back from me by 9:00 p.m., I have died and he should search for me there. It was a bad joke that would only get worse.

At this point, I had hiked primarily along the Appalachian Trail’s fully blazed trails, and climbed a half-dozen High Peaks before, all with clearly marked, easy-to-follow paths. I knew that some were marked less clearly, but I didn’t realize this route would be notoriously difficult to follow. The maps I had downloaded from AllTrails made it look like any other trail. At the same time, the GPS coordinates I was using as my starting point weren’t for the main trailhead, either.

Instead, I set out from the Route 73 entrance on an unmaintained herd path. However, High Peaks guidebooks dropped this route decades prior. Cairns placed across the river, sometimes hundreds of feet away and with no clear path of boulders to leapfrog across, indicated river crossings. At junctions, a large broken branch indicated the turn. For someone who frequently gets lost in his own hometown, this was like hiking blindfolded.

I lost a good hour and a half following this vague route and killed a large chunk of my phone’s battery while trying to follow the GPS track before I even touched a summit. Feeling the lost time, I started jogging.

After reconnecting with the Bouquet Forks Trail, I quickly summited Grace and South Dix. I arrived on the summit of my third peak—Macomb—at just shy of 4 p.m. At the summit, I met a quartet of women who were finishing their final peak. They graciously offered their map to cross-reference against my dying phone to figure out my route. The leader recognized the gravity of my situation: “Even if you ran the whole way, you couldn’t finish this five-peak loop before sunset.”

Then, my phone died in my hand. I put it back in my pocket, without saying a word.

The author meeting other hikers on top of tk. | Courtesy: Allison Kozel
The author meeting other hikers on top of Macomb. | Courtesy: Allison Kozel

Racing the Light

The quartet had entered the Dix Range from the Elk Lake Trailhead. At 4 p.m., they had just finished all five of their peaks, doing the loop clockwise and ending on Macomb. In retrospect, I should have abandoned my plan here and exited the wilderness with the group. That would have entailed descending the Macomb Slide with them to their car and bumming a ride back to my VW Beetle at the Route 73 entrance.

That is not what happened. I fully understood it was now impossible to complete the full loop with the dwindling daylight, but I felt I could haul at a clip and retrace my steps back to my car without relying on joining the group of women. I even congratulated myself for the compromise, believing abandoning my plan signaled maturity. Without realizing, I had simply downgraded from the impossible to the extremely difficult, sidestepping a surefire successful exit.

Giving up on completing all five peaks, I started running back down Macomb, retracing my steps over the three peaks I had summited earlier. After returning to Grace, I knew I had minimal light left, but knowing I was off the peaks and in the last several miles back to my car buoyed me forward.

But, the switchbacks on the river, already difficult to follow at a walk, were impossible at a jog. Ducking over and under boulders and waterfalls and navigating a route marked only by cairns, I lost my path, and doubled back. Was that pile of rocks a cairn? Was that branch intentionally broken to indicate direction? I found other herd paths that were not mine. I realized I was losing light fast, and was no longer sure I was even on the right river. Holding my hand to the sun, I had just fingers left of light before the horizon.

Running through my inventory, I realized I had almost no equipment at all: no jacket, tent, blanket, iodine tablets, or anything. My focus shifted immediately from getting out of the woods to surviving them. I decided I needed to get a fire going to keep warm when the temperatures would likely drop into the mid-40s.

There was no time for panic. I found a large downed birch near the bank of the river. It was perpendicular to its course and high enough off the ground to break the wind—perfect for me to lay back against. Then, I scrambled together firewood, until the last ray of light disappeared, and built a small fire in front of my improvised windbreak shelter. From 8 p.m. to 6 a.m., I fed the fire continuously, occasionally awakened by the cold whenever the fire began to ebb. I reached into the dark for my wood pile, fed, and adjusted the fire, before settling again into sleep.

