Best Backpacking Trips in the Adirondacks High Peaks
Updated: Dec 4, 2022
The Adirondack High Peaks is among the best backpacking areas in Eastern North America. With hundreds of miles of trails, free camping, rugged terrain, and 46 peaks over 4000 feet you have everything you need if you are looking for a challenging but beautiful locale to backpack in. Located within Adirondack State Park, the High Peaks are an area around Lake Placid containing the highest mountains in New York.
For me, this place is a natural playground that touches something primal inside of me. These mountains have a power that is hard to describe. At once I feel small and insignificant but at home. The native cultures of the area saw divinity in the High Peaks and it isn't hard to see why.
With so many trails and mountains all linked together, it becomes a choose-your-own-adventure that can be as hard as you want to make it. While I often try to cram as many miles and peaks into a trip as I can, I have done trips that were more chill. Sometimes a trip into the mountains is less about what you accomplish than it is where you are. Don't discount the mental benefit of just disconnecting for a few days.
Before you choose the High Peaks you should know that there isn't much that would be considered easy unless you don't mind doing a few out and back routes. Almost all loop routes will have you climbing a lot even if it only over a mountain pass and not the full summits. But if a simple overnighter in a cool location then an out and back might be worth considering.
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Styles of Backpacking Trips
If you are new to backpacking the Adirondack High Peaks consider what type of trip you are going to do.
This is heading in, finding a campsite and using this as a base for day trips that let you hike up the peaks without carrying all of your gear. You are deep in the backcountry so you have less distance to hike to get on the actual mountains. If you do this type of trip bring along a small backpack so you don't have to wear your mostly empty larger backpack.
This type of trip has you start and finish in the same spot but minimizes backtracking. You will carry all of your gear for the whole route. It is a great way to cover the most distance but means you will be fully loaded when you climb up to the summits making it more strenuous. This is my favorite type of trip to plan I hate hiking the same stretch of the trail twice.
Out and Back
Head out and after camping, you follow your original route back to the start. You will end up doing trips like this mainly for overnighters that you have limited time for.
Features of the High Peaks
The Adirondack High Peaks contain 46 official mountains over 4000 feet along with many sub-peaks and smaller summits. A number of the sub-peaks aren't on the list of 46 since they are too close and don't have enough difference in prominence to peaks that made the list. Most of the mountains have trails up and over them making them viable for a backpacking loop. I consider the mountains with only one way up and down more suited for day hikes or side trips rather than carrying a full pack up and back.
The terrain in the Adirondack High Peaks breaks down into three rough categories:
Forested valleys cut with streams and lakes. While most of it is fully treed in, when you get open areas you are greeted by stunning views of the surrounding mountains. Marcy Dam, Lake Colden, and Elk Lake all have Instagram-worthy scenes especially in the early morning or near sundown when the light is just right.
The ascent trails work their way up the mountains. With these, you see changing ecosystems as you get higher. The trails tend to be rocky and rough with some boasting sections of full-on scrambling. Once you are climbing you won't find many dirt trails. This means physically strenuous climbs followed by knee jarring descents. Hiking poles are recommended to help with both your balance and to reduce the impact on your knees and joints on the downhill sections.
Above the treeline. As you get higher the trees will gradually get shorter until you come to a point where it is too cold on average for trees to grow. The Adirondacks has several peaks that have a unique sub-arctic alpine zone with stunted vegetation and exposed summits. While the views are amazing, this environment is very fragile so when you above the treeline stay on rocks or the marked trails so you don't cause any damage.
View from the summit of Mt. Haystack
There are general things to keep in mind about the Adirondack High Peaks as it pertains to safety.
Weather can be highly variable so when planning your trip research the historical low temperature and carry the clothing needed to handle those conditions. It isn't likely you will see those temperatures so you will have a comfortable buffer zone if the weather turns. If you are going to head above the treeline make sure you have a windbreaker as the high winds can make it feel much colder.
Even on mountain summits, cell phone reception is very poor. Don't expect to be able to make a call if you experience an issue such as getting lost or injured. To have reliable communication with civilization you should carry a satellite communicator like a Spot Gen 3 or Garmin Inreach device. These devices have an SOS function with a GPS locator so if you need help they know where you are.
The High Peaks are broken up into different management areas so there overall guidelines and specific rules for certain areas.
