'Long Hikes' Category

Hadrian’s Wall – 7 to 9 Sep 2014

Info

  • Map: National Trail, Hadrian’s Wall Path
  • Trails: Hadrian’s Wall Path (white acorn)
  • Type: End-to-end
  • Distance:  About 25-27 miles, depending on your side walks to forts, inns, etc.
  • Time: 3 days of at least 6 hours per day.
  • Exertion: Moderately strenuous, particularly the second day.

Getting There

Newark airport to London Heathrow to Newcastle upon Tyne.  Then the Newcastle Metro to Newcastle Main and Northern Rail to Brampton.  Taxi to the Abbey Bridge Inn in Lanercost.  Your mileage, as they say, may vary.

The Hike

So here we are in September again, and it must be time to go out for a long hike.  A casual acquaintance I meet in the supermarket now and then told me a few years back about a walking trip he’d made to this Hadrian’s Wall Path.  This kind of stuck in the back of my mind over time, I did a little research, and it sounded like a pretty cool idea.  So it wound up on something resembling a Bucket List for me, and this year my wife urged me to “just do it.”  After some of my usual hand-wringing, I took her advice.

So what exactly is Hadrian’s Wall?  Well the Wikipedia article is probably a good place to start, but if I can be excused for being fast and loose with the historical facts, it was a series of gateways (called milecastles) and turrets sited along a (mostly) stone wall that ran across northern Britain, coast to coast for about 84 miles.  The emperor Hadrian had ordered it built in 122 A.D. as part of a strategy to define the borders of the Roman Empire.  Simply put, north of the wall was land (primarily what we know as Scotland today, or Caledonia as the Romans called it) that Rome did not want or care about.  They just wanted to control the flow of people and goods in and out of their territory to the south.  The Wall was basically a border crossing, not unlike the immigration checkpoint I had to stand in line for <rant>a goddamn hour and a half in Heathrow while a single, as in one, immigration agent checked everyone’s passport while asking his boilerplate questions and caused me to miss my connection to Newcastle when I arrived on Saturday morning, pretty tired and cranky already because I can’t sleep on planes.</rant>

In addition to the wall and its turrets and milecastles, there were also forts every five miles, garrisoning auxiliary troops who could be dispatched quickly to any point along a road (the Military Way) that ran to the south of and parallel to the Wall.  Just to be sure everyone knew the Romans were being serious about this, they also dug 6 to 8 foot ditches on either side of the Wall.  The northern one is simply called the Ditch, while the one behind the Wall is called the Vallum.  The wall took perhaps six years to build, and it was done by the Roman legionaries.  Despite this amazing demonstration of Roman engineering, it’s arguable whether the Wall provided any ROI to the Empire.  Given that twenty years later they would build another wall, the Antonine Wall, within Caledonia proper (roughly between present-day Edinburgh and Glasgow), Hadrian’s Wall might be considered something of a white elephant.

Now here’s the big spoiler…  There is very little left of Hadrian’s Wall today.  (The term a mere shadow if its former self seems quite apt here.)  This is not due to any deficiency in Roman construction techniques–quite the reverse:  when you look at even the faintest remnants of the wall, it is still quite impressive to think that some Roman legionary pushed that stone right there into the dirt almost 1900 years ago.  What caused the deconstruction of the Wall was the stealing of the nicely dressed stones from the wall for building and road construction that began many centuries ago.  (Church builders were particularly notorious in this regard.)  In the 1830s a man named John Clayton began acquiring parcels of land along the Wall’s route to prevent further taking of stones.  He also began to reconstruct sections of the Wall by piling up stones and covering the top with turf for support.  These sections today are called, oddly enough, Clayton Wall.  The English Heritage organization has also reconstructed large portions of the Wall using mortar and continues to try to maintain it.  Sections restored in this way are called Consolidated Wall.  The remaining sections of the Wall’s path contain either mounds of rubble, or consist of later walls built atop the base of the original wall, or are simply not there.  A good number of turrets and milecastles remain in various stages of decay, while some have no visible remnants.  (Because the milecastles were placed at every Roman mile, and two turrets were placed between them, it is possible to estimate where the missing structures would have been.)

Here are some pictures of the various types of Wall:

Clayton Wall (Near Housesteads)

Clayton Wall (Near Housesteads)

Consolidated Wall Section

Consolidated Wall Section

Consolidated to Later atop Roman Base

Consolidated to Later atop Roman Base

The Hadrian’s Wall Path is a national walking trail that follows the Wall’s route from Newcastle to the Solway Firth for a total of 84 miles.  For a large portion of the hike, it runs right next to the wall, or sometimes astride or in the Ditch or the Vallum, which are still clearly visible for long stretches:

The Vallum (near Greenhead)

The Vallum (near Greenhead)

While I enjoy being out in the fresh air and exploring new places, I had no desire to even come close to walking the entire path, which needs about ten days.  There are a number of companies which will plot out a route for you, reserving inns and B&B’s along the way and transferring your luggage while you’re out walking.  I chose an outfit call Contours Walking Holidays because their web reviews were pretty solid, and they offered a plan called the Hadrian’s Wall Short Break of three days walking, which fit in with my ambitions as well as my limited vacation time.  This route includes stretches of the best preserved sections of the Wall, primarily because you’re either walking in rural farmland or in the Northumberland National Park.  My walk began in a tiny village called Lanercost, which is less than a mile south of the Wall, and ended in a town called Chollerford, right on the Path.  Contours provided a walking guide book (see References), a detailed map, and a custom printed itinerary of over 20 pages in addition to the accommodations.

I opted to walk west to east for two reasons.  First, the prevailing wind would be at my back, and as I tend not to do anything in the early morning, the afternoon sun would not be in my eyes.  As eminently logical as these reasons are, by far most of the people I encountered along the way were walking east to west, and that seems to be the conventional direction for full-path hikers.

