Alpha Guide: Hiking The Devil's Path

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Not for the faint of heart, the Catskills’ most notorious trail is rugged, wild, and just as challenging as it is rewarding.

Point blank, the Devil’s Path is hard. In its 25 miles, this hike gains over 8,500 feet in elevation while running over some of the roughest terrain in the Northeast. The five Catskill high peaks it traverses—Indian Head, Twin, Sugarloaf, Plateau, and West Kill Mountains—are separated by dramatically steep descents into low notches, requiring hikers to scramble and even downclimb in some spots. The kind of loose rock that makes your ankles hurt just looking at it is seemingly everywhere and, depending on the season, water sources can be few and far between. The challenges this hike presents are unrelenting.

The reward, however, is apparent in the abundant, fantastic viewpoints and the wild vibe of the trail. For being just two hours from New York City, this hike feels a lot more remote than it actually is.

Quick Facts

Distance: 25 miles, thru-hike
Time to Complete: 1-3 days
Difficulty: ★★★★★
Scenery:★★★★


Season: May to October
Fees/Permits: None
Contact: http://www.dec.ny.gov/lands/5265.html

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Turn-By-Turn

The Devil’s Path is often thought of as two halves, east and west, with its midpoint being the intersection with NY-214 at Stony Clove Notch. Truth is, once you hit Stony Clove Notch (hiking westbound) you’ve done the bulk of the work with most of the mileage, elevation gain, and the decidedly rougher terrain behind you.

Most folks like to tackle this trip in a weekend, camping close to the trailhead on Friday night and splitting the Eastern and Western sections between Saturday and Sunday. For the brave, doing the “Devil in a Day” is also an option, though an early start and ample preparation are absolutely critical.

From the Thruway (I-87) take Exit 20 and head west on NY-212. After 2.3 miles, take a slight right onto Blue Mountain Road. Continue for 1.4 miles, then take a left onto West Saugerties Road. From there, it’s 5.2 miles to Prediger Road (on the left) and another 0.5 miles to the trailhead parking area.

This is a one-way ticket, so you’ll need to post a shuttle car at the other end on Spruceton Road.

The view from Orchard Point on Plateau Mountain. | Credit: John Lepak
The view from Orchard Point on Plateau Mountain. | Credit: John Lepak

The Eastern Section

Beginning at the Prediger Road trailhead (42.13396, -74.10435), the Devil’s Path starts out easy, heading southeast on a wide path over the mostly flat ground. At 0.2 miles the blue-blazed Jimmy Dolan Trail splits off to the right. Bear left and follow those red blazes. Fortunately, for all the myriad obstacles this trail is going to throw at you, route finding isn’t one of them—every junction is very well-signed and the blazes are plentiful.

At 1.7 miles, the trail runs into a T intersection with the Overlook Trail—take a right. In about 200 feet, the trail splits again, with the Overlook Trail heading straight (south) and the Devil’s Path breaking off to the right (west-southwest).

A short distance straight on the Overlook Trail is the Devil’s Kitchen Lean-to (42.11896, -74.08716), a very popular shelter and the first of its kind on the trail. Should you be looking to do this hike in a weekend, the Devil’s Kitchen is a solid Friday night option, and will all but ensure an early start on Saturday morning. You almost certainly won’t be the only one with this plan in mind, though, so don’t bank on a spot in the shelter proper.

A view through the trees on the way up Indian Head Mountain. | Credit: John Lepak
A view through the trees on the way up Indian Head Mountain. | Credit: John Lepak

Indian Head Mountain

After the junction with the Overlook Trail, the Devil’s Path begins its first ascent, moderately gaining elevation as it climbs the northeast face of Indian Head. At 2.9 miles the trail reaches Sherman’s Lookout, an open ledge with excellent views back to the east. From here, the trail meanders over the ridge, climbing and descending easily to another great view, this time to the south. Beyond this lookout, the grade steepens and requires some easy scrambling over rocks and roots—a mere warm-up for what’s to come—to the viewless 3,573-foot summit of Indian Head (42.11640, -74.11456), your first of five Catskill 3500-foot peaks on the trip.