The stars were infinitely clear. Any rustling heard throughout the night never felt threatening. I was never particularly uncomfortable. Though I never forgot the gravity of my situation, the solemnity and clarity of my home for the night filled me with a peace and awe that I have never experienced so intensely before. Though I had little with me, I had just enough for the night.

Credit: Lecco Morris
Credit: Lecco Morris

Searching for a Way Out

When I awakened again at dawn, the embers were down to nearly nothing. And, there was nothing left in my pile of dry wood.

So, I resolved to bushwhack to find my herd path and get out of the woods on my own steam. I began walking up and down one side of the river, spending several hours being torn apart by shrubs and overgrowth. I found dozens of other herd paths, following many of them until their ultimate conclusion: nowhere.

Sometime in the late morning, I realized it would be impossible for me to locate the path without more information, and that I was helplessly lost. While searching, I was wasting energy on a task I realized was fruitless. I cursed my lack of a map. I sat down and took stock.

Panic crept into my mind for a minute or two as I steadied myself on a rock. The sky above started to take the bruised color of filling clouds. Searching any longer for the path would be useless, but I needed to get out of the woods before I had to reckon with a storm.

In the early afternoon, I decided to stay put, hoping for rescue. In the river, a large sandbar mostly made of pebbles stood, flanked by a beaver dam on the downward side. I started making a signal fire from the driftwood. Remembering that birch bark burns oily and black, I leapt from the sandbar and scrambled up a mud wall. In those dozens of trips for birch bark, I cut long strips off a blowdown birch with my minuscule penknife.

I had less than a liter of water by this point, so I couldn’t risk lengthy sun exposure. Instead, if I heard rotors or saw a chopper, I would leap out from the shade to throw more birch onto the fire and would hope they saw the smoke in time.

For about three hours, I hoofed birch bark to the sandbar whenever I heard rotors up close, and threw pounds and armfuls onto the fire, trip after trip. Two or three times, I actually saw a chopper cresting the ridge. Eventually, I realized I needed to wrap my psyche around the idea that I might not be found for days, and thus would need to ration water for an unknown length of time. The deepening bruise in the sky also made me think the coming night would be a wet one. I couldn’t survive an unprotected windy night in the rain at sub-50 degrees, and had to make a lean-to.

By late afternoon, I was far from starving. However, in an effort to prepare myself for being stuck in the woods for an indeterminate length of time, I decided to find something to eat. If it came to killing an animal, I wanted to cross that line earlier rather than later. Although the frog lurking at the river’s muddy bank was too fast for me, I noticed many orange salamanders with black spots (later identified as Eastern red-spotted newts). I am aware that slow-moving, brightly colored animals are commonly toxic. However, in this case, I figured eating a few would be an okay way to test this rule.

I found two, said “I’m so sorry” aloud as I speared them with a stick, and cooked them over the signal fire. Because they were so unbelievably terrible, I presumed they were low-level toxic (I was right). Then, I attempted to figure out how to construct a lean-to.

The author on Macomb. | Courtesy: Allison Kozel
The author on Macomb. | Courtesy: Allison Kozel

A Cloud of Fire

As I schemed how I would build a shelter and what I would use, I heard the sound of a chopper quickly getting closer and closer. Heart pounding, I ran back out to the sandbar, waving my hands and screaming, “HELLO! HELP!” At the very moment the chopper crested the ridge, a voice 30 feet to my left exclaimed, “Philip Morris?”

“Is that a human? Yes! It’s me!”

“Are you injured?”

“No. What’s your name?”

“Pat.”

Out of the shrubs appeared a tall, clean-faced young man—younger than me. He had been in the woods for some time.

10 seconds prior, I was alone, having not seen another human for 24 hours. Now it was me and Pat, on a sandbar. An enormous DEC helicopter kicked up dust and leaves in a cyclone over the water.

Pat leapt over the river to the sandbar and radioed to the chopper, now directly overhead. I had intentionally chosen a sandbar large enough for a chopper to land, but hadn’t anticipated the downdraft over the fire and the embers shooting into the sky. For a moment, it felt like a war rescue operation. Pat and I jumped back to pour countless Nalgenes of stream water onto fire. The chopper came down as a maelstrom of sticks, leaves, and dirt swirled around us.

