High praise for low peaks

By Dick Beamish

There’s much to be said for hiking the Low Peaks—the more modest Adirondacks well under 4,000 feet. Being less traveled, these trails offer greater solitude. Looking out and up from the lower summits can be as awesome as looking down from the higher ones. Because the distances and elevations are less, these smaller mountains make great outings for families with young hikers. When wintery conditions prevail higher up, the Low Peaks are often springlike or autumnal. And when winter arrives in earnest, these trails are ideal for snowshoeing through a silent, sparkling landscape, when the air is crystal clear and the views go on forever.

Snow & Rooster Comb

Heights 2,360 and 2,788 feet. Round trip 6.45 mi. Total ascent about 2,000 ft. (Or you can do one or the other for a 5-mile hike.)

Starting up the Rooster Comb Trail we’re greeted by the first of many giant white pines. At 0.7 mi. we go left on the Sachs Trail (aka Flume Brook Trail) and parallel brook for the next mile on easy ascent through towering hemlocks. Can hear but not see water rushing through canyon below. At next junction we turn left toward Snow and soon cross Flume Brook. It’s left again at next junction and up a short, steep stretch, past a woodpecker hammering on old white birch. Trail emerges on bare summit, where we flop down, shed boots, have lunch and soak up the real world (i.e., the natural world) all around us. We recall a previous visit to this summit when we found ourselves in the middle of a monarch butterfly migration—thousands of these seemingly fragile creatures fluttering by on their way to Mexico.

Map by Nancy Bernstein

The view from here could be habit forming. Giant Mountain (well named) dominates to east. Next in line is Round Mountain (equally well named), dwarfed by Giant but still well above where we sit. Through the gap between Giant and Round can be seen the mountains of Vermont. Right of Round is the distinctive summit of Noonmark, so named because, as seen from the village of Keene Valley, the sun appears directly over this pointed peak at noon at a certain time of year. More mountains pile up above us on the right, culminating in Nippletop. In the range beyond, the mighty slides on Dix Mountain glisten in the sun. Below, looking south, is the golf course and Victorian clubhouse (a former 19th-century hotel) of the venerable Ausable Club. Nearby, to the north, is the irregular summit of Rooster Comb which, from this angle, does indeed resemble the crest on a rooster’s head.

We retrace our route to the Sachs Trail intersection, then head up Rooster Comb. After skirting some interesting rock faces, we climb higher and take a side trail 0.1 mi. to Valley View Ledge overlooking Keene Valley. The hamlet nestled below seems in harmony with the surrounding mountains, but a couple of conspicuous houses halfway up Little Porter Mountain are glaringly out of place.

On to the summit where wilderness confronts us from all directions. No trophy homes domesticate the landscape. Three cheers for our forever-wild Forest Preserve! The mountain known as Lower Wolf Jaw rises imposingly above us. Across narrow Johns Brook Valley, the three Brothers lead up to Big Slide and Yard, with Mount Marcy hovering in back.

We head down Rooster Comb Trail to our starting point, admiring the erosion-proof trail (rebuilt by Tony Goodwin and his crew a few years ago) with its stepping-stone boulders, occasional switchbacks and artfully installed waterbars. This unobtrusive, state-of-the-art footpath was clearly made to last.

DIRECTIONS: Trailhead parking on NY 73, 0.4 miles south of High Peaks sign in center of Keene Valley. Trail extends 2.5 miles to Rooster Comb. For loop to Snow go left on Sachs Trail at 0.7 mi. To Snow from NY 73 is 2.5 miles, then 1.45 miles from Snow to Rooster Comb and 2.5 miles back to parking lot.

Round Mountain

Height 3,100 feet. Round trip 4.6 miles. Ascent 1,800 feet on W. Burns Weston Trail through old-growth forest with rewarding overlooks along the way, to a wide-open
summit you just don’t want to leave.