Up next is your first, steep, characteristically-Devil’s-Path descent, dropping around 500 feet in 0.6 miles into Jimmy Dolan Notch. Compared with the descents to come, however, this one is relatively moderate. At the low point of the notch (4.5 miles), the eponymous, Jimmy Dolan Notch Trail descends to the right. This is the same blue-blazed trail the Devil’s Path crossed at the beginning of the trip so should you need an early bailout option, this is one will take you right back to the car.

A break in the clouds from Twin Mountain’s south summit. | Credit: John Lepak
A break in the clouds from Twin Mountain’s south summit. | Credit: John Lepak

 

Twin Mountain

Rising to the west, on other side of Jimmy Dolan Notch, is Twin Mountain, the second 3,500-foot peak of the hike. Much like your descent into the notch, the climb out is short and steep, regaining all the elevation you just lost in short order. At 4.9 miles, the trail gains the south summit and rewards your early efforts with a really outstanding view to the south. Continue on a relatively level ridge walk, descending slightly though thick evergreens and climbing again, easily, to the true summit of Twin Mountain (3,640 feet) (42.12559, -74.12903), at 5.6 miles, and another good viewpoint.

A short distance down from the summit you’ll come upon a cave on the trail’s right hand side. A spacious rock overhang makes this a solid, protected spot to post-up for for a breather and maybe even some lunch—if you’re trying to bang this out in two days, the timing will likely work out.

Make sure to enjoy the break though, because past this point, the Devil’s Path really starts to show its teeth. This descent, into Pecoy Notch, gets steep quickly and the pace slows right down. There are a few rock features through this section of the trail that require some serious scrambling and one that’s actually more of a downclimb. These can be dangerous in wet or icy conditions so an abundance of care is necessary to negotiate them safely. Keep on descending into Pecoy Notch where a junction with the Pecoy Notch Trail (blue blazes) at mile 6.3, provides another eligible bailout if needed.

A short spur trail past Sugarloaf’s summit offers a nice view when it’s not in the clouds. | Credit: John Lepak
A short spur trail past Sugarloaf’s summit offers a nice view when it’s not in the clouds. | Credit: John Lepak

Sugarloaf Mountain

From here, the trail presses on to the West and the steep ascent of Sugarloaf Mountain. One fun feature of the eastern section of the Devil’s Path is that the ups and the downs get progressively more difficult for the west-bound hiker. So, that this little section ups the ante—climbing around a thousand feet in a little less than one mile—should come as no surprise. It’s rough, as the trail scrambles over rocks and roots until, after what seems like forever, you reach the summit ridge and level out for a short, gentle approach to the 3,800-foot viewless summit (42.13130, -74.15014) at mile 7.5. A yellow-blazed spur path just beyond leads to a good viewpoint south.

The descent into Mink Hollow is—you guessed it—steep and rough. There are plenty of obstacles to negotiate as you drop almost 1,200 feet in 1.05 miles so the going is predictably slow.

When the trail finally levels out it’s joined by the blue-blazed Mink Hollow Trail on the right at mile 8.55. These two trails run together for a short while before the Mink Hollow Trail departs to the left. Following that will bring you to the Mink Hollow shelter (42.13564, -74.16247) and decent water source. Depending on what time of day you get here, this is also a beautiful little spot to set up camp for the night. If not, it’s still a prime opportunity to take a break and fill-up before the rough hike back up, the latest in a series of progressively harder climbs.

A view from an outlook just shy of Plateau Mountain’s wooded summit. | Credit: John Lepak
A view from an outlook just shy of Plateau Mountain’s wooded summit. | Credit: John Lepak

 

Plateau Mountain

Continuing straight on the Devil’s Path, the terrain steepens just about immediately and the scrambling resumes as you make your way out of the hollow. Intermittent views back towards Sugarloaf make stopping to catch your breath a bit more enjoyable but the ascent is steep. At 9.6 miles, after 1,250 vertical feet of some pretty heavy duty hiking, you gain the summit ridge and top-out on Plateau Mountain at 3,840 feet (42.13780, -74.17419).

As the name would suggest, the summit of Plateau is relatively flat for a leisurely 2.1 miles through dense, fragrant conifers. Roughly 0.4 miles after the summit, the Warner Creek Trail breaks off to the left.

Plateau’s ridgewalk culminates with two excellent viewpoints. Known as Danny’s Lookout and Orchid Point they offer nice views to the North and West, respectively and the open ledge of the latter is another great spot for a rest before heading down to Stony Clove Notch.

