'Strenuous Hikes' Category

Attack of the Giant Stairs – 10 July 2016

Info

  • Map: NYNJTC Hudson Palisades Trail (Map 109)
  • Trails: Long Path (teal), Shore Path (white), Forest View Trail (blue & white)
  • Type: Loop
  • Distance:  4+ miles
  • Time: 2.5 hours
  • Exertion: Strenuous

Getting There

Palisades Parkway South, past Exit 3 look for a U-turn for the State Line Lookout.  Take that, and move to the right ASAP once you’re northbound because the Lookout’s entrance is practically on top of you.  If you’re coming from the south, just look for the Lookout signs once you get past Exit 2.  Lots of parking to be found, even on a pleasant summer Sunday like this one.  From the lot, walk toward the edge of the cliff for some views before you begin the hike.

The Hike

It’s been quite a few years since I attempted this hike, which according to the Palisades Interstate Park Commission, is the most difficult one in the park.  So what are the Giant Stairs? Basically it’s a quaint misnomer for a rock slide that starts about a third of the way up the cliffs of the Palisades and sweeps right into the river.  When I say “rock slide,” I really mean boulder slide because these “rocks” vary in size from a breadbox (dating myself here) to a small automobile.  There really are no “stairs” per se here, rather a jagged miasma of stones you have to tread upon carefully lest you do terrible injury to yourself.  This talus extends for about half a mile along the river with a few small breaks.  When I first did this hike I made the mistake of seeing “The Giant Stairs” on the map and thinking, “Gee, I wonder where the Giants lives?”  (Not really.)  I never figured that wending my way through this field would take over an hour.

When you look at the Stairs from the other side of the river you say to yourself, “Oh look, part of the mountain came down,” not realizing that the pieces of that debris are mostly larger than you are.  I’ve yet to find out the source of the rock slide, although the Palisades were in the sights of the trap rock industry for quarrying until conservationists managed to shoo them away early in the 20th century.  So this might have been a section that had started being quarried, or perhaps it slid naturally.  Either way, it presents today’s hikers with quite a challenge.

Most of the rock fields are barren of vegetation, but there is a significant stretch toward the southern end that has had quite a lot of tree growth.  This give you a few more handholds, but it also makes for a moister terrain, and wet is a very bad thing while trying to traverse the Giant Stairs.  I sincerely advise anyone attempting this to not consider it after a recent rainfall, and never during snowy or icy weather.  The park does close the Stairs for parts of the winter, although it’s not like they can put a gate across it.

We start from the Lookout parking lot.  It’s probably a good idea here to stop an enjoy the view looking across at Hasting, Yonkers, and the Bronx.  There’s a nice informational marker with a panoramic photo pointing out what you can see from the precipice in beyond Westchester:  the Whitestone and Throggs Neck Bridges, a sliver of Long Island Sound, Astoria Queens, and some power station in Northport, LI.

Yonkers from the Lookout

Yonkers from the Lookout

You can also get a nice view of the talus below that awaits you:

Part of the Talus Below

Part of the Talus Below

Once you’ve had your fill of the great view, head north on the concrete road that used to be part of Route 9W until it goes off to the right into the woods on our old pal, the Long Path.  This well-trodden trail is pretty easy going as you head toward the state line and go past the New Jersey marker that warns you of your impending exit from the Garden State:

Last Exit in NJ

Last Exit in NJ

You pass through a rusty cyclone fence and enter the Empire State, and the path gets pretty steep downhill and rocky.  I had to pass by a couple and their dog who was try his best to negotiate the turns with his four stubby legs.  There are some good viewpoints along the way and the crags of the Palisades come in some interesting shapes:

I Think I'll Just Stay Here, Thanks

I Think I'll Just Stay Here, Thanks

You can also see the Tappan Zee Bridge as its successor is being build alongside it:

Old Tap Foreground; New Tap-Coming Soon

Old Tap Foreground; New Tap-Coming Soon

After some sharp turns and descents the LP incongruously turns left, away from the river.  There’s evidence that a lot of people have gone right in search of a shortcut, but I’m pretty sure they’ve all retraced their steps.  After a short stretch you cross over a boardwalk and hit the junction with the Shore Trail:

Your Destiny Awaits

Your Destiny Awaits

The LP goes left, but we go right as the white-blazed Shore Trail descends quickly to the bank of the Hudson and the moderately disappointing Peanut Leap Falls.  (The name is somehow uninspiring, IMHO.)  From the extensive remnants of stairs and walls around the falls it seems like there must have been a time when this was a popular shore destination, so maybe it would be better after a big rainfall.  I seem to have very bad luck with the falls on the Palisades (see Three Hudson Palisades Hikes), so it was no surprise that Peanut Leap was underwhelming.  No biggie–we’re at the shoreline and off to attack the Stairs.

