What Is The Hardest Hike In The Adirondack High Peaks?
Updated: Dec 12, 2021
Having been a visitor to the Adirondack High Peaks for over 30 years and we talk all about it in LiveWild Raido's Podcast Ep. 29: Adirondack Adventures (Download wherever you get your podcasts). But one of the most common questions I get asked by hardcore hikers is what is the hardest hiking route? Here's my top picks.
I'm from Ontario, Canada where we don't have mountains and even our rugged trails are just short sections broken up by long stretches of more moderate terrain. This makes for a great place to begin hiking but it doesn't take long before the challenge seekers yearn for something harder.
Enter the Adirondack High Peaks. This area in Upstate New York was lucky enough to not be ground down by the glaciers during the last ice age, leaving steep rocky mountains for us to enjoy suffering on.
When I'm extolling the virtues of the High Peaks to my local hiking brethren, one of the top attractions is just how gnarly the routes are. Steep climbs exposed rock slabs and blazed trails that are nothing more than markers painted on the leftovers of an old rock slide. Since many of the trails in the Adirondack High Peaks date back before accessibility was a concern, they have a rugged old-school feel that has many first-time hikers asking, "Who thought this was a trail?" And... you might want to listen in on ADK's vet forest ranger, Scott van Laer, in LiveWild Radio's podcast Ep. 30: ADK Ranger – Scott van Laer about his epic tales of search and rescues.
When describing the Adirondack High Peaks I often tell people that it is a jumbled boulder staircase interspersed with sections of stunt hiking. Stunt hiking is a mix of exposed slabs, rock scrambling, ladders, and puzzling sections where you have to figure out how to get up. Most people think of hiking as just walking in the forest but the High Peaks region takes it to another level where you need more skill than just putting one foot in front of the other.
What Makes A Hike Hard?
If we think of smooth, flat trails as the easiest form of hiking then steep, mountainous terrain that is uneven would be at the other end of the spectrum. The Adirondack High Peaks is among the hardest terrain in Eastern North America.
When we are looking at what makes a hike hard there are 4 main factors that affect the difficulty.
The longer the hike the more demanding it will be. This goes especially for harder terrain. For every hour you hike the more energy it demands and the more repetitive stress on the muscles and joints.
The more height you gain the more work you will have to expend. On flat terrain, you are just moving your body forward but when you have to go up you then have to overcome gravity and lift your weight. This can be extra demanding if you are wearing a heavy pack full of camping gear.
The steepness of the trail plays a big role as well. For a given elevation gain the steeper it is the more demanding it will be but the shorter the distance. Gaining 2000 feet over 2 miles is much harder than gaining the same height over 5 miles even though it will often take less time.
Long climbs that take an hour or more have a huge energy demand that you don't experience in moderate terrain. When approaching climbs like this you have to able to pace yourself. Start with a pace that feels too easy and you will find it easier to maintain it for a much longer period. I call this the mountain mosey.
When first hiking in the mountains many people get too excited and go too fast from the beginning. Within the first few miles they end up so fatigued they have to take extended breaks with really slows down your overall pace. Find your pace that you can hold without having to take breaks every 5 minutes. Because of the slower pace compared to easier terrain you will have to adjust your daily mileage goal down if you don't want to be hiking out in the dark.
What goes up, must come down and this is where the beating on the joints comes in. Going uphill is a lot of work but has little impact, whereas going downhill puts a lot of load on the knees, hips, and ankles due to having to brake with every step. This is accentuated if you are wearing a pack with your camping gear as you have to brake even more weight.
Eccentric (lower your weight) loading is the prime cause of sore muscles when you lift weights. Every step downhill is an eccentric lengthening of the muscles under load, which is why you will often be sore in the quadriceps (front of the thighs) the day after a hike with a lot of descending.
This is where trekking poles can really help you. Studies have shown that using poles reduces the impact on your knees by up to 30%. Over the course of a 3 or 4-mile descent, this can really add up in reduced wear and tear on your knees.
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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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The rougher the terrain the harder the hike will be. irregular terrain demands much more from the stabilizer muscles to keep you from falling over. As well you will often have much higher steps that require more muscular engagement.
And that is just considering terrain that allows you to progress with just your two feet. Many trails in the Adirondack High Peaks have sections that require you to scramble with the assistance of your hands as well. While not as demanding as full-on rock climbing, you often come across sections that are more jungle gyms than they are hiking trails.
Places like the slabs on Gothics mountain have steel cables to grab that assist climbing and descending. There are also ladders, steep friction slabs, and boulders to climb.
All of this makes hiking in the High Peaks much more demanding than flatter, less rocky areas. But the same things that make hiking here harder also make it more fun. I really enjoy the challenge of the terrain but then I also rock climb for fun. It is within the abilities of any fit, healthy person but if you aren't used to using your hands when you hike it can be a bit unnerving.
How hard a hike is will have a lot to do with the weather. If it is raining you have both the risk of hypothermia as well as having to go slower due to the slippery rocks. The wind is often really strong, especially as you get into the open at higher elevations. Thunderstorms are common in the summer. You don't want to be on a summit or exposed ridge-line when there is the risk of lightning.
Peak summer heat is another challenge. When you are working hard going up a mountain in hot, humid temperatures the risk of heatstroke and dehydration is dramatically increased. I once ran into this myself. I was focused on covering miles and didn't stay adequately hydrated. This lead to nausea, weakness, and feeling like I was melting. The feeling of fatigue followed me for the next two days of the trip even after I cooled down and loaded up on water and electrolytes.
