Hikers seek ‘some of the most beautiful experiences in life’
By Mike Lynch
Hiking through the pitch-black forest, I noticed the dirt trail had disappeared and leaves covered the forest floor beneath me.
Had I lost the trail?
I raised my headlamp and lit up the trees around me. I was only a few feet off the path, so I got back on it and continued climbing. It was late November, and I was hiking the relatively steep 1.8-mile Ranger Trail to the 2,162-foot summit of Poke-O-Moonshine Mountain to catch a sunrise.
The hike was quiet except for the occasional sound of a passing vehicle on the nearby Northway. This was notable because on other sunrise hikes I had done during the fall, sounds seemed to stand out before the light emerged. As I hiked through the dark on Baker Mountain in Saranac Lake, I could hear machinery grinding away across town, and the more subtle nearby sound of rustling beech leaves still clinging to branches. On Cobble Lookout in Wilmington, the hike was mainly silent except when I heard the flapping wings of a large bird—perhaps an owl—fly overhead twice, as if it were checking me out.
But, as I climbed Poke-O-Moonshine, the experience remained visual because of the interesting rock formations that appeared in my headlamp’s beam. There were large glacial erratic boulders alongside the trail, and at least one trailside cliff. There was stone beneath me as well. This trail had been rerouted and one of the improvements included the installation of countless stone steps.
Lights on the trail
At times, while looking upward, I could see the circular illumination of two ascending hikers’ headlamps ahead of me. A man, woman and dog had started just a few minutes prior to me at 5:30 a.m., passing me at the trailhead.
As I moved through the forest, the light began to gradually spread between the trees. I came to a lean-to, site of a trail junction for the Observers’ Trail, a newer and slightly longer trail that meanders through the forest before getting to the lean-to. I had been looking forward to seeing this lean-to again. On one of my prior trips to Poke-O-Moonshine, I had sought shelter in it during a nasty summer hailstorm. That day, David Thomas-Train, from Friends of Poke-O-Moonshine, and I had hiked the mountain. As we were standing in the fire tower, we spotted an approaching lightning storm moving over the High Peaks. We descended three-tenths of a mile from the summit to the lean-to. Inside we hunkered down and waited out the storm as hail pinged off the roof and accumulated on the forest floor.
With that memory in mind, I continued past the shelter, soon walking through a pair of open areas that offered vistas. From them, I could see an orange blaze on the horizon east of Lake Champlain. The sun was coming up.
Finally, I reached the fire tower, and the open slab area beyond it. It had been a few years since I had been to the summit, but I was happily reminded of its incredible view. The fire tower was closed, but even from the ground I could see the High Peaks to the west. To the east were rolling hills below, Lake Champlain, and the Vermont mountains.
The two other people on the trail and summit that day turned out to be Erika Guli, who traveled from the Finger Lakes, and Shane Kenyon, an avid climber and photographer who lives nearby. When I approached, they were pointing at each other with knees bent in a pose, waiting for the shutter to let light into Kenyon’s camera and capture their moment in front of the colorful sky.
The friends had hatched a plan while sitting on the couch the night before: They were going to summit this mountain for sunrise and then catch the sunset on Jay Mountain.
‘It’s good to remind yourself’
Guli said this was her second attempt at catching the sunrise on a peak. But on the first hike, on Cascade, she showed up a little after the sun rose. Kenyon had done many mountain sunrises and sunsets.
“Sunrises and sunsets are some of the most beautiful things you can experience in life. It’s good to remind yourself of that and get out and see them.”— Shane Kenyon
That morning, the sun didn’t disappoint. The clouds above Vermont’s mountains lit up with an orange hue, while fog drifted through the rolling hills on the west side of the lake. Alpenglow reflected off the fire tower, trees and plants behind us, and the High Peaks glowed beneath a dark, cloudy sky.
Late November is often characterized as a dark and ugly month, but the brown, seemingly purplish color of the leafless forests blended nicely with the alpenglow and added to the romantic and remote feeling of the landscape.
The scene felt as if it were out of a 19th century painting from one of the Hudson River School artists.
We were in awe.
A unique experience
People who do sunrise hikes often crave the solitude and unique experience of seeing a sunrise from the vantage point of a peak at a time when many people are still in bed or drinking coffee.
“It’s one of the most exhilarating and enjoyable parts of hiking,” said Chris Maron, executive director of Champlain Area Trails.
Maron has been hiking mountains to see sunrises since he moved to the Adirondacks about two decades ago. He raved about the views from some of the smaller mountains or hills in the Champlain Valley—places like the North Boquet Summit Trail near Essex, Rattlesnake Mountain in Willsboro and Coot Hill in Moriah. They offer great views of Lake Champlain and the valley below without too much effort.