Within 10 to 15 minutes you arrive at the first section of the Stairs, and they look challenging, but not scary:

Northernmost End of the Giant Stairs

Northernmost End of the Giant Stairs

This is a nice scramble–nothing too awful, you’re out in the open, and as with the entire trek, the path through the boulders is very well marked, so you should not worry about getting lost.  After this first little stretch you might get a little overconfident because, hey, it wasn’t so bad.  But that’s just the Giant (wherever he is) messing with your head.  There are two more rock fields ahead like this, albeit a bit longer, and then the last stretch is a long run without a break, in the trees with slippery footing.

End of Field #2

End of Field #2

End of Field #3

End of Field #3

Entering the fourth and longest field is pretty much the Giant Stairs telling you, “OK, no more Mr. Nice Guy.”

And the Rest of It Is This Kind of Crap

And the Rest of It Is This Kind of Crap

The first time I did the stairs, I started from the south, so I went through this section first.  I don’t recall feeling it was any easier then, not to mention I had no idea what I had gotten myself into.  It might be better to get the hard part done first because after almost an hour of this (55 mins. by the time stamps on my photos) my knees, ankles, and back had taken a pounding.  I suppose if you take it slower and are more precise in where you take your steps you might reduce the stress on your skeleton, but there is a sense of urgency to get the job done and get back to that nice soft dirt path along the shore.

This too, does pass, and you wind up back at the shore, and get to tell the northbound people you run into, “Good luck!”

Out of the Rocks

Out of the Rocks

Needless to say the drama of the hike abates to a significant degree at this point.  As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, there are quite serene sections of the shore trail where you hear almost nothing except the splash of the Hudson along the rocks and sand.  This is one such section:

Serenity at Last!

Serenity at Last!

What’s a bit disconcerting here, although not so evident in the picture, is the complete infestation of vines (kudzu?).  Everything down here is overgrown with what I assume is an invasive species of plant life.  I know very little about this sort of thing, but I understand to some degree this is quite a problem locally.  These vines are literally smothering the natural vegetation.

In less than 10 minutes from your egress from the Stairs, you’re at the junction with the Forest View Trail:

The Way Out

The Way Out

It’s a bit of a kick in the shorts that the descent on the Shore Path was 250 ft., while the ascent up this trail is more than twice that.  (OK so it really all washes out in the end.)  I guess the northbound option might be better in the final analysis.  The slog back up Forest View is not so bad:  a lot of switchbacks, and many blocks of stairs which have seen better days.  Hanging a right at the LP, there’s still more stairs to negotiate, and then an easy stroll back to the Lookout and your car.

In closing, The Giant Stairs:

  • Not even close to real stairs
  • Not recommended for anyone with balance issues
  • Will probably make you sore for a few days, depending on how hard you bounce through them
  • Definitely a no-go in wet or icy weather
  • Good hiking boots or shoes a must
  • AFAICT, no Giant to be seen

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.

Giant Mountain — 16 Sep 2012

Info

  • Map: National Geographic, Adirondack Park, Lake Placid/High Peaks
  • Reference: Lisa Densmore, Hiking the Adirondacks
  • Trails: Ridge
  • Type: Out and back
  • Distance:  6 miles
  • Time: 7 hours
  • Exertion: Strenuous

Getting There

The trailhead is on NY Route 73, a short ride off the Adirondack Northway, I87.  I approached it from Lake Placid, so it’s about a 30 minute ride SE out of that town, just past the so-called village of St. Huberts.  (The Gertrude Stein aphorism about Oakland applies in spades here: There is no there there.)  From the Placid approach the big clue that you’re close is Chapel Pond on your right.  If coming from I87, Chapel Pond on your left means you missed it.  Look for those nice yellow-letter-on-brown-background signs that will say Giant/Ridge.  You can park on either side of 73.  The trailhead is on the northeast side of the road.

The Hike

Despite its moniker, Giant Mountain is only the 12th highest peak in the Adirondacks:

Giant Mtn Tile in Lake Placid

Giant Mtn Tile in Lake Placid

Now the previous two excursions found me tackling #1 (Marcy) and #2 (Algonquin), so why did I skip over #3-#11?  No reason.  There’s no plan here.  Plus, I’ve been thumbing through the Densmore book (see References) for the last few years, and am subject to the filtering there.  Before you accuse me of taking the easy way out, let me just say that last year’s march was a 2969′ vertical gain over 3.6 miles, while Giant is 3050′ over about 3.0 miles.  So if you do yer guzintas, this is a steeper climb than last year.  So even though when you hit the top you’re still about 400′ shy of where I was last year, that’s because the trailhead for Giant is further down into a valley than the Algonquin trailhead which is also off 73 but after it’s humped up quite a bit out of the valley.

