By Tim Rowland
‘Tis the season for Hardwood Hikes, those ventures that wend their way through stands of blazing maples, ruddy oaks and golden birch on mountains that rise high enough for a nice view, but not so high that they enter the realm of spruce and fir.
Also key is finding an overlook that doesn’t open exclusively to the southwest, or right into the sun. If you’ve climbed Mt. Van Hoevenberg you know the feeling: the low sun presents the High Peaks in dramatic profile, but at the cost of color saturation.
Curiously, most of the lower mountains that don’t have bald domes (resulting from fire) have these southern facing views. I heard a ranger explain last weekend that the glaciers that bulldozed the land pushed rubble southward, where the rock would topple over, creating those steep, open exposures. Imagine pushing the palm of your hand through a pile of gravel and you get the idea.
Despite this, there are of course a number of nice hikes where you do not have to risk barbecued eyeballs if you are after fall color. One of these that makes for a very plausible half-day hike in these days of dwindling daylight is Haystack, not the High Peak, but the one west of Lake Placid.
Haystack, I think, tends to be one of those one-and-done mountains for people intent on completing the Saranac 6 hiker challenge. But I was reminded of its autumnal potential recently, when I found myself in need of a car battery.
Where I live, auto parts — well, you might as well go out and try to buy moon rocks. So after grabbing a battery in Saranac Lake, I stopped at the trailhead, on Route 86 just east of Ray Brook.
After a brief encounter with those pesky evergreens, the remainder of the 6.6 mile (round trip) hike is hardwood city: maple, ash and birch, mainly. Most had just started to change, although there’s always that one maple that jumps the gun, going crimson before everyone else. These isolated shows are a bit of jolt, like a flasher on the subway, although obviously more pleasant.
The trail more or less parallels the highway, mostly on the level, along the shoulder of Little Burn Mountain (you will hear trucks long after it feels like you should) until it bends 90 degrees to the right, up a narrow valley pierced by Little Ray Brook, a particularly scenic stream, with lots of little falls and pools to collect the colored leaves.
The trail gives hints of civilizations past, with old foundations and traces of the road ascending the valley. Two miles in, the trail splits with the route to Haystack heading left and the longer trail to McKenzie going right.
There is a (very) small sign high on a yellow birch that points to HAYSTACK – MCKENZIE. At least it used to. Now, thanks to decades of rot, it’s more like HAY TA K – Mc_ _ _E.
But you’ll get the idea. It would be possible to miss this sign altogether, I would think, but despite what some trail guides say about Haystack going left and McKenzie going straight, by default, you would be more apt to stay on the Haystack trail should you fail to notice the junction.
Shortly thereafter, you will come to a point where the trail turns left and crosses the brook over an old concrete dam and infrastructure indicative of an old waterworks. This optimistic infrastructure looks as if someone had in mind building another Utica, but of course it didn’t work out that way.
From the dam, it’s mostly uphill for this last mile, although, until the very end, there are welcome little plateaus on which to catch your breath. The last, steep pitch is either hard or fun, depending on your view of rock scrambles.
The leaves were just starting to turn in the valleys and the flanks of Big Burn, which dominates the summit’s eastern view, so as September turns to October, this will be some prime leaf peeping. The view to the south is nice too, with multiple High Peaks cutting into the horizon, and back to the west, just in sight, is the village of Saranac Lake.
All told, four hours is a fair amount of time to budget for the trip, more or less depending on your rate of speed and propensity for poking around. Also, if climbing is not your thing, a walk to the dam and back would make for a very pleasant fall hike in itself. Either way, you’ll be in for lots of fall color without being blinded by the light.
- Distance: 6.6 miles RT
- Elevation: 2,862
- Elevation gain: 1,721
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