The Suburban Jungle

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Destinations, April 1997

The Suburban Jungle

In praise of the East Coast's most unfiltered wilderness experience, the Adirondack High Peaks
By Thurston Clarke

It's This or Bivouac
High Peaks inns range from rustic to luxe

The high peaks region, with its mix of deep wilderness and staunchly urban visitors, has an appropriately eccentric collection of lodgings. Most have one foot in the wilderness and the other in rustic comfort, with accommodations ranging from spartan bunkhouses to luxury suites. All, however, offer out-the-door access to the backcountry.

The Trails End Inn (518-576-9860), in Keene Valley, is just what its name implies. Sitting at the terminus of a trail that leads from Rooster Comb Mountain to the Wolf Jaws and the Range, its sprawling, cedar-shake exterior houses bedrooms large enough for parents and offspring to share, as well as two large sunporches suitable for retreating from said offspring. Rates range from $65 for a room with shared bath to $125 for a private suite or a two-bedroom cottage.

At the Elk Lake Lodge (518-532-7616), in North Hudson, food is a prime attraction. All meals are included in the room rates ($100-$135 per person), and the dining room's sweeping High Peaks views do nothing to spoil the appetite. The lodge also has its own private lake, pleasant for canoeing, fishing, and counting loons. Alternatively, you can climb nearby Dix Mountain.

But the convivial Adirondak Loj (518-523-3441), near Lake Placid, has the best from-your-doorstep hiking. Heart Lake is outside the front door, while Mounts Marcy, Algonquin, and Colden are all within day-hiking range. In the evening guests gather around the lodge's massive stone fireplace and exchange moleskin-placement tips. Rates are $40-$49 for private rooms, $25-$39 for shared bunkrooms, breakfast included.

For other Adirondack lodgings, consult The Adirondack Book: A Complete Guide, by Elizabeth Folwell ($18, from Berkshire House Publishers, 800-321-8526).


On a hot July afternoon several years ago, eight-year-old Douglas Legg and his uncle set off for a short hike through the grounds of their century-old family estate, Camp Santanoni, in the middle of the Adirondack High Peaks region. Less than a mile later, the uncle decided Legg should change into a long shirt and trousers to protect him from mosquitoes and poison ivy. The boy started back up the path--and simply disappeared. A crew of mountain rescue specialists flown in from California to hunt for him pronounced their search site, dozens of square miles of the Adirondacks, the most impenetrable they had ever faced.

Few urbanites appreciate the sheer wildness of the High Peaks. Only five hours by car from downtown Manhattan, this six-million-acre section of New York's Adirondack Park contains more than 40 mountains higher than 4,000 feet, many as rugged as any in the Rockies. Several of the spires rise 3,000 feet or more in less than four miles, a vertical that almost equals that of mountains near Aspen and Telluride. Unlike those overcivilized resorts, though, the High Peaks region has seen refreshingly little development. Here you're lucky to find a cabin with indoor plumbing.

What you will find is the most unfiltered wilderness experience on the East Coast, with craggy, steep, exposed peaks towering over densely wooded lowlands and rolling, cultivated valleys. You'll also find hiking paths that rise thousands of feet with dizzying speed, carrying you over building-size boulders to the mountains' summits. The sheer rock walls squeezed between these peaks offer some of the best climbing this side of the Mississippi, while the long, lonely valley highways beneath are ideal for bike touring.

Most visitors to the Adirondacks hike for a few hours and leave. But to take fullest advantage of the less-frequented High Peaks wilderness, plan on at least a weekend and aim for versatility: Hikers should bring or rent road bikes, rock climbers will probably want a backpack and tent, and cyclists should load their panniers with hiking boots and bathing suits. But all visitors, whatever their recreational persuasion, should bring a compass and topo maps, as well as severe-weather gear, a flashlight, first-aid kit, and emergency rations. This may be New York, but there is nothing urban about this jungle.

Ask locals to pick a favorite hike and they'll start arguing about the relative merits of Rocky Peak Ridge versus the Algonquin Mountain Loop. Listen, nod sagely, and then follow the advice of partisans on all sides: hike both. Each affords high, sweeping views of the mountains as well as considerable solitude--a condition that among other virtues has made the waterfall-fed pool at the base of the Algonquin Loop famously attractive to skinny-dippers. The two hikes also are strenuous, with several steep, rocky pitches. Don't wear sneakers and allow at least eight hours for each route.