They strapped me into one of the four seats. Just like that, it was over. The chopper was unbelievably loud, and no one spoke. During the entire flight back to Keene, I didn’t spot a single sign of human habitation in any direction. I had ended up taking a tributary off the main river. My car, meanwhile, still sat several miles away, along another branch. Waves of green rolled in every direction as far as the eye could see.

The author and his rescuers. | Courtesy: Kathleen Morris
The author and his rescuers. | Courtesy: Kathleen Morris

True Professionals

After my parents hugged me, the entire DEC team took turns giving me bear-hugs. My mother, of course, had already promised them that if they found me, I would perform piano pro bono at a DEC event. While I was sure the DEC would ream me out for my lack of knowledge, they were simply glad I came out unscathed.

The DEC team’s professionalism in the High Peaks cannot be overstated. From interviews with my parents, they had built a whole personality profile for me, had dispatched a chopper, and had teams on foot canvassing the area. The officer my parents had spoken to at midnight the prior night stayed on his shift and didn’t leave his post until I was found.

The world is a playground, yes, but comparatively requires a lot more respect and preparation. I have no illusions that a series of thoughtless, compounding errors built on cavalier overconfidence resulted in a huge mobilization of people, grey-hair inducing worry for my family, and a real risk to my life.

I hope that sharing this story makes similarly overconfident folks pause to prepare, and to recognize the humble station that humans occupy in the wilderness. I’ve resolved to never rely on my phone for a map. And, to prepare for only the most ideal outcome, I’ll no longer bring the absolute minimum of gear. To take off into the High Peaks at any point, whether you’re anticipating an overnight or not, it is essential to bring a print map, a good compass, multiple layers (even in summer), iodine tablets, a good knife, and more food than the bare minimum, and to arm myself each and every time with prior research. Physical capacity and good survival instincts are no substitute for preparation.

I survived the night and had a DEC Park Ranger find me. They choppered me out of the High Peaks from a fiery sandbar in the middle of a whitewater stream, framed by one of the Adirondacks’ most remote mountain ranges. While this enduring image humbles me, I’m still thankful for it. The knowledge I gained has put that much more of the wild world within reach.

Credit: Lecco Morris
Credit: Lecco Morris

The Rescue Report: A Broken Leg on Armstrong and Gothics

Accidents happen and plans go awry—That’s just part of what makes an adventure. But when they get really bad, oftentimes hikers need a little help. Thankfully, across the Northeast and the country, there are experienced professions in place to lend a hand when an adventure makes a bad turn. In New York State, that comes in the form of Forest Rangers from the Department of Environmental Conservation. But no matter how well they do their job, we would all probably prefer to not need their services and get out of the woods on our own. Luckily for us, the DEC is also a resource of information, regularly sharing the incidents that rangers respond to. Necessary reading for Adirondack explorers, we’re taking them a step further and adding commentary from experienced rescuers, emergency personnel, and backwoods folk, so that you might know what not do to the next time you’re outside, and how to avoid needing a rescue and being in the DEC report yourself.

Would you do something differently, have another suggestion for ways to avoid these situations, or a question about the best thing to do? Leave a comment!

View more incident reports from the DEC, here.

A Broken Leg on Armstrong and Gothics

Town of Keene, Essex County: On Sept. 17 at 1:50 p.m., Ray Brook Dispatch received a call from a hiker advising that her husband, a 68-year-old male from Hinesburg, Vt., had suffered a possible fracture to his femur while hiking between Armstrong and Gothics mountains. The male hiker’s injury was non-ambulatory. Phone coordinates obtained by Essex County 911 placed the pair near the summit of Armstrong Mountain. Forest Rangers were dispatched to coordinate the rescue effort. Three Rangers were picked up by a New York State Police Aviation helicopter and two Rangers were inserted on the summit of Armstrong Mountain. The Keene Valley Rescue Ambulance staged at Marcy Field with an Advanced Life Support crew. One Ranger was staged at Keene Valley Fire Department with a ATV in the event a hoist extraction could not be performed. The Rangers inserted on Armstrong Mountain hiked down to the injured hiker, stabilized his injury, and outfitted him with a rescue harness. He was then hoisted out by the helicopter and airlifted to Marcy Field, where he was turned over to Keene Valley Rescue for transport to Elizabethtown Community Hospital. The Rangers that were inserted assisted the remainder of the hiking group out of the woods six miles with their gear, and the incident concluded at 4:30 p.m.

