Friday, October 2, 2020

Noonmark Mountain

Dix Mountain rises above the colorful fall forests of the Adirondacks
6 miles loop, 2350 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no parking fee

Although only 3556 feet tall, the summit of Noonmark Mountain delivers a stunning view of the High Peaks of New York State's Adirondack Park, accessible via a steep trail that requires scrambling up rocks and ladders. Noonmark is not one of the Adirondack High Peaks but is surrounded by those peaks on all sides; it is an excellent fall foliage hike as it overlooks deciduous forests in Keene Valley. The peak is so named because the sun appears behind the mountain at noon when viewed from Keene Valley. This was my favorite hike during my Adirondack visit, reaching a beautiful summit on a trail that was slightly less crowded than many neighboring hikes. I highly recommend this hike, especially in early October.

There are two routes up Noonmark Mountain, both extremely steep: the Henry Stimson Trail up the north ridge of the mountain and the Felix Adler Trail down the southeast ridge. Most hikers approach and return via the Stimson Trail, but I found it enjoyable to make a loop by ascending via the rockier Stimson Trail, descending via the Adler Trail, and then returning via the Old Dix Trail. The loop does not add any particularly scenic destinations to the hike but it does give a bit of variety and avoids descending the ladders on the Stimson Trail. If you choose to skip the loop, you can hike to the summit round trip via the Stimson Trail in 5 miles round trip with slightly less elevation gain.

I hiked Noonmark Mountain during an October visit to the Adirondacks to see the fall foliage. Peak color at Noonmark Mountain is around late September to the first two weeks of October in most years. The hike is near the village of Keene Valley, slightly east of Lake Placid. The trailhead is not far off of I-87, which surely contributes to its popularity; it is a 2 hour drive from either Montreal or Albany. From I-87, you can reach the trailhead by taking exit 30 and then turning left and following US Highway 9 north for 2 miles and then turning left onto New York Route 73. Follow New York Route 73 north for 5.5 miles and then turn left onto Ausable Road at the bottom of a long downhill; the turnoff for Ausable Road is directly across from a turnoff on the right for the Giant/Roaring Brook Trailhead. After turning onto Ausable Road, immediately make another left to enter the trailhead parking lot. There is plenty of parking here, but during the summer and on fall weekends the lot will fill up fairly early in the morning. This is an immensely popular trailhead (it's also used to access Ausable Lake) so it's important to arrive early if you want a spot here. Parking along Highway 73 or Ausable Road is illegal and the town of Keene aggressively tickets anyone who parks along roadways. The town of Keene does operate shuttles to the trailhead from Marcy Field during busy hiking times; otherwise, if the lot is full, you can choose to approach Noonmark Mountain from the Round Pond trailhead or do another hike.

The actual trail does not begin at the parking area, but the last stretch of road to the start of the trail is reserved for members of the Ausable Club, a private country club. From the parking lot, I turned left and followed Ausable Road to the west, crossing Icy Brook. After following the paved road for 0.3 miles from the parking area, I came to the edge of Ausable Club's golf course on the right side of the road; on the left side of the road, a sign directed me to follow a gravel road that split off here to access the Noonmark Mountain Trail. I followed this gravel road uphill through the forest, passing a few driveways to residences before I arrived at the start of the actual trail, which split off to the right of the road.

The trail began with a gentle ascent above Icy Brook through the forest, entering the High Peaks Wilderness and then reaching a junction with the Stimson Trail at 0.6 miles (1 mile from the trailhead). Taking the right fork here, I began a long and direct ascent up the slopes of Noonmark Mountain. The ascent here was very aggressive and steep, packing in 2000 feet of elevation gain over the next 1.5 miles en route to the summit. There's not much to say here: the eschews switchbacks for going straight up the mountain, gaining the north ridge of the mountain and following it up about a third of the way through the ascent. Soon after gaining the ridge, the first views of the hike opened up, an eastward glimpse of the forested slopes of Giant Mountain across Keene Valley. The fall colors were already beautiful here, but it was just a teaser for the incredible foliage show that was to come.

Fall color on the slopes of Giant Mountain
The trail along the ridge was both steep and rocky, with the ascent frequently utilizing climbs up angled rock slabs. At two points on the trail, the obstacles on the rocky terrain were a bit too much and so ladders helped me tackle the uphill. The colorful deciduous forest that I hiked in earlier on transitioned to a dark green conifer forest.