Notch Lake and NY-214 in Stony Clove Notch, the unofficial halfway point of the Devil’s Path. | Credit: John Lepak
Notch Lake and NY-214 in Stony Clove Notch, the unofficial halfway point of the Devil’s Path. | Credit: John Lepak

 

Stony Clove

From Orchid Point, the trail continues on to the left, dropping quickly over some large rocks before beginning a long, moderate descent. While ‘moderate’ may sound lovely here, especially after the drama of the previous several descents, the Devil’s Path has another plan for it’s weary hikers: loose, broken, ankle-rolling rocks. If you’ve chosen to split this hike into two days, you may be coming down in the dark here, so take care and make sure that headlamp is charged. Eventually the grade and scree will ease up and turn into a rough staircase as you make your way into Stony Clove Notch.

If you’re making this a two day affair, Devil’s Tombstone Campground (42.15466, -74.20599) is a good place to stop. It’s wildly popular so make sure to reserve a spot in advance. If you’re hiking in the off-season, when the campground’s closed (October to May) consider another option—the campground is regularly patrolled and the fines for illegal camping are steep.

Note: The Devil’s Tombstone Campground is closed for the 2019 season for essential infrastructure updates. Existing reservations will be accommodated but there will be no staff or amenities on site. More information is available here.

The Devil’s Path as it climbs out of Stony Clove Notch. | Credit: John Lepak
The Devil’s Path as it climbs out of Stony Clove Notch. | Credit: John Lepak

The Western Section

The trail resumes across NY-214, winds through the campground, and crosses a footbridge before reentering the woods. Another steep climb begins almost as soon as you get into the trees as the Devil’s Path switches back and forth over rocks and roots, steadily gaining elevation. This is one place to pay particularly close attention to, as some of the switchbacks are hard to see and it’s easy to just keep on walking straight off the trail. The blazes are there, just keep a close eye.

 

The grade eventually eases up and the trail proceeds over the relatively mild terrain in the col between Hunter and Southwest Hunter Mountains. At mile 15.1 the yellow-blazed Hunter Mountain Trail, which leads north to the summit of Hunter Mountain, begins on the right. Continue straight and just past this junction find the Devil’s Acre lean-to ( 42.16544, -74.23084)—another serviceable option for spending the night—and a reliable water source just off the trail to the right.

The next 2.2 miles are among the Devil’s Path’s gentlest as the trail traverses the southwestern flank of Hunter Mountain and descends into Diamond Notch.

The low-point of the notch features Diamond Notch Falls (42.17519, -74.25791)—a lovely place to take a break and get some water—and a junction with the blue-blazed Diamond Notch Trail. If you’re looking for a place to spend the night, this is a good opportunity—take a left and the Diamond Notch Lean-to is just 0.5 miles south. If not, keep on going straight—West Kill Mountain, your final high peak of the trip, awaits.

Buck Ridge Lookout, before the marked—but viewless—summit of West Kill. | Credit: John Lepak
Buck Ridge Lookout, before the marked—but viewless—summit of West Kill. | Credit: John Lepak

 

West Kill Mountain

The Devil’s Path crosses a sturdy wooden foot bridge over Diamond Notch Falls and turns right, paralleling the Brook briefly before swinging left and beginning to climb. The ascent opens with a short bit of rock hopping before easing into a soft, mostly dirt footpath. The grade is steep but steady and the terrain is far easier than any of the previous climbs on the route.

Nearing the top, a few rock obstacles require short scrambles before the climb out of Diamond Notch culminates with a cool rock overhang at 18.7 miles. The trail skirts the overhang to the left and gains the ridge with one final push.

West Kill Mountain’s long ridgeline has four distinct “summits,” and just past the rock overhang marks the first one. Beyond, the trail dips down into an easy saddle before beginning its ascent of the true high point. The enjoyable stroll winds through dense evergreens to Buck Ridge Lookout, an outstanding southerly viewpoint at 19.65 miles. If you’re looking for a breather, here’s a good place to do it.

Another gentle 0.15 miles takes you to the true summit of 3,880-foot West Kill Mountain (42.16787, -74.28959), marked by a cairn and a sign. Continuing on, the Devil’s Path drops, steeply at times, as it traverses West Kill’s ridge. Cross over another small knoll and continue traversing the ridge on your way to Saint Anne’s Peak.