Analysis: This is a great example of a well-coordinated rescue for a serious injury that went relatively quickly. A 6-mile carryout in rough terrain could easily take 12 hours or more and require many rescuers. A helicopter evacuation can often be much faster and safer for everyone involved in the rescue. Unfortunately, mountain weather and terrain can often prevent a helicopter from accessing an injured person in the mountains. It is important for recreationists to remember that access to a helicopter is not always possible and it should not be considered a reliable option in a backcountry emergency. Dealing with a broken leg in the backcountry is never an easy situation, but having a responsible hiking partner with some Wilderness First Aid training and supplies, reliable communications, and a thorough trip plan, can help greatly during a backcountry emergency.

Splitting-Up on Allen Mountain

Town of Newcomb, Essex County: At 5:03 a.m. on Sept. 17, DEC’s Central Dispatch received a call for Forest Ranger assistance from Essex County 911 for two hikers lost on Allen Mountain. The group of three from Rochester had planned to hike Marshall and Allen mountains, but one of the hikers suffered a minor knee injury while climbing Marshall. The subject stayed at the Calamity lean-to with his camping gear while the other two subjects decided to hike Allen Mountain. On the trail, the pair became lost and spent the night in the wilderness. The next morning, they hiked up Skylight Brook to try to obtain cell coverage and called 911 for help. Based on the coordinates provided, Rangers located the two hikers, who were cold but in good condition. They were escorted back to the Calamity Brook lean-to where they were reunited with their companion and hiked out. The incident concluded at 2:30 p.m.

Analysis: This situation is a near-miss after an unexpected injury changed the group’s travel plans. The hikers decision to split up, put two group members over 5 miles from from the injured member without communication resulted in an additional hiccup in the groups outing. The sum of unexpected outcomes and mishaps in the backcountry often lead to serious incidents with undesirable outcomes. Had the weather been worse, in this case, spending a cold, wet night in the mountains can lead to hypothermia or other injuries and the hikers could have faced a much worse outcome. When unexpected mishaps happen in the backcountry, it’s always best to default to conservative decision making and come up with a new plan.


goEast's Favorite Adirondack Weekend Adventures

Is there a better time to explore New York’s Adirondack Park than the fall? We can’t think of one. From the majestic rocky summits of the High Peaks to the low, loon-dotted, swinging lakes of the St. Regis Canoe Area, to a locally-brewed post-adventure beer in Lake Placid, a fall weekend in the Adirondacks has something for everyone. How much can you pack in between Friday night and Monday morning? Use these guides to our favorite ADK weekend adventures to plan your trip and soak up every last drop of that crisp Adirondack foliage.

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Our favorite hiking trip: Climb to the top of New York State

Climbing Mount Marcy is a rite of passage for many area hikers, whether it’s a personal goal on its own or a small piece of the pursuit to become an Adirondack 46er. Beginning from the High Peaks Information Center (HPIC) at the serene Heart Lake, this moderate, 14.5-mile hike passes scenic areas, like the old Marcy Dam and Indian Falls, before climbing for a half-mile on the windswept, rocky slope above treeline to a summit with spectacular 360-degree views of the surrounding Adirondack landscape and adjacent mountains. Mount Marcy is a special place in the High Peaks Wilderness, more than five miles away from any road and a mile into the sky and reachable only by those on foot, thus making it a worthwhile journey into a wilderness as deep as you can find anywhere in the region. Need the beta? Read our Alpha Guide.

