| Mt. Haystack, Autumn in the Adirondacks
In this trip up to the Adirondacks, I sought out a peak that would be less travelled and a bit more remote and not have the crowds that many of the other more accessible trails might have, given that it was Columbus Day weekend and Canadian Thanksgiving (Canada is just a short drive away from the peaks here).
I had my sights set on Mount Haystack, the third highest peak in New York, after Mount Marcy and Algonqin and also located in the High Peaks region at the northern end of the 6 million acre Adirondack Mountains wilderness. It is also one of the Adirondack "46ers."
At 4,960ft, it was not the altitude that makes this a challenging hike, but a combination of factors involving the difficulty of the route, rock strewn terrain, abundant water on the "trail", its length, elevation gain and steepness in many sections of the climb and its overall remoteness. As such, I thought Haystack would be the perfect mountain today to climb.
Camera in hand, I also wanted to catch some glimpses of any remaining color in the deciduous forests as it was near the peak foliage period for the northern hardwoods, though as I'd learn, I was one storm too late and most of the reds (i.e. maples) had been blown off already, especially in the higher, more exposed parts of the mountains. The weather forecast was rock solid which was another factor in my decision as this is one peak (at least from a one day hike perspective) that you don't want to do if the forecast is uncertain, since you are a long way from anywhere on this route and there is no quick way down once you commit to heading up.
In short, this was a hard climb. Period.
There are a few different ways to climb Haystack from a couple of different directions. I selected a route approaching it from the North, starting from the Garden Trailhead,
following Johns Brook along towards Bushnell Falls. Hurricane Irene resulted in a tremendous amount of flooding in the waterways around this region, and many routes simply eroded away with many bridges in the area washed away, including some that were more than 15 feet above the water, indicating the height the water rose to (The bridge getting to Marcy is gone for example).
Luckily the route I was looking to do was open, though there would be some residual treefall to contend with from the storm.
The route is 18.8 miles roundtrip with a total vertical gain of 5,300ft. For the astute mathematician, you might wonder how the vertical elevation gain can be greater than the height of the peak. Good observation. This route has several ups and downs and to get to the summit, you must climb over two sub peaks, before heading up Haystack proper. Different routes have different gains to them.
I woke up at 4:00AM, got ready and drove south to Keene Valley, arriving at the trailhead at 5:30AM. Sunrise was roughly 7:00AM, so I was planning on walking in the dark for the first hour or so. Sunrise would come when I'd still be deep in the woods.
The trail starts off deceptively easy (and visible, at least as visible as it can be in pitch darkness). It soon, however, loses these qualities and becomes as guide books mention "unmaintained". Shortly after passing what appeared to be a depression in the forest, I heard some rustling in the woods; I looked around and saw a pair of eyes looking at me, clearly illuminated by my headlamp, which this creature probably didn't appreciate.
This was a bit disconcerting. I reached for my knife and stood ready. The beast of the night was about 50 feet from me and its head was slowly wavering back and forth, eyes still fixed in my direction. It was pretty close to the ground, maybe a foot or so but I couldn't tell what the terrain was like, so I really had no idea. Was it a bear?..the last remaining mountain lion in the region? the fabled Adirondack Sasquatch?! I stood silent in the darkness, the hairs on the back of my neck standing at attention.
Although its head kept moving up and down and sideways, it didn't move forward at all,
so after a seemingly endless minute, I walked slowly up the hill and out of sight, heart rate ramped up a bit. Coincidentally, I had just passed a small creek called Bear Brook. I have an idea of how it got its name.
After another 15 minutes of walking, another pair of eyes stood in front me, right off the trail, this time it was only 4-5 yards away (see photo above with eyes in dead center). The eye shine this time was brighter, a brighter fluorescent whitish/greenish. Nevertheless, I stopped cold, a shiver ran down my spine, my headlamp again undoubtedly
annoying whatever this was also. This time, the animal stood still not moving a hair and as I had my camera within reach, I was able to get a shot off. Shortly, I'd realize this one was a whitetail deer, as it turned and leapt over a five foot high boulder, disappearing
into the darkness. Watching the ease with which it made the jump made me feel slow and fat. And, in a fine example of appropriate nomenclature for local streams and I'm not making this up, this was around the area which passed by a stream called Deer Brook!
Some color was left and made for a nice morning as the sun started peeking through the brush alongside the stream.
I continued hiking up ...Given my experiences this morning, I was starting to get very nervous as I approached the section near the route which was called "Wolf Jaws"...
After the first mile or so, the terrain grew more difficult and consisted of boulders
ranging from the size of bowling balls to Volkswagen Beetles, most of them covered in slippery moss, lichen or running water.
The forest starts out pretty open and filled with maples, hickory, birch, aspen and an occasional hemlock. As the sun rose, the color started to come out in the forest and although a lot of the reds were gone, it was a nice walk up and the colors lit up the trail.
As you ascend (very gradually at first) the trail tightens up and the woods become much more dense and coniferous. At one point after the transition to 100% evergreen, it resembled a Christmas Tree farm as thousands of 3-6 feet evergreens grew under a canopy of adult red spruce and balsam fir.
