After doing my one-day solo Presi traverse last year, I heard about a similar traverse in the Adirondacks – the Great Range Traverse. It’s around 8 high peaks, 25 miles, and 9,000′ each of elevation gain and loss. I guess I like to suffer because I started planning. Except when I looked at the map, it looked to me like I could keep going and bag another bunch of high peaks I hadn’t done yet that were in the immediate area. After an evening looking at the map while briefly losing my mind, my plan became 16 high peaks from Keene Valley to Heart Lake over 42 miles, but I would do it over a three-day weekend, not in one day. That meant carrying a full backpack as opposed to the light daypack I’d used in the Presis, but why not?
We originally planned for doing this over Memorial Day weekend before realizing that A: There is no way in hell the trails would be ready then. In fact, this year ADK asked people not to hike in the high peaks until mid-June due to all the remaining snow. And B: Black flies. We did the Cranberry Lake 50 over Memorial Day instead, which did not have snow, but did have lots (and lots) of black flies.
But I didn’t let go of the idea of this traverse and figured after I hiked in Colorado for a few weeks this summer, I’d be in perfect shape for it, not to mention overdosing on all the oxygen down here on the east coast. The only three-day weekend left was in October, which could be pushing it for weather, but we lucked out: highs around 60 and lows around 30. Since it was almost a month since I stopped hiking in Colorado and started hiking here, I wasn’t as in shape as I would have liked, but it was time to give it a shot.
We drove out to Heart Lake on Friday night, left a car, and drove over to the Rooster Comb trailhead in Keene Valley. We arrived by 4pm since we suspected the trailhead would be full, but there were barely any other cars there. I had worried that there would be signs explicitly saying no camping or overnight use, but none of the signs mentioned it, so I felt comfortable with the plan to sleep in the truck that night. We had plenty of time to kill so we walked into town to check out The Mountaineer, whose book selection I love, and have dinner at the Noon Mark Diner. We got back to the truck after dark and set up to sleep in the back.
We set the alarm so that we’d be dressed, done with breakfast, and ready to go when it got light out. We overshot a little bit, but still got an early start on the Rooster Comb Trail. The first couple of miles out to the Rooster Comb junction weren’t too bad, but I discovered that I’d dropped my favorite purple WFR bandana somewhere along the way. Some runners coming up behind us confirmed they’d seen it on the ground. There was no way we had time to go back with the big day we had planned so I asked the next couple of people we saw coming towards us if they could grab it and throw it in the back of the truck for me. Usually when things are lost on a trail, someone else will pick it up and leave it at a trailhead, but I worried it wouldn’t be there since we wouldn’t be back at that trailhead for a couple of days. They agreed to help out, probably wondering why I cared so much about a bandana.
We had initially toyed with the idea of going up the side trail to Rooster Comb, but I didn’t want to add a mile to the day so early, just in case we needed that time later. The plan for day 1 was 10 summits (7 high peaks) in 14.1 miles, so I was already feeling the pressure. We continued along the trail over Hedgehog Mountain at 3389′ instead. Not a high peak, but it did have a hiker-made summit sign at the wooded top.
We didn’t linger but kept it moving back down into a col before joining the W.A. White Trail and ascending more steeply to Lower Wolf Jaw Mountain’s summit at 4175′, our first high peak of the trip. We chatted with a couple of other hikers there and took a minute to enjoy a snack at the limited view before continuing again.
Another descent, we joined the ADK Range Trail, went over a false summit, and we reached the summit of Upper Wolf Jaw Mountain at 4185′. We ran into the same hikers there, plus a few more.
More steep down and up (it’s a theme) and we reached the summit of Armstrong Mountain at 4400′. The same hikers were here again so we all chatted for a bit about possible routes nearby.
I was looking forward to the next mountain since it’s a favorite of my friend Kelly. All the hikers we’d been leapfrogging during the day convened on the summit of Gothics at 4736′. I realized then that the one guy I thought seemed familiar had been in my WFR class last year! What a small world.
We decided at this point to cut the out-and-back to Sawteeth over Pyramid Peak since it would add 3 miles and 3 summits (although only one high peak – Pyramid Peak is 4596′ but doesn’t have enough prominence to count as its own mountain). Instead, we said goodbye to our new friends and started down Gothics. The slab was steep enough that they’d put in some rebar and cables to help descend, although each cable kept ending before the next cable started. It was so steep!