The start is indicated by the standard DEC sign:

Giant Trailhead

Giant Trailhead

The drive out of Placid takes about 30 minutes, so I did not get on the trail until about 9:45.  Once started it became a trudge through the usual dark, rocky morass I’ve grown used to up here.  I have to say that compared to the Algonquin and (especially) Marcy trails, this was much drier.  Admittedly, they’ve had a very dry summer up here, but there are parts of the Van Hovenberg Trail up to Marcy that are basically stream beds.

For such a steep trail, my hat is off to the maintainers, because there are for the most part excellent steps and switchbacks when it gets really nasty.  About 20 minutes in–all UP, UP, UP–there’s a nice view back down to 73, and you might even be able to see your car.

First Vista on Rigde Trail

First Vista on Ridge Trail

There's My Car--Somewhere Next to Chapel Pond

There's My Car--Somewhere Next to Chapel Pond

At 0.7 mi. you hit the pond known as the Giant’s Washbowl.  It’s an anomalous little body of water sitting here for no good reason:

Giant's Washbowl

Giant's Washbowl

with a precarious-looking footbridge across its one end:

Step Carefully!

Step Carefully!

At the end of the puncheon the Ridge Trail continues up very steeply, but the steps and switchbacks make it bearable.  Around the 1 1/4 hour mark you emerge out onto some rock ledges that afford nice views worth stopping for a look at.  The snap below is of the Great Range, which is a set seven of the 46 High Peaks: Lower Wolfjaw, Upper Wolfjaw, Armstrong, Gothics, Saddleback, Basin, and Haystack:

The Great Range

The Great Range

(And no, I can’t tell you which one is which.)  Looking up from this point you see what seems to be a summit, but of course it’s not, it’s merely a tease called The Bump:

Looking up at "The Bump"

Looking up at "The Bump"

When you get near it, there is a sign indicating a choice to go over the bump or around it.  The Densmore book advised to take the wussy way around it because the vistas don’t really improve all that much as payback for humping it over The Bump.  I found that to be wise counsel and opted for the left route:

Over or Around?

Over or Around?

Within minutes of your avoidance of said Bump, you’re back to climbing again, on the final assault to the summit.  Nearing the two-hour mark, you can turn around and be smug about your decision not to expend your precious energy on that silly Bump:

Looking Back at The Bump

Looking Back at The Bump

There’s still about 3/4 of a mile to go and plenty of vertical gain.  There are very few flat stretches to be had, and they are as short as my temper when I watch Fox News.

I hit the summit about 12:30–just under the 3 hour mark.  My previous two hikes up here gave me a little reference, so I was not too ashamed of only making 1.something miles per hour on the ascent.  Still, it’s nothing to brag about.  The top had a long ridge about 30′ wide with enough space for the 20-30 people that were up there with me.  As usual, I nestled into a little crag in the rocks and rested the weary bones.  Here’s the picture for which I did all of this climbing:

Atop Giant Mountain

Atop Giant Mountain

As best I can figure, you can identify the Great Range in this westerly view and the big bump behind the range is Mt. Marcy.  In my estimation that puts the almost-as-big bump on the right hand side as Algonquin.  I got into a conversation with a gentleman at the top about which peaks were which, and I think we agreed on at least these two.  Looking more northerly, you can clearly see Whiteface, easily identified by its observatory and ski runs.  (More about this later.)

Whiteface from Giant

Whiteface from Giant

A couple of younger fellows took this pic of me after I did them a similar favor.  (They took my ineptitude with their smartphone camera in stride, I must say.)

Me at the Top

Me at the Top

(I have no idea what the guy behind me was up to.)  I was actually happier than this picture might suggest.  Things were pretty OK–I was not real beat up, I ate a little bit, but not a lot–par for the course as I had learned from the past treks, and it was pretty early in the day with no rush to get back.  I did the usual 45 mins. at the top and then began the descent.