Honorable Mention: Test your navigational skills and climb 5 High Peaks via a series of herd paths.

Honorable Mention: Leave the 46ers to the crowds and get high on these less-than-4,000-footers.

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Our favorite paddling trip: Paddle a classic route through the St. Regis Canoe Area

The Adirondacks’ St. Regis Canoe Area includes some of the Northeast’s most pristine paddling opportunities. Enough waterways and canoe carries connect this massive expanse of lakes, letting paddlers explore and enjoy them for days on end. But, as one of the area’s most classic routes, Seven Carries takes you through a variety of wilderness ponds and wildlife habitats, giving you a great taste of everything this area has to offer.

The Seven Carries route was originally created as a transport route between the Saranac Inn, which has since burned down, and Paul Smith’s Hotel, now known as Paul Smith’s College. Now the route only has six carries and takes paddlers through three lakes and seven ponds. This one-way trip can be done in either direction and requires two cars. Although the route is a relatively short nine miles, some paddlers will want to turn it into an overnight trip to enjoy one of the many quiet, waterfront campsites on St. Regis Pond. Don’t put in without reading our Alpha Guide.

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Our favorite post-adventure activity: Rehydrate in Lake Placid

As with any big hike or paddle, it’s the trudge back to the parking lot that can get a little long. As winter daylight begins to fade on the back end of a long November trek, I’m sometimes cursing outselves for not trimming that one toenail that’s banging against my boot’s toe box or simply convincing myself that the hike down, with its steep icy sections, would be so much faster than the one up.

Then, my mind wanders to that first cold beer and hot bowl of chili awaiting me at one of the many Lake Placid eateries when we’re finally out of the mountains. Imagining the bartender topping off that big draft is the vision that keeps me going. Need suggestions? Read about the four best LP watering holes, here.

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Our favorite fall must-do: Check out the foliage, obviously

One of the things that the Northeast is known for is of course it’s extensive fall foliage. Fall is also a time when cool mornings and sunny weather draw many to the regions network of hiking trails. There is perhaps no better place to combine the beauty of Autumn and a passion for hiking than the Adirondack Mountains. The backdrop of the rugged Adirondack peaks, the reflections of its countless ponds and lakes, and the fiery colors of the regions hardwood forest create a spectacular scene around the month of October which is arguably unrivaled in the country.

While the massive Adirondack Park covering nearly one third of the state offers countless destinations, below are three of the finest places to combine great hiking and the warm glow of Autumn’s colors. Pick the best spots using our guide.


3 Adirondack Fall Foliage Hotspots

The Northeast, of course, is known for its extensive fall foliage. Added to this, the season’s cool mornings and sunny weather draw many to the region’s network of hiking trails. To combine the two, there’s no better place than the Adirondack Mountains. The backdrop of rugged peaks, reflections on its countless ponds and lakes, and the hardwood forest’s fiery colors create a spectacular, unrivaled scene around the month of October.

While the massive Adirondack Park covering nearly one-third of the state offers countless destinations, below are three of the finest places that combine top-notch hiking with the warm glow of autumn’s changing foliage.

Credit: Lucas LaBarre

Credit: Lucas LaBarre

Giant Mountain Wilderness

One of the most popular High Peaks, Giant Mountain offers some amazing views into the Keene Valley area from its summit. However, within the immediate area, a few other less-crowded hikes are just as rewarding. Start from the northern trailhead on Rt. 9N to travel just 2.4 miles to the short-but-steep spur trail to Owl Head Lookout. Here, you’ll get nearly 360-degree views of Giant, Rocky Ridge, Green, Hopkins, Hurricane, and many other nearby peaks.

Also within the immediate area, extensive hardwood glades provide brilliant colors during the season’s peak. For another longer day, look to climb towards Rocky Ridge Peak from the Rt. 9 trailhead in New Russia. A more difficult trek, this hike encompasses over 4,000 feet of elevation gain, but the views start early and continue to Blueberry Cobbles and Bald Peak. Both along the way are worthy targets in their own right, if you don’t want to complete the whole traverse.