Ladders on the ascent up the Henry Stimson Trail
The sustained ascent helped me gain elevation quickly and finally paid off as I reached the first impressive view outcrops around 3200 feet. Walking out onto massive west-facing cliffs on the ridge, I found extraordinary views of the Great Range and Keene Valley. The mountain slopes above Keene Valley sported some spectacular autumn color, with streaks of dark green conifers mixed into the arboreal cloak of red and orange. I really enjoyed the prevalence of reds and oranges in Adirondack fall colors, which I found more visually stunning than the yellows and browns that dominate fall foliage in the Blue Ridge. 

View north along Keene Valley
To the west lay the Great Range, a rugged ridge connecting a string of Adirondack High Peaks. The lower slopes of these peaks were showing off spectacular fall color as well, though their rocky peaks were above the transition zone to coniferous forest. More or less the entire Great Range is visible here: Lower and Upper Wolfjaw Mountains, Armstrong Mountain, and Gothics Mountain. Behind the Great Range lay Mount Haystack and Mount Marcy, the third and first tallest peaks in New York State.

The Great Range rising above forests exploding with fall color
Although I had already ascended quite a bit, looking above me to the south at the great cliffs of the west face of Noonmark Mountain I realized that I still had a little ways to go.

View toward the summit of Noonmark Mountain
A final push through the still-rocky terrain brought me to the very top of Noonmark Mountain. The good workout of the climb and the spectacular views were extremely invigorating: it felt great to be atop this peak. The summit area was quite spacious, with a broad rock platform providing plenty of good lunch spots on the western and southern sides of the summit. A few trees at the summit prevented me from seeing a full 360-degree from any one spot but I was able to see the whole view with a little bit of walking. Having arrived early in the morning, the summit was fairly quiet while I was there but I appreciated how even with more crowds there would have been plenty of room to space out.

The earlier views of Keene Valley and the Great Range remained in my viewshed at the summit, not particularly changed from when I had gazed out at them at the lower outcrop. The summit brought in views of many more peaks, though: Giant Mountain dominated the horizon to the east, while Dix Mountain rose majestically above a forest blazing with fall color to the south. Layer upon layer of brilliantly colored hills stretched to the southeast, with the Green Mountains of Vermont forming a distant wall along the horizon across Champlain Valley. Even though the view here may not encompass as many peaks as the view on Marcy or other High Peaks, I appreciated being able to study many of the High Peaks from fairly close up. Being at a lower elevation than these peaks also made them seem more majestic than they looked when I saw them on Mount Marcy.

Giant Mountain across the valley from Noonmark Mountain
The Great Range and Mount Marcy
Dix Mountain
Fall colors on the Adirondacks with the Green Mountains in the distance
After sufficiently enjoying the marvelous views, I started the descent on the Felix Adler Trail, which left from the east side of the summit block. This trail required rock scrambling just as the ascent on the Stimson Trail had, although there were no ladders on my descent this direction. The Felix Adler Trail has a grade just as steep as the Henry Stimson Trail: it dropped nearly 1300 feet in a mile. The descent started by following the southeast ridge of Noonmark Mountain, pushing through rocky terrain in coniferous forest, but later returned to some pretty deciduous color during the latter parts of the descent. The trail was continuously brutally steep in its descent, taking a toll on my knees, until it all of a sudden ended as the Adler Trail intersected with the Old Dix Trail.

Fall colors on the descent down the Felix Adler Trail
I turned left to follow the Old Dix Trail north. The trail passed a small clearing with views of colorful forests on nearby Round Mountain. In the spring, this clearing sometimes floods into a pond but during my autumn visit, it was a dry meadow. Continuing past the meadow, the trail gently ascended to a saddle between Noonmark Mountain and Round Mountain. An unmarked trail broke off to the right from the pass to ascend Round Mountain; I ignored that trail and stayed on the Old Dix Trail, which began descending into the Icy Brook drainage on the north side of Noonmark Mountain.

Round Mountain rises above a clear on the Old Dix Trail
Over the next mile, the Old Dix Trail descended moderately and steadily down a pretty, forested ravine, crossing Icy Brook on its way back to meeting up with the Stimson Trail. Finally, 5 miles from the trailhead, I arrived back at the junction for the Stimson Trail; from here, I followed the trail out for the final mile back to Ausable Road and the parking lot.

Noonmark Mountain is an extraordinarily beautiful hike, easily accessible from I-87 with a good workout, some fun rock scrambling and ladders, and absolutely magnificent views. I know it's a popular hike, but that's because it's a good hike! Come early to make sure you nab a parking spot, but do come as this is surely one of the most enjoyable hikes of the Adirondacks.

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