Adirondack High Peaks Backpacking Guide
Updated: Dec 12, 2021
Summer summit of Mt. Haystack (4960 ft) in the Adirondacks High Peaks (Photo Credit: Kirsten Pauly)
If you are located in the northeast, whether in Canada or the United States, the Adirondack High Peaks should be on your list of destinations for backpacking. The combination of easy access and epic hiking aren't something you can find everywhere. The hundreds of miles of trails, real mountains, and free access make this my favorite destination that I can drive to.
The hikes in the Adirondacks or Dacks are old school eastern trails created before people thought about things like accessibility. They are rugged, rocky and in steep making for very challenging treks. The mountains are in Adirondack State Park which runs from near the Canadian border almost down to Albany. The High Peaks region is near Lake Placid and contains all of the highest mountains in New York.
The Adirondack mountains have 46 peaks that were measured in the late 1800s to be 4000 feet or higher. Modern survey technology has shown a few of them to be slightly less but the list still holds today. If you climb all 46 you qualify to get a badge and be part of the 46er club. There is both a winter and non-winter version of the badge.
I have climbed many of the highest peaks while on backpack trips as many of the summits have trails up and over them so you can link together multiple peaks and loops to make a great trip while adding to your list.
Rank Mountain Elevation (feet)
1 Marcy 5344
2 Algonquin 5114
3 Haystack 4960
4 Skylight 4926
5 Whiteface 4867
6 Dix 4857
7 Gray 4840
8 Iroquois Peak 4840
9 Basin 4827
10 Gothics 4736
11 Colden 4714
12 Giant 4627
13 Nippletop 4620
14 Santanoni 4607
15 Redfield 4606
16 Wright Peak 4580
17 Saddleback 4515
18 Panther 4442
19 TableTop 4427
20 Rocky Peak 4420
21 Macomb 4405
22 Armstrong 4400
23 Hough 4400
24 Seward 4361
25 Marshall 4360
26 Allen 4340
27 Big Slide 4240
28 Esther 4240
29 Upper Wolf Jaw 4185
30 Lower Wolf Jaw 4175
31 Street 4166
32 Phelps 4161
33 Donaldson 4140
34 Seymour 4120
35 Sawteeth 4100
36 Cascade 4098
37 South Dix 4060
38 Porter 4059
39 Colvin 4057
40 Emmons 4040
41 Dial 4020
42 Grace Peak 4012
43 Blake Peak 3960
44 Cliff 3960
45 Nye 3895
46 Couchsachraga 3820
Trails and Terrain
While many people just day hike to climb the peaks, you can backpack most of them camping along the way. This approach is very much like hiking the Appalachian Trail in New Hampshire and Maine. The terrain in the Adirondacks reminds me of the AT which might be part of the reason I love it so much. Many of the trails going up mountains are boulder-strewn and relatively steep making for a killer leg and cardio workout. Once you are in the heart of the mountains very little is flat. You will be heading up or down with only the occasional flat section.
The treeline in the area sits around 4600 feet which means the peak above this has an alpine zone and 360-degree views. I never tire of the change that happens you get higher. When you start in the valleys it is a forest of deciduous trees that transitions into dense coniferous trees as you ascend. The higher you go the smaller the trees get until you pop above the treeline and all the vegetation is stunted and slow-growing. The environment is hearty but fragile at the same time. Stay on the exposed rock and marked trails while up there as the plants can be damaged by walking on them. It takes about 50 years for one inch of growth so any damage takes a long time to heal.
Since there are so many mountains close to each other you have peaks and valleys layered for miles. It is a relatively wet area so all of this steep terrain means fast-flowing streams and plentiful waterfalls. There are a few lakes you will come across including Lake Tear of the Clouds in the pass between Mt. Marchy and Skylight, which is the highest lake in New York and the source of the Hudson River. Almost all of the summits and ridges have trails as do the corresponding valleys with numerous trails connecting the two giving countless route options.
