The hike from Elk Lake to the state’s highest summit is not the most popular, but it is one of the most rewarding.
By Lisa Densmore Ballard
It was necessary to perform the whole journey on foot, the trail lying through the wildest and most inaccessible forests of the Adirondacks, portions of which were almost unknown. The trail was of the faintest description, only to be followed by the most experienced woodsmen … the hollows, eked out by the runways of wolf and panther.
—Alfred Billings Street (1869)
With great expectations, my husband Jack and I shouldered our packs at the Elk Lake-Marcy trailhead to begin our ambitious twenty-mile overnighter. Our plan was to hike to the Panther Gorge lean-to, drop our gear, then summit Mount Marcy on the first day (eleven miles) and hike out the second day (nine miles). Adding to the challenge was that the last two-mile stretch on the first day, from the lean-to to the top of Mount Marcy, is one of the steepest trails in the Adirondack Park, climbing over 2,100 feet in only two miles.
At 5,344 feet, Marcy is celebrated as the highest peak in the state. I’ve been to its top numerous times (as well as to the summits of nearby Mount Skylight and Mount Haystack and most of the other bald four-thousand-footers in the region) but never from Elk Lake. However, this longer, less-popular approach was not the attraction. Panther Gorge was. I was curious to see the ravine named for the wild cat that had once hunted between its rocky cliffs. I also wanted to visit the lean-to and tent site that is a backcountry launching point for the spectacular Haystack-Marcy-Skylight loop as well as the back door to Mount Colvin via Blake Mountain and Pinnacle. Some base-camp there for several days. It’s the only designated camping spot on the southwest side of Mount Marcy.
Historically, panthers—also known as mountain lions, cougars, and catamounts—never existed in large numbers in the Adirondacks. The Park’s early forests did not support large populations of deer, a primary food of the panther in the Northeast. The wild cats were present though, until the late 1800s. Logging, farming, hunting, and trapping all contributed to their extirpation throughout the state. The government paid large bounties to get rid of them (and wolves) in the name of public safety and progress.
The panthers may be back. Over recent decades, there have been hundreds of purported sightings of panthers or their paw prints within the Blue Line. State biologists believe that most of the sightings are not genuine and that any panthers in the Adirondacks are likely escaped or released pets. Still, the slim chance of an encounter with a panther in its namesake gorge sent a trickle of adrenaline through my veins as I started down the trail.
The odds were much higher of being eaten by a much tinier predator, the mosquito. This ubiquitous Adirondack terror lurks in the woods eager to suck the blood of innocent backpackers. They’re quick to attack their quarry. If their bites don’t bring a person down, one risks going mad from the constant buzzing and swatting. Despite a double dousing of DEET, a flying battalion of them feasted on Jack and me within moments of crossing the suspension bridge over the Branch, the outlet of Elk Lake, about sixty seconds from the trailhead. We knew the bugs would be bad. After all it was June, but squashing a half-dozen per swat was a record. On the bright side, the mosquito attack pushed our pace.
We slapped our way deeper and deeper into the forest on an old grassy woods road, bounded by ferns and bunchberry bushes with patches of sorrel and moss blanketing the ground to either side. A plethora of toads hopped out of our way, garter snakes slithered aside, and angry squirrels chirped at us from unseen perches as we plowed our way through the swarm. After passing several private hiking paths and cross-country-ski trails owned by Elk Lake Lodge, I glanced at my watch. Only a half-hour had passed since we left the car.
“I’m not sure I can take these bugs much longer,” said Jack behind me.
“Let’s give it ten more minutes,” I replied, not wanting to give up our trek but overwhelmed by the whizzing around my ears. My exposed hands, neck, and face looked as if I had contracted chicken pox, and I itched as badly.
A few moments later, and about two miles into the route, we climbed a low ridge where a slight breeze gave us some reprieve from the buzzing and biting. We decided to press on.
The first five miles of the Elk Lake-Marcy Trail traverse the Elk Lake Preserve. We knew we had left the property preserve when we arrived at the junction with the trail to Pinnacle along an extended downhill. At the bottom of the descent, we came to a new footbridge that crosses the meandering, river-like inlet to Upper Ausable Lake.
“Don’t move!” shouted Jack as I started toward the bridge. “You’ll spook the fish!”
I glanced into the glassy water. Tiny two-inch trout finned in the shade of a small spruce growing from the river bank. It was the first time Jack, a Montanan with a strong penchant for fly fishing, had seen a trout in a mountain stream in the Adirondacks. The trek was taking a rosy turn, though I worried the mosquito army would soon mount a new attack. The next 0.7-mile stretch would pass through Marcy Swamp
Surprisingly the swamp proved uneventful. We cleared the far edge and began climbing steadily through an airy upland forest. At 6.5 miles, we passed the junction with a trail to Marcy Landing, which was not on our map, then our trail flattened on a long traverse through boreal forest crossing multiple lengths of puncheon. Though late June, clintonia bloomed along the path, a clue that winter is loath to leave this remote place. Clintonia typically blooms a couple weeks earlier.
