Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Mount Marcy

The Great Range, Giant Mountain, and the Green Mountains from Mount Marcy
15 miles round trip, 3500 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Strenuous
Access: Gravel road to trailhead, Adirondak Loj parking fee required

Mount Marcy is the highest point in both the Adirondack Mountains and New York State, its slopes cradling the headwaters of the Hudson River. The fifteen mile round trip hike to its summit is challenging and long but ends with vast views of the Adirondacks and the Green Mountains of Vermont from the roof of New York. Surrounded by the High Peaks of the Adirondacks, Marcy is a popular hike due to its height status but the views justify dealing with both other hikers and the relentlessly rocky and tough trail to reach the summit. There are multiple routes to reach the summit of Marcy; the Van Hoevenberg Trail approach from Adirondak Loj is the easiest and shortest route and the one that I'll describe here, though the hike is still neither easy nor short. Although the Adirondacks are renowned for their fall foliage, Marcy is deep in the High Peaks region that is dominated by conifers; look at lower elevations to find a good hike for fall colors.

I hiked Mount Marcy during an early October trip to the Adirondacks to see the fall colors. The trailhead for Mount Marcy is close to Lake Placid, one of the key towns with services at the heart of Adirondack Park. The trailhead is about is about 2.5 hours driving from both Montreal and Albany. From Lake Placid, I reached the trailhead at Adirondak Loj by taking New York Route 73 (Sentinel Road) south past the Olympic ski jumping complex to North Elba. 3.5 miles out from Lake Placid, I turned right (south) onto the Adirondack Loj Road, which was marked by a hanging wooden sign for South Meadows and Adirondak Loj. I drove Adirondack Loj Road to its terminus at Adirondak Loj by Heart Lake; the end of this road was unpaved and a bit bumpy. There was a parking fee to enter the Adirondak Loj parking lot; rates are variable based on time of day and Adirondack Mountain Club membership and can be found here. After passing the gate, roads branched off to both the left and right; Adirondak Loj is on the right, while the multiple parking lots for the Van Hoevenberg Trailhead was off to the left. Although there is plenty of parking here, the trails emanating from this trailhead are extremely popular and the parking lot typically fills by 8 AM in summer and fall, so come early.

Although I parked at the Van Hoevenberg Trailhead, I walked across to Adirondak Loj to see Heart Lake before starting the hike. Having arrived early in the morning with the sun still waiting to rise, I enjoyed the peaceful sight of pre-dawn mist rising off of the lake with colorful autumn forests in the backdrop.

Heart Lake
I headed over to the southern most prong of the four parking lots at the Van Hoevenberg Trailhead to start my hike on the Van Hoevenberg Trail. The single-track trail headed into deciduous forest that was showing off pretty fall colors at the start of October. The trail is easy to follow throughout but just in case you struggle with the route there are round blue "Foot Trail" markers nailed to trees to guide the way. The trail stayed fairly flat, crossing MacIntyre Brook and then paralleling it for a while to reach a junction with the Algonquin Trail, which broke off to the right, ascending the MacIntyre Range to access Wright and Algonquin Peaks. I took the left fork here to stay on the Van Hoevenberg Trail, which remained fairly flat for another 1.2 miles in the forest before reaching the site of the old Marcy Dam and Marcy Dam Pond. The wooden dam was built to hold back a pond here by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s but the dam was damaged and the pond drained in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene in 2011. Marcy Brook now flows unimpeded through the area, although the silty plain that was formerly Marcy Dam Pond still offers nice views of the surrounding High Peaks, with some pretty fall foliage here.

Marcy Brook from the old Marcy Dam site
While the trail once crossed over the dam, it now followed Marcy Brook briefly downstream to a bridge, crossing the brook and then following an old roadbed on the other side back to the east end of the dam. On the east side of the dam, at 2.4 miles from the trailhead, the trail passed a trail register and came to the Marcy Dam backcountry campground and the junction with the trail to Avalanche Pass. I stayed on the Van Hoevenberg Trail, taking the left fork to start the journey along Phelps Brook up to Mount Marcy. 

