Hike: The highest point in New York state, Mount Marcy is queen of the Adirondack Mountains and High Peaks Wilderness area, looming tall at 5,344 feet. We chose the “path less traveled,” the Mount Marcy trail (link is to AllTrails, and isn’t the exact route we took, but close), vs. the typical Van Hoevenberg trail (I’ll get into the details on why, below).
Goal: Bag our 5th high point safely, and set ourselves up for leg 2 of our trip, Vermont’s highest peak, Mount Mansfield. This was by far our longest “expedition” to date, as it required an overnight stay near Mount Marcy. We attended our cousin’s wedding (the same one who thru-hiked the PCT and Appalachian Trail!) on Saturday, 6/27, so we couldn’t leave for our trip until Sunday morning… which meant we couldn’t begin hiking until early afternoon. Thus the need for extra safety measures, as I was almost certain we’d end up hiking in the dark after our summit (spoiler: we ended up hiking in the dark AND got lost!)
Gear: I referred to my PCT packing list and made a few tweaks, besides less food and clothing:
- Added: trekking poles (finally got some!), daypack, stove + fuel
- Did not bring: Trowel, mug, camera gear, cold weather gear
- Car camping gear (for Vermont): cast iron skillet to cook breakfast (eggs, sausage, pancakes), extra snacks/drinks
I had a
slight big gear SNAFU, which I didn’t realized until the day before we left for the hike, a few hours before we left for the wedding… I forgot the plastic bin that contained all the car camping gear, plus my raincoat, Camelback reservoir, and all my food for the trip! I had asked my dear hubby “Did you get the bin in the garage?” and he said yes, thinking I meant the laundry basket full of our shoes.
So… in a moment of panic, I tried to think of everything I needed to replace. I made a trip to Wal-Mart to buy a new raincoat, snacks, bug spray, and then borrowed the breakfast items from my mom. I had emailed the maps to my brothers, so I was able to print new ones. *Whew!* Disaster averted, but man, with all the meticulous planning I had to do for this trip (wedding attire, hiking gear, the-rest-of-the-week non-hiking clothes, swimsuits, AND my kids’ clothes), I felt pretty upset about leaving so much behind in North Carolina. Always expect something to go wrong, and be ready to problem-solve!
Here’s my gear layout (“TA-50 layout” in Army terms, as Javi reminded me and made me chuckle):
Weather: Rain and more rain. At least, that’s what the forecast said all week (somehow didn’t change, even though I obsessively checked daily for the ten day period leading up to the trip!) It rained a little while we drove up, BUT by some miracle, we didn’t get poured on while we hiked… only sprinkles here and there. So thankful we didn’t have to hike in a downpour–not only does it obscure the amazing views, but also makes the walking super slippery.
Pre-Hike: On Sunday, 6/28/2020, we woke up at 5:30 (after a rough night’s sleep on my late grandparents’ double bed, at their old house, but beggars can’t be choosers!)
On the road by 5:45, after kissing my sleeping boys good-bye, we had a smooth drive, few stops, passing Fort Drum, Lake Placid, the Olympic Training Center from 1980, and finally found our way to the parking lot outside the Van Hoevenberg Trailhead at 1 PM.
When we pulled into the High Peaks area, off Heart Lake Road, we paid $22 for both of us to hike and leave Joel’s car there overnight.
The man at the booth asked us what kind of bear canister we brought (the light blue kind). Turns out, the bears around here have figured out how to break into that type of bear canister (those cheeky buggers!) Thankfully, the Information Center let us borrow a sturdier bear canister for free (we just signed a paper that said we’d return it).
We signed the trail register, just in case, read the bear warning, and at 1:30, were on our way to Feldspar Brook Lean-to (our campsite), then on to Mount Marcy!
The Hike, day 1: I broke the hike into segments, partially to make it easier to tackle (physically and mentally), and in part to ensure we didn’t get lost, since there were multiple turns/trails involved. I had read other hiker blogs, and some said that the signage wasn’t easy to follow (or simply wasn’t there). We didn’t have any navigational issues… at least, not early on.
Segment 1, parking lot to Marcy Dam, was 2.3 miles of easy trails and not much elevation gain (200 feet, small rolling hills).
Marcy Dam (the actual dam) washed away in a storm years ago, so there’s a bridge now (pictured above). The area contains multiple campsites and lean-to’s, and appeared not crowded, but we wanted to stay closer to the summit of Marcy, so we chose not to camp here.