Eventually, we heard Marcy Brook to our left, the brook that carved Panther Gorge, and knew we were getting close to the lean-to. We found it nestled in the woods just past the sizable tent site. No one was there. Perhaps we would have it to ourselves.
From the lean-to, it’s a short walk down a steep bank to the brook. Veils of water cascaded invitingly through the gorge. We climbed along the damp rocks worn smooth by millennia of violent hydraulics. We paused now and again to imagine the torrent that surely rips over the rocks during spring runoff or after a heavy rain. Chilly emerald pools beckoned us to take a dip, a welcome refresher after the buggy slog to get there. Drying off on a broad flat-topped boulder, we could have easily postponed the climb up Mount Marcy until morning in favor more hangout time in this Adirondack Eden, but clouds gathered overhead. With the deteriorating weather, we knew we had to climb the mountain that afternoon or the opportunity would be lost.
Our legs reinvigorated after their cold soak in the brook, we grabbed a couple of water bottles, wrapped jackets around our waists, and left for the summit of Mount Marcy. As expected, the climb was relentless and much rougher than the route below Panther Gorge. At Four Corners, the junction with the trails to Mount Skylight (south), Mount Marcy (northeast), and Avalanche Lake (northwest), we turned right toward Marcy.
We quickly cleared the trees, pausing briefly for a view of Gray Peak and Lake Tear of the Clouds. At 10.7 miles, we took another break at Schofield Cobble, a small rock outcropping named for Peter Schofield, an early Adirondack climber who played an important role in the adoption of the “forever wild” wording when the Adirondack Park was first added to the state constitution in 1894.
At 4:30 p.m., we reached the summit. At first, we were alone; then three other hikers appeared, yet they never got closer than fifty yards away. The expanse of bedrock was so broad, we still felt the lofty solitude that comes with having a mountaintop to oneself. The other hikers didn’t dally. Soon we shared the peak with only a curious junco that hopped from rock to rock, undoubtedly seeking small bugs to devour. Come to think of it, we had seen no one else the entire day until those three hikers, quite a contrast to a typical day on the Van Hoevenberg Trail, the shorter, more popular route up Marcy from Adirondak Loj.
A gray, hazy sky hugged us as we peered at the striking 360-degree view. The bald pates of the Great Range, Mount Colvin, Mount Haystack, Big Slide, Giant, and Mount Colden surrounded us like bold blue and gray tidal waves. As we loitered beside a cleft in the rock, sheltered from the breeze and feeling on top of the world, I quickly forgot the difficulties at the start of our trek. The mystique of the panther and the chance to stand atop the tallest peak in New York had easily trumped any discomfort caused by a small bug.
Land changes hands
Hikers should be aware of recent land-ownership changes in the Elk Lake region.
The Elk Lake-Marcy Trail passes through the 1,587-acre Casey Brook Tract, which was added to the Forest Preserve in 2013. It adjoins the Boreas Ponds Tract, which is destined to enter the Preserve within a few years.
The twenty-two-thousand-acre Boreas Pond Tract is part of the Nature Conservancy’s 2007 purchase of 161,000 acres of Finch, Pruyn & Company lands. That deal prompted additional conservation measures in the vicinity of Elk Lake.
In late 2012, John and Margo Ernst, the owners of Elk Lake Lodge, placed nearly all of the twelve-thousand-acre Elk Lake Preserve under a conservation easement that allows responsible logging but prohibits subdivision and development. The lodge itself is excluded from the easement (and only guests have access to the lake).
Before this, part of the Elk Lake property, including a thousand feet of shoreline and several islands, was already protected by a conservation easement dating back to 1963, the first-ever conservation easement in the state.
As part of the new deal, the trails into the High Peaks Wilderness and the Dix Mountain Wilderness, which share the same parking lot, are now permanent public rights-of-way, and a new trail is planned to the summit of Boreas Mountain.
The Ernsts had owned the Casey Brook Tract. In a straight swap with the conservancy, they exchanged it for the Three Brothers Tract, a 1,600-acre parcel south of Clear Pond along Elk Lake Road.
DIRECTIONS: Take the Northway (I-89) to Exit 29 for Newcomb/North Hudson. Go west on Blue Ridge Road (County 84) for 4 miles. Turn right on Elk Lake Road and go 5.2 miles to a parking area on the right. This is the trailhead for both Mount Marcy (the trail begins across the road) and the Dix Range.