Credit: Ryan Wichelns
Credit: Ryan Wichelns

Boreas Ponds Tract

Just two years ago, this area of over 20,000 acres opened to the public via a state purchase. Access is from Gulf Brook Road, located off Blue Ridge Road, just a few miles west of exit 29 on the Northway. A few miles down Gulf Brook Road leads you to a new parking lot for hikers. From here, you can hike or bike a decent dirt road into the Boreas Ponds, enjoying the open forest’s brilliant colors on either side. At 2.6 miles, you’ll come across a bridge over the LaBier Flow, itself a magnificent scene. Hang a right at the intersection just ahead, and you’ll soon arrive at the Dam and southern end of Boreas Ponds.

The view towards Panther Gorge, Mount Marcy, Haystack, and other peaks, with the Ponds in the foreground, is one of the Adirondacks’ finest. This newly opened area will likely soon have established campsites and DEC trails to explore, as well. If you are feeling adventurous, the dirt road continues around the Ponds’ east and north sides, offering more wonderful fall views of a forest that has not been open to the public in over a century. Please be aware that bikes cannot be taken beyond the Dam.

Credit: Lucas LaBarre
Credit: Lucas LaBarre

Pharaoh Lake Wilderness

The Pharaoh Lake area near Schroon Lake offers a host of trails, most of which are moderate and well marked. Due to its location being a bit farther south, peak foliage typically occurs a week or so after it does in the High Peaks. As such, it offers some spectacular fall color, even after the northern zones have faded. For a longer trip, consider the region’s great ponds and lean-tos, which are ideal for overnights and backpacking treks.

Pharaoh Mountain itself is, perhaps, the area’s most challenging hike. While just barely rising above 2,500 feet, it requires over 10 miles of hiking, with a steep ascent of 1,500 feet. The rewards are nearly 360-degree views of the southern High Peaks, Pharaoh Lake, and Gore Mountain.

Another slightly shorter hike is Treadway Mountain, which starts at Putnam Pond Campground and tops out on a U-shaped ridge that offers unique views of the area. From its open rock, you’ll spot birch standing in previously burned areas and old-growth forests in the wilderness’ northeastern corner, and with so many bodies of water serving as a backdrop, few views capture fall in the Adirondacks quite as perfectly.


5 More Fall Hikes Around New York City

Fall is objectively the best time of year in New York City. Summer’s oppressive combination of heat, humidity, and trash-day odor is finally fading away, and the icy sidewalk chaos of winter is still weeks off. It’s the best time to do anything in the five boroughs.

It’s also the right time to catch the foliage and enjoy the natural wonders that abound in the surrounding country. The options within reach of public transportation or a short drive are both surprisingly plentiful and equally cool.

So, get out of town! Borrow a car and head up the Palisades! Hop a train to the Appalachian Trail! Take a hike!

A very icy Hudson River as seen from the top of Breakneck Ridge’s opening scramble. | Credit: John Lepak
A very icy Hudson River as seen from the top of Breakneck Ridge’s opening scramble. | Credit: John Lepak

Breakneck Ridge

Make no mistake about it—Breakneck Ridge is popular. On a fair Saturday or Sunday from April to October, this place will be absolutely mobbed for two good reasons. One, it’s accessible via public transportation with its very own Metro-North stop. The other reason is that it’s awesome. Consider, for example, the 1,250 feet in elevation the Breakneck Ridge Trail gains in its opening, three-quarter-mile scramble. It’s steep, it’s rough, and the views are extraordinary. If you don’t feel like dealing with the crowds, consider Breakneck Ridge on a weekday or in winter. When it’s not covered in ice, it’s definitely still hikeable with a decent pair of MICROspikes and an abundance of caution.

