Hordes climb Algonquin each year, but far fewer hikers continue along the ridge over Boundary Peak to Iroquois. Most people don’t know what they’re missing.
By Phil Brown
Carol’s friend Emily wanted to do a big hike, something spectacular. It didn’t take me long to hit on the idea of climbing Algonquin Peak and Iroquois Peak and returning by way of Avalanche Lake.
We would go over the summit of the second-highest mountain in the state, follow a mile-long open ridge with breathtaking views, descend a steep but beautiful trail, and scramble along the shore of a lake whose sublimity never fails to astound.
The 13.4-mile loop from Adirondak Loj entails roughly 4,300 feet of elevation gain and took us eleven and a half hours. By the end of the day, we were spent but exhilarated. It was just what Emily was looking for.
“It pushed me to my limits, and I was grinning ear to ear,” Emily wrote me later in an e-mail. “I even broke into a jog as the high from the day carried me to the finish line.”
No doubt many hikers could do the loop faster than we did it. We dawdled on the summits, posed for pictures, and took a lot of notes. In contrast, we encountered a few people who were speed-hiking the ridge in running shoes.
For a shorter hike, you could do a 10.8-mile round trip from the Loj over Algonquin to Iroquois. Our route off the ridge proved to be grueling. It took us an hour to go down a mile. By cutting it out, you’d save time and energy. Alas, you’d miss out on Avalanche Lake, one of the most picturesque sights in the Adirondacks.
Algonquin is one of the most popular mountains in the Adirondacks, and for good reasons. It and Mount Marcy are the only peaks above five thousand feet. The 5,114-foot summit, decorated with alpine grasses, flowers, and mosses, offers a stupendous panorama. And it’s only 4.3 miles from the Loj.
Its one drawback is that the top is often crowded. On a nice weekend day, it’s not unusual to see fifty or more people lounging on the summit’s open bedrock. Most people, however, stop at Algonquin. If you continue to Iroquois, you’re likely to escape the hordes; if you’re lucky, you’ll have Iroquois all to yourself.
Carol, Emily, and I—loyal members of the Crack of Noon Club—did not get on the trail until almost 10 a.m. on the first Saturday in June, and the air was already warm.
“Not a cloud in the sky,” Carol remarks as we begin.
“Don’t jinx us,” I warn.
As we venture deeper into the woods, we hear the persistent call of a red-eyed vireo. I tell my companions that the bird is saying, “Here I am. Where are you? Here I am. Where are you?” A vireo will repeat this song over and over, even in the afternoon heat. In a recent column in the Explorer, John Thaxton wrote that one scientist tracked a vireo that sang more than twenty-two thousand times throughout the day.
When I pull out my pad to take a few notes on the vireo, the women eye me with suspicion. Am I writing down their words?
“How about we don’t speak English the rest of the time,” Emily suggests.
“That would be difficult, especially for Phil’s article,” Carol replies.
“Estoy aqui. Donde estas?”
“Je suis ici. Ou est tu?”
Fortunately, Emily does not translate vireo into Mandarin, which she also speaks, having lived in China.
As we ascend, I relate the history of the trail we are on. It was built in the 1930s as a backcountry ski trail that began near the summit of Wright Peak. The original hiking trail was located in the woods a bit to the north. When the hiking trail became eroded, the state closed it and diverted hikers onto the ski trail. This was good news for hikers, but bad news for skiers. The upper part of the Wright Peak Ski Trail still exists, but skiers are dumped onto the hiking trail, which has become considerably narrower and more eroded since its change in status. The Adirondack Powder Skier Association is lobbying the state to create a separate ski trail.
At 2.5 miles, we reach the bottom of the ski trail on the left (it does not reach the Wright summit and should not be hiked in summer). Just beyond, the hiking trail crosses MacIntyre Brook below a good-size waterfall. Carol climbs part way up the cascade while I take photos.
On the other side of the brook, the trail steepens. At 3.1 miles, we pass a small cliff just off the trail to our right. The guidebook Adirondack Rock describes several technical climbs on the cliff, but given its distance from the trailhead (and the weight of climbing gear), it doesn’t get climbed often.
At 3.4 miles, we come to a junction with the spur trail to Wright Peak. Since it’s only 0.4 miles to the summit, we briefly consider going up Wright as well but decide that our itinerary needs no augmentation. Some people, though, do hike Algonquin, Iroquois, and Wright on the same day. If you’re not one of them, be sure to visit Wright another time: the view from the bald summit is not one to be missed.
Continuing toward Algonquin, we find ourselves clambering up steep bedrock. It’s more like climbing a slide than hiking. Finally, at 3.9 miles, we emerge above tree line. Behind us, far below, lies our starting point, Heart Lake—its shrunken size an indication of how far we’ve come. The views are spectacular, but we focus on the final push to the top. To protect the fragile alpine flora—grasses, flowers, tiny shrubs, and mosses—we are careful to stay on bedrock, following yellow paint blazes.