Day 1 (7 Sep): Lanercost to Greenhead (7.5 mi./6.5 hr)

Starting out from the Abbey Bridge over the River Irthing:

The Start--Abbey Bridge, Lanercost

The Start--Abbey Bridge, Lanercost

On the way up to the Wall, you walk past the Lanercost Priory, a 12th century church, still partly in use.  It costs a few pounds to get in, but it’s an interesting ruin:

Lanercost Priory

Lanercost Priory

Baby Crypt

Baby Crypt

The actual trail is entered at a place called Haytongate, which has a nice little self-serve hut of snacks and drinks with an honesty box.  I took two bottles of spring water and, yes, I did put two 50p’s in the box.  The “kissing gate” below was my entry point onto the trail:

Enter the Hadrian's Wall Trail (Eastbound)

Enter the Hadrian's Wall Trail (Eastbound)

You can see the upside down white acorn that is the symbol for the trail, although what an acorn has to do with a Roman wall my readings thus far have failed to elucidate.  The yellow arrow in the green circle below the acorn is a general footpath indicator and usually appears on the gates or stiles you use to cross between fields.  There were only a couple of times that I had to stop and double-check my direction.  In general, the path is very easy to follow, and when in doubt, just keep going straight.  If a turn is required, either a yellow arrow will indicate it, or there will be a signpost, weather-worn but still readable, like this:

A Stile and Signpost

A Stile and Signpost

One great features of England is that although the trail takes you through almost entirely private lands, anyone has a right of way across the public footpaths.  As long as you keep the gates closed and don’t pester the livestock, there’s no problem walking across some farmer’s land.

The first glimpse of a piece of the wall was less than a half hour once on the path.  This is a location called Hare Hill, and while just a small remnant, this is purportedly the highest piece of the Wall along the entire path:

Hare Hill

Hare Hill

The original Wall was about 8′ thick and supposedly 15′ high or more.  This piece was taller than I but probably not more than a dozen feet at its highest point.  As the sign tells you at the entrance to the little plot fenced out of the local hillside, this was actually reconstructed in the 19th century, so we have no examples of the Wall at its true height.

The first structures on the Wall are the Banks East and Piper Sike Turrets:

Banks East Turret

Banks East Turret

Piper Sike Turret

Piper Sike Turret

Notice the chunk of wall broken off the wall of the Banks East Turret just lying on the ground.  The turrets were placed between milecastles, but there are none of those larger structures remaining in this stretch of the path.  In fact the first milecastle (#49) I hit was the one past the ruined fort at Birsdoswald, in a place call Harrow Scar, and there was darn little left of it:

Milecastle 49, Harrow Scar

Milecastle 49, Harrow Scar

A steep downhill and sharp left turn takes you across a footbridge over the River Irthing, the same river we crossed over the Abbey Bridge in Lanercost over four and a half hours ago!  The footbridge was dropped in by helicopter in 1999 to preserve the archeology nearby–the remains of the Roman bridge built at this point, Willowford, long ago washed away by the meandering of the river.  The photo below shows a run of Consolidated Wall running into the Roman ruins with the footbridge in the upper left, couple of hikers going the opposite way,  and lots of sheep.

Looking down on Willowford Bridge

Looking down on Willowford Bridge

Moving on, just outside the town of Gilsland, is one of the most impressive milecastle sites of the trip, #48 Poltross Burn.  Just about the entire plan can be discerned from the remains, even some of the interior rooms:

Poltross Burn Milecastle 48

Poltross Burn Milecastle 48

Nearing the end of the day’s journey, I can see what’s in store for tomorrow, as we start to climb onto what is called the Whin Sill, a ridge overlooking the Northumberland fields to the north that will provide the most dramatic sections of the Wall for the next day and a half.  Along with the drama, however, will be much more arduous walking compared to the rolling hills of today.

Tomorrow's Journey--Whin Sill

Tomorrow's Journey--Whin Sill

The village of Greenhead is a short detour off the Path.  My accommodations for the evening, the Greenhead Hotel, was a very quaint inn.  Basically a pub and restaurant with some rooms upstairs, it was nevertheless quite clean and comfortable.  Dinner was fish and chips with peas, washed down with some of the local ale.  What more can one ask for?  Well actually I would have preferred not to have taken off my hiking boots that evening to discover two bloody socks.  The right foot was definitely the worse of the two, and I slapped plasters on 3 separate toes, but tomorrow was gonna be interesting…

Day 2 (8 Sep): Greenhead to Housesteads Steel Rigg (9.5 6.5 mi./5.5 hr)

As I said, this day was to be the most strenuous of the three by virtue of the terrain.  Over the course of the day, I would hit the highest vertical point on the Path, Winshields Crag.  At 1132′ it’s not exactly Adirondack heights nor my Utah hikes from last year, and the actual vertical gain is much less, nevertheless it has a lot of ups and downs as you climb over the many hills and dales.  It would also be perhaps an additional 3 miles from yesterday, although given the extra walking to and from my inns, I’d not enshrine that number with much accuracy.  Over the course of the day I would become aware that somehow in England things just seemed–well, bigger.  The pound is bigger than the dollar ($1.67/£ at the time), the pints are bigger (20 oz vs. 16 oz.), and damn, if the miles didn’t seem longer too.  Either that or Contours was lying to me…

Back on the Path from Greenhead, you very quickly run into another 12th century ruin, Thirlwall Castle.  It’s nice enough as these things go, but not much to see.

Thirlwall Castle

Thirlwall Castle

Back home, I tend to be impressed by artifacts and buildings from the time of the Revolution.  Close to where I live is an old inn where supposedly Martin Van Buren once slept, and we pretend it actually looks something like what he would have seen in 18-whatever.  Here in Merry Old England things are just so much older.  (And bigger!)  But even something from the 1100′s doesn’t really cut it when you’re about to ramble through things from the like, freakin’ 2nd century, dude!  Freakin’ Romans and shit!