From the Breakneck Ridge train station—as an aside, it’s really more of a staircase next to some rails than an actual station—walk south on NY-9D to a tunnel. The trailhead begins here and runs up over the tunnel to head east over the road. Follow the white blazes up the scramble and keep doing it. It’s steep and rough, and if you’re there on a nice day, you’ll have plenty of people to deal with, as well. Keep on climbing, and you’ll hit a nice open area with a flagpole and a view that’s great for a first breather. There’ll be two more of these on the ridge’s exposed section, so keep going up.

Eventually, you’ll run out of ridge to climb and will enter the woods, where the trail alternates between rough ups and downs. At the junction with the red-blazed Breakneck Bypass Trail, bang a left. From here, the hard work is done, and the trail descends moderately through mixed hardwood forest. In short order, the Breakneck Bypass Trail dead-ends into the yellow-blazed Wilkinson Memorial Trail. Take another left, and continue heading on down to the road—the train station will be right across NY-9D.

The view south from Bear Mountain’s summit, including New York’s skyline. | Credit: John Lepak
The view south from Bear Mountain’s summit, including New York’s skyline. | Credit: John Lepak

Bear Mountain

Hiking Bear Mountain is a tale of two trails. The rugged Major Welch Trail ascends the mountain’s decidedly woodsier northern slope, scaling several exposed mammoth rocks along the way. The northbound Appalachian Trail, on the other hand, descends to the east over gentle grades, groomed paths, and even the occasional road walk. But, despite their differences, they combine to create a lovely little loop hike with several excellent viewpoints and even a summit tower for those of us who want a little extra.

Start your hike at the junction of the Appalachian, Major Welch, and Suffern-Bear Mountain Trails, just east of the Bear Mountain Inn. The steeper, more rugged Major Welch Trail is a better bet for going up, so follow the signage and the red-and-white bullseye blazes and head out along a paved path. The path runs along Hessian Lake for a little bit, before branching off into the woods to the left, the official start of the Major Welch Trail. Follow those bullseye blazes as the trail climbs moderately, switching back twice before it ascends the slope directly.

The mammoth rock formations are a fun feature and offer views to the north and east. Keep going up, and at 1.6 miles, after another steep effort up a pile of smaller rocks, cross Perkins Memorial Drive—the alternate route up for the mechanically inclined. From here, it’s just another 0.1 miles to the flat summit and Perkins Memorial Tower. From here, on a clear day, you can see four states: New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania. Continue across the paved parking area to the viewpoint on a ledge with open southern exposure and, way off in the distance over the Hudson Highlands’ rolling hills, a view of the Manhattan skyline.

Your way down, the ever-white-blazed Appalachian Trail, descends to the south. Trail maintenance has recently rerouted the AT to the roadway, but enjoy the views as you make your moderate descent.

Gravel, steps, and cool boulders are the order of the day as the AT takes you back to Bear Mountain Inn.

The Swamp River Boardwalk on the Appalachian Trail in Pawling, NY. | Credit: John Lepak
The Swamp River Boardwalk on the Appalachian Trail in Pawling, NY. | Credit: John Lepak

Appalachian Trail Metro-North

Courtesy of a small, weekends-only stop on the Metro-North Railroad’s Harlem Line, you can hop a train from Midtown Manhattan to access the entirety of the Appalachian Trail without ever getting behind the wheel of a car.

From the train station, cross the tracks (carefully) and start heading south. You’ll immediately be met by the Swamp River Boardwalk, a beautiful, 0.4-mile wooden walkway that traverses The Great Swamp and provides a dry route from the wooded hills to Route 22 in Pawling, New York. The reeds and cattails flanking the route on both sides create a cool kind of natural tunnel, while the abundant wildflowers attract hummingbirds.

After the boardwalk, the woods begin and so does the ascent—gently at first, until around 1.1 miles, where it gets a bit steeper. The mixed forest is thick at first, opening up a bit as you climb, until, at 1.5 miles, it reaches a meadow of tall grass and wildflowers. From here, the trail narrows and traces the border of a private home. At some points, it’s rather overgrown but isn’t difficult to follow at all. Then, it’s mostly downhill to West Dover Road and the Dover Oak, a beautiful, truly massive white oak. With a height of 114 feet and trunk circumference of 251 inches, it’s the largest—and likely the oldest—of its kind in New York State.