Three hours after leaving the trailhead, we join a throng on the summit. As it happens, this is Emily’s first High Peak. What an introduction! Most of the forty-six High Peaks can be seen. Most prominent is Mount Colden with its numerous slides and the celebrated Trap Dike. Lake Colden and the Flowed Lands also are nearby. Row after row of mountains march to the horizon.
“I just love the layers of peaks,” Carol says. “It’s surreal. It’s like you’re on the moon.”
Although it’s a warm day, we are chilled by a strong breeze. After taking a bunch of photos, we start descending the other side of Algonquin to escape the wind and the crowds. Our route is now laid out before us—the largely open ridge leading to Iroquois. Peeping over the shoulder of Iroquois we see an Adirondack landmark: Wallface, one of the largest cliffs in the Northeast. Despite its remote locale in Indian Pass, Wallface attracts far more climbers than the nubble we passed earlier. The latest edition of Adirondack Rock describes three dozen routes on the seven-hundred-foot-tall cliff.
Less than a half-mile from Algonquin’s summit, we reach a junction. The trail left leads down, steeply, toward Lake Colden. We’ll take it on our return. For now, we continue straight. Iroquois is one of the “trail-less” High Peaks, but that means only that the way isn’t marked with plastic disks. Not only is the path easy to follow, but the Adirondack Mountain Club recently built boardwalks over several boggy areas—a huge improvement that benefits both the hiker and the environment.
To get to Iroquois, you first go up and over Boundary Peak. Lore has it that Boundary marked the dividing line between the Algonquin and Iroquois territories. Though it’s 4,829 feet tall, Boundary is not one of the forty-six High Peaks. Rather, it’s regarded as a sub-summit of Iroquois. Nevertheless, the view is spectacular, and I usually make a point of spending time on Boundary rather than rushing over it. The last time I was here I stopped to eat a chocolate bar and saw an American marten emerge from the scraggly scrub.
When we reach Boundary today, just fifteen minutes after leaving the junction, the three of us settle down for lunch (sandwiches, cheese, M&Ms) behind a wall of bedrock that provides a break from the wind, an excellent backrest, and a superb view of the wilderness.
Shortly after our repast, we reach another open nubble. When Bob Marshall, one of the original Forty-Sixers, did this hike in 1918 with his younger brother, George, and their guide, Herb Clark, they dubbed this minor bump George Peak. What we know now as Boundary Peak they called Robert Peak. Although George is lower, it also boasts splendid views.
“Hi, George!” Carol says after I tell the story. “George, what’s up, buddy?”
At 2:40 p.m., after some scrambling over steep rock, we reach the 4,840-foot summit of Iroquois, the eighth-highest mountain in the Adirondacks. We have the place to ourselves until a few other parties arrive. The views are similar to those on Algonquin, except we are closer to the sheer precipice that is Wallface. Directly below us are Lake Colden and the Flowed Lands.
Marshall, who became a celebrated wilderness advocate, loved this vista. “We unanimously agreed that this was the finest view any of us had ever gotten,” he wrote after his visit (although he later esteemed the view from Mount Haystack even more).
The Marshalls called this mountain Herbert Peak, but when they realized it already had a name, they transferred the name to the peak directly to the south in the MacIntyre Range. However, the name didn’t stick. This peak is known today as Mount Marshall. (The historian Philip Terrie unravels the complicated nomenclature in an essay in my book Bob Marshall in the Adirondacks).
After soaking in the views for twenty minutes, we head back to the junction and begin the long, steep descent toward Lake Colden. Though hard on the knees, the trail offers great vistas of its own. Eventually, we find ourselves crisscrossing a brook with beautiful flumes and pools.
“Look at that swimming hole!” Carol remarks when we reach an especially alluring pool. “Can you think of a better feeling for your sore legs than soaking in that?”
Unfortunately, it is getting late in the day, so we don’t have time for such luxuries. By the time we reach the Lake Colden trail (the lake is not visible here), it’s 5:40 p.m. and we still have five and a half miles to go. We high-tail it for Avalanche Lake, that half-mile sliver of water walled in by cliffs on Mount Colden and Avalanche Mountain. Dusk comes early to Avalanche Lake; it lies in shadows when we arrive, but it is still an impressive sight. It takes us thirty minutes to get to the other end, walking along plank bridges, scrambling over rocks, and climbing up and down rustic ladders.
We now make the short ascent to the top of Avalanche Pass, where the trail skirts the debris from a landslide that occurred in 1999, leaving a bedrock scar on the slope of Colden. We breathe a sigh of relief upon reaching the height of land: though we have nearly four miles to go, it’s mostly downhill or flat from here.
At 9 p.m., eleven hours after setting off, we reach Adirondak Loj. Our day was indeed big and spectacular. It seems almost sad to be over. But we are focused on the future: dinner and drinks in Lake Placid.
DIRECTIONS: From the intersection of NY 73 and NY 86 in Lake Placid, drive south on NY 73 for 3.4 miles to Adirondak Loj Road on the right, next to open fields with a magnificent view of the High Peaks. Turn here and go 4.7 miles to the ADK ticket booth. The parking fee is $10 per vehicle. Turn left just past the booth for the parking lot. If no one is in the booth, you can pay the fee at the High Peaks Information Center.