At one point, I was trying to inch down a slab on my butt, but it was steep enough that I started sliding, and I ended up sliding all the way down into a mud puddle. So that was fun. Nothing better than hiking in wet and muddy pants, but at least I didn’t rip any holes in them. So I was already grumpy following the State Range Trail over Saddleback Mountain at 4827′, especially when we started going down the other side of it, which anywhere else in the world would be called climbing, not hiking.
We ran into two women with a dog coming the other direction and the dog couldn’t climb up the mountain. They only had daypacks on and it was getting close to sunset so we took off our packs to help lift the dog up to them. We gave them some ibuprofen to boot. I happened to have mine handy in a hipbelt pocket because I just had a root canal a couple days ago and was weaning myself off of them as the pain went away.
It was also starting to sprinkle, so in addition to dealing with the oncoming dark, we now had wet, vertical rocks to “hike.” And another mountain to go over before the only legal campsite at this elevation, which might also be really small and already full. The women insisted they could take it from here, so although we didn’t believe them, we had to keep going.
As we climbed up the next mountain, we could still hear them calling to the dog from just about the same spot we’d left them on Saddleback. There was a lean-to and campsite several miles down a side trail once they got over the mountain, so I could only hope they were heading there and had headlamps. We continued to the summit of Basin Mountain at 4827′ and very briefly enjoyed the sunset before descending.
We tried to get as far as possible before dark but did have to get the headlamps out while the trail was still pretty rough. I guess it didn’t matter since we weren’t moving quickly anyway. The miles and elevation had definitely taken a toll on me, in addition to all the scrambling we were doing with full packs on. We finally made it to Haystack Brook and started looking for the Sno-Bird campsite.
It’s shown on the ADK map, but there is very little information listed about this campsite in the guidebook, except that it’s the site of the former Sno-Bird Lean-To and is now a designated campsite. Various references to it online indicated that it wasn’t even there anymore, or it could only fit one tent, it was hard to find, maybe it could fit a few tents, and the brook usually dries up. I had called the High Peaks Information Center on Friday to ask them since I wanted to make sure we’d have somewhere to camp and something to drink. They said that the campsite was still there and someone had been up a week ago and had water so we’d probably be fine. The campsite legally fits three tents and eight people. I was really hoping too many others didn’t have the same plan we did.
At the first brook crossing, we saw one small tent tucked into a very uneven alcove between rocks right on the side of the trail so I started to get nervous that the campsite was full. We kept going, what felt like way farther than the .1 mile indicated on the map, and saw the little campsite marker on a branch on the ground pointing to a narrow side trail. We’d found Sno-Bird! There were already a couple of tents in there but we found a spot a little farther back to set up ours. Another tent or two came in after.
We set up the tent, cooked dinner, then went back out to get water, since we hadn’t wanted to waste time with that while not even sure where the campsite was. After filtering water, we put all the smellables in the required bear can and placed that out in the woods before turning in. 11.1 miles and 6 high peaks for day 1.
In the morning, we tried to get moving early since we had another big day planned. The first high peak was only a little over a mile away. When we got to the junction leading out to Haystack, we stashed the bear can with some heavier things in it since we’d be coming back that way anyway. We got above treeline onto the rocks as we went over Little Haystack on the way to Haystack Mountain at 4960′. It was chilly there so we only enjoyed the view for a little bit before heading back the way we’d come.
Back in the trees, we picked up the bear can and made our way towards Mount Marcy on the Phelps Trail. As the highest peak in the Adirondacks, it’s a very popular hike, despite that it’s so far out – the shortest day hike you can do to it is still over 15 miles round trip. We started seeing lots and lots of other hikers as we got closer to the summit at 5344′.
We checked in with the Summit Steward to see if she had heard anything on the radio last night about two women with a dog needing rescue. She hadn’t, but her radio isn’t on all the time. Hopefully they made it out okay.
We found a spot to sit sheltered from the wind for a snack before following the Calamity Brook Trail down the other side of Marcy, over the Schofield Cobble, to Four Corners.