Take a photo with the cool tree, and then, cross the road to continue on the AT, back into the woods. After a quick initial dip, the trail resumes its climb—rocky at times—to Cat Rocks, an east-facing overlook at 3.25 miles. From here, you can survey the surrounding hills and open meadow you’d just passed through.

To return, retrace your steps to the train station for a nice, little 6.5-mile hike with around 1,350 feet of elevation gain.

Approaching the summit of Lamb’s Hill on the Fishkill Ridge Trail. | Credit: John Lepak
Approaching the summit of Lambs Hill on the Fishkill Ridge Trail. | Credit: John Lepak

Fishkill Ridge

Short, steep, and rocky ascents characterize many hikes in the Hudson Highlands, and this route up Fishkill Ridge over Lambs and Bald Hills is no exception.

From the parking area at the end of Sunnyside Road, in Beacon, New York, the red-blazed Overlook Trail begins climbing immediately. At 0.5 miles, a trail to a private campground enters from the left, and the grade evens out a bit before dipping into a gully to cross a small stream and resume climbing.

At around 1.4 miles, the trail levels out once more in an open hardwood forest with some cool stone walls. The Overlook Trail then dead-ends into the white-blazed Fishkill Ridge Trail at 1.7 miles. Here, bang a left and head up the rocky final ascent to the top of Lambs Hill at 2.2 miles. Looking back, the City of Beacon and the Hudson River provide the view.

From here, the Fishkill Ridge Trail is a true ridge walk, alternately climbing and descending and cutting through thinly wooded high grasslands and rocky outcroppings in the process. Viewpoints at 2.5 and 3.0 miles offer nice places to stop and chill before the final climb up Bald Hill at 3.7 miles.

Just past the summit—which is not actually bald and doesn’t offer much of a view–an unmarked trail enters from the left. Pick this up to head back down the hill. This portion is wide and somewhat rocky, and resembles an old woods road. Keep on it, until it eventually joins the red-blazed Overlook Trail, which will lead you back to the parking lot, making a 5.2-mile loop that covers 1,600 feet of elevation gain.

The view over Slide Mountain Wilderness from Giant Ledges. | Credit: John Lepak
The view over Slide Mountain Wilderness from Giant Ledge. | Credit: John Lepak

Giant Ledge and Panther Mountain

If wilderness is what you’re looking for, then you’re in luck. A mere two-hour drive north will land you in the rugged and wild Catskill Mountains, home to 287,500 acres of public forest preserve and 35 peaks over 3,500 feet in elevation. The trail up to Panther Mountain—one of those peaks—is a great example of what the Catskills have to offer in a fun-size day hike.

Begin on the Phoenicia-East Branch Trail, just a few steps up the hill from the parking area at the hairpin turn on CR-47, 7.2 miles south of its junction with NY-28. The trail ascends gently for 0.7 miles through a mixed forest, before reaching a well-marked intersection with the Giant Ledge-Panther Mountain-Fox Hollow Trail. Take a left onto the Giant Ledge-Panther Mountain-Fox Hollow Trail, and begin the moderate climb to Giant Ledge.

This is also a very popular trail, as the view-to-effort ratio is considerably low. At just 0.8 miles from the Phoenicia-East Branch Trail, a short spur trail to the right brings you to Giant Ledge. Here, you’ll get an incredible, sweeping view east of Devil’s Path’s jagged ridgeline to the north and the Slide Mountain Wilderness to the south, including Wittenberg, Cornell, and Slide Mountains.

Continuing from Giant Ledge to Panther Mountain, the trail levels out a bit, before climbing moderately to the true summit just 3.0 miles in. Take in the view—similar to Giant Ledge’s but including a few more summits to the north, and much cooler because it’s on top of a mountain. Retrace your steps to the parking area for a nice, little six-mile out-and-back.