A short final climb up Saint Anne’s Peak (3420, mile 21.85), the westernmost of West Kill’s summits, marks the final real ascent of the journey. Past here the Devil’s path descends steeply to the northwest before swinging back to the southeast. At mile 22.8, the trail meets a brook and takes a hard right.

The remaining 1.55 miles follow the path of the brook, gently rolling over minor elevation gains and losses through a shady evergreen forest until one last, steep descent to the parking area on Spruceton Road (42.19209, -74.32433).


 

In the clouds at the 3500 foot sign, on the way up Twin Mountain. | Credit: John Lepak
In the clouds at the 3500 foot sign, on the way up Twin Mountain. | Credit: John Lepak

The Kit

  • In the mountains, two trees are often easier to find than a flat, rockless clearing. Consider eschewing the tent for an Eno Singlenest Hammock. It’s also a whole lot lower-impact, which is a nice bonus.
  • Soaked socks are the worst, so a second pair is critical. Darn Tough Vermont Hiking Socks are wicked comfortable and just about indestructible—just what you’re going to need after a day on this trail.
  • Sacrificing taste for weight is rough but there are a ton of good freeze-dried options out there. Good To-go is an outstanding one with vegan and gluten free meals available. Try the Herbed Mushroom Risotto.
  • Get those meals cooked with the MSR Windburner Stove System. It’s lightweight, packable, and doesn’t skip a beat up high or in a storm.
  • Whether you’re doing it in a long weekend or a single day, at some point, you’re going to be hiking in the dark. A headlamp, like the Petzl Actik Core, is essential—the rechargeable battery is a real plus too.

Above Diamond Notch Falls, before ascending West Kill Mountain. | Credit: John Lepak
Above Diamond Notch Falls, before ascending West Kill Mountain. | Credit: John Lepak

Keys to the Trip

  • In drier seasons, water can be hard to come by out here so be prepared to fill up early and often. Do your research before you go: Know where reliable springs can be found and keep an eye on the trail conditions and weather reports.
  • Backcountry camping is permitted below 3,500 feet and at least 150 feet away from trails and water sources. Lean-tos at Devil’s Kitchen, Mink Hollow, Devil’s Acre, and Diamond Notch are good options as well.
  • If you want to go fast and light and not lug too much food (or water) with you, NY-214 crosses the Devil’s Path at its midpoint, making an ideal spot for a supply drop. Just keep it out of reach of the bears.
  • The Devil’s Path is a long, point-to-point hike that requires a shuttle. If you’re going solo, or your party doesn’t have access to a second car, you can book a ride with Smiley’s Transport. It’s always wiser to hike back to your car, so make sure to give them a call in advance.
  • Once you’re out of the woods, grab a post-hike beer at nearby West Kill Brewing. Just 1.7 miles East of the trail’s end on Spruceton Road, this little gem—and its eclectic menu of beers featuring locally harvested and foraged ingredients—is a welcome respite.

Current Conditions

Have you hiked any part of the Devil’s Path recently? Post your experience and the conditions (with the date of your climb) in the comments for others!


5 Big Projects That Could Improve Northeast Climbing

The Northeast is home to some of the best trad and sport climbing in the country, and the options continue to grow with new areas being developed. With this great privilege comes great responsibility, for all climbers, as our love for the sport can actually play a role in bringing about its demise. As the sport increases in popularity, it is becoming more likely that crags will face access issues due to landowner concerns or environmental deterioration. Luckily, there are dedicated organizations working to maintain our beloved crags, fighting to re-open long-lost places, and educate new climbers about how to climb in a sustainable way so we can all enjoy the rock for years to come. Here are some of the biggest projects improving Northeast climbing right now:

Credit: Anne Skidmore Photography
Credit: Anne Skidmore Photography

A Cooperative Climbing Gym in the Mount Washington Valley

New Hampshire’s Mount Washington Valley community has grumbled about the lack of a climbing gym in the area for years. During rainy days or over the long winter months, a local indoor climbing spot is a way to stay in shape and connected with friends. Instead, resident climbers have resigned themselves to driving 1.5 hours (and cussing all the way, one might imagine) to the nearest facility.