Just off of the castle you begin a gradual but serious climb through a pasture that contains a long chunk of the Vallum.  (Picture posted earlier above.)  As with the innumerable pastures to come, part of the game you play with yourself to pass the while time plodding over this ground is avoiding the countless cow pies and mounds of sheep shit that confront you on almost every step.  After three days of this, I found myself making a mental catalog of the various stages of cow flop dessication one encounters. ( I won’t dare to horrify you with my observations on the flies.)  Say what you will about the state of the modern world, but civilization must have made some progress where we no longer walk these pastures and say, “Hey, this one looks pretty dry, I think I’ll take it home and burn it to cook my dinner tonight!”

Next, Walltown Crags is the point where you really begin your climb up the Whin Sill.  There’s a country park with minimal facilities, and after a short climb, you re-encounter the Wall, a turret, and the Walltown Quarry:

Here's the Wall Again, Bumping into Another Wall

Here's the Wall Again, Bumping into Another Wall

Walltown Quarry

Walltown Quarry

After descending and ascending through the Walltown Gap, you look back on the terrain you’ve conquered:

Look Westward over Walltown Gap

Look Westward over Walltown Gap

In the middle left of the picture you can see a line of four hikers.  The view to the north is impressive, if a bit sparse:

Looking North

Looking North

And look ahead to the east are more ups and downs of the Whin Sill to come:

More Fun to Come

More Fun to Come

Cawfields Quarry is the next point of interest, with a parking area and picnic site, and not much else.  The quarry is a striking site:

Cawfields Quarry

Cawfields Quarry

But the real treasure here is Milecastle 42, which is a very short walk up from the car park.  Its integration into intact Consolidated Wall on both sides, as well as the gateways on both side being clearly visible make this one of the iconic photos for any Hadrian’s Wall journal:

Milecastle 42

Milecastle 42

Just after the Caw Gap, I ran into a couple who kindly offered to take my picture, to prove that I was actually here:

It's Really Me (at Caw Gap)

It's Really Me (at Caw Gap)

Another hour of walking got me to the aforementioned Winshields Crags, the highest point on the trail.  This is one of the photos from that promontory, with a rather utilitarian survey marker in the foreground:

Winshields Crags

Winshields Crags

By this point it was about 2:45 in the afternoon.  A stop around lunch time to unzip my pants into shorts mode, necessitating boot removal, had revealed two more bloody socks.  This had been a little bit of a surprise, for while I’d had some toe pain overnight, the walk until then had been mostly pain-free.  However by 2:45, the piggies had had enough and decided to relay their indignation northward.   Consulting my map, it was fairly clear to me that English miles had to be bigger than US miles because I still had three more to go, and thus had just barely been doing over one mile per hour.  Now admittedly, this is not a walk you power through–you take a lot of pictures, admire the views, engage in bovine fecal research–but at this point I was potentially looking at hitting the day’s end at almost 6:00PM.

I should explain a minor variation in my arrangements for the evening…  For some reason, where I was to exit the trail this evening at Housesteads, there was no inn into which Contours could book me within walking distance.  Thus they had arranged for me to be picked up by the place I was to stay, an establishment called the Vallum Lodge in a village called Twice Brewed.  I’d called that morning to confirm the pickup with them, giving the overoptimistic arrival time of about 4:30.  I was about 15 minutes away from a place called Steel Rigg, which was exactly three (English) miles away from Housesteads.  The view ahead provided no encouragement that I could burn through that terrain with any kind of fast pace:

The Road to Housesteads

The Road to Housesteads

So as I walked toward Steel Rigg, I carefully examined the map and noticed that at this point I was more or less directly north of the Vallum Lodge.  In other words, if I exited at the car park at Steel Rigg, walked downhill to route B6318, and hung a right, I was practically at my ultimate destination for the evening.

On one hand, I was going to leave out some great scenery, especially Highshields Crags overlooking a lough.  On the other hand (or foot), I had three bloody toes and a bloody nose (don’t ask) that were beginning to diminish the day’s enjoyment considerably.  I got to Steel Rigg at 3:00.  I took a look at the next uphill climb,

The Road Not Taken

The Road Not Taken

and I decided to declare MISSION ACCOMPLISHED for the day!  I called the Vallum Lodge to cancel the pickup, walked the quarter mile to the B6318, and stopped off at the Twice Brewed Inn for an imperial pint of the local:

Plan B

Plan B

The lodge was a few tenths of a mile further west on the B6318–another quiet, comfy spot.  I had to walk back to the Twice Brewed Inn for dinner–limping a bit–for a surprisingly tasty steak pie dinner, with some of the local, presumably twice-brewed, brew.

Day 3 (9 Sep): Housesteads to Chollerford (9.5 mi./6 hr)

So this would be the last day.  The distance would be the same as the aborted day before, but I would come off the Whin Sill about a third of the way through, and thus the hilly terrain would end.  My toes could fall off for all I cared now.  I taped those little beasts up and told them they would just have to man up and tough it out.

The Vallum Lodge guy dropped me off a the Housesteads fort (called Vericovicium) around 9:45.  This is a pretty big fort, albeit pretty smashed up.  I did not pay whatever the overpriced admissions fee was, for one reason because they did not open until 10:00.  I had to content myself with some external pictures, such as this one:

Housesteads Fort

Housesteads Fort

The woman on the path in the right of the photo was engaged in what I presume is a chore that needs to be done at the fort every morning, and perhaps during the day as well.  Notice that she is holding a shovel.  Her mission is to scoop up the numerous piles of sheep poo that litter the path, presumably so the paying customers do not soil their footwear, and launch them onto the grass.  I need not tell you what the grass looks like.  I have to say she was not doing this task with any alacrity.  I suspect she hates her job.