Rocky Peak Ridge is an 11-mile, point-to-point hike that begins with a steep, 2.9-mile, 3,000-vertical-foot ascent of Giant Mountain, the 12th-highest peak in the Adirondacks. The trailhead is 6.2 miles west of Exit 30 from the Adirondack Northway (I-87). There's a parking area bordering Chapel Pond just up the road, but it's usually best to leave your car or a bicycle at the trail's end and have someone from your inn drive you to the trailhead.

Many High Peaks trails climb for miles through dense forest before opening out onto a summit, but the Rocky Peak Ridge route begins with a scramble over open rock on the way up Giant. At the summit, you'll have a majestic, panoramic view of other High Peaks. You'll also likely have company--the climb up Giant is one of the most popular hikes in the Adirondacks. Most of these trekkers happily end their walk here, backtracking as they came. You, however, should look for the markers announcing the start of the true Rocky Peak Ridge trail; once on it, you'll leave most other hikers behind. After a brief drop into a grassy saddle, the trail rises until you reach Rocky Peak Ridge, where you can picnic in lonely splendor. The next three miles include the longest stretch of open ridge walking in the Adirondacks. Afterward, you'll descend across slabs of open rock, wind through stands of cedar, white birch, and spruce, and pass Marie Louise Pond, the third-highest body of water in the state. Clearly visible ahead are the Green Mountains and Lake Champlain. When you reach the red oak forests of the lower slopes, look for a sign pointing the way to Blueberry Cobbles, a generous patch of blueberry bushes that typically bear fruit from mid-July to mid-August. The trail ends at U.S. 9 in New Russia.

Its primary rival for top trail in the High Peaks, the Algonquin Mountain Loop, offers even finer vistas at its 5,411-foot summit, with fewer surrounding mountains to interrupt the view. The full 12-mile loop combines a jaunt to the top of Algonquin with two other legendary High Peaks spots, Avalanche Lake and Marcy Dam. To reach the trail, start at Adirondak Loj, located off New York 73 just east of Lake Placid. The path climbs four miles and 3,000 feet through tangled spruce and balsam forests and up a series of false summits before it plateaus at the true top, where 360-degree views of wild forest and mountain are blemished only by the jutting ski jumps of Lake Placid.

You can descend as you came up. But to complete the full loop, follow the pathway down toward Lake Colden. This is a steep descent--3,000 feet in only two miles--but you can lessen its severity by taking a long lunch break two-thirds of the way down. You'll find a waterfall here, along with flat rocks and, assuming no other hikers are nearby, the loop's clothing-optional swimming hole. After Lake Colden, the path carries you around Avalanche Lake on a series of catwalks and ladders. Sheer rock walls, excellent for climbing, shoot up hundreds of feet on both sides. Head through Avalanche Pass to Marcy Dam, where you can fill canteens at a spring or go for a swim; then follow the well-marked Hoevenberg Trail back to Adirondak Loj.

Those desiring more ambitious multiday hikes should camp near Johns Brook Lodge (518-523-3441), a walk-in wilderness camp operated by the Adirondack Mountain Club. Turn west off New York 73 in Keene Valley and follow signs to the Garden Parking Area. Try to arrive early; if the small trailhead lot is filled, you'll have to park a mile and a half up the road. Hoist your pack and head 3.5 miles up the Phelps Trail to Johns Brook Lodge, where you'll have your choice of a lean-to or a cabin ($22-$32, including breakfast).

Using Johns Brook Lodge as your base, you can climb at least eight High Peaks in three days. The easiest ascent is the loop over Big Slide and Yard Mountains; the most crowded is the Hopkins Trail, up the backside of Mount Marcy; and the most spectacular is the State Range Trail, over the bare summits of Saddleback and Basin Mountains.

For suggestions on additional trails and campsites in the region, consult the bible of Adirondack High Peaks hiking, The Guide to Adirondack Trails: High Peaks Region ($17, from the Adirondack Mountain Club, 800-395-8080).

Mountain bikes are not permitted on High Peaks trails, since the region is a state-designated wilderness. But nearby valley roads offer excellent touring. Traffic is light, shoulders are wide, and surfaces are paved. The best introduction to wheeling in the High Peaks is a 37-mile loop that begins in Elizabethtown. It passes many of the area's trailheads and can be combined with short hikes up Hurricane, Baxter, Blueberry, or Noonmark Mountains. To start the ride, head west from Elizabethtown on U.S. 9N into the High Peaks. The road has a satisfying roller-coaster feel, rising in a series of moderately steep grades and then precipitously dropping again. Turn left at the junction with New York 73, following the Ausable River into Keene Valley. Carry enough spare cash to shop here at the the Mountaineer, a classic High Peaks emporium stocked with a comprehensive range of outdoor gear, and to eat lunch at the Noonmark Diner, a local institution famous for cinnamon rolls and homemade pies. Allow your dessert to settle by browsing the stock of Adirondack guides and maps in the Bashful Bear Bookstore, across the street.