Eventually, Chelsea Kendrick and Jimmy Baxendell-Young had enough, and they’re now organizing their own cooperative gym in North Conway—the Mount Washington Valley Climbers’ Cooperative, or MWVCC. The local market is too small for a typical commercial operation, with a cumulative population of 20,000 people between the eight towns of Conway, Bartlett, Jackson, Madison, Eaton, Ossipee, Tamworth, and Fryeburg. They decided to engage the climbing community in creating a coop, to great success; The yet-to-exist gym already has over 75 paying members, well on its way to covering the cost of operations once it opens. The 2,000 square feet will provide bouldering and training, as well as a community gathering space. And because it is a cooperative, all members have a say into the direction of the project. If, say, enough people want to offer dry-tooling, it is in the cards for the future.

If you frequent the MWV for ice climbing or skiing in the winter, or hiking in the summer, and want to support the effort, consider becoming a member, donating, or joining their upcoming fundraising event on May 21.

Courtesy: Jeremy Gilchrist
Courtesy: Jeremy Gilchrist

Reopening Vermont’s Hardest Crag

Bolton Dome, just 30 minutes from Burlington, was once one of the most popular cliffs in Vermont, until it was closed in 1990 due to concerns from the private landowner. For decades, access was closed off to dozens of high-quality crack and sport climbs, including the region’s only 5.13 trad route and the state’s highest concentration of 5.12-s. Through it all, the Climbing Resource Access Group of Vermont (CRAG-VT) maintained good standing with the land owners, and early last year the organization was able to purchase the area with help from the Access Fund, in what constitutes Access Fund’s largest Climbing Conservation Loan to date. There is plenty of work to be done: The loan must be paid back, a parking lot needs to be built, and various legal fees to be covered.

CRAG-VT had previously secured 5 other crags in Bolton, making the Dome the newest and most significant addition. Overall, the organization works to protect Vermont’s vulnerable climbing areas, build long-term relationships with landowners, and develop the areas with responsible stewardship. Now that Bolton is protected, there is a cornucopia of potential for new routes for climbers to enjoy for generations. You can support their effort by becoming a member, donating, or joining the Bolton Dome Launch Party! on May 18.

Courtesy: Brad Wenskoski
Courtesy: Brad Wenskoski

A Sport Crag for New York’s Capital Region

Opened in July of 2017, the Helderberg Escarpment at New York’s John Boyd Thacher State Park is the newest sport climbing haven in the Northeast, and only the third New York State Park to allow climbing (Minnewaska and Harriman being the others). Located 20 minutes from Albany, Thacher sits between the ‘Gunks, 75 miles south, and the Adirondacks, 120 miles north, and is much closer than Rumney, New Hampshire, for New Yorkers. The area services the massive population in New York’s Capital Region who were once stuck with long drives in many directions in order to climb.. There are currently about 65 routes ranging from 5.6 to 5.12a, and they will appeal to gym enthusiasts as most climbs are roughly 50 feet high, with none longer than 90′.

What makes the Thatcher Climbing Coalition’s approach special is that they spent 5 years negotiating a climbing management plan with the state in order to demonstrate commitment to success and long-term cooperation. So far, it’s been a rousing success and may serve as a model for partnerships between climbers and parks around New York, and the country. If you want to help make the Helderberg Escarpment into a premiere rock and ice climbing destination in the Northeast, you can become a member, buy a t-shirt, or volunteer to help establish new trails.

Credit: Robbie Shade
Credit: Robbie Shade

Keep the Northeast’s Premier Crag Pristine

Rumney’s wild popularity is also a cause of environmental damage, a common narrative for highly-trafficked climbing areas. The Rumney Climbers’ Association aims to prevent the high usage from diminishing the experience of the 38 cliffs by getting ahead of the issues, which include soil erosion, deteriorating infrastructure, and unsafe climbing conditions. “We are tackling the problem before it’s too big, because there is a tipping point [in these situations],” says Travis Rubury, a board member with the organization. This year, RCA and the Access Fund are performing stewardship projects at three of the most popular areas: Orange Crush, Meadows Crag, and the uber-accessible Parking Lot Wall. They will construct retaining walls, install stairs, and further secure the trails to assure they are sustainable for the long term.

