By Lisa Ballard
A few years ago, while standing atop Mount Colvin, the temptation to add Nippletop Mountain to an already long day nagged at me. I had never hiked Nippletop, nor Dial Mountain, on the same ridge, a couple of 4,000-footers that had long been on my must-hike list. Other 4,000-footers, like Mount Colvin, always seemed to trump them.
Nippletop (4,620 feet), the 13th-highest peak in the Adirondack Park, especially intrigued me. A prominent landmark as one drives up the Northway from the south, this silent sentinel always welcomed me back to the High Peaks from trips to Albany and beyond. It’s obvious why Orson “Old Mountain” Phelps, the legendary Adirondack guide in the 1800s, popularized the mountain’s name. Its summit ridge has a distinct bare nipple of rock. The mountain’s humorous nomenclature certainly added to its hiking appeal.
Dial Mountain (4,020 feet), which lies northeast of Nippletop, was also named by Old Mountain Phelps, who had a reputation for calling peaks something obvious. He probably chose this summit’s moniker because he used it like a sundial. After all, it was next to Noonmark Mountain, which he named because it was due south of his basecamp in Keene Valley and marked that compass direction at noon each day.
When I finally got around to hiking Nippletop and Dial, I purposely did not wait around Keene Valley to confirm my speculation about Dial’s name. I hoped to stand on its summit by then, or perhaps Nippletop’s pointed peak. An early start was critical to get a parking spot at the hiker lot on Ausable Road in Saint Huberts and to avoid hiking out after dark. My route, a 14-mile loop with a gain of over four thousand feet, started at the Ausable Club, went up Dial, crossed the ridge to Nippletop, and then descended via Elk Pass.
The day was perfect for a long tramp, clear, temperature in the 60s, and calm. I looked forward to a solo outing for the exercise, the views, and the chance to clear my head. And if I sprained an ankle, I wouldn’t be alone, with the crowds so common in the High Peaks nowadays. As it turned out, I saw more people in the parking lot than the rest of the day combined.
I decided to hike up Dial first, though people often approach the loop in the opposite direction, from Elk Pass. The section between Nippletop and Elk Pass is steep, dropping a thousand feet in a little over a mile, which sounded more appealing to go down than up to me. The rest of the way out, on the Gill Brook Trail and Lake Road, is joint-friendly with plenty of spots to soak one’s feet along the brook.
As dawn broke, I passed the gatehouse on Lake Road. About 15 minutes later, I turned left off the road onto the H.G. Leach Trail, glad to be on a footpath. The climb was steady from the start, under towering hemlocks that held up their evergreen tops on corrugated, pillared trunks. Tree roots crisscrossed the trail here and there, but on the whole the footing was good. The trail was much less eroded than other access routes into the High Peaks.
Golden birch leaves speckled the path, the first color of the fall, distracting me from the climb, which grew steadily steeper. The hobblebushes had also begun their autumn change, adding maroon hues to the woods.
About an hour into my hike, I passed an “Adirondack Wilderness” sign, marking the boundary of the Adirondack Mountain Reserve (Ausable Club property). A few minutes later, a deer track in the mud caught my attention. Then I spotted whorled aster blooming beside the trail. Fall wasn’t here yet, but it was close.
The longer I hiked, more details of my surroundings came into focus, a phenomenon that always happens when I hike alone. I had not seen another person since leaving the parking lot. Mother Nature was my only companion.
About two hours into the hike, the trail passed through a grove of birch saplings. It reminded me of a fairyland. The forest glittered around me as sunlight caught the changing foliage in the canopy above, the lacy woods beside the path, and the leaves scattered on the path.
I had to take a break a short while later when I came to Noonmark Shoulder, an open, slabby spot, cleared by a forest fire about 25 years ago. With its magnificent view of the Great Range, Noonmark Shoulder would make a fine destination for a less ambitious outing.
Climbing above the shoulder, the forest began to change. Bright-green sphagnum moss carpeted the ground. I imagined an Algonquin mother diapering her baby in this soft absorbent moss.
Upon re-entering the woods, I passed some bunchberries, their berries long past and their leaves reddening, and then oddly, I passed more bunchberries, still holding their fruit and thought about how micro various micro-climates can be on a mountainside. Without other hikers around, my mind freely filled with such random thoughts.
At 4.7 miles, I reached the summit of Dial Mountain and found the first humans since the parking lot on Ausable Road. A couple sipped from their water bottles, snapped photos, and lazed in the sun. It was a nice place to loiter, an open ledge warmed by the sunshine, with the Great Range framing the horizon to the north and the Dix Range to the south. I could also see Nippletop, my next destination, another two miles farther along the ridge.
Nippletop and Elk Pass
The good news about heading to Nippletop from Dial is that 80 percent of the elevation gain is behind you. The bad news is that the 2.1 miles between the two summits are among the muckiest in the High Peaks. As I dropped off the top of Dial, I ran into another solo hiker, coming from Nippletop.
“How is it?” I asked.
“Muddy,” he replied as he passed, but his pants and hiking boots carried only the usual amount of dirt. In hindsight, I think the man must have been as surefooted as a mountain goat.
Around the next bend, an enormous mud pit blocked the trail. I rock-hopped across it, thinking the man was right after all, but no worries. I kept my boots clean through the next two mudholes, traversing them on rotting planks and random logs and with a giant leap. Then my luck ran out.
While stepping from stone to stone across yet another mud hole, one of the stones rolled unexpectedly to the side. I sank in, up to my knee in dark slime. I yanked my leg free of the mud, feeling the cool goo roll down my leg, but my boot was still on, and my pant leg was long enough to keep most of the muck out of my boot.
At 6.6 miles, I passed by the turn to Elk Pass. Less than a quarter-mile later, I was on Nippletop’s summit and found the only crowd on my hike. Well, the eight others at the top felt like a crowd after seeing only three people, total, before that. They were hiking together and doing the same loop as me, but from the opposite direction. After clicking a few more photos of the Great Range, warning them about the mud, and exchanging pleasantries about the sunny day, I retraced my steps back to the Elk Pass Trail and took the plunge.
The trail did indeed drop steeply. Unlike previous portions of the route, it was also rough and eroded. I was glad to spot the first of several tent sites, signaling mellower terrain and the beginning of the pass. From there, the trail wound among three large beaver ponds, the surface of one oddly at shoulder level.
At 8.7 miles, I came to the junction with the trail from Mount Colvin and turned right heading toward Saint Huberts on familiar turf, the Gill Brook Trail.
The water in Gill Brook was at its fall level, much lower than when I had seen it while hiking Mount Colvin in June the previous year. The gorges were hardly placid, but they lacked the violent torrents of spring runoff. Instead of gushing urgently, the waterfalls poured gracefully over the ledges. Small pools lay among the boulders, reflecting the green forest in their glassy surfaces. I picked one, kicked off my shoes and socks, then eased my feet into the frigid yet soothing water.
As my feet soaked, my mind wandered again, this time looking back on this epic day. Why aren’t Dial and Nippletop atop more people’s hiking lists? They were uncrowded with eye-popping panoramas and a lovely brook with waterfalls. It might take a while for the mud to chip off my boots, but that seemed a small price to pay for one of the best-kept secrets in the High Peaks.