Winter is a whole other challenge with snow slowing down your pace. You will also have to carry more gear, even on a day hike, to stay warm. When dressed in winter clothing you have increased resistance compared to hiking in shorts in the summer. Safe drinking water means melting snow and boiling it as filters will freeze and most liquid water is iced over. Everything is just slower in the winter.
46 Mountains Over 4000 Feet
The Adirondacks are home to hundreds of mountains but the High Peaks regions have the 46 tallest which are 4000 feet or higher. For the sake of complete transparency, this list was compiled over a hundred years ago so with modern survey techniques it has been found a few of the summits are just under this height but we still go with the list.
If you hike them all and document them, you can be registered as an official 46er. This includes getting a cool badge. There is a category for winter and the rest of the year so you can end up with two badges if you are ambitious.
Hiking to the summit of any of the mountains isn't anything that would be considered easy but some are definitely harder than others. To make truly heinous hikes we often combine multiple peaks in a single trek.
Hardest Day Hike
This has to be the Great Ranger Traverse. With so many peaks and trails, you can create any crazy challenge hike you like but the traverse has to be the hardest recognized route that many people have done.
There are variations of how people do it so I will list how I did it. Many people do it as a point to point but I like loops so I don't need to coordinate transport. I started in the Village of Keene Valley before the sun came up. They have lots of accommodations for hikers which I made use of. This meant I could just walk from the hostel and didn't have to waste any time driving.
Just south of the village you pick up the trail up to Rooster Comb. That is the first of many summits of the day. Going this way the mountains get progressively taller until your final descent. I hit the top of Rooster Comb just as the sun finally came up. I knew that my trek was going to be a long one so I wanted as much daylight as possible.
Then the trail takes you on to Hedgehog mountain before you start ascending peaks that are on the 46er list. From here it all points on the board if you are going for your badge. Lower Wolf Jaw is followed by Upper Wolf Jaw.
Each summit is followed by a partial descent before hitting a new high point. After this, it is on to Armstrong and then the fun of Gothics. This is where you have the steel cables to help to descend the steep slabs.
At the base of Gothics, I was tempted to bail and head down the valley but after a break, I carried on up Saddleback. From this direction, it meant a downclimb of the Saddleback Cliff which is scarier than climbing it. Then it was on to Basin before hitting the final climb of the day. By this point it was mid-afternoon. After filtering another bottle of water it was on to the summit of Haystack. Great views of Mt. Marcy across Panther Gorge were short-lived as I wanted to get down into the valley before it was dark.
The descent down to the Johns Brook valley takes you past Slant Rock and Bushnell Falls. By the time I hit Johns Brook Lodge, it was dark but the terrain had eased off so it wasn't bad to hike via headlamp. Once I hit the Garden parking lot it was a mostly downhill road walk of 3 miles. I hurt all over and was deliriously tired but I did it. The road takes you right back into Keene Valley where to pub awaited me for a cold beer and a lot of food.
The total distance of the hike is 21 miles with almost 8000 feet of climbing.
Hardest Short Hike
For this, I picked something that is challenging but well under 10 miles round trip. Giant mountain is a 3050-foot elevation gain over 3 miles and you return the same way. At roughly 1000 feet per mile, it isn't the steepest climb but you will be heading uphill the whole way once you set out from the Rolling Brook trailhead at Chapel Pond.
The hike to Cascade mountain is much shorter but it isn't that steep either so it is too easy to be considered hard.
Longest Hike For A Single Peak
Both Skylight and Mt. Emmons are about 18 miles round trip. They are both long and rugged but Skylight gets the edge in toughness because of the extra climbing. That means longer descents to get out with the matching impact that comes with that.
Emmons is at a height of 4040 feet. It is in the Western High Peaks making it more remote than Skylight. It is part of the Seward Range and is the easiest to approach from the summit of Mt. Donaldson. The total climbing for the day will around 3500 feet. Since Emmons is one of the lowest of 46ers it doesn't have the best views but you are more likely to see fewer people due to its location.
Skylight is both taller at 4926 feet with more climbing on the day to get to it at around 4300 feet. As well the summit is above the treeline so you get 360-degree panorama views including Mt. Marcy and Haystack to the north. This is a great summit to pair with Gray Peak and Mt. Marcy as they are right there, although this will add a lot of extra mileage and climbing.
Most Technical Trail
There are a lot of technical sections that take scrambling and skill to get through but my two favorites would have to the Saddleback Cliff and the backside of Mt. Haystack. Both are steep with scrambling sections that necessitate the use of both hands and feet to ascend.
You approach Saddleback from the Basin Mountain side and are faced with what seems to be blazes painted up a rock cliff. While it doesn't require ropes for protection it can seem very daunting to someone with no rock climbing experience. You do this section in reverse if you do my route on the Great Range Traverse.
The southern approach to the summit of Mt. Haystack is far in the backcountry. If you aren't backpacking then you will have either had a long hike in or have just climbed and descended Mt. Marcy. The backside of Haystack is located at the base of Panther Gorge, the descent of which adds extra elevation to the climb. The climb itself gains 2000 feet in 1.2 miles. A lot of the trail is steep slab climbing with only roots at the side of the trail for handholds. It is both grueling and technically challenging.
The Wrap Up
If you are looking for hikes to challenge yourself then the Adirondack High Peaks should be on your list. Elevation, distance, and rugged terrain combine to make for very hard hikes. Since so many of the peaks are close together if one summit is too easy you can string together as many as you can handle.
Send us a note or comment with your hardest routes in the High Peaks.
Related Articles and Podcasts:
LiveWild Radio Podcast Ep. 29: Adirondack Adventures
LiveWild Radio Podcast Ep. 13: Backpacking Part 2 - Backpacks and Footwear