Rumney has become an international draw, attracting the likes of Alex Megos in 2017 when he remarkably sent Jaws II in only three attempts. The route is one of only four 5.15s in the U.S., and the only one of its grade east of the Rocky Mountains. This world class area came about through a lot of hard work, much of it performed by the RCA since the early 90s. If you’d like to support their efforts, you can become a member, donate to the restoration efforts, volunteer, or join the American Alpine Club Rumney’ Craggin’ Classic later this year.

Courtesy: Western Massachusetts Climbers' Coalition
Courtesy: Western Massachusetts Climbers’ Coalition

Fixing the Parking Situation in Western Massachusetts

Farley Ledge has experienced its share of contestations over the decades, from being closed four times in the early 2000s to notorious bolt chopping. The situation remains precarious as most of the routes are on private land. “Climbing is unique in that it is resource-dependent. We need this cliff, we can’t [easily] have another. Not a lot of sports are so tied to topography,” notes Wayne Burleson, President of WMCC. While tensions have been soothed over the years, access is not assured. These days, the primary challenge is parking (be warned: Do not park on Route 2). The Western Massachusetts Climbers’ Coalition purchased roadside land (with the help of Access Fund) in 2008 and opened a 20-space parking lot. They are exploring options for additional parking areas.

Farley has a certain mystique for two reasons: One, trad and sport routes are delightfully interspersed on the cliffs as the original developers maintained an ethic to not bolt what could be climbed traditionally. And two, you won’t find any information about the routes (and no guidebook, of course), the result of a policy agreement set up with landowners back in 2007. While this offers intrigue, it also makes it harder for the WMCC to educate climbers about local ethics and share the history, while eliminating a potential revenue stream to help fund future efforts. The coalition has been hard at work since 2000 and is one of the few areas where you don’t have to pay for access. If you want to support this important crag, become a member, donate, volunteer, and definitely don’t park on Route 2.


Video: The Lifer

Russ Clune is a cornerstone of Black Diamond history and an integral part of climbing’s humble beginnings in America in the Guks.


5 Top Spots to Paddle and Bike Along the Erie Canalway Trail

New York’s Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor is an adventure-seekers dream. With more than 500 miles of interconnected canals, rivers, and lakes, and 365-miles of Canalway Trail, you can paddle or cycle your way across the entire Empire State.

You’ll find beautiful scenery, fascinating history, and truly unique cycling and paddling along the Erie Canal from Buffalo to Albany. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, this living waterway adds distinctive flavor in the form of canal structures like locks and lift bridges, working tugs and other vessels, friendly vacationers in boats of all stripes, and canal communities that are intriguing and fun destinations.

And with more than 140 paddling access sites, as well as several boater-biker-hiker facilities that allow overnight camping at canal parks, it’s easier than ever to enjoy the waterway and trail. For cyclists, more than three-quarters of the Canalway Trail is off-road and relatively flat. On-road segments are well marked, making it easy to ride longer distances. For paddlers, it’s all about the experience of being on the oldest, continuously operating canal system in America. You’ll navigate century old locks, pass stunning stone aqueducts, paddle alongside tugboats and cruisers, and experience narrow flatwater stretches and wider river segments. You can also expect to see a diversity of birds and wildlife, unique geology, and varying terrain.

Pro tip: When you come, be sure to participate in the Canalway Challenge. Choose a personal mileage goal—15, 90, 180, or 360 miles—and track your progress on the water or trail to earn rewards, including discounts from EMS! Here are several best bet trips for cycling and paddling (listed west to east), guaranteed to take you on an unforgettable journey along the Erie Canal.

Picturesque Lockport. | Credit: Robert Dunn
Picturesque Lockport. | Credit: Robert Dunn

Buffalo to Rochester

Distance: 90 miles one-way
Recommended Activity: Cycling

This 90-mile stretch in western New York boasts some of the best cycling along the Erie Canal. Plan a long weekend, so you have time to poke around the many canal villages along this route, each with their own unique shops, restaurants, and cultural attractions. The trail is off-road and flat, so it’s great for families, as well as experienced cyclists. You can easily break the route into a series of day trips.

Along the way, be sure to make time to stop in Lockport. Here, you’ll find a staircase of five locks used in the 1800s alongside two towering locks that replaced them in 1918. Lockport’s canal historic district includes the Erie Canal Discovery Center, with fun canal exhibits for kids, as well boat tours, paddling rentals, a cave tour, and a zip line over the canal for the adventurous. There are good dining options nearby, including an urban winery and premium local ice cream.