Walking uphill (on the grass of course) to the Hadrian’s Wall Path, I decided to backtrack a little and try to get to Milecastle 37.  This is another iconic Wall site because it’s the only milecastle with part of its arch remaining.  Of all the spots I missed because of the day before’s early exit, this was my biggest regret.  It was hard to tell from the map and book how much walking was involved.  It turned out to be minimal.  This detour also took me onto the only part of the Path where people are permitted to walk atop the Wall.  It is a section of Clayton Wall that is semi-buried into the hill, so I suppose it is less vulnerable.  There is a side path you can take to avoid walking on the Wall, and some writers such as Mark Richards, the author of my little HWP book, encourage people to avoid encroaching on the Wall even if allowed.  On the way up to Milecastle 37 I took the side path–mostly because there was a slow-moving couple in front of me on the Wall–but I took the Wall walk on the way back.  You don’t really see that much by walking on the Wall, so I’d say it’s not worth the bother, or pissing off people like Mr. Richards.

The Only Place You Can Walk on the Wall

The Only Place You Can Walk on the Wall

Milecastle 37

Milecastle 37

Back walking east again, we go past the Housesteads fort, then down into something called the Knag Burn Gateway.  This was a kind of add-on to the Wall to accommodate traders wishing to move goods or livestock across the frontier.  Generally this could only be done at a milecastle or a fort.  This special gateway is an exception that allowed passage over a gap in the ridge.

Knag Burn Gateway

Knag Burn Gateway

The climbing up and down continues, with moderately daunting terrain ahead:

And Yet More

And Yet More

But with the climb, the payoff in scenery continues, like Broomlee Lough from King’s Hill:

Broomlee Loch from King's Hill

Broomlee Loch from King's Hill

It becomes apparent that the Whin Sill is winding down.  The ups and downs start to get less dramatic, and the Wall starts to become more chopped up:

A Chunk of Wall

A Chunk of Wall

Even the sheep are moving into the ruins:

Grindon Turret with Ovine Occupants

Grindon Turret with Ovine Occupants

You come down off the Sill around a place called Sewingshields Farm, and the land flattens out into seemingly endless pastures with little islands of trees.  The walking at this point is pretty easy, although on this day, the sun was making for quite a warm late-summer English day.  The scenery is bucolic, albeit a little boring, but that’s just fine by me.

The Long Path Ahead

The Long Path Ahead

An Island of Trees

An Island of Trees

There’s not much in terms of antiquity to see in this stretch until you hit the site of the Brocolitia Fort.  Truth be told, there’s not much of the fort left besides some mounds of dirt, kind of like the supposed Revolutionary War redoubts you run into here on hiking trails in the Hudson Valley:  Yea, I suppose I can make out something that might look like a defensive wall.  While the fort is invisible, the Roman temple (Mithraeum) is hanging in there:

Roman Temple

Roman Temple

This is quite impressive until you read on the sign close by that the three small altars in the background are actually replicas, the originals being in a museum in Newcastle.  I suppose it’s a good idea to keep them out of the elements, but still, that’s kinda beat.

Ersatz Altars

Ersatz Altars

The peaceful, level walking continues, with our old friend the B6318 keeping us not-all-that-intrusive company along the way, with the Vallum or the Ditch (I’m not sure which) visible in some sections:

The Vallum is Still There

The Vallum is Still There

Black Carts Turret is the last serious piece of the Wall for the day, sitting in (what else?) a pasture inhabited by cows and sheep and their leavings.  After walking by several hundred of these creatures in the past three days it occured to me that cows for all their sloth and inscrutability maintain some kind of phlegmatic dignity.  Sheep, on the other hand, have an annoying tendency to bleat like a tortured baby as you pass by, or simply give you a vapid stare, and the thought comes to you that despite all of the ignorance that homo sapiens continues to demonstrate in 2014, sheep are as stupid now as they were when the Romans were here.

Black Carts Turret

Black Carts Turret

At the end of the last pasture, you hang a right and reach the outskirts of Chollerford, and the first real signs of urbanity since we started on the Path three days ago:

Civilization!

Civilization!

It’s one of those long English miles into the center of the town, and my accommodation for the night, the George Hotel, a very old, but quite inviting establishment.   The time was about 3:30PM.  The hotel is in the background of the traffic circle:

End of the Trail in Chollerford

End of the Trail in Chollerford

Here’s the nice beer garden aside the River North Tyne (note the outdoor chess set on the right):

The Beer Garden

The Beer Garden

After a shower and attention to my abused toes, I went to enjoy a little post-hike treat with a pint of another local ale and a bag of (as they say here) crisps:

End of the Walk

End of the Walk

Coda

The plan was to take the train next morning from Hexham, a short taxi ride from Chollerford, back to Newcastle.  Then up to Edinburgh for two nights and a day bus tour of the Highlands, then back to Newcastle to reverse the plane flights.  Some random notes on the next couple of days…

The train station in Hexham was quite, impressive–at least one of the patforms:

Hexham Stn

Hexham Stn

Due to a medical emergency on an earlier arrival, things got a bit confusing as to which platform my train to Newcastle would actually depart from, so I wound up dragging my heavy bag (that big red thing in the center of the photo) across that overpass in the background of the photo four times, as misdirection from the equally confused railway staff had me racing back and forth to be sure I got on the right train.

Edinburgh is a big, crowded, hilly city that at the moment was, with the rest of Scotland, trying to determine the following week whether or not to remain in the UK.  Signs, placards, and buttons were all about saying either YES (leave) or NO-thanks (stay).

Edinburgh

Edinburgh

I managed to get in around 4:00PM for a quick tour of the castle, the must-see attraction of the place:

Who Would Want to Attack This?