Once the trail entered the Phelps Brook drainage, the flat and easy hiking of the first part of the hike ended. After crossing a bridge over Phelps Brook, the trail began a steady ascent along the north (left) bank of the stream. The brook tumbled over rocky terrain here as it descended through chutes and small waterfalls and was quite scenic as it flowed through a forest of mixed conifers and deciduous trees displaying peak fall color. While this was pretty, the trail unfortunately became quite rocky as well, making it slightly unpleasant to hike.

Rushing waters of Phelps Brook
Fall foliage along Phelps Brook
Phelps Brook
The Phelps Mountain Trail branched off to the left about a mile after I left the Marcy Dam campground; I stayed on the Van Hoevenberg Trail. Shortly after, the trail crossed the Phelps Brook and then began an aggressive ascent. Separating from the winter ski trail, the Van Hoevenberg Trail peeled off to the right to begin a less linear but still very direct ascent along the slopes of T.R. Mountain. There's a legend- probably untrue- that Teddy Roosevelt, at the time vice president, was hiking Mount Marcy when President McKinley was assasinated (Roosevelt was in the Adirondacks, though).

This steep ascent ended after about 600 feet of uphill as the trail passed through a saddle between T.R. Mountain and Table Top Mountain. Shortly after passing the saddle, the trail crossed Marcy Brook and came to the side trail for Indian Falls, 4.5 miles from the trailhead. I took the short spur to the right here to reach the top of Indian Falls, an area of exposed rock along Marcy Brook with views of the MacIntyre Range. It's not possible to see the actual drop of Indian Falls safely, but seeing the majestic pyramid of Algonquin Peak while taking a break here was still quite nice.

MacIntyre Range from the top of Indian Falls
Returning to the Van Hoevenberg Trail, I embarked on another uphill climb. Although not particularly steep, the trail here was even rougher than before- indeed, I found this to be one of the rougher trails that I've tackled! At many points, the trail was just a field of medium-sized boulders, requiring balance while being quite hard on my knees and feet; at other points, the trail was smooth, wet rock inclines. Often, I had to trudge through a muddy mess or deal with a gushing stream flowing straight down the trail. The heavy rains on the days previous to my hike certainly didn't help, but this was definitely still a very rough and rocky trail. I've done plenty of hikes with four to five thousand feet of elevation gain in the West but dealing with this uneven and punishing terrain on Mount Marcy was far more tiring.

Muddy, rough trail
Rocky, wet trail
Rocky, wet trail
At 5.6 miles, the trail switched to a gentler grade as it reached the top of a ridge, although it remained quite rocky, wet, and rough. The dense conifer forest surrounding the trail was becoming shorter the higher that I ascended, marking my transition into progressively harsher mountain conditions. At 6.3 miles, I passed an intersection with the Hopkins Trail, an alternate path for accessing Mount Marcy from Keene Valley. I took the right fork at the junction to stay on the trail to Mount Marcy. Continuing to ascend, I passed a clearing a little afterwards that delivered my first good view of Mount Marcy along the hike. The summit was still a good 700 feet or so above me but at least I could now see the alpine and rocky mound that is the top of New York State.

Mount Marcy
Continuing uphill, I passed a non-apparent junction with the Phelps Trail at 6.9 miles from the trailhead. The Phelps Trail also leads up from Keene Valley and connects Mount Marcy with nearby Mount Haystack and the Great Range Traverse, one of the classic hikes of the Adirondacks. After passing the junction with the Phelps Trail, the trail opened up, using wooden planks to cross marshy alpine clearings. The conifers here had shrunk to person-size and were reaching the limit of their elevation range. Mount Marcy, my goal for the day, appeared in front of the trail, now just over a half mile away and 500 feet higher.