From Keene Valley the road rises steeply to Malfunction Junction, a massive concrete intersection created to handle traffic for the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid. Reminiscent of an L.A. freeway off-ramp, it's now eerily clear of automobiles. Turn north here onto U.S. 9 for the 13-mile return trip to Elizabethtown, following the Bouquet River on a lonely highway that was once the principal route between New York and Montreal. Stop at Split Rock Falls, the most accessible swimming hole in the High Peaks. Its unmarked parking area is 2.3 miles north of Malfunction Junction, on the right. From here, head down a steep path to chilly pools sheltered beneath 100-foot cataracts.

Elsewhere in the High Peaks, the Champlain Valley towns of Willsboro, Essex, and Westport are connected by a fine network of lightly traveled state and county roads. Most meander past Lake Champlain and through rolling farm country. You can camp at Lake Placid's Whispering Pines Campground ($12; 518-523-9322); for more civilized accommodations, check into the Essex Inn, a bed- and-breakfast in the lakeside village of Essex ($80-$115; 518-963-8821). An early-nineteenth-century landmark, it has its own bar and restaurant, with outdoor dining on the rambling porch. The All Tucked Inn, a bed-and-breakfast in the town of Westport, just south of Essex, likewise offers cozy lakefront accommodations with views of the mountains ($65-$95; 518-962-4400).

To plot bike routes originating from any of these inns, use the detailed Adirondack Park road map published by the Adirondacks Maps Association. To order the map, rent a bike, or get yours repaired, call High Peaks Cyclery, in Lake Placid (bike rentals, $15-$30 per day; 518-523-3764).

Rock Climbing
Ed Palen, director of the Adirondack Rock and River Guide Service, admits to "that nervous feeling in the stomach" every time he looks up at Wallface's 800 sheer feet of rock. Naturally, it's his favorite High Peaks climbing spot. Typical of many of the region's climbs, it's hard to get to, technical, and addictive. To reach the start, you have to backpack six miles from Adirondak Loj, bushwhack around boulders as big as houses, and scramble over year-round ice caves. When you do arrive, instead of chalk marks, you'll find loose rock. The rewards for these hardships, however, are routes requiring as many as eight pitches ranging from 5.2 to 5.10 in difficulty, and the opportunity to rigorously test your skills.

If Wallface sounds like too much rock, there are other, much friendlier routes. One of the best is at the Chapel Pond cliffs, a five-minute walk from the Chapel Pond parking lot. The Chapel Pond Slab in particular is a famous testing ground for beginners and the most popular climb north of the Shawangunks. Scaling its 700 feet requires six to seven pitches, but the climb is free of the loose rock that bedevils novices elsewhere in the High Peaks. The nearby Beer Walls also offer numerous manageable routes and seldom attract more than a handful of climbers.

For climbing instruction or a guide, contact Adirondack Rock and River (518-576-2041). The company also offers bed-and-breakfast lodging in its Climbers Lodge ($30 a night)--which, true to its name, has an indoor climbing wall for practice on rainy days.

Finally, bear in mind, wherever you climb--or hike or ride--that the High Peaks remain a true wilderness, complete with all accompanying dangers. Even cyclists, sheltered in the lowlands, are not immune. Darkness arrives early in both the forests and the valleys here as the sun sets behind the peaks. And the weather, especially in the mountains, can change from gentle sunshine to full-bore blizzard within hours. Pay particular attention to the weather in the spring. Too many visitors from downstate metropolitan areas see forsythia blooming in their front yards and drive north expecting similar weather. For current forecasts, check the Adirondack Mountain Club's weather recording at 518-523-3518. If serious problems do arise, call the High Peaks emergency rescue dispatch at 518-891-0235.

For a sobering but perversely lovely reminder of just how rugged these mountains can be, stop by the former family camp of little Douglas Legg. After rescuers finally called off their search for the boy, his heartbroken family transferred its land to the Nature Conservancy. Today the site, about four miles in from a trailhead on Route 28N, remains one of the most alluring spots in the High Peaks--the wealthy certainly know how to pick 'em. But the camp itself, with its massive log cabins and other structures, has collapsed and decayed, its walls slowly being reclaimed by the forest, testament to just how powerful and haunting the beauties of the High Peaks are.

Thurston Clarke lives in upstate New York within sight of the High Peaks.

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