Edinburgh Castle

The next day was given over to a bus tour of (at least a hint of) the Scottish Highlands, including the Forth Bridge (hidden by fog), the William Wallace Monument, Stirling Castle (obscured by fog), and a couple of lochs, plus the highlight of the tour, some hairy coos (cows), which the tour guide confided in me (after I had declined his offer of a piece of bread with which to feed the beasts) seemed to excite his patrons more than anything else on the trip, much to his chagrin:

Hairy Coos

Hairy Coos

The most entertaining part of this stop was not the coos, but rather the humans.  Despite a perfectly clear warning before leaving the bus that these were docile animals, but nevertheless weighty and powerful, we should not get too close, try to pet them (particularly the horns), and be wary of their movements, of course the people got right in their faces, petting them, pulling their horns, and generally trying to tempt fate.  No one was gored or otherwise injured, however, otherwise this might have been a more interesting blog post.

Loch Katrine was a nice, quite spot:

Loch Katrine

Loch Katrine

As an extra added bonus, we stopped at the castle featured in Month Python and the Holy Grail, Doune Castle, which as doune means “castle” in Gaelic, is essentially Castle Castle:

Monty Python Castle

Monty Python Castle

So the next day was:

  • Train Edinburgh to Newcastle
  • Metro to the airport
  • Newcastle to London Heathrow
  • London to Newark

Fortunately all worked out on time in the return direction, so that was good.  My last shot was taken from my phone of the sunset at Heathrow just before departure:

Heathrow Sunset

Heathrow Sunset

Reflecting back on the trip, it was a great adventure, impressive scenery and history, great chunks of solitude, almost universally nice people, and I spent seven days in England and Scotland, most days walking in shorts and a T-shirt, without a single drop of rain hitting my head! :-)

Crane Mountain – 18 Aug 2014

Info

  • Map: Hike #30 in Densmore book.  (I did see hikers with other maps, but not sure where they are found.)
  • Trails: Summit (Red), Pond, AKA Connector (Yellow)
  • Type: Lollipop
  • Distance:  A bit over 2.5 miles, depending on whose distances you believe and how much you get lost
  • Time: 4 hours, if you get lost like we did, but doable in 3.
  • Exertion: Moderately strenuous

Getting There

Too complicated to go into here.  There are 8 different turns from the directions in the Densmore book, including one with no road sign.  We started from Bolton Landing on Lake George, cutting over to Warrensburg at Diamond Point.  After that it’s multiple turns that you need to watch your trip meter on or have a GPS.  Ultimately we got there without getting lost, but it took about 30 minutes from the lake.  The road leading into the parking area is dirt and very rutted, so bring your jeep or prepare to drive slowly.

The Hike

This was our Lake George family vacation hike, although not all family members opted in.  This turned out to be a blessing in disguise because as we got lost for a bit, I would have felt pretty bad for dragging along someone who was less than keen on going on this hike.  I selected Crane Mountain because the time and distance seemed about what we wanted to do, and it was close to Bolton Landing.  Signing up for the slog were my son Andrew and his wife Alyssa, and my daughter Emily.

The parking lot was pretty full for a Monday morning, but we got a spot no problem.  The red-blazed Crane Mtn Summit trail begins at the end of the parking lot.  We signed in at the kiosk around 11:00AM.  As is pretty much standard fare here in the ‘dacks, the trail starts to climb up on a rooty, rocky, often muddy path.  I don’t think there had been much rain in the past few days, which was good, because it’s not the kind of route you want to come down on when it’s slippery.

Here are my merry companions at the start of the adventure:

Everyone is happy

That’s Emily, Alyssa, and Andrew from the left.

The hike described in the Densmore book (see References) is called a “lollipop” because you have to backtrack down the steep initial climb on the return.  (This is the “stick” of the lollipop, if you will.)  This section is that not much fun, and as I often do on Adirondack hikes, I find myself repeating the same mantra on the way up, “Boy, this is really gonna suck on the way down.”  There is one little ledge about 25 minutes into things where you can hang out and get a partial view:

A Short Break

A Short Break

But then it’s just back to business, and more of this:

Break's Over, Back to Work

Break's Over, Back to Work

Shortly after resuming the uphill slog, we encountered a sign, indicating that the Summit Trail goes to the right, while the Pond Trail (yellow) goes to the left.  We were damn sure summiteers, so we went right.  Thankfully, the terrain levels out a bit, and it’s only about half a mile to the summit.  There are two ladders on the way, the first a sturdy but short one over a large piece of rock, the second a much longer and steeper one which seems to be supported at the bottom by some small stones underneath each leg of the ladder.  A cursory inspection of said stones reveals they bear almost no load whatsoever.  (I think they are there for appearance sake only.)  The ladder appears to be suspended from the steep incline:

Going up on Faith

Going up on Faith

Aside from one’s implacable faith in the trail maintainers in these here mountains, the ladder does seem to be solidly built as the proverbial brick shithouse, and once at the top there is a single cable attached that explains (if not assures) how one reached the top safely:

Hanging by a Thread

Hanging by a Thread

(Side note: my daughter-in-law Alyssa is a Physics teacher, and I think this would be a great finals question in statics for her class at Bronx Science: A ladder of 30 meters leans against a rocky incline at 60 degrees, with a total surface contact area of 100 cm2.  A cable of 1 cm in diameter is attached to the ladder on the upper right side.  What is the maximum mass of people (in kg) that can be on the ladder simultaneously before the State Police have to call out the rescue helicopter?  Show all your work.)

It’s a quick scramble now to the top with rewarding, if somewhat anonymous views.

Emily Made It!

Emily Made It!

So Did Andrew & Alyssa!

So Did Andrew & Alyssa!

There is a nice ridge you can walk along for some additional vista stops, albeit all looking in the same direction.   The red trail continues now off the summit, towards the Pond.  While not as steep as the “stick” portion on the way up, there are some heavily eroded sections, and footing is precarious for a bit of the way down.  There’s not much to see as the woods are pretty dense, but hey, it sure beats workin’!

