Hiking in the Adirondack Mountains in eastern New York is challenging.
For those living west of the Rockies who think they are pretty seasoned hikers and dismiss these mountains because most are only 4,000 feet to 5,000 feet high, I say: Beware. What the ancient Adirondacks lack in altitude, they make up for in obstacles and steepness.
For starters, Adirondack locals use the term “trail” loosely.
Before my trip there with three other women during the last week of September, I had assumed that “trail” meant a discernable path upon which you can actually walk. In the Adirondacks, it means “a vague route upon which there is a good chance that you’ll break an ankle, experience rock burn or maybe get lost.”
So our first lesson was to not pay attention to the guidebook descriptions of the area’s hiking trails. For instance, when the book says that a trail is “four miles one way with most of the elevation gain in the last two miles,” this is what it really means: “Going up, you’ll have to scale granite walls, jump from rock to rock, and pull yourself up by grabbing onto tree roots and hanging onto tree trunks. And coming down? Good luck, sucker!”
This is not to say that the Adirondacks don’t have some redeeming qualities.
As we four women drove north from the Albany airport late in the afternoon, we watched the glories of autumn unfold before us. The maples had changed into their scarlet and tangerine finery; the white-and-black-bark birch looked elegant in gold and saffron; and the once-green ivy clinging to brick buildings had transformed to deepening shades of red and orange. I couldn’t take my eyes off the landscape, which resembled one of those Hudson School paintings that I had previously declared as not realistic looking.
The next morning, we set out on one of the hundreds of trails in Adirondack Park, the largest publicly protected area in the continental United States. Its 6 million acres cover more territory than Yellowstone, Everglades, Glacier and Grand Canyon national parks combined. The park is a glowing example of cooperative existence between publicly and privately owned lands. Nestled among the mountains are towns, farms, timber lands, businesses, homes and camps. Lake Placid is one of the towns in this vast protected area.
After an easy first mile on our hike to the summit of Hurricane Mountain, we began to learn what everyone else knew; these trails provide more than a mere walk in the woods. Abundant rainfall during the summer had left the trails (read “rocks and roots”) clean and slippery, with plenty of mud puddles in between. It made the going slow (one of our six-mile hikes took six hours), and required maximum concentration, but we were partly compensated by the magnificent colors of the surrounding hardwood forest. The cameras came out frequently and we gushed over nature’s splendor –— the kind of visuals you just don’t get in the West.
Additional rewards included reaching the summits.
On two of the hikes, we took in the panoramic views of mountains and autumn foliage. On the other two hikes, which ended on cloud-covered mountain tops, we had to be satisfied with only the accomplishment of getting there.
I grew up in western New York, and in those years, had never visited the Adirondacks. I had only heard about the mountains from my friends, and listened jealously to their stories. Now I realize I had a right to be jealous.
The Adirondack Mountains is a busy resort area during the spring, summer and winter. I’m told the spring brings out the black flies, summer is mosquito season, and I’m not that crazy about cold weather. But in autumn, the tourists and the bugs are gone, and there is ample time and space to enjoy one of nature’s best shows.
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