Entering the alpine zone on Mount Marcy
After an ascent through forest that finally shrank to nothing, the trail emerged onto massive rock outcrops that delivered the first sweeping views of the hike. After hours of hiking, I was finally rewarded with views of the Adirondack High Peaks. Most prominent here was Mount Haystack, a rugged, rocky peak that is the third highest peak in New York State. To the west, views of the great MacIntyre Range had returned.

Haystack from the final ascent
MacIntyre Range views along the final ascent
From this outcrop, the remainder of the ascent was out in the open, crossing open rock while climbing steeply until, at 7.5 miles from the trailhead, I reached the broad, alpine summit at 5344 feet above sea level, the second highest state high point in the Northeast after Mount Washington. After such a tough hike up, I was glad that I could finally enjoy a long break at the height of the Adirondacks.  

View of the final ascent with the Great Range, Haystack, and Dix Mountain
The views at the summit were simply stunning, a 360-degree panorama of the Adirondacks from the heart of the range. As the tallest peak in New York State, Mount Marcy is also the tallest of the 46 Adirondack High Peaks, which includes all of the Adirondack peaks above 4000 feet and then some. Many of those High Peaks, all clad in dark green conifer coats with bald, rocky heads, could be seen from their highest member. Nearby Mount Haystack towered over Panther Gorge, a fierce, wild, and rocky ravine between that peak and Mount Marcy. To the north of Mount Haystack was the Great Range- one of the most spectacular ridges of the Adirondacks that included Gothics Peak and Saddleback Mountain. Farther east were Dix Mountain and Giant Mountain, very prominent members of the High Peaks slightly separated from the core High Peaks. The sharp peak of Whiteface Mountain stuck out to the north, rising over the bright fall foliage near Lake Placid. The great McIntyre Range- which includes Iroquois Peak, Wright Peak, and the state's second tallest mountain, Algonquin Peak- rose to the west.  

Much of the Adirondacks were visible; many of the peaks further out were sporting the spectacular fall colors for which the range is well known. Many lakes were visible as well: Boreas Pond was visible to the south, while many lakes and ponds were visible to the southeast, where a maze of hills rose around the Lake George part of the Adirondacks. Lake Tear of the Clouds lay directly south of Mount Marcy, an unremarkable looking tiny pond that is actually the quite remarkable headwaters of one of America's great rivers, the Hudson. Blue Mountain was visible to the southwest, a lone higher peak amongst the gentler hills that generally characterize the western Adirondacks. The Green Mountains rose as an impressive mountain wall to the east in Vermont: Mount Mansfield and Camels Hump were both easily recognizable across the state line. The nearby High Peaks blocked out any view of Lake Champlain.

At the summit, a view of Mount Mansfield and Camels Hump in Vermont
View to Boreas Pond and the southern Adirondacks
View north to Lake Placid and Whiteface Mountain
MacIntyre Range and the western Adirondacks
Ridge upon ridge to the southeast, the Green Mountains in the distance
Fall color in Keene Valley
The Adirondack Mountains are actually the eroded remants of an uplifted dome on the edge of the Canadian Shield and are distinct from the Appalachian Mountains. The rocky streaks that run down mountain slopes, the ancient jointed intrusive igenous rock underlying it all are clues from this view that this range is different from others on the East Coast. While the Appalachians are already a fairly old mountain range, having formed in the Alleghenian Orogeny over 250 million years ago, the rock of the Canadian Shield, the core of the North American continent, are well over a billion years old.

I had a good deal of company on the summit; on a weekday in fall, I shared these great views with over 30 other hikers. Despite the lack of solitude and despite the tiring, tough, and rocky route to reach the summit, I enjoyed the hike and reveled in the expansive views across the Adirondacks. I haven't hiked enough of the Adirondacks to tell you that you should put this hike at the top of your list, but at the very least this is a hike that will challenge and reward you greatly and give you bragging rights for reaching a state high point.

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