Once the trail levels out, there’s a yellow arrow pointing left indicating how to follow the actual trail, but if you just go forward you get to the Pond for our last nice view:

Crane Pond

Crane Pond

Now we get to the real weepy part of the tale, oh my brothers…

So the red trail hugs the Pond’s shore for a few hundred feet, but in the Densmore book, I knew we had to pick up the Pond/Connector Trail (yellow) early on in the traverse.  We were led astray by an early unmarked trail that seemed to go off to the left, which after avoiding in lieu of the red trail, we decided might be our Pond Trail.  There were a number of groups of people around at the time, although none seemed to know about the yellow trail we sought.  We went along the Pond for a ways, then went back to the yellow arrow, talked with one group with a map that clearly showed the yellow trail, but had no idea where it was.  Then we followed the spurious trail we first encountered until it petered out no matter how hard we tried to convince ourselves this might be it.  (This is a delusion I have suffered before: you convince yourself this must be the right way, but only when you man up and say “maybe I’m wrong,” do you find the way out.)  We were close to simply following the red trail back to the lot, which another group had told us was a nasty rock scramble, when I heard a group ahead of us say something like, “Hey, here’s that yellow trail those people were looking for!”

Turns out the trail was right along the shore, maybe 100 feet past our trail of delusion, but (as the Densmore book had warned) there is no sign.  It’s at a bend to the right that tracks the shore, so your attention is drawn from the intersection.  I apologize to future hikers for not building a cairn there, but I was fairly frustrated by then, having chewed up almost an hour looking for this hidden trail.

Anyway, the Pond/Connector Trail takes you back to the stick of the lollipop.  It is an uneventful run, slightly uphill, but only a bit over a half mile.  My initial thoughts on the way up proved prescient, as any of my hiking companions will attest: the way down did totally suck.

We got to the parking lot around the four-hour mark, tired but glad to have made the trek.

Mount Marcy, Sept. 11, 2010

Arrival

I arrived in Lake Placid the day before (the 10th), staying at the Lakeview Motor Lodge—not as hokey as it sounds, actually a pretty comfortable place with a nice view of Mirror Lake off my balcony.  Stocked up at the local Price-Cutters and got to bed early, after dining on a Subway Veggie Delite ©, although I was a little leery of what effect this might have on intestinal activity whilst on the trail.

Mirror Lake, Lake Placid Village

Mirror Lake, Lake Placid Village

I did not sleep well.  I guess I was anxious about the hike, so I woke up around 5-ish, tried to get back to  sleep, but could not.  I was on the road by 7:00, with two granola bars and a cup of the in-room coffee (yuk) for breakfast, but a backpack full of trail mix, beef jerky, cheese and crackers, grapes, blackberries (which were awful as it turned out), Fritos corn chips, and more granola bars.

The Climb Up

I parked at the Adirondack Loj [sic] around 7:30.  I had scouted the place out the day before, and decided to invest in the $10 parking fee, thus cutting 0.6 mi out of my round trip instead of parking along some dirt road in front of the Loj, as one blogger had suggested.  Turns out, I would have gladly paid $50 by end-of-day to cut out the 0.6 mi., so kudos to me for making the non-stingy-bastard choice.

I scoped out the grounds of the Loj, whose parking lot was about half full, with plenty of folks about, and got on the trail at 7:45.

The first stretch to Marcy Dam was nice going, even if the woods were a bit on the dark and dreary side.  The trail was well-pounded down, and had no tough ups or downs.  So far, so good.  Got to Marcy Dam at 8:45.  This is only about 2.2 mi, so I was not thrilled with my progress—I like to do 3 MPH if possible when the terrain is easy—but I knew it was going to be a long slog, so 2+ MPH would be OK.  At the Dam, there was a nice view of a pond and some mountains, but it was not Chateau Lake Louise by any stretch!  I did find it interesting that Marcy Dam seems to be build from logs, so I wonder how they can keep that thing in place.

Lake at Marcy Dam

After the Dam, it’s a not-so-bad climb up a rocky part.  I thought I was doing OK, leap-frogging other hiking teams, as they did me.  A DEC ranger powered by me on the trail with an ax in his backpack.  He was a young guy, who would pass later me on his way back down, well before I was close to Marcy peak.  By 9:35, I was crossing a footbridge over Phelps Brook, and this is where the easy terrain ended.  I didn’t know it then, but now, besides a continuous, unrelenting UP (which I expected), the ground would be rocky, wet, muddy, and just  generally unpleasant for walking.

A large portion of the trail from here on in was arguably a stream bed, because flowing water was constantly coming down the trail, making puddles, slippery rocks, and mud pits all along the way.  By 10:20 I was at Indian Falls, which was the only other landmark of note until the summit.  Not much of a falls, as these things go, but the view of the Mount Colden and Algonquin Peak was very nice, and it was a good place to sit and have a snack.  I was tired, but still raring to go.

Top of Indian Falls

So, more rocky, wet, muddy, slippery, up, up, up.  I’m lucky if I made 1 MPH at this point—turns out that’s about all I was doing.  At 11:24, I got to a junction with the Hopkins trail, and I could see Mt. Marcy for the first time from the little clearing there.

Still 1000 Feet Up to Go!

The sign tells me I have 1.2 miles to go, but I guesstimate that although I might have only 1/7th the miles left, I have about 1/3rd of the altitude to gain, so I’m not optimistic.

Almost There?

So now, in addition to the water, mud, and rocks, I now have to deal with prospect of gaining 1000 vertical feet in 1 mile.  The last 0.6 mi is really where the terrain gets steep, but in some way, it’s a welcome break from the water and the mud, and you’re in the sunshine finally after being entombed in the dense forest for the last four hours.