About 15-20 minutes from the top I look below me and saw what seemed to be a guy with a very big backpack coming up the trail.  As he got nearer I could see it was actually a kid seat, almost like a little sedan chair on his back with a toddler–not an infant–sitting astride Dad’s shoulders.  I made some amazed comments as we passed, and he continued to motor up the trail.  About 15 minutes later, a woman comes up with the same contraption on her back and a smaller child, dead asleep, within.  In our brief conversation I learned that the gentleman who had passed me earlier was her husband, and that she did not think she’d make it to the top.  I certainly could not blame her.  All I could advise is that when she and her husband were old and gray that they remind their kids they had done this for them.  Or maybe remind them sooner–like when they are teenagers.  I know I’m not exactly an Ironman, but I like to think if I have to get up a mountain, I can do it, no matter how long it takes.  But on my best day, even 20 years ago, I would never have entertained the notion of giving one of my kids a free ride on my back up a 3000′ mountain.  Even if I could have physically done so, still, I’d have still made their stubby little legs do the work for themselves.  And if they couldn’t make it, well then they’d just have to walk their sorry little asses back down the mountain.  I guess I really am a mean daddy.

The walk down was the usual rock dancing, but there were some calmer spots, and the views just made you take it slow and enjoy what was at your back on the way up.

Nice View on the Way Down

Nice View on the Way Down

I think it was about this spot where I took a little break, sitting on a boulder, that I realized that my watch had dropped off my wrist.  I recalled that at one point on the way down I had heard a clink sound and stopped and looked all around my feet, saw nothing, and figured my trekking poles had just hit a rock–although I had a nagging sense that that was not exactly the kind of clink I would have expected.  Now this was not a really expensive watch, but my wife had given it to me a few years back for Christmas, and I really liked it, and I get very picky about watches.  So after a little internal debate I decided to slowly walk back uphill to see if I could find it.  I had a visual image of the spot where I heard the clink, but I was not sure of where it was with regard to any way points.  My only memory was that it was after I’d gone past the woman with the sedan chair that I’d checked the time, and it was about 1:30.  Now it was about 30 minutes later.  (That was my guess, and the time stamp on the photo bears this out.)

I probably would have not searched to the extent I did had I not run into a group of four women coming down who said they had seen it.  Unfortunately, their English was not good and they could only give me semi-coherent descriptions of where and when they had seen it.  So off I went up the hill, merci beaucoup-ing them like an idiot.  I probably did over a half hour back up the hill, never quite got the feel for the place I thought I’d heard the clink, nor did I manage to decipher the fractured Franglais they had used to describe the place they supposedly encountered my timepiece.

This kind of drained the enjoyment out of the rest of the hike.  There are few things more discouraging than to climb back UP a mountain you’ve already come down, and then to backtrack a decent you’ve already descended.  I dislike the whole concept of an out-and-back hike to begin with because I don’t like doing something I’ve already done, even if it is in another direction.  Doing a mini out-and-back within an out-and-back gets me into a Sisyphean zone that makes me crazy.  And, I never did find my watch.

What should have been a tiring 2-hour descent turned into a 4-hour slog that left my legs feeling like they were made of Jello and my feet feeling like they had been run over by a car.  It was almost 5:00 by the time I was on my way back to Placid.

The next day was my driving home day, but I was in no need of getting out of Dodge early, so I decided to do a very unnatural thing and drive up to the top of Whiteface Mountain.  I’ve mentioned this peak before in my previous Adirondack posts, and I’ve skied there a few times as well.  It is the 5th highest peak in NY:

Whiteface Tile in Lake Placid

Whiteface Tile in Lake Placid

There is a 5-mile road, built in the 1930′s, that meanders up the back of the mountain.  In my several previous visits to this area, I’d considered doing the drive, but it seemed like such a lazy, old fart thing to do that I always chosen something more athletic or historical instead.  My short time window on this day, not to mention my rubber legs from yesterday’s hike, had drained me of all ambition, so off I went.

I’m very glad I did for several reasons, which I will get into.  It’s about a 20-minute drive from Lake Placid, northeast on NY 86 to NY 431 that goes up the mountain.  A mile or so up 431, there’s a toll booth of sorts, more like an entrance gate, where you pays your fee ($10 for a solo car) and gets a little brochure and a ticket.  Then it’s a slow crawl up the 5 miles of very bumpy road to the parking lot.  The road is tough not because of cracked pavement, but the surface is riddled with bumps and divots that I presume are formed by the ground shifting underneath.  It’s a steep grade, so my car found it hard to do over 20 MPH, but there are lots of places to pull off and enjoy the views, which just keep getting better and betterer as you go up.

The parking lot is really just a strip of face-in spots along the return side of the road, so you have to go to the very end of the road, in front of what’s called The Castle, then loop back and find a spot on the way down.  I imagine on fall weekend days it gets very crowded.

