Rocky Peak Ridge rewards hikers with continual views
By Phil Brown
Few who have climbed Rocky Peak Ridge and Giant from New Russia would dispute that it’s one of the best hikes in the Adirondacks. Just be sure to bring lots of water and lots of stamina.
If you do the 11-mile traverse, ending at Chapel Pond, you climb over two High Peaks and several lesser summits. About half the route is on open ridges. With all the ups and downs, you ascend 5,300 feet (the starting elevation in Pleasant Valley is only 615 feet). In comparison, you ascend just 3,200 feet when climbing Mount Marcy from Adirondak Loj.
Of course, no one’s forcing you to do the whole thing. The first peak, 2,080-foot Blueberry Cobbles, is only two miles from the road and offers nice views stretching from the Champlain Valley to the Dix Range. Hikers who push on another two miles to 3,060-foot Bald Peak will be rewarded with a superb panoramic vista. Either is a worthy destination.
I did the traverse in early July, but it’s best done in September or October, when the days are cooler, the views are longer and the leaves more colorful. Tony Goodwin, editor of the Adirondack Mountain Club’s High Peaks guidebook, describes the fall trek as “probably the best hike in all of the Adirondacks.”
I get on the trail just before 8 a.m. on a Friday, when the birds are still engaging in their morning chatter. “Here I am. Where are you?” asks a red-eyed vireo. The trail climbs steadily right from the start. In less than an hour, I reach the first lookout, a ledge with views of the Boquet River valley.
Just beyond this, I arrive at a junction. The way right is a shortcut that skirts the top of Blueberry Cobbles. Hard to figure why someone would come this far and bypass the scenic payoff, especially since it takes only a few more minutes to reach the top.
The summit offers more views of the Champlain Valley to the east, the Boquet Valley to the south and the Dix Mountain Wilderness to the southwest. Crossing the summit, I come upon another ledge, with a great view of what lies ahead: Mason Mountain, Bald Peak and the long, steep ridge leading to Rocky Peak (the summit of Rocky Peak Ridge remains hidden). Depending on your mood and your leg muscles, the scene could fill you with joy or despair. If you plan to turn around at Blueberry Cobbles, be sure to take in this vista.
Just past the ledge, the trail descends steeply to a col, where it meets the other end of the shortcut, and then climbs over Mason Mountain, passing lookouts on the way with good views of the Green Mountains of Vermont.
Next up: The 800-foot ascent of Bald Peak, much of it over open rock. The way is marked by cairns and yellow paint. When I get to the top, I take a 20-minute break to refuel and drink in the panorama, all the while serenaded by white-throated sparrows. For the first time, I enjoy a wide-open view of the country to the north, including the summits of Giant, Green, Hurricane (with its fire tower) and the Jay Range. The other landmarks I saw during the ascent—such as Lake Champlain, the Green Mountains and the Dix Range—are more visible than ever.
To the west, directly below the summit, there is a narrow ridge of rock with a gigantic boulder, a glacial erratic, that looks ready to roll away. Within 10 minutes of resuming the hike, I arrive at this 15-foot-tall curiosity. Examining its cracks and handholds, I wonder if any boulderers have discovered this rock.
A few minutes later I come to a small sign proclaiming “View,” with an arrow pointing to the left. I ask myself: Do I really need another view? Yes, I decide, and take the side trail to an open nubble with a 360-degree vista. On most hikes, this could be the highlight of the day. On this hike, it’s just par for the course. But it’s worth the two-minute detour just to look back at Bald Peak, with all its cliffs and open rock.
Back on the main trail, I descend into a lovely forest of paper birch and then begin heading up Rocky Peak. This is the least appealing part of the hike: The trail is steep and often rocky, with fewer views to distract you. After 40 minutes of climbing, I pass a sign informing me, in French and English, that I am now in the alpine zone (“camping interdit”). Right afterward I come to a lookout with a wonderful view to the north. The lookout proves to be superfluous, for I soon emerge on open rock just below the 4,060-foot Rocky Peak.
Now to clear up a little confusion: Rocky Peak is considered part of Rocky Peak Ridge, not a separate summit. There is a ridge that climbs from Rocky Peak to Rocky Peak Ridge, but the name “Rocky Peak Ridge” applies to the summit, not the ridge. You’d think the ultimate summit would be named Rocky Peak and the ridge would be Rocky Peak Ridge. But Adirondack nomenclature often disregards logic.