On most of the route, you are walking on or through some amount of water running below
your feet. There is a tremendous amount of water in the Adirondacks and it seems as though the whole region is just biding its time until it can be submerged by the aquatic forces of Mother Nature. This brings me to another point; Adirondack mud (that would be a good username actually on this site!). For those of you familiar with hiking and climbing in the 'Daks, you will be no stranger to the
mud. It may not rain for a month (a virtual impossibility, but humor me here for the sake of example); even in drought you will return to the trailhead with your legs below your knees caked in rich, dark brown mud. Many hikers here use gaiters to protect against the mud. I didn't so was pretty muddy. Lots of small pools and puddles abound on the trail.
Some of the route down lower parallels a nice creek with large pale boulders, reminding me of an Alaskan riverbed where Brown Bears pluck salmon from the water. There was still some color remaining, but most of the leaves have turned or fallen by now at this elevation. Further along, I spotted a Garter Snake, trying its best to imitate a rattler.
I saw another deer on the trail, this time only a few feet away. It was clearly posing for me.
The route up Haystack climbs up various ravines, rocky drainages, and steep loose chutes and travels through pretty thick brush. Along the way while still climbing up in the now more dense forest, there are a half dozen class 3 sections where some steep climbing
is needed to surmount the small granite walls. Most of these had water trickling down them, making it hard to gain solid purchase on them without slipping.
The difficulty of the route is really unrelenting most of the way after that first mile or two. One slight moment of distraction and it is super easy to turn an ankle and face plant on wet boulders ruining your day.
After reaching a subsummit of sorts, while still in the woods, the trail started to descend and continued dropping into a steep gulley for the next 30 minutes and roughly 400+ft. I wasn't even sure I was on the correct trail, though my map seemed to confirm I was, so I kept moving on, cautious that I may have made a wrong turn. After bottoming out, I saw what I realized to be "Little Haystack" in the distance, a false summit enroute to Mount Haystack, but as I would discover, a good climb in its own right.
Below is a shot of Little Haystack from further on the trail once I passed it looking back. The light was better this way for a good photo. The peak is the pale green rock to the right in the photo.
There are some pretty steep sections here and the route steepens to become nearly vertical in spots.
Turning off to head up Little Haystack, there is a sign, reminding the hiker that you are now stepping into the fragile alpine zone, a rare and protected area in New York found on only 19 summits and encompassing 85 acres of land in total. Upon seeing this zone, you are standing in a fragile time machine.
The terrain and life on this alpine tundra dates back over 10,000 years, being formed by receding glaciers that carved out much of this landscape. This Zone is concentrated above 4,500ft. This alpine vegetation that manages to grow here is tough indeed and the lichens, sedges and other rare plants are vigorously protected by the state. At and above this point, all routes traverse along the solid rock rather than on any plant or grass. In the photos below, the routes up follow the rocky outcroppings and not the easier grassy terrain.
On this morning, the wind sounded like it was tearing apart a tent as it was whipped through patches Deer's Hair Sedge growing on the summit of Little Haystack.
The climb up the Little Haystack was a scramble on bare lichen covered granite with some short 10-15 foot chimneys to negotiate along the way. Some of the rock is pictured below with a steeper pitch to get up shown; another hiker moves up ahead of this section.
From the summit of Little Haystack, you can now see the remaining route up towards Haystack. The route follows the exposed rock here, and while steeper and more difficult than the vegetation, saves the delicate plantlife here from a thousand boot steps.
In the photo below, a lone climber negotiates the downclimb off the back of Little Haystack.
The downclimb towards Haystack proper was steep and involved some similar butt scooting down the slick granite following a couple of cairns marking the fragile artic-alpine zones to steer clear of.
As you climb Haystack, views of Mt Marcy dominate the view west as the expanse of Panther Gorge open up in front of you, its name heralding back to a more wild time in the region when the namesake cats roamed the valleys below. Marcy is the pyramidal shaped peak in the photos below.
After some more scrambling across the bare granite, the top of Haystack is soon reached and you're met with grand views across the Adirondacks High Peaks.
On this morning, there was a lot of haze in the air which muted the colors of distant peaks and the sky above. There was still a bit of color from the alpine plants on the summit. The wind was pretty strong, blowing a good 40mph.
Back down in the valley, under the afternoon sun, the foliage was really showing and lower down there was still some maples bearing some color.
Further down, and looking up into the rock outcroppings embedded into the mountains, the color lit up the mountainside and seemed to jump out at you. Photos cannot really capture this properly. It felt so bright most photos were overexposed and I had to purposely dial it down to capture any detail.
In one of the boggier areas lower down still, I was expecting to see a moose (there are about 400 in the region), as the setting seemed perfect for one to walk into the picture as if it begged for someone to paint one standing in the water alongside the vermillion maples and stands of white pine.
This is a pretty cool region to spend some time outdoors in and in Autumn the mountains really come alive with color and the sights and smells of Fall. If you've never been to this area, this climb would make a nice, albeit long, hike. It passes through some diverse terrain and wonderful forests, waterfalls, streams, is challenging in several spots and will test your fitness if opting to do it in one day. You also get nice views from the top and a chance to run into some interesting wildlife! There are also several spots to camp along the way if you wanted a longer trip. Be bear aware though.
Soon, most of this terrain will be covered in several feet of snow and only be accessible through long snowshoe treks in, but then again, that opens up new possibilities for those who seek to endure the challenge.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):