The Castle

The Castle

Parking on Whiteface

Parking on Whiteface

If you look above the parked cars in the picture, you can see the weather observatory at the actual peak.  There are two ways to get up there.  You can take an elevator that is directly under the observatory, or walk back to the Castle and then take a quarter-mile walk up along the crest of the mountain.  Given that I was already wimping out today, I felt obliged to do the walk.  It is a great little hike, although in wet or icy conditions I would not recommend it to the faint of heart.  For me, it was a spectacular day–a little warmer than the day before, which contributed some haze, but the air was still very clear.  The path up from the Castle is slippery in parts even when dry, as there are many sections where you have to friction climb up the natural rock where the builders seem to have given up trying to pave a path or even stairs.  There is a metal railing on both sides, so it’s not precarious, but it does require some careful stepping along the way.  Take your time–there’s no rush and every stop is an opportunity to soak in the views.

The Walk up to Whiteface Peak

The Walk up to Whiteface Peak

You’ll know when you’ve hit the top:

At the Top

At the Top

There is much to behold up here.  First, you get a real view of the actual Lake Placid, the lake, not the village:

Lake Placid (the lake)

Lake Placid (the lake)

When you hang around the village, the focal point is actually Mirror Lake (very nice in its own way), which in this photo is the small bit in the upper left hand corner.  The real Lake Placid is much bigger, but somewhat invisible in the village.  You can have a look down at the ski runs of Whiteface which in a few months will be packed with skiers.

The End of the Gondola atop Little Whiteface

The End of the Gondola atop Little Whiteface

The crazy thing about this mountain is that the uppermost ski lift ends over 350′ below the summit, yet the mountain still has the biggest vertical drop in the East (3430′ if you believe their web site).  You can also look back down over the crazy switchbacks that got you up here:

How Did I Get up Here?

How Did I Get up Here?

There’s a great vista in each of the 360 degrees up here.  If it wasn’t for the wind and having to go to work the next day, I might be up there still.

If you read the brochure you get at the toll gate, it takes a little dig at the kind of USA we find ourselves living in today.  If I can take liberties with their POV, this road could probably not be built today because it would cost too much and it would probably be impeded by various environmental concerns.  But back in the 1930′s, in the Depression, NY State and then-governor (soon-to-be-president) Franklin Roosevelt just thought, Hey, this is a good idea, let’s just freakin’ do it. (I am taking liberties.)  Now, no doubt there was some environmental impact at the time, but in some ways it blends in nicely with the mountain, and it was done for $1.25M.  Yes, it was a big government job, but it got some folks working, and now there is actually a way for people with disabilities, or who no longer have the physical ability to hike up to this kind of a peak, the chance to enjoy a bit of natural beauty.  I’ve tended to be a snob and think, if you can’t do the hike, you don’t deserve the view, but being up at the top with a lot of people who clearly, if they tried to hike up, would be coming down in ambulances, made me feel good that there’s one out of the 46 Adirondack High Peaks that anyone can get to the top of and enjoy.  So it was a bit of a correction for me.

For fun, I took the elevator down–the real creepy part being that there’s about a 100-yard, 7-foot high, dark, soggy tunnel at the bottom you have to walk through to get back to the parking area.  My sister would love this!

So net, a great trip.  Yea, lost the watch, hurt my feet, had a pretty miserable climb down Giant, but as they say, A bad day fishing [or hiking] is better than a good day working.

just

Algonquin Peak — Sept 18th, 2011

Info

  • Map: National Geographic, Adirondack Park, Lake Placid/High Peaks
  • Reference: Lisa Densmore, Hiking the Adirondacks
  • Trails: Van Hovenberg, Algonquin branch
  • Type: Out and back
  • Distance: 7.2 miles
  • Time: About 8 hours
  • Exertion: Very strenuous

Getting There

From Lake Placid Village, take NY 73 East to Adirondack Loj Road.  Make a right and take the road to the kiosk at the end, about 4 miles.  Pay the $10 and park in the lots to the left.  (And don’t complain about the parking fee, for God’s sake it’s about what you spend for a glass of so-so wine at these overpriced restaurants in NYC these days.)

The Hike

OK, it’s my birthday month, and the air is cooling off, so it’s time to head off to the Adirondacks and try to hurt myself.  Last year around this time I trudged up Mt. Marcy, the highest peak in NY State (5344′), so this year I decided to deal with Algonquin, the second highest at 5114′.  It’s the only other peak in NYS above 5000′.  The good news about this hike is that the distance is about half that of Marcy.  The bad news is that, if you do the quick arithmetic, it’s only 230 fewer vertical feet (since you park in the same lot), so the climbing will be about twice as steep.  Some people consider this to be a more grueling climb than that to Marcy.  After this day, I’m not sure I’d agree, but they have a talking point.