Twilight on the Erie Canal in Fairport. | Credit: Keith Boas
Twilight on the Erie Canal in Fairport. | Credit: Keith Boas

Pittsford to Fairport (just east of Rochester)

Distance: 13 miles round-trip
Recommended Activity: Cycling

Here’s a short cycling trip that will give you a taste of all that the Erie Canal has to offer. It’s a 13-mile round trip that is entirely off road. Start at Schoen Place in Pittsford, a lively waterfront destination with numerous specialty shops and restaurants. Cycle east to Fairport, another popular summer spot for canal travelers. You’ll find lots of choices for food, ice cream, coffee, and craft beer on both ends, as well as in Bushnell’s Basin, which you’ll pass about 3 miles east from Pittsford. If you want to sample both cycling and paddling, cycle to Fairport and rent a kayak there to get out on the water for an hour or two.

Cycling over the Old Erie Canal in Dewitt. | Credit: Kristin Mosher
Cycling over the Old Erie Canal in Dewitt. | Credit: Kristin Mosher

Cycle the Old Erie Canal

Distance: 36 miles one-way
Recommended Activity: cycling

This cycling trip takes you along the section of the Erie Canal that was used throughout the 1800s, but was abandoned in 1918 when the canal was enlarged and the route moved north of Syracuse. The old canal still has water in it and will give you a firsthand sense of the scale and character of the canal that opened a continent. You’ll cycle east on the former towpath through the Old Erie Canal State Historic Park, which runs for 36 miles from DeWitt to Rome.

You can cycle this route in one day, but making it a two-day trip will leave more time for you to enjoy all there is to do along the way without rushing. Just 5 miles from the start, take a hike or swim at Green Lakes State Park, which boasts two deep, aquamarine glacial lakes. At 11 miles, visit Chittenango Landing Canal Boat Museum, where canal boats were once built and repaired. Further on in the Village of Canastota (mile 18), you’ll find everyone’s favorite cycling fuels: ice cream and craft beer. When you arrive at the endpoint in Rome, visit Fort Stanwix National Monument, and refuel again at one of several outstanding Italian restaurants.

The Erie Canal in Little Falls. |Credit: Bart Carrig
The Erie Canal in Little Falls. |Credit: Bart Carrig

Little Falls

Distance: 6.2 miles round-trip west or 10.6 miles one-way east
Recommended Activity: paddling

The town of Little Falls is a historic gem on the Erie Canal. It was once a hub for shipping local cheeses throughout the world. Now, it is home to antique and boutique shops and an arts center, and is known for its rock climbing, annual cheese festival, and boating and cycling opportunities.

You can rent a canoe or kayak at Little Falls Harbor or launch your own and paddle west to Lock E18 through a beautiful part of the Mohawk Valley. At Lock 18 you can paddle for some distance up the Mohawk River to get a sense of what the river looked like before it was canalized. You’ll travel with the current back to Little Falls for a 6.2 mile round trip.

You can also paddle east from Little Falls through the largest lock on the Erie Canal, Lock E17, stop at the home of Revolutionary War General Nicholas Herkimer, pass through Lock E16, and end at a place with warm showers at the Saint Johnsville Municipal Marina. This is a 10.62 mile one-way trip, best suited to experienced paddlers.

Paddlers in the Waterford Flight. | Credit: Stephanie Obkirchner
Paddlers in the Waterford Flight. | Credit: Stephanie Obkirchner

Waterford Flight

Distance: 2.7 miles one-way
Recommended Activity: paddling

Erie Canal Locks 2 through 6 make up the Waterford Flight, a set of five locks with a total lift of 169 feet in just over 1.5 miles. Until recently, these locks were the highest lift in the shortest span in the world. Paddling through the flight makes an outstanding half-day trip, with dramatic scenery, towering locks, and pleasant, easy paddling.

You can rent a kayak or launch your own at the Alcathy’s Boat Launch at the top of the Flight and take out at the Waterford Point Boat Ramp at the end. You’ll want to leave a vehicle or arrange for a ride at the take-out point to facilitate your return. This trip takes you through two guard gates, past the Waterford Canal Shops where canal boats are repaired, and through five locks. Each lock takes about 20 minutes. This is an excellent trip for beginner to experienced paddlers.

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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