If I’d had any energy left at all, I would have relished this rock scramble, above the tree line, following only cairns and yellow blazes painted on the rocks, but I was exhausted.  I could do no more that a hundred or two linear feet without needing to rest.  There were lots of people at this point—some on their way down (bastards!), some, like me, agonizing their way up.  Some seemed as genuinely beat as I, which made me feel a little better, since they were about 25-35 years younger than me, but pride was in the backseat of my emotions at this point.  All I wanted was the summit, which I got to at 12:25.

Finally!

At the Summit

It was like a little city up there; I estimated 50 to 70 people.  This was a perfect day, weather-wise, and I guess everyone else in the area had figured this out as well.  So, well, OK, this was something else I’d expected.  It’s a large, denuded summit, so I found a nice little depression in the rock, collapsed, and had lunch.  It was a little cold, with the wind at my back, but once I put on a jacket, I was fine, laying there, eating my meal of hiker’s delicacies, listening to some Beethoven on my iPod.

All along the summit, there were little plots of vegetation roped off to keep people from stepping on them.  I’m not sure how effective this is, since it wasn’t so much “roped off” as “stringed off,” but people seemed for the most part to be respecting this.  (Unlike two months before on Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park, where it seemed all the signs in the world couldn’t keep the Great American Public from traipsing through the shrubbery.  I guess one of the differences was that on Cadillac, almost everyone had driven to the summit, while on Marcy, that was not an option.)

I strolled around the summit, which is large–a good thing considering the lunch hour population I encountered.  There is a metal plaque memorializing the 100 year anniversary of the first ascent in 1837.  This plaque seemed to be a good spot to take a self-photo, for which I asked a fellow hiker to assist me in.  The resulting picture is, putting it mildly, not among my best.  My total exhaustion is shining through, and I was so numb that I forgot I had my ear buds in, but at least I took off my goofy hat.

Proof of Life

There’s an obvious “top of the top” section, which I made sure I stepped upon, then made sure I’d taken photos of the entire 360°.  I could see the ski jumps from Lake Placid as well as the village.  It was sobering to realize how far I would have to walk back to get to the car.

At the Summit

The Slog Down

I left the summit around 1:15.  While the vista deserved more time, after a while one gets so sated with mountain’s majesty, that you run out of awe.  I was also feeling the effects of the climb, the wind, and probably the altitude, and decided that some lower point on the mountain might improve a malaise I realized had come upon me.  Also, in the back of my mind was the Marcy trip of my son’s chemistry teacher, who had broken an ankle on the descent the year before.  After seeing the terrain on the way up, I was aware of how easy a that kind of mishap might be, and I wanted plenty of time to navigate the rocks, mud, and water.

The descent down the treeless section was very dicey, with me needing to slide down on my ass in a few sections.  It was very slow going until I hit the treeline.  There were still a number of people coming up, and I tried to lend them some encouragement, although I’m not sure I was very convincing.  Once back in the woods, the hike became a monotonous replay of the hike up, with the gasping for air replaced by pain in my feet, knees, and ankles as I slid over the boulders and battled gravity to stay upright.

By the time I reached the junction with the Hopkins trail, and that first view of Marcy, it was 2:15.  That meant it had taken me as long to go down the 1.2 mi. as it had going up.  Any hope that I had of making good time on the return had just gone out the window.  The good news was that the lethargy I’d felt at the summit had gone away.  Now it was just a question of plugging away.

I reached Indian Falls an hour later, at 3:15—still pretty slow going.  On the way up, two guys who had been leap-frogging me had had a conversation about whether they should leave the short detour to the falls for the return trip.  It was a good thing I decided take it then, otherwise I probably would have just blown on by the the falls on the way back.  I wanted down and back, no detours, thank you.  I didn’t take a single photo on the descent.

At 3:50, I’d hit the wooden bridge over Phelps Brook.  This was arguably the worst terrain of the return trip.  It had been no picnic on the way up, but with gravity looking to make you fall at every step, and the saturation of almost every part of the trail, it became an episode in what I called “Rock Dancing,” i.e. how to find the next step that would not cause me to (a) fall on my ass, (b) break my ankle, like my son’s teacher had done on this stretch, or (c) kill myself.  I’d had a notion to listen to some podcasts on the way down, but the mental effort needed to maintain my footing made me realize I couldn’t possibly follow a narrative.  After the bridge the Rock Dancing continued, although the trail was a little wider, a (very) little dryer, and there were some patches of bare dirt into which one might place a foot carefully and eliminate the chance of slipping.

But it was now about 8 hours in, 3300 feet climbed, a dozen or so miles, and the tank was empty.  Every step, even on the slightly more forgiving section along the brook, hurt.  Some of my problem was my pack.  It had probably weighed 25 pounds when I put it on, and for some reason, I had not drunk as much water as I thought I would.  By my reckoning, I still had a liter in my camelback, and I was forcing myself to drink all the way down.  I dumped the 750 ml. bottle in the side pocket of the pack, figuring that worst case, I’d use the filter bottle I’d brought for backup.

Marcy Dam came into sight at 4:30.  This was a welcome point for two reasons.  First, I got to sign out at the register, so this was a definitive step to ending this hike.  Second, I knew the trail would be much gentler from here on in, if not always descending.  Frankly, after the punishment of the downgrade, I was looking forward to a little upgrade—just a little, though.  I sat down at the edge of the Dam for a few minutes, trying to drink some more water and eat a little.  I was neither hungry nor thirsty, but I knew that I should keep stuff going in.  I’d only peed twice on the trip, early on the way up, and soon after coming off the summit.  So things were not working great in the GI area.

The last stretch was the longest two miles of my life.  I kept telling myself that it was only 2/3rds of the way around Rockland Lake, a 3-mile loop I’ve done maybe 100 times.  Of course, it’s flat and paved, so I can walk it at 4 MPH, but I figured maybe I could get to 3 MPH on this stretch and not need an entire hour to get back to the car.  It was not to be.  Although I did regain some of my speedy pace near the end, and actually passed 3 or 4 other groups, it seemed like the signposts were lying and I was traveling a whole lot more than two miles.