Had the timing worked out differently, I think camping at Marcy Dam would be great, as the summit trip from there is ~11 miles round trip (about 5-7 hour hike on Van Hoevenberg trail). I thought camping closer to the summit would be easier so that we could make a decision based on weather/time: hike to the summit that evening, or wait until morning, which would mean hiking to the summit and then walking back to the car.
We signed a second trail register, after crossing the bridge, then made a right onto Avalanche Pass Trail.
Segment 2, Marcy Dam to Avalanche Pass (yellow blazes) was an easy mile, not much elevation gain (200′).
Segment 3, Avalanche Pass to Lake Arnold. This section got tough real quick (as shown by photo above). We had 1,100 feet elevation gain over 1.5 miles, and got a taste of what lie ahead. After only 15-20 minutes on this new rocky, very steep trail, we pulled over for a quick water break:
This section, with its large rocks serving as the “trail,” gave us the most trouble (besides the summit push), as the footing challenged us with each and every step. The mental concentration rivaled the need for physical stamina here, to avoid twisting an ankle or knee, or pulling a groin or hamstring muscle.
Thankfully, it was relatively short, and we soon arrived at the last junction, Lake Arnold. One more section and we’d arrive at our camp.
Section 4, Lake Arnold to Feldspar Brook campsites. After all the effort to go up and up, this section was 400 feet down over 1.4 miles, which feels like a waste, knowing that each step down would later force us to go back up again. On the Appalachian Trail, hikers call these PUD’s (pointless ups and downs). We caught a glimpse of the mountains, as the clouds lifted and the sun came out at last:
I knew from reading other hiker blogs that we had a fun section coming up, called the Bog Bridges, right before our campsite. The kind volunteers who maintain the trail had built “bridges” so that hikers could more easily cross the bog.
We had no idea how deep it was, but we also didn’t want to find out the hard way! The bridges had been partially washed away, so the crossing raised my heart rate just a tad–definitely didn’t want my gear (or myself) to get soaked in bog water! Thankfully we managed to keep our balance, and made it across safely. I did get wet and muddy feet, but didn’t mind. My shoes dry out fast 🙂
Not much further, and we found our camp for the night, across a rickety bridge spanning the Opalescent River. We had hoped to be alone, or mostly alone, but about 4-5 hikers had already set up camp at a tent site, and the lean-to was occupied. We found the flattest spot we could, and set up quickly, as we knew we had a race against daylight.
I used the “toilet” (aka a pit toilet, aka privy.. whatever you call it, it’s completely gross, but does afford privacy, and doesn’t require a trowel to dig a hole), we grabbed our daypacks and loaded more water, and we were on our way to Mount Marcy!
That hike, from the parking lot to Feldspar campsites, was 3.5 hours and 6.8 miles (I had estimated it as 6.3 miles using an Alltrails.com map, so I’m not sure where the extra half mile came from).
Summit Push: At 5:30, we started out. I had mapped this as a 2.2 mile hike with ~2,000 feet elevation gain. Two miles is easy-peasy, right? Whew… no, not at all. Every time I climb 1,000 feet, I am reminded of how “ahduous,” to use my New England-raised grandma’s word, big elevation gain can be (such as Hanging Rock State Park’s Moore’s Knob trail, or Mt. Mitchell).
The Mount Marcy Trail, at least to me, is the definition of “very strenuous.” None of it was easy. I had to stop many times to catch my breath and let my lactic-acid-legs recover.
I remarked to Joel at one point that I had such an itchy face–the combination of bugs buzzing, sweat dripping, and running into spiderwebs left me needing a wipe-my-face break every 5-10 minutes!
The trail, as before, was basically a dry (and sometimes wet) creek bed, that paralleled Feldspar Brook. Lake Tear of the Clouds, from which the Hudson River’s east branch flows, provided a landmark at roughly halfway. Interesting history tidbit: This is where then-Vice President Teddy Roosevelt was vacationing on September 12, 1901, when he learned of President William McKinley’s condition taking a turn for the worse, after being shot by an anarchist several days earlier. Full story here.
I mistakenly assumed the final segment to the summit would be similar to what we just did: steep, rocky, difficult. Joel checked his map (downloaded to his phone, so we could use it offline, thankfully!) He said the route was almost entirely red (vs. green, which is flat), which meant Steep–super freakin steep. Gulp. Let’s do this!
We climbed… and climbed… and climbed. For about 20 minutes, but felt like 2 hours. Just when I thought we were nearly there, we came across a flat spot called Schofield Cobble, according to the map. We must be close, I said. Not exactly, Joel replied. We have 500 feet elevation to go.
500 feet more?! My legs and lungs begged for a good, long rest. However, I knew I needed to suck it up, big time, so we could get to the top with enough time to get back down!
