A journey in search of solitude in the busy Adirondack summer
By Brandon Loomis
Where there’s a will, there’s wilderness.
I formed that conclusion about the High Peaks Wilderness experience somewhere on the northeastern flank of Mount Haystack, where I had pointed my walking sticks to evade the summit and its throng of alpine worshippers in early July.
There’s still wild solitude to be had among the peaks in high summer season, but it takes some willpower to reach it. Some of these trails are so rocky and steep they require lugging your camp gear up or down ladders. On this particular trail, descending the Haystack Brook watershed, my pack and I lurched down several, including one with 27 rungs. No wonder this 1.6-mile cutoff was one of just three trail segments where I didn’t see another person during my outing, even though it took me three hours.
I suppose luck or early rising could also put one on an empty High Peaks trail for a stretch of time. But I sought out the rugged and the isolated specifically to see if I could find some me time in this hot spot that’s so popular it needs a governor-appointed management task force. Then I walked home through Adirondacks Central, passing the Independence Day throngs from Lake Colden to Avalanche Pass to Marcy Dam.
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I had assigned myself one simple ground rule when I packed gear and my freeze-dried vittles for this four-day walk. I would summit none of the 4,000-foot-topping peaks that draw hikers by the hundreds and thousands. I would walk among the so-called peak baggers, I knew, while traversing their approach routes. But as soon as possible I would veer off onto the rocky, rooty back trails. Call it peak lagging.
Long story short: I found myself at Panther Gorge, and then I found everyone else at Lake Colden.
Here’s a recap of my July 1-4 sojourn betwixt and beyond—but never atop—the highest of New York’s High Peaks.
Destination: Slant Rock
Miles traveled: 8.5
Hikers viewed: 5
Conspicuous species: Ruffed grouse
I got a late start, only hitting the trail at 11:15 a.m. Whether it was the late hour, the misting rain or my choice of trailhead—South Meadow instead of the busier Adirondak Loj nearby—I would immediately enjoy a few hours on my own.
I headed up Klondike Brook with a plan to complete a clockwise loop around the eastern High Peaks over several days, ultimately bringing me through Panther Gorge, then Colden, and finally home over the Indian Pass Trail. Not being familiar with these trails, I allowed myself some wiggle room for an early escape route through the crowds at Marcy Dam instead of Indian Pass—a surrender I would eagerly concede once my pack began grinding into my shoulder somewhere on the mud and boulders south of Mount Marcy.
Klondike Brook was a lovely introduction, with tree cover forcing my gaze downward toward the cascading water and, at one point, a brilliantly hued newt in red eft phase. Most thrilling, though, were the small groups of ruffed grouse that exploded from the bush before me at two spots along the trail. In one case, the young flew one direction while the parent crossed the trail in the other and began chirping in an apparent effort to draw the intruder away from the rest of the family.
No one else had signed in at the trail register that day, and I didn’t see anyone on this 5.1-mile segment until I reached Johns Brook Lodge, where I would turn southwest toward Marcy, Haystack and a waiting tent site. I met just two men outside the lodge, and was grateful to see them because they carried information I needed.
Before leaving home, I had read the state’s online conditions report and noted its recommendation to avoid a section of downed trees across the Phelps Trail, my intended route to a campsite at Slant Rock. I was inclined to accept that advice, though the resulting detour and backtrack around Little Marcy seemed more onerous now that the afternoon was slipping away. These two hikers had just come from that way, though, and they assured me that Phelps was more or less cleared of blowdown debris. I trusted them, and they proved trustworthy, so I reached Slant Rock with a little daylight to spare.
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Along the way I saw three hikers, plus three packs ditched by the trail where others had stopped to make the short side trip to Bushnell Falls. I pressed on to Slant Rock, where I did not meet anyone but did see a bear-proof canister that signaled the lean-to there was occupied. I pitched my tent at a designated site, stashed my own bear can in the woods and then enjoyed dinner by the burbling brook nearby.
Destination: Panther Gorge
Miles traveled: 5.1
Hikers viewed: 45
Conspicuous species: Fisher
The parade of Mount Marcy seekers started early, as I sat up in my tent at the sound of voices coming toward me at 4 a.m. The headlamps bobbing down from the direction of the lean-to indicated that three had slept there, and their beams must have landed on my upright silhouette, because one of them wished me good morning.
I resumed sleep, and when I awoke in daylight and took my time filtering water and preparing to leave, the rush was on. First three, then two, then a solo hiker, then four who climbed upon the camp’s namesake boulder, one of them exclaiming: “There’s a teabag up here!” I wondered if there was, or if it could be one of the yellowed birch peelings I had initially mistaken for paper on the trail the previous day.
Then two more. Then four. Then two. Then four.
Slant Rock is a pedestrian highway’s rest stop on a sunny summer morning.
I gathered up my gear and walked a short way up the trail toward Marcy before crossing the brook and beginning a steep ascent up the Shorey Short Cut to a ridge where it would intersect the Range Trail and meet up with Haystack-bound hikers. A slight southward jog from there I would depart the crowds and head down Haystack Brook to a junction at the Adirondack Mountain Reserve, and then west around the foot of Haystack and across Bartlett Ridge into Panther Gorge.
I encountered only a few hikers climbing to the ridge, which required actually climbing a stone chute in one spot. Once atop the ridge I took a snack break and marveled at the anorthosite-domed summits now in view to the south and east. Briefly joining the trail toward Little Haystack and Haystack, I again encountered handfuls of hikers and recognized that I was on a thoroughfare until I dropped into the Haystack Brook drainage and had a trail and an afternoon to myself.