The trails in the area are such that I have done overnight trips as well as 7-day thru-hikes of over a hundred miles. It is a veritable black canvas making the trips anywhere from moderately challenging to brutal endurance fests.
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LiveWild Radio Podcast Ep. 7: Barbells and Backpacks
LiveWild Radio Podcast Ep. 53: Kettlebell Training For the Outdoor Athlete
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All backpacking trips start at the trailhead that is a combination of a parking lot and exit from civilization. In the High Peaks, there are a number of trailheads on the outskirts of the wilderness area. While there are no guarantees I have never had an issue of theft or vehicle damage at the trailheads. Don't keep anything valuable in your car or make sure it is locked up and out of sight. If you want the most security then the two paysites are probably your best option as they are staffed during the day.
Adirondack Loj (Pay)
Located at the end of Adirondack Loj Road near Lake Placid, the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK) has a lodge, campground and trailhead parking. This trailhead gives easy access to Mt. Marcy, Algonquin, and easy access to the heart of the wilderness area. This is a pay parking lot that as of 2020 is $12 per day for non-members and $5 for members. If you come to the area regularly it can save you money by buying an ADK membership. Plus the money helps maintain the trails.
Garden Parking (Pay)
The Garden Trailhead is on the east side at the end of John Brooks Road just out of Keene Valley. This trailhead is run by the ADK as well with the same rates as Adirondack Loj. This will give easy access to The Great Range, Big Slide, and the John Brooks Valley.
Just before you get to Adirondack Loj turn right on South Meadows Road and head to the end. This trailhead has two trails lead out from it. One trail takes you to Marcy Dam and the other head over the pass into John Brooks Valley. If you get in late then you also have the option of camping along the road near the trailhead. This is one of the places where you have free car camping. This is one of my favorite places to head out from as it is one of the closest trailheads for us coming from Canada.
Corey's Road (Free)
On the western side of the peaks, Corey's Road trailhead gets you into the Western Highpeaks, accessing the Seward Range and Seymour. If you want to avoid the crowds then heading here will help. The west side of the park sees less traffic as the mountains are further in aren't quite as high. If you are feeling ambitious you can then loop into the Eastern Highpeaks as well as there are trails that connect all the different areas together. Corey's Road also has a number of free roadside camping spots.
Elk Lake Road (Free)
The Elk Lake trailhead is on the southside of the High peaks giving access to both the Dix range and Panther Gorge. The trails and parking are on private land but are open to the public. Please stay on the trails and don't camp at the trailhead. They close the trailhead during hunting season in the fall and from that point until spring you will have to park about two miles south at the Clear Pond parking area. The road is gated off in winter so you have to hike an extra two miles each way.
Located in St. Hubert, NY about 3 miles south of Keene Valley, the parking near the Ausable Club Nature Reserve gives you access to the south side of the Great Range, Dix Range, Giant Mountain, Dial and Nippletop to list just a few. The Ausable Club lands are open to the public to hike but you will have to head up into state land to camp so give enough time to make it through. As well dogs aren't allowed on the Ausable property.
This trailhead is in the southwest of the High peaks near Henderson Lake, giving you access to a number of areas including Lake Colden, Mt. Marcy, and various other peaks. There are a number of trails out of the area so it is easy to plan out a loop.
Just south of Upper Works it is the easiest access to the Santanoni Range.
Rules and Restrictions
The High Peaks Wilderness Area is broken into a number of zones that are connected by trails but have different rules.
Eastern High Peaks and Dix Wilderness Area
Food must be stored in an approved bear-resistant canister from April 1 to November 30.
No campfires are allowed any time of year.
Groups should be 8 people or less.
If there are 8 inches of snow present you must have snowshoes or skis with you.
No camping above 4000 feet unless between December 15 and April 30 if there is adequate snow to protect the fragile vegetation.
No drones or motorized vehicles.
While there are the two parking lots you pay at all other backcountry activities including backpacking and camping are free.
There are numerous campsites and lean-tos in the High Peaks Wilderness. They operate on a first come first serve basis. The campsites are marked on the map with either a lean-to or tent icon.