Algonquin Slab in Lake Placid Village

Algonquin Slab in Lake Placid Village

Woke up to see this outside of my hotel window on Sunday morning:

Lake Placid Village

Lake Placid Village

Although the village is called Lake Placid, the lake it surrounds is Mirror Lake.  The high peak in the background is Whiteface Mt. (4867′), which can be hiked, although since there’s a road to the top, not to mention chair lifts as it’s a big skiing destination, its appeal is somewhat reduced.

Things got off to a late start, since I discovered after I parked the car that I’d left my CamelBak back in the hotel room, so I was not actually signed in at the trailhead until about 9:15am.  No biggie, I was not concerned about running out of daylight as I was last year.  The start was familiar territory for the first 20 minutes (0.9 mi) until the split for the trails to Marcy (blue) and Algonquin (yellow).  The next milestone was the Whale’s Tail Ski Trail junction (1.4 mi), nothing of note beyond mud and rocks.  There’s nothing else between here and the waterfall on the MacIntyre Brook at the 2.3 mile mark.  This I got to at about 10:45.  This was about 1.5 MPH, not exactly a great pace, but after the ski trail, things got steeper.  There were some nice stone steps in some spots, thank you very much trail maintainers, and I made a very naive note to myself that the descent might not be as painful as that from Marcy.  (Hah!)

Waterfall on MacIntyre Brook (trail to Algonquin)

Waterfall on MacIntyre Brook (trail to Algonquin)

The next milestone is the spur trail to Wright Peak at 2.9 miles.  While just over a half-mile from the waterfall, the pitch of the trail gets much steeper, with mud and water making things slippery.  (This was a couple of weeks after some big rainstorms, including Hurricane Irene, and some of these trails had recently been re-opened, so a lot of wet was not a surprise.)

Around 11:30, I started to see views of the mountains and valleys peek out from the trees, always a welcome site after being buried in the woods for over two hours.

Breaking out from the Dark Woods

Breaking out from the Dark Woods

Shortly after that, you reach the junction with the Wright Trail (blue) to the left. I stayed on the yellow of course, which more or less goes straight, but do be careful, as one trio of hikers that I ran into near the summit were convinced they were going up to Wright until I informed them, “Um, I think this is Algonquin.”  (Fortunately for me, it was.)

Junction: Trails to Wright and Algonquin

Junction: Trails to Wright and Algonquin

Now, in any kind of normal hike, the 0.9 miles to go to Algonquin Peak as seen above is a so-what, piece of cake, can-do-it-in-my-sleep kind of deal.  No big whoop.   But it would take me an hour and ten minutes to get up to that peak, about the slowest going I’ve ever done.  But there’s a reason.  OK, it’s steep, I mean like, STEEP.  I knew this going in, of course.  It’s wet, it’s rocky, in some spots you are walking across slabs of wet, sheer rock face for 50 feet or more.  I took a couple of embarrassing falls, at least they would have been embarrassing if anyone had been there to see it.  All the while going up, I heard this little voice in the back of my head going, “This is really gonna suck on the way back down!”  To ease your pain and make you feel that perhaps you’re not a total idiot for doing this, the views do start to improve:

A View of Lake Placid as We Crawl up Algonquin

A View of Lake Placid as We Crawl up Algonquin

As you approach the edge of the actual trees, and head into what they call the krumholtz region, with these gnarled little bush-like trees, you can see Wright Peak over your shoulder and wonder why you didn’t want to do that one today (4580′) instead.

Wright Peak on the Way to Algonquin

Wright Peak on the Way to Algonquin

There comes a point when you break completely out of the treeline, and you see the peak above you, and the pitch mellows a bit, and you say to yourself (silently), “OK, dude, like we did it!  We’re almost there!”  (Yes, there’s a fellow hiker in the picture, near the top in the very center.)

Almost at the Top--Or Are We?

Almost at the Top--Or Are We?

But when you get up there, this is what awaits you:

Oops, Sorry, This Is Really Algonquin Peak

Oops, Sorry, This Is Really Algonquin Peak

Yes, that first shot was a false summit, so you get up there to discover you ain’t done yet.  This is part of the joy and wonder of hiking:  having your hopes of some respite dashed by the real peak hiding behind a lower one.  I will say this, however:  the climbing at the end is not so bad compared to Marcy.  Perhaps that’s because with Marcy, you’ve walked over seven miles to get to the top, while here you’ve only done about three.  I just know that getting up the last quarter mile here was nowhere near as exhausting as last year’s final assault.