I had put away my trekking poles in my pack, as it was now so steep that we needed to use our hands to scramble up and over the rock face. I also used my hands to push on the top of my legs, to will them to keep moving forward. My calves burned, and we took breaks every 2 minutes it seemed. Just get to the next cairn.
At last, many cairns and many huffs-and-puffs later, we reached the top… but where was the actual summit? We thought maybe we’d see a few people there, and we could ask them, but we were completely alone.
After a little search, we found the summit plaque–we did it!
Somehow we lucked out yet again… alone on the summit, and the clouds parted so we could see the mountains in the distance. Absolutely stunning, especially considering how far we’d come, and how hard we had to work for it!
We knew we didn’t have a lot of time, so we snapped a few pics, and reluctantly headed down. We spent about 7 minutes at the top.
Back down.. followed the cairns again. Leaned back, watched our footing closely, somehow didn’t have any big spills (but multiple small ones). The clouds moved back in.
Back to Lake Tear of the Clouds… starting to get dark.
I really REALLY didn’t want to be hiking in the dark (I even had a few flashbacks to night land navigation in the Army–those were some long, brutal nights!). The rocks and roots made it hard enough to walk in daylight, let alone darkness. Not too proud to admit I am afraid of bears, and at one point saw the claw marks of what must have been a bear, slashed across a rock on the trail. Yikes!
We headed down, and though the sunset was around 9 PM, it was dark in the woods around 8 PM, especially with the cloud cover. Around 8:30ish, I finally got out my headlamp… only to discover the batteries were barely hanging on! 🙁 I knew my child had been playing with the headlamp (for fun) and he must have drained the batteries. I brought extras, but silly me, I left the new batteries back at the tent. So… I did the best I could, with my hardly-working headlamp.
The way back felt VERY long… I was tired, physically and mentally, as we had been hiking for nearly 7 hours that day (and had a 7 hour car ride!) And now I had to pay extra close attention to every step, since it was dark and my depth perception tends to be off at night.
All I wanted to get back, eat dinner, and go to sleep.
But of course, we had a wrinkle. I was leading the way, since I walk slower, and as I approached the creek, in the dark, I got confused. This creek crossing resembled one from before, and I made the mistake of turning left instead of right. Neither of us realized it, until half a mile later, now in nearly-pitch-black darkness, we came across a cairn.
Uh oh… I don’t remember seeing any cairn in the trail like this before. We looked around and saw trails in multiple directions. I had no idea which way was the right way. I felt a surge of panic rise from my stomach, and a tightness in my chest. Great… we are lost, I can barely see, I am dead tired, and now I’m freaking out!
Joel was calm and cool, thankfully. He got out his map and showed me. He had forgotten to mark our camp, so we took a minute to figure out where we needed to go (where the Feldspar Brook meets the Opalescent River… at least we knew that much). Then we realized we had taken a wrong turn, and needed to go back. We had been SO close to our camp, but since it was dark, we missed the signs, hanging high up on the trees with no reflection.
Joel led the way back, using his little flashlight. My tired brain couldn’t comprehend where we went wrong, so I just followed, and trusted he and his map would lead us back to camp. I finally wised up and used my iPhone flashlight–WAY brighter than my headlamp–and managed not to trip or fall. We mistakenly tacked on an additional 1+ mile and 40 minutes of extra walking with our wrong turn 🙁 I felt so much relief when I saw the bridge to our camp.
We decided not to heat up our Mountain House freeze-dried meals, and instead sat near the bridge (away from our camp), and had the last remainder of our snacks: beef jerky, and a Clif bar. I was still hungry, but so tired that I didn’t care. Joel filled up water:
While Joel moved the bear canister, with all our food in it, away from our camp, I changed into my spare clothes. We both skipped brushing our teeth, and I crawled into my sleeping bag for the onerous sleep camping provides (Joel was too hot and slept on his).
10 PM: Restless, too warm at first, and listening to the sounds of another hiker giggling too loudy nearby, insects and frogs chirping/peeping, and tried to slow my still-high heart rate by deep breathing…whew. We smelled of sweat and mud. Almost a 13 mile day, with 4,000 feet elevation gain… we did it!
Recommend: Yes–this was a challenging hike though, not only for distance, but elevation too. I’d classify it as “strenuous” for a good portion, although the first part is easy, and the last part is VERY strenuous. But the views, and checking off another highpoint, more than make up for it!
Maps / Garmin data
Parking lot / trailhead to Feldspar Brook campsite (this is Joel’s data, since my watch malfunctioned):
Feldspar Brook campsite to Mt. Marcy, and back… plus our extra 1.1 mile of being lost 😛