I was excited to find a privy hidden in the trees at the junction! It had no walls, which I didn’t think was a problem, until people coming down the trail to Skylight suddenly appeared very close to me. Oops.
We stashed the bear can again and started up the trail to Mount Skylight. It was only a half-mile to the summit at 4924′ but I think that was worth dropping the bear can. Everything about the trails on this trip was very difficult so the less weight carried, the better. I started to really appreciate the idea of day hiking with a small pack.
Of course, we had another snack break on Skylight before heading back down to the Calamity Brook Trail. We soon passed Lake Tear of the Clouds, a little pond that is the headwaters of the Hudson River.
Just after the pond, we saw the cairn marking the unmaintained trail to Gray Peak so we crossed over Feldspar Brook to get started. It was rugged going but there was a small opening to a view near the summit at 4840′.
Back down to the Calamity Brook Trail again, and I realized I’d forgotten to drop my bear can for that spur. Oh well. The trail down Feldspar Brook was much easier than we’d been dealing with, and got even closer to level when we joined the Lake Arnold Trail at the Feldspar Lean-To. We decided to cut two more planned summits there (Redfield and Cliff), which also saved us 5.2 miles. What can I say? I was very optimistic in my planning. We decided we’d rather get done earlier in the evening and make it closer to the morning’s first summit, than possibly get stuck coming down an unmaintained trail in the dark and have a longer day tomorrow. We headed for Lake Arnold instead.
We soon came to some very flooded portions of trail, where the puncheon, if it even still existed in the vicinity, was floating. There was a line of people backed up watching each person inch over the partially floating logs one at a time, applauding when the person made it, and groaning with them when they slipped in. We made it without too much mud getting in.
There were some other muddy spots along the way, but nothing to compare to that, and we made it up to Lake Arnold before dark. We found the designated campsite, pitched the tent, then went to collect water before cooking dinner and turning in. 9.5 miles and 4 high peaks for day 2.
It was a little colder than expected in the morning. We left the tent set up with most of our gear in it, and the bear can with smellables nearby, as we went up the L. Morgan Porter Trail to Mount Colden at 4714′. Some of the clouds lifted as we got closer to the top so we weren’t completely enveloped in mist and could enjoy some pretty awesome views.
We turned back the way we’d come at the summit and packed up all our gear once we got back to Lake Arnold. We followed the Lake Arnold Trail a little farther to the Indian Falls-Lake Arnold Crossover, where we started some climbing again up to Indian Falls.
After the falls, we joined the Van Hoevenberg Trail and soon came across the unmaintained trail to Table Top Mountain, although it did have a sign, so I don’t see why they don’t maintain it. I stashed my bear can again, a little bit up the trail, so I could climb with a little less weight. There was just a small rock outcropping with sort of a view to sit on at the top, but the couple of women there were leaving as we arrived so we were able to sit in the sun and eat lunch before heading back.
A little farther along the Van Hoevenberg Trail, we picked up the trail to Phelps Mountain. It was pretty steep and brought us out along some rock slabs to the summit at 4161′. It was really cold there so I didn’t even want a snack, I just wanted to get back below treeline and out of the wind.
I picked up my bear can where I’d stashed it at the bottom of that mountain and then we were on the easy portion of the trip. It was slightly downhill to Marcy Dam and then mostly level out to Heart Lake. My body was sore but I was still cruising at that point. I wanted to get to the car and sit down, then quickly drive somewhere for pizza.
Day 3 ended up being 12.4 miles and 3 high peaks, making it 33 miles and 13 high peaks for the weekend! I managed to continue my streak of more than doubling my high peaks count on every trip, from 9 to 22. Pretty much halfway there! Meanwhile, Jeremiah only has 2 left. We’ll have to see if we can fit them in before winter. I had planned another optimistic (brutal) overnight for him to get those peaks and me to get a few more, but it’s late in the season. And after backpacking over all of this steep, rugged trail that’s in terribly eroded shape, I’m feeling more inclined to do some lighter weight day trips coming up. Not climbing straight up and down with a full pack sounds like heaven.
Oh yeah, and my lost bandana was in the back of the truck when we got back to it. Thanks, random hikers!