Lean-tos are cabins with three walls and a flat wooden floor. It is expected to share them so don't expect to have it to yourself on a busy weekend.
If you are going to camp away from marked campsites then you need to be 150 feet away from any trail, road, or water source.
The mountains are covered with a network of streams and rivers as well as some lakes and ponds. At higher elevations, there are a few seeps and springs as well.
All water should be treated as contaminated so you should process it by filtering, chemical treatment, or boiling. In winter you will have to melt snow for drinking water so plan to bring extra fuel.
Cell coverage is weak in the backcountry so a satellite communicator like a Spot or GarminInreach is the only way to have reliable contact with civilization. If you can't get a phone call out try posting to Facebook as those posts sometimes get through. A few years ago there was a winter rescue on Mt. Algonquin that was initiated this way. Listen to our podcast with ADK Ranger Scott Van Lear to hear the whole story.
The Adirondack High Peaks are a year-round destination for backpacking but there are some times that are definitely better than others.
From the start of the spring thaw until the water drain would be my least favorite time of year to go. The trails are muddy and many of the streams are dangerously high. I avoid most of this time which can be anytime from March until mid-May. If you do go I would suggest sticking to lower elevation valley trails to avoid causing erosion on the higher wetter trails.
Late Spring once the trails have dried up is often amazing. The temperatures are warm enough to be comfortable but the bugs usually haven't come out yet.
This is prime time in the Daks. Traffic is up and campsites near the trailheads will fill up quickly. If you go in summer I suggest heading deeper in the backcountry to avoid the crowds and find open campsites.
The Summer weather can be hot and humid so pay attention to hydration as I've gotten dehydrated on a trip and it really affects your fitness. When you are in a compromised state it is brutally hard to climb the steep trails and there are no easy ways to get out.
This is also prime bug season but as someone from Ontario, Canada the number of bugs isn't anywhere as bad as we see back home. I haven't worn insect repellent in the Adirondacks in the last three or four years.
But as it is prime tick terrain I treat all of my clothing with Permethrin and we check each other each day because Lyme disease sucks. Keep an eye out as there may be a vaccine for Lyme out soon.
This may be the best time of year as you have cooler temperatures and fall colors. The trails tend to be slightly quieter unless you are leaving from the Ausable, Adirondack Loj, or Garden parking as they get a lot of weekend day hikers.
Make sure you bring extra layers because you can see large temperature swings. Our most recent fall trip had me in shorts one day and wearing a long top and bottom the next. I've run into these weather swings in the course of a day. Always bring a pair of insulated gloves and a beanie to help with those cold conditions.
Winter in the Adirondacks is no joke. There are often several feet of snow, cold temperatures, and high winds. Prepare with proper gear and clothing as you can't have a fire in the largest part of the park. Always have snowshoes or skis, traction devices like crampons or microspikes, and waterproof boots with spare socks.
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Cut what every distance you usually cover in normal conditions in half when planning your trip as the snow will slow you down. Always pay attention to how warm you are as you don't want to let sweat build up as it can chill you when it evaporates.
Hiking in the Daks in Winter is fun but challenging and you shouldn't take it lightly.
There are a few good maps for the Adirondack High Peaks region.
The Adirondack Mountain Club Map is printed on waterproof paper. It has all the trails and campsite shown. You can get it from most outdoor stores in the area, online as well at the Adirondack Loj store.
National Geographic makes a good Adirondacks High Peaks Trail Map which is available in stores and online. It has much of the same information as the ADK map but due to the graphics is a little easier to read.
The New York Department of Environmental Conservation has useful information about the regulations, trail conditions, and other helpful information about using the High Peaks wilderness area.
The Wrap Up
If you want amazing terrain, free camping, and a sense of being in the wild then you can't go wrong with the Adirondack High Peaks. This is one of my favorite backpacking destinations as it gives you epic without having to get on an airplane. If you are from an urban area in the east you will be blown away by the fact that these mountains are so close and accessible.