The view from Round Mountain looks past Noonmark to the Great Range. Photo by Nancie Battaglia

Though it’s 11 a.m. on the Wednesday before Labor Day, no one else has signed in today at the trail register. Only two hikers registered yesterday and two the day before. We start by climbing steeply among majestic hemlocks and soon glimpse the cliffs of our imposing neighbor, Giant, across the narrow pass. Along the trail, we encounter monumental white pines whose trunks the two of us, hands joined, can’t get our arms around.

We soon reach the first open lookout, where we can trace the ridge trail up Giant—a popular route cut years ago by Jim Goodwin, Tony’s father, to whom the Rooster Comb Trail is dedicated. A toad nearly the size of a bullfrog hops sluggishly across our path. At the next lookout we see Whiteface Mountain to the north. A siren wails down below, announcing noon in Keene Valley. Farther along, at the next opening, Lyon Mountain is visible some 40 miles away. (From this northernmost Adirondack peak, it’s possible to see Montreal through binoculars.) Immediately to the east, Giant and its massive slides fill the horizon.

The trail passes through a stunted spruce-fir forest and comes out on the big, bare summit. Mountains, mountains everywhere! Next door, Noonmark rises more than 400 feet above our summit. Cairns lead to a southern outlook where the Green Mountains of Vermont can be seen merging into the Taconics of Massachusetts. Pharaoh and Gore mountains stand out in the middle ground.

After a prolonged lounge on top, we consider three options: 1) Descend west and connect with Old Dix Trail in a return loop. We vote no—much of this trail is rocky and tedious. 2) Add two miles and another mountain to our itinerary by going up Noonmark from Old Dix Trail and returning via Stimson Trail. We vote no again—it’s a wonderful loop trip but we’re feeling lazy. We opt for No. 3, for retracing our route. Though it’s the same trail, the perspective will be completely different on the way back, and we’ll see a lot that we missed coming up.

Halfway down a commotion in the un-dergrowth causes us to proceed with caution, remembering the time we saw an adult bear on one side of this trail and two cubs on the other side. No cause for alarm this time, however—it’s only a mother grouse and her children.

We stop to admire some sugar maples as tall and stately as the hemlocks on the lower slopes. Also impressive are the huge yellow birches with the scaly, crusted bark of old age. We’re almost surprised to see a couple coming up the trail—the first people we’ve seen in four hours on the mountain. “It’s lonely on top,” Rachel jokes. “Everyone else must be in the High Peaks,” the woman replies. We’re all grateful that Round Mountain falls far short being one of the exalted 46.

DIRECTIONS: Park at designated hikers’ parking lot just off NY 73 on Ausable Club Road at more southerly of its two junctions with the highway (opposite parking for Roaring Brook Trail to Giant). From the south it’s 5.9 miles north of junction of U.S. 9 and NY 73. From the north go 3.0 miles on NY 73 south of High Peaks sign in center of Keene Valley. Parking is not permitted along gravel road leading up to the golf course and clubhouse.

Baxter Mountain

Height 2,440 feet. Ascent about 1,300 feet. Round trip 3.7 miles, including 0.4-mile walk down Beede Road from parking pulloff to Upham Trail, which begins near top of long driveway (don’t drive up).

Snowshoers enjoy the winter woods. Photo by Nancie Battaglia

Trail at first follows an old tote road, recalling earlier days of logging, grazing and farming. After passing old sign for Beede Ledge to right (there’s a house there now with “No Trespassing” signs), we veer left downhill and before long enter Forest Preserve, where the wide grassy trail turns into a wilderness path through mature woods. The trail goes over a ridge, descends into a hemlock canyon, crosses a brook, and then climbs steeply to our first open ledges. Though we’re not that high, the view above and below is impressive. High Peaks loom over us across valley. Keene Central School stands out in village. Sun reflects off Ausable River. Just below are new greenhouses at Rivermede Farm where Adirondack artichokes are grown.

The trail ascends through red pines to northwest summit and 180-degree vista stretching from Giant and Dix across Great Range all the way north to tip of Whiteface, whose castle-like tower peeps over the Sentinel Range. Trailsides are matted with blueberry bushes and mountain juniper. A raven croaks overhead as it checks us out.