So I made the summit just around, 12:45, about 20 minutes later than I’d made Marcy last year with a 90 minute head start then.  I have to say, the summit was pretty much like Marcy.  Lots of bare rock, lots of grass patches that you are politely instructed not to sit or stand on by the NYS DEC Summit Steward.  (More about her later.)  The population at the summit I guessed at about two dozen, way less than at Marcy.  Perhaps this was due to it being a Sunday, vs. a Saturday then, or a bit later in the month, or it’s just that Algonquin is not #1.  In any case, you’re still about a mile above sea level and can see almost forever.

I reconnoitered the summit, and found a little spot to have a seat on the bare rock and eat my spartan lunch of cheese, Triscuits, grapes, and nuts.  It’s odd how after such an exertion, you’re hungry but not really able to wolf it down.  I just sort of nibbled on this very light fare and sipped some water.  Here’s my lunchroom view for the day:

Lunchtime on Algonquin

Lunchtime on Algonquin

Here I’m looking west at Iroquois Peak (4840′), the summit right in the middle of the picture.  One regret I have is that I did not consider taking a stroll over there after I relaxed.  A guy who had done so walked right by my while I was eating, saying he’d done this, and I didn’t even ask him how long it took.  It’s only bit over a mile one-way, and it did not look that steep at any point.  Even though, as we’ll see, by the end of the day I was pretty well shot, I think I could have bagged that peak for a song, as they say.  Oh well, live and learn.

So now about the Department of Environmental Conservation steward…  She was a perky, friendly, twenty-something dressed in a green DEC uniform, whose job it is to talk to each group of hikers reaching the summit and instruct them not to sit on the plants or grass.  Apparently in the awful ’80s before these stewards were around, the hiker traffic over these High Peaks denuded most of the popular summits, and a painstaking replanting effort had to be done to get them back to their natural, sub-arctic state.  I don’t want to bore you with the eco-orthodoxy about how there are only 87 acres of this kind of terrain in all of NYS.  Suffice it to say that I’m very aware that in my lifetime the Earth has been ruined by industry and population, so if someone in a green uniform tells me not to sit on a weed that I would normally not give a second notice to, I’m inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt.  I really do fear whether my grandchildren will ever be able to enjoy the natural wonders that I have; I wonder what will await them at the top of Algonquin when I’m gone.

I listened to her entreaties with other groups, and eventually she found her way over to me.  We talked about how I’d been on Marcy the previous year, and no, there hadn’t been a steward there that day, which she found a bit strange.  I asked her what time she would be going down the mountain and how long it would take her.  Answers: about 5:00, and about two and a half hours.  I asked exactly which peak was Marcy, and she pointed it out, then offered to take my picture with it in the background, so thanks to her, you get to look at this:

Me on Algonquin with Marcy in the Background

Me on Algonquin with Marcy in the Background

The peak in the foreground with bare rock slides is Mt. Colden.  As you can see, it was just a spectacular day.  Rather than a lot of stills, which I did take a ton of, I post this panoramic video I took from the summit.  It may not have as much details as the photos, but I think it really gives a better idea of the grandeur of the 360-degree view.

Video (about 40 MB)

I thought about this DEC steward a bit on the way down the mountain and afterwards.  I wish I’d remembered her name.  But here’s the horror of what she does for a living.  I don’t know how many days a week she works, but let’s be crazy and say it’s four.  Those days she starts up at dawn to climb one of these peaks (she told someone else that they do rotate peaks), and while I’m sure she’s in excellent physical condition, it is still a grind that takes her at least 2.5 hours to get up.  (On really steep terrain, going down is about the same time as going up.)  She then spends all day up there in all kinds of weather, hot, cold, wet, dry, windy, chatting to people about the same thing, over and over and over.  It can be 90 degrees at the base and 40 degrees at the summit–brutal weather in these peaks is a year-round reality.  The really awful thing is that there’s absolutely no place to go to the bathroom here.  No, they do not airlift Port-O-Pottys to these summits.  You have to descend several hundred feet to even get a modicum of privacy because the vegetation is so stunted.  Lord only knows what the very eco-pious consider acceptable ways to excrete in the wilderness.  (More about this later.)  Then she gets to go down the mountain as darkness moves in, which as we’ll see is just torture.  Whatever they’re (we’re) paying her, you could double it, and it wouldn’t be enough.