Whatever it was, I managed to trudge off the trail, into the parking lot around 5:30.  I imagine it must be fun to sit at the Adirondack Loj and watch these wretches come off the trail.  An experienced observer can probably tell who the neophytes are by seeing the wobbly legs that we have after we walk from the registration kiosk and look at the paradise of autos before us.

Back at my car, I barely had the energy to enjoy sitting down on something soft, taking off my boots, and opening a fresh bottle of water.  I didn’t linger, but got out of the Loj parking lot urgently.  On the road out I could see the cars of the cheapskates parked along the approach to South Meadow Road, and thanked my stars that I had been willing to part with the tenner for the lot.

Reflections

First, I’m glad I did this.  It was grueling, tedious, and at times nerve-wracking, but it was an opportunity to do something moderately notable.  Despite the number of people at the summit, it’s not something very many people get to do, nor a place in this world very many people get to visit, so yea, I would do it over if I could roll back the clock.

That said, I think it may be some time, or another lifetime, before I walk across Marcy’s rocky summit again.  The vista was great, although my ability to fully appreciate it may have been compromised by my exhaustion.  The summit aside, it’s not really a very appealing hike.  The terrain and ascent aside, it’s 7 hours of being buried in the woods, with two ancillary viewpoints (Marcy Dam and Indian Falls), neither of which can be in anyone’s Top Ten list.

Although I lucked out with the weather, the price was hiking in a relative “crowd.”  While probably not as bad as a weekend in the heart of the summer, there were still too many people to make the hike notable for any sense of wilderness.  Given its prominence, I accepted this; the highest point in the most populous state in the nation is unlikely to be deserted on any but the most brutal of days.  Given that the following two days (the ones I originally targeted for the ascent but abandoned due to the weather report) would have had me rained or hailed upon, as well as rewarded with a cloud-covered summit, I gratefully accepted the mini-city I found on the top and slopes of Mount Marcy.

This was a stretch for me as a hiker, because of the distance and height, and because I had not been consistently hiking in the last year or so as I had in the past.  I knew I was up for some agony, but had deluded myself into thinking it might be not so bad, in part due to some needlessly nonchalant blogs about the hike I’d read before my trip.  Marcy is not Mount McKinley, but it’s not Breakneck Ridge—the most challenging hike in the Hudson Valley—either.  It’s another notch up from that.  I suppose you can always find a taller, badder mountain after you struggle up your last challenge, until you get to Everest, but I have no interest in that, or McKinley, or anything even remotely in that neighborhood.

But to me, hiking is more than just distance and altitude.  It’s a combination of the land, the location, the scenery, and the quiet.  It’s an odd calculus to think that I struggled for almost 9 hours to enjoy 45 minutes of a great view.  Is the top of Marcy more inspiring than the top of Mount Taurus on the Hudson?  Maybe—probably, but I can get to the top of Mount Taurus in 2 hours and feel a damn sight better than I did atop Marcy. So IMHO, Marcy’s ROI is debatable.  The physical benefit of the exercise seems to be evened out by the risk of injury plus the punishment to my feet.  I went back to my hotel in a kind of daze and spent the night with some odd fever and chills that went away the next day.  I’m not sure what exactly my body was telling me, but I might have been something like, “Don’t do this to me again!”

Based on my observations of the fellow hikers I encountered on the trail, there surely are things I can do to help my body out the next time I try to do something like this.  First, I need to train a bit better.  I was not in poor condition, but neither was it optimal.  Also, those sissy ski poles I saw people using on a trail such as that Van Hoevenberg Trail up Marcy, are definitely useful.  I carried an old 5′ stick taped with tennis racket grip, and while I love my stick, something lighter and one for each arm might have been a big help, especially on the way down.  (I was frankly astonished at several young hikers who sped past me on the way down, several women among them, who had no poles whatsoever.  I have no idea how they could make it over those rocks at that pace!)

On an historical note, my trip took place just under 99 years from the day (Sept 12th, although different accounts put the date on the 13th), that Teddy Roosevelt hiked up Mt. Marcy.  On his descent he stopped at Lake Tear of the Clouds for a late lunch.  (This small lake is the source of the Hudson River.)  Before he could dig into his lunch, a mountain guide caught up with his group to hand Roosevelt a telegram informing him that President McKinley, who had been shot on Sept. 6th in Buffalo, but had been making a good recovery, had taken a turn for the worse and was not expected to live.  Roosevelt then began a mad dash on foot, wagon, coach, and train to get to Buffalo.  By the time he arrived, of course, McKinley was already dead, and Roosevelt had become president before he had even left the Adirondacks.

Coda

I spent the next day strolling around Lake Placid.  I took a kayak from the hotel onto Mirror Lake, but had to come back after about 30 minutes due to rain.  I walked the path around Mirror Lake, which has pavement stones every few hundred feet with the High Peaks names and heights.  Here’s the one for Marcy:

I also checked out the Olympic Ski jumps and John Brown’s farm State Historical Site.  (Both recommended!)

Lake Placid Olympic Ski Jump

I was pretty beat up, but nothing like the night before.  The next day I headed home, stopping off for a short hike in a place called Snake Den Harbor north of Westport, NY on Lake Champlain.  Just as I got the to the cliff overlooking the lake, it started to rain, and I walked back to the car, soaking wet.  This was the best picture I could get:

Lake Champlain at Snake Den Harbor

I liked the Westport train station, shown here:

Westport, NY Train Station

Just to cap off the trip, I ran into the most intense hail storm I’d ever been in on the Northway just south of Lake George.  Here’s the video I took when I pulled over to wait until I could see:

Hail Storm on Northway