Whether it’s a summit or not, Rocky Peak has a magnificent panorama. You can see a long way in any direction, but I am drawn to the dramatic slides on the east face of Giant—about a half-mile swath of bare rock. Continuing along the trail, I get a good look at the cliffs on the south side of Rocky Peak Ridge and then descend to Mary Louise Pond (elevation, about 3,950 feet).
Much of this tiny kettle pond is covered by lily pads, their round yellow flowers bobbing above the water. The croaks of bullfrogs punctuate the still air. The ridge leading to the summit rises on the far side of the pond. This is the first water I have seen since the start of the hike, 4½ hours ago. It’s far from clear, but I fill my Bota bottle (which comes with a filter) and take a long drink. I’ll let you know if I die of dysentery.
From the pond, it’s a half-mile climb through open meadows to the 4,420-foot summit, where you’ll be treated to the best scenery of the day—and that’s saying a lot. Giant and its slides dominate the view to the northwest. You can see many of the other High Peaks to the west—the Dixes, Nippletop, Sawteeth, Gothics, Haystack, Marcy, Algonquin and Cascade, among them. Turning east, you see the route of the long, hard climb that got you to this wonderful vantage.
On the summit, I meet five middle-aged men, all employees of Kodak in Rochester. They are the only people I have encountered. We exchange pleasantries and then go our separate ways—they back to New Russia, I on to Giant. These guys will have hiked 14 miles by the time they reach their vehicle. That’s three miles longer than my traverse to Chapel Pond.
Giant’s summit is only 1.2 miles away, but it seems farther. It takes me nearly a half-hour to descend 650 feet to the col between the two peaks. Here, I leave the trail to bushwhack to the eastern slides, but most people, if they have any sense, will want to continue on the beaten path. Lord knows, that’s difficult enough. An 850-foot ascent lies ahead. Proceeding up the regular route, near the top you’ll intersect the Zander Scott Trail, which starts far below at Chapel Pond. Turn right and go a few hundred yards to the 4,627-foot summit of Giant—the 12th-highest in the Adirondacks.
On Giant, you feel a bit closer to the High Peaks, but it’s not the panoramic vista you get on Rocky Peak Ridge. You have to hunt around for views of Lake Champlain and the Green Mountains. Still, the scenery is stupendous.
If you make it this far, you’ve traveled eight miles and ascended 5,300 feet, but the day is not over. You’ve got three miles of descent to Chapel Pond, via the Zander Scott Trail. About a third of the way down you’ll traverse a long stretch of open rock offering, yet again, more fantastic views of the High Peaks. In the last mile, after passing the Giant’s Washbowl, a small pond bordered by steep cliffs, you’ll pass a few more lookouts, with close views of the cliffs on Chapel Pond.
By this time, I am thinking that if views were chocolates, I would have eaten a whole boxful. But I guess you can’t have too much Adirondack beauty. What a sweet day.
DIRECTIONS: The New Russia trailhead is on US 9, 4.9 miles north of its intersection with NY 73 (or 5.8 miles south of the blinking light at the intersection of US 9 and NY 9N in Elizabethtown). The Giant Mountain trailhead is on NY 73 across from Chapel Pond, 4.1 miles north of the aforementioned intersection with US 9 (or about 5 miles south of the hamlet of Keene Valley).
Climbing the slides
If taking the trail to Rocky Peak Ridge and Giant isn’t enough of a workout, you can ascend Giant via the slides on its eastern face. This will add an hour or two to your hike, depending on how fast you travel in the pathless woods.
I bushwhacked to the slides from the col between the two summits. Leaving the hiking trail, I headed northeast, downhill. After a half-hour, I saw the upper half of the slides almost due north. I continued going downhill, but cut to the north now and then, whenever going in that direction seemed convenient.
I crossed two rocky streambeds, both dry (this was in July). One or both of these might lead to slides, but I couldn’t be sure, so I kept going north or northeast. An hour after I left the trail, I emerged on the slides, perhaps a hundred yards from the base.
The view from the slides is quite scenic. Looking down the valley between Giant and Rocky Peak Ridge, I could see Lake Champlain, Owl Head Lookout and High Bank, a conspicuous sandy escarpment.
At first, climbing the slide was merely a steep walk, but after 10 minutes or so, I started to think it was too steep for ordinary hiking boots. I put on rock-climbing shoes and resumed the ascent. Because these shoes grip the rock much better, I had no fear of slipping.
Higher up, I angled left to avoid a cliff band and came to the bottom of a long finger of rock extending upward into the woods. I followed it to the end, passing through scattered patches of vegetation, and changed back into my hiking boots.
The bushwhack from the top of the rock to the hiking trail took less than 15 minutes. From there it’s just a minute or two to the summit.