A few general things to follow:
Leave No Trace
Group size must be 8 or fewer
Other than designated campsites you must be 150 feet from trails and water sources
Eastern High Peaks and Dix Wilderness Area
Food must be in a bear-resistant canister (They can be rented at Adirondack Loj)
No Campfires (Currently you can have fires in the Western High Peaks and Giant Wilderness)
Ausable Club Property
This is a section of private property between the Eastern High Peaks and Dix Range regions. You are free to hike the marked trails through but must be off the property to camp.
Gear and Supplies
Lake Placid and Saranac Lake have supermarkets and some gear stores if you need food, fuel or you forgot any of your outdoor gear. If you are going in on the Keene Valley side you will find a small grocery store and the Mountaineer, which is an outdoor store that has backpacking gear, maps, and good advice.
I've added a link to LiveWild Radio's maps on ALLTRAILS.com of each route. You should also pick up an Adirondack High Peaks Trail Map which is available online or from any outdoor store in the Lake Placid area. You can also pick them up at the Adirondack Loj.
Best Adirondack High Peaks Backpacking Routes (According to me)
Short Distance (Overnighter)
Adirondack Loj to Marcy Dam (Distance Total: 8 km / 5 miles)
Total Distance: 8 kilometers / 5 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 420 feet
Expected Time: 2 Days
Difficulty Rating: Easy
If you have limited time or are out with kids then the hike to Marcy Dam is a good one. Even if you dawdle it should take less than two hours each way. Marcy Dam hosts a number of lean-tos and campsites with stunning views of Mt. Colden and Algonquin from the open area around the Dam. It also makes a great base camp if you want to hike Mt. Marcy, Table Top, Phelps, and the Macintyre Range including Wrights Peak, Algonquin, and Iroquois.
Alternatively, you can park at the South Meadows Trail Head which is free but has a slightly longer hike to Marcy Dam (Approximately 10 kilometers total).
Upper Works Trail Head to Lake Colden
(Total Distance: 17 km / 10.8 miles)
Total Distance: 17 kilometers / 10.8 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 1145 feet
Expected Time: 2 Days
Difficulty Rating: Moderate
This trek is good if you are coming from the south. The distance is a little longer than the hike to Marcy Dam but gives you some nice views of the mountains along the way.
The campsites at Lake Colden are a great jumping-off point if you want to climb Mt. Colden, Marcy, Algonquin, Grey, Skylight, or Haystack. It also gives easy access to the Colden Trapdike which is an alternate route to Mt. Colden. The Trapdike is a steep scramble that is only for the experienced hiker with some rock climbing experience.
Medium Distance (Long Weekend)
South Meadows Trail Head to John Brooks Valley to Marcy Dam Loop
(25 km / 15.5 miles)
Total Distance: 25 kilometers / 15.5 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 3369 feet
Expected Time: 3+ Days
Difficulty Rating: Very Challenging
If you are coming from the north the South Meadows trailhead is optimally located and it is free. Two trails go out from this parking lot and can be turned into a loop very easily. I often start here as it gives you a great variety of route options and you don't have to pay to park.
This is a great hike on its own but also acts as the jumping-off point for hiking a number of peaks. In John Brooks Valley you have access to Big Slide mountain, the Great Range, and Haystack. Once you are over the ridge on the Marcy Dam side you have Mt. Marcy, Table Top, Phelps, and the Macintyre Range open to you. Because there are so many side trails and cutoffs you can do as much or as little as you feel up for.
If you are a strong hiker the distance of this loop could be done in a day so on a holiday weekend it will give you plenty of time to explore peaks or other side trails. But be aware that the pass from John Brooks Valley to Marcy Dam is very steep and rugged making for a very challenging section. Once you are up on the ridge that leads to Mt. Marcy you can hike up the mile each way to get that summit before heading down to the camps at Marcy Dam.
On your way down be sure to stop at Indian Falls where you can enjoy a good water source (still treat or filter) and great views of the Macintyre Range across the valley while you have a snack.
Great Range-Big Slide Loop
(Distance: 34 km / 21 miles)
Total Distance: 34 kilometers / 21 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 8,907 feet
Expected Time: 3 Days
Difficulty Rating: Very Challenging
This route starts from the Garden trailhead just outside of Keene Valley. This is one of the pay parking lots but worth it for this route.
It starts off pretty mild heading up the valley towards Johns Brook Lodge. The climbing starts when you take a left at the lodge and start ascending the Great Range. Once you are up on the ridge trail you can go left to get Lower Wolf Jaw mountain before continuing on with the rest of the summits that make up the Great Range. The ridge gets higher with each summit capping out with Mt. Haystack which is the third highest peak in New York.