The descent was rough here, with the aforementioned ladders over especially steep rock faces. At some point I began chuckling darkly each time I saw a “Foot Trail” disc tacked to a tree. They all seemed strategically placed for comedic effect—just above a rock precipice where “Butt Scoot” or “Leap Here” would be more appropriate.
An hour or so into that, I slid out of my pack and sat on a rock mid-trail for a grumpy water break. A blackish flash in the woods to my right caught my peripheral vision. I instantly dismissed my first thought—bear—when I heard no twigs snapping. What then? Raccoon?
A fisher, longer and stouter than I would have imagined a member of the weasel family could grow, leapt across the trail and off a little cliff a couple dozen yards downhill, in front of a sign noting the 3,500-foot elevation threshold below which camping at undesignated sites is permitted. It had also passed so quickly that I hadn’t reached for my camera phone, and it occurred to me that this fisher might have been as surprised to see me as I was to see it. This was where I decided wilderness demanded climbing and leaping and butt-scooting and mumbling, and that I had located it.
Tired as I was, I spent the next half-hour half looking for a suitable tent site before reaching what I knew would be off-limits camping on the AMR property. But nothing looked comfortable, and blackflies pushed me onward to where I would switch back and head for the primitive campsites at Panther Gorge. After passing just two outbound Haystack day hikers en route, I was relieved to find the gorge’s lean-to (and everything else) unoccupied at sundown, so I could crash without pitching my tent. I skipped dinner.
Destination: Lake Colden Dam
Miles traveled: 5.3
Hikers viewed: 68
Conspicuous species: Black bear
It rained overnight, and in morning I sat up in the lean-to and noticed a finch-size bird with a bright-yellow head hopping about and picking over leaf litter. Having goldfinches in my neighborhood at home, I eliminated that possible identity immediately, but never landed on another, no matter how often it reappeared that morning. A chestnut-brown bird about the same size, perhaps a mate, soon bopped by. As I sat puzzling over them, I realized that the buzzing that I had subconsciously attributed to a drone was actually the flow and echo of the nearby brook. A toad eyed me before disappearing under my log structure.
I was, for one morning, acutely aware that I was beyond the company of humans.
That would change after I packed up, forded the brook and climbed to the Four Corners junction where oncoming hiker traffic would split north toward Marcy’s summit. But not before I had a chance to sit just east of the junction and look back toward the Colvin Range, from where clouds swept past Haystack and toward the faint silhouettes of people I could make out atop Marcy. I heard voices.
At Lake Tear of the Clouds, I stopped to listen to the chorus of frogs, and to watch one swimming across the shallow headwaters of the Hudson, Marcy rising from its banks.
I headed west toward Lake Colden, where I knew I would not be alone. Traffic was picking up already, with early risers who had already topped Marcy passing me on their way back to camp. The trail, rarely level and often jarring under the weight of my pack, began to feel long. It was in this section that I started to rationalize an early exit past Marcy Dam, telling myself its parade of hikers would offer the best contrast to my relative solitude so far.
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Soon, though, the lovely sight of the Opalescent River—its plunging ravines and terraced cascades—revived me for the final push to Lake Colden. There I found campers lounging in its waters and on streamside rocks, or cooking and chatting on the lake’s wooden dam. The surest signal that I had reached backcountry civilization, though, was a lone black bear. A ranger checked to be sure I had a food canister and cautioned me about cooking in camp. She said shouting had no effect on this bear.
Later, as I fussed with a snarled fly reel that I had brought in hopes of finding a brook trout there, another ranger shouted that the bear was visiting me. I peered around my tent to see the ranger clacking hiking sticks together and hazing the bear down the trail until it crossed the river. About 20 minutes later the rangers would fire rubber bullets to haze it from the camp cluster, but it would return in the morning, conditioned to easy meals. In a couple days it would be trapped and dead.
Destination: South Meadow
Miles traveled: 6.4
Hikers viewed: 129
Conspicuous species: Humans
Jordan Meeder had already been up for hours when I walked down to the dam in morning. He and his hiking partner, Heidi Stevenson, had returned from Algonquin Peak when I broke camp and asked them about their experiences.
Meeder, of Perkasie, Pennsylvania, was frustrated with the crowds. He had grown up on Long Island as a frequent summer visitor to the Adirondacks, and remembered a wilder setting. He thought some regulation might help.
“You never know if you’ll find solitude,” he said, “and that’s kind of the reason for coming.”
Meeder considered the bear—rightfully a symbol of wilderness—a sign of crowding. If campers controlled their foods, the bear would not have become a problem.
True to the ranger’s words, Meeder and
Stevenson, of Souderton, Pennsylvania, found
that this bear could not be deterred. It growled at their attempts to haze it, then inspected the tent, every pack in and around their camp, and the closed bear canister before moving on to the next tent site.
“It was a little scary,” Stevenson said, “but also interesting.”
The sights on my hike out left no doubt about the attraction of this particular place. The massive peaks and cliffs framing either side of the water—first at Lake Colden, then at Avalanche Lake—drew the eyes of casual hikers and the feet of the more driven view seekers. I encountered more than 100 of them on my way out to South Meadow. When I reached my car in the afternoon, I drove past more than 100 others parked along that road and then the paved Adirondak Loj road for a holiday outing.
The solitude of my back porch awaited.
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