We dip down into small ravine and climb briefly to second summit with another great view extending from Hurricane in north to Round and Noonmark at south end of valley. Through gap between Hurricane and Giant Mountain Wilderness are the Green Mountains beyond Lake Champlain. Only blemish in this idyllic scene is the big new house on mountainside nearest us, breaking the otherwise seamless sweep of forest to the summit of Giant some 2,000 feet above.

We descend steeply for a short distance to junction. Going straight the trail leads to Route 9N, the shortest way (1.1 miles) up and down Baxter. Instead we go right toward Beede Farm, down an easy grade through mixed woods. Old sugar maples hold sway here, along with aged poplars and white birches that reclaimed the open land maybe 60 years ago. Then younger woods take over, and we end the hike as we began it, on a former farm road. Approaching an overgrown meadow, we see Beede Farm buildings beyond. From there it’s a few hundred yards to our parking spot at the road junction just below.

(If you begin the loop trip here, watch for small trail sign just past buildings on left. Going up, keep left wherever the trail di-verges.)

DIRECTIONS: From High Peaks sign on NY 73 in center of Keene Valley go north 0.6 miles and turn right on Beede Road. Go 0.4 mile up road and bear left at junction of Phelps Brook Road. From there note third driveway on left (No. 133), the approach to Upham Trail. (Do not park there or drive up driveway.) Continue 0.4 mile up Beede Road and park at pulloff to the right just beyond junction of Beede and Stagecoach Way. Walk back down to Upham Trail driveway and follow up drive for a few hundred yards. Trail starts near house at end of switchback in driveway (look for sign on right).

Hopkins Mountain

Height 3,138 feet. Round trip 5.9 miles. Ascent 2,120 feet, following up enchanting Mossy Cascade Trail.

Right off you enter a forest primeval of white pines and hemlocks as the trail climbs gradually above the Ausable River. Highway sounds are soon replaced by the sound of the river, which, as we move up and away from it, is replaced by the rushing of Mossy Cascade Brook. True mountain music! At 0.7 miles a sign indicates Mossy Cascade to the left, Hopkins and Giant ahead. Taking sidetrip, we follow brook for 10 minutes to a cascading waterfall that drops about 30 feet. Returning to main trail we ascend quickly and cross brook above the falls.

Farther along we discern a large form in the middle of the trail—a bear of a man with a camera mounted on a tripod. He’s photographing a tree fungus. “I hike the trail in pieces,” he tells us. “My camera gives me a good excuse to stop.” He appears to be at least a hundred pounds overweight. “I might get to the top, I might not,” he says gamely.

Beyond the junction with Ranney Trail on left, the Mossy Cascade Trail leads up fairly steep grades alternating with gentler stretches. At a final junction with Giant Mountain trail we go left and climb abruptly, grabbing roots and small trees for handholds. The grade soon eases and the trail leads along stone slabs onto a rocky summit. There’s nobody else on top. We settle down and, with some help from our map, try to identify the 22 High Peaks supposedly visible from here. The scene also includes many lesser summits, including Round, Snow, Rooster Comb and Baxter.

Heading down we meet the photographer at the junction to the Giant trail. He has only 0.3 miles to go. “This is the final piece,” he says. He’s going to make it! Farther down we meet two elderly ladies coming up, one holding a walking pole in each hand. She tells us that Hopkins is her favorite mountain. Do the poles make it easier on the knees? we wonder. “Yes, indeed,” she says. “They’ll give me at least two more years of mountain climbing.”

The Ranney Trail, a steady downhill for the next 45 minutes, takes us directly into Keene Valley. From the highway it’s a five-minute walk to the Noonmark Diner. There we refresh ourselves—we’ve earned a slice of their famous blueberry pie—then cadge a ride back to our car, not wanting to mar a memorable hike by trudging that last mile along a road.

DIRECTIONS: Mossy Cascade Trail starts on NY 73 just south of steel bridge over the Ausable River about 1.5 miles south of Noonmark Diner. It’s 3.2 miles to the summit. Return 0.9 mile on Mossy Cascade Trail to junction and 1.8 miles on Ranney Trail to NY 73 on south edge of hamlet near parking lot for Rooster Comb Trail.

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