But before you get there you will experience great views and very challenging terrain. This is a very advanced hike with potentially dangerous terrain. There is a lot of scrambling with steep exposed sections. The descent of Gothics with the steel cables and the Saddleback descent stand out as particularly challenging with a full pack on
Make sure you have enough water when you head up on the ridge as there aren't reliable water sources until you start back down after Basin mountain.
After you climb Haystack you will descend into the Johns Brook Valley before climbing Big Slide mountain. The final descent leads you back to the Garden parking lot.
There are numerous side trails that will allow you to cut it short if the terrain turns out to be more challenging than you expected.
The hiking is some of my favorite with great views and gnarly rock scrambles.
South Meadows to Haystack Via Mt. Colden
(43 km / 26.7 miles)
Total Distance: 43 kilometers / 26.7 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 8953 feet
Expected Time: 3 Days
Difficulty Rating: Very Challenging
This route was done in June and I ended up severely dehydrated. It felt way harder than it was and it was pretty hard, to begin with. Make sure you manage your hydration and consider adding electrolytes to your water to replace what you sweat out.
Aside from my physical issues, the route is amazing with the trek from South Meadows to Avalanche Pass being a perfect warm-up for the climb up Mt. Colden. We stayed at the Feldspar campsite which has a lean-to as well as tent sites. From there it was up the Feldspar trail nabbing Grey and Skylight along the way. Skylight mountain may be the best view in the whole park with 360-degree views and an unrivaled vantage point to see Mt. Marcy and Haystack.
From there you will drop down into Panther Gorge before climbing the backside of Haystack which gains 1706 feet in 1.8 kilometers. A lot of this climb is exposed slab so make sure you have grippy footwear. Once over the summit of Haystack mountain, you tackle Little Haystack's summit before dropping down to the highest camp in the park. It is on the shoulder between the summits of Haystack and Basin. The next morning we summited Basin mountain before the long descent into the John Brook Valley and then took the Klondike trail back to the car.
A stop at Tail-O-The-Pup BBQ near Saranac Lake helped us recharge before the long drive home.
Long Distance (4-7 Day Trips)
Western High Peaks Loop
(Total Distance: 59 km / 36.6 miles)
Total Distance: 59 kilometers / 36.6 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 5705 feet
Expected Time: 4-5 Days
Difficulty Rating: Moderately Challenging
This route takes place entirely within the Western High Peaks area so campfires are allowed. Since this part of the park sees less traffic you get to enjoy more solitude. The terrain is moderate for the most part except the trek up Mt. Seward. It is on herd paths so they aren't well marked but pretty easy to follow as the path is fairly worn in.
The mountains on this side aren't quite as high so while there are nice views you don't get above the treeline. It feels much wilder and makes for a great escape from the crowds, especially in the summer.
High Peaks Mega Loop
(115 km / 71.5 miles)
Total Distance: 115 kilometers / 71.5 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 19,242 feet
Expected Time: 5-6 Days
Difficulty Rating: Very Challenging
When I did this loop the aim was to have an Appalachian Trail feeling thru-hike. Since we drove down we needed to end up back at the car so I came up with a mega loop that takes you through most of the major parts of the High Peaks. Heading out from the South Meadows trailhead we made our way over to Adirondack Loj via Marcy Dam. Then down Indian Pass to the Upper Works trailhead and back into the mountains towards Lake Colden. Up the Feldspar trail doing side trips up Mt. Grey and Skylight before dropping down into Panther Gorge.
Then the long trek south took us to Elk Lake and into the Dix Wilderness. After climbing Hunters Pass and nabbing Dix we descended to the trailhead near the Ausable Club. Crossing Rt. 73 we moved into the Giant Wilderness to climb Giant Mountain before going down into Keene Valley. Even just passing through you can enjoy an ice cream at the Noonmark Diner before climbing up the Great Range.
After descending Gothics, it was down into Johns Brook Valley before taking the Klondike Trail back to the South Meadows parking lot. This was the longest route I've done in the Daks and very much felt like hiking the Appalachian Trail. With so many connector trails you can make it easier or harder. We did it in 5 and a half days without much issue but get a feel for the area before attempting this kind of distance on this terrain.
The Wrap Up
The Adirondack High Peaks are a beautiful canvas you can create your masterpiece backpacking trip. These are just a few of my favorite routes but each time I go back I find new ways to stick a route together to both challenge myself and recharge my mental batteries. I find the combination of physical work in a stunning wilderness a perfect recipe for satisfaction and mental health.