Forty-five minutes seems to be about the staying time on these summits.  That’s about how long I spent on Marcy, and other hiker writings seem to put the hang time between 30-45 mins.  For all of this work, it seems like we’re giving the view a short shrift.  There are a few reasons, that I suppose make sense.  First, you’ve got to face the fact that going down is probably going to suck, maybe worse than going up.  Second, a bare, rocky peak with vegetation you can’t sit on is not all that comfortable, and who wants to stand after all that walking?  Third, although not so much this day, it tends to get cold on these exposed peaks.  Fourth, there’s not much to do except gaze in wonder, and if you try to meditate on the scenery, one of the other three reasons keeps interrupting.  So I did a bit under an hour and then reluctantly headed back down.  (I should mention that from the map I was tempted to try to continue onto the Boundary Trail that would go down the other side and around some interesting lakes, but the word on the mountain was that the descent was very steep, and you would be taking your legs, if not your life, in your hands.  Plus, it adds three miles to the total trip.  So, no thanks.)

I took a very slow pace down to the treeline, stopping often to enjoy the views from a slightly different perspective.

Starting Down from Algonquin

Starting Down from Algonquin

My premonition on the way up, that going down was going to suck, held true.  Although on steep terrain the ascent is strenuous from a cardio POV, the descent punishes your legs, knees, feet, ankles, even your arms.  I’d taken a slow pace on the way up, and an even more deliberate pace on the way down.  My ETA at the parking lot was about 5:00PM, which I knew left me with a larger margin of error as daylight goes, so I felt no need to power down the hill.  As soon as I heard someone approach above me, I stopped and let them pass, not wanting to change my pace for external factors.  (OK, at the last mile or so, there we a couple of guys above me and I just refused to let them catch up to me.  Not sure why–pigheadedness, perhaps.)

Some random notes from the descent:

  • Near the treeline, had a guy walk past me with his left arm in a sling, not at all a slender gentleman, I must say.  God bless him on the way down.
  • Twisted my ankle really bad as it wedged between two rocks.  Also managed to give myself a golf-ball sized bruise on the my right shin dragging the leg over a boulder, in addition to some more extensive banging on that limb that resulted in a nasty iridescence up and down the  lower leg that continues to pain me as I write this.
  • Had a group of three walk by me on their way up, one guy trying to help his wife/sister/girlfriend up a particularly nasty bit of boilerplate, she in tears.
  • Some sliding on my tukos, just before the junction to Wright.  Got into one sitch where I was seriously sliding and not sure how to stop.
  • Took about an hour to get to that junction–par for the course.
  • Got to the cascade about 3:30–the worst part of the descent was done.
  • Hit the sign-in kiosk about 4:45–so about 3 hours from the peak, about 7.5 hours from the start, probably closer to 8.

Reflections

  1. Algonquin is not tougher than Marcy.  I mean the numbers just don’t add up: 7.2 mi vs. almost 15 mi, plus that extra 230 vertical feet.  I will say that the descent on Algonquin is more painful in some parts because of the pitch.
  2. I felt slightly less beaten-up on the return to the car than last year, and I think it’s mostly due to the distance.  No matter how you look at it, it’s twice as many steps to get up and down Marcy.
  3. This year I also went crazy and invested in a pair of those sissy trekking poles.  Overall, I think they helped, reducing the impact and strain on my legs and knees.  That said, on the downhill, they have a nasty habit of getting stuck in the mud or between rocks, and this slows you down, or worse, makes you fall.  Frankly, I can’t imagine coming down one of these peaks without at least one stick.  But people do it.
  4. At the Adirondack Loj, there’s a bulletin board where one of the posts is entitled, How to Poop in the Woods.   I felt this deserved a few moments of my time after I got back to the car.  It’s a basic set of steps, like… walk away from the trail and any water for some distance (I forget how much), with a spade (unlikely) or a conveniently found stick dig a hole, do thine business, and finally either bury or pack out the toilet paper.  It makes one wonder who opts for the latter alternative.  And who is the guy who even suggested this?  I don’t think I want to meet him.
  5. If I’d done this a week or two later, the fall foliage would have been at peak.  As it was, things were just beginning to turn, as you can see in some of the pictures.  But I can’t even begin to whine about this because this day, and the next, were two of the best late summer days, weather-wise, one could ever hope for.  And it’s always a crap-shoot on these mountains.  You can get rain or hail any day of the year, so take what you get, and be happy.

Coda

Drove back to Lake Placid Village feeling OK, but not great.  Spent a quiet night in my room, with some chills, but not as bad as the previous year.  Lots of weird dreams.  My ankle was very sore, the knot on my shin was rather large, but it went down overnight.  The next day I went to the opposite end of the spectrum and took a kiddie hike up to a place called Mt. Arab, which I will write up in a subsequent post because it was another spectacular day, especially for someone as beaten up as I.

Tuesday, I woke up to rain, took my time packing up and headed out of town for home.  I wonder if next year I’ll want to do this goofy thing again.  Who knows?