“One thing I fantasize about is to have a year of sunrise hikes,” he said. “That I’d get up every morning and take a hike at sunrise even if the sun didn’t shine, just so I could be on the trail when the day started. But it’s one of those things that’s easier said than done.”
While Maron’s organization promotes smaller mountains with many hikes that are measured in minutes and not hours, people also head to the High Peaks and other Adirondack regions for these experiences.
Rebecca Benjamin, an elementary school reading teacher, lives in the Albany area but frequently hikes in the Adirondacks. She recalled being on Haystack for the sunrise in early October, seeing clouds open up just as the sun rose.
“(The light) was bouncing off all kinds of different surfaces between the mountain and the sky,” she said.
The morning I drove to Poke-O-Moonshine I passed the Cascade Mountain trailhead at roughly 4:45 a.m., and there were several vehicles at the trailhead. Sunrise was at about 7:10 a.m. meaning the hikers had enough time to hike the 2 miles to that summit. But I didn’t stop and check to see if people were simply sleeping in their vehicles. They may have been hiking uphill for sunrise.
Forest ranger Scott van Laer, said it was rare to see people hiking for sunrise or sunset 15 years ago. Now he drives by Cascade Mountain trailhead at 2 a.m. during hiking season and sees around a half-dozen cars there.
“Sunset and sunrise hikes are a significant portion of the use now,” he said. “I can’t tell you if it’s 5 percent or not, but I can tell you it’s a significant, relevant number when it was essentially nonexistent before.”
On the few sunrise hikes I did in the fall I only saw the two people on Poke-O-Moonshine Mountain, but I went after peak hiking season was over. I was also hitting smaller peaks and not ultra-popular ones like Cascade.
Emily Trudell, who lives in Lake Clear, did sunrise hikes two or three times a week this past summer. She would go with her dog, Colden, or a friend, hitting up smaller mountains in the region.
“We barely saw anyone,” she said.
Parking lots are a different story. Benjamin recalled arriving at The Garden parking lot at 1 a.m. in early October and finding only three open spots.
“We saw people coming and going at that time,” said Benjamin, who estimated she has done close to 200 mountain hikes this year, in a large part because she had more free time due to the pandemic affecting her work schedule.
“Most of the time I do sunrise hikes I see people starting their way up as I’m coming down,” she said.
High Peaks trailhead parking lots filled up early through the 2020 hiking season, sometimes before 5 a.m. But several hikers said people are looking to get into the woods earlier to avoid crowds, and many hikers prefer starting in the dark to finishing in the dark.
“Certainly, we are seeing more earlier hikers than usual, especially this year, but that’s related more to the parking issues than anything,” said Adirondack Mountain Club spokesman Ben Brosseau. His organization doesn’t track whether people are hiking to catch sunrises.
Brosseau said he had been on Cascade himself for weekday sunsets and had not seen anyone there. “I have friends that have gone up there for sunrise and there have been 20 other people up there,” he said.
Willie Janeway, executive director of the Adirondack Council, said his organization is hearing reports of an increase in people hiking for sunrises and sunsets. That includes sunrise-seeking hikers spending nights sleeping in their vehicles at trailhead parking lots, or in some cases, on summits.
“It goes with weekdays looking like weekends and almost all weekends seeming like the Fourth of July, and parking lots filling up more often and earlier and earlier,” Janeway said.
Hiking in the dark is not for everyone and shouldn’t be taken lightly. It’s potentially more dangerous. For instance, it’s easier to lose the trail in the dark, and getting lost just after a sunset can mean spending a night in the woods, which can be especially problematic in the winter.
“Our concerns are mainly for hiker safety,” Adirondack Council spokesman John Sheehan said. “People who do this need to be extra-prepared with headlamps and a very good grasp of where they are going and how to safely stay there a long time if the weather changes, and get back out alive.”
So far, van Laer said, sunrise and sunset hikes haven’t influenced rescue numbers. “I’m not referring to it as a dangerous activity,” he said. “The people I see doing it tend to be more prepared.”
Van Laer said the impact of people hiking in the dark relates more to scheduling for the ranger staff. The demand for rangers used to be from 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. during peak hiking season. Now they are needed from 4 a.m. to midnight, he said.
Back to the car
After taking in the sunrise, Guli and Kenyon headed down the trail. I stuck around for a few minutes on the summit, warming my hands, then started down the trail.
I passed several groups of hikers who were heading up the mountain.
It was nice to go down the trail in the light and get glimpses of objects along the trail I had only seen through the tunnel vision of the headlamp. The large glacial erratics were even more impressive, and I was able to catch glimpse of the cliffs, popular with climbers, just north of the trail on Poke-O-Moonshine.
The day was just beginning.