HIKING & TRAIL RUNNING
banner image: View from Marcy. Bill Hoffman
Great Range Traverse
By Tom O’Grady
On my earliest adventures in the Adirondacks I went armed with my father’s 1985 Adirondack Mountain Club guidebook. It took me to 19 of the 46 High Peaks and earned its keep as I navigated with my girlfriend (now wife) safely on the correct trail through our earliest outings together. Over the past year I’ve bought several guidebooks of different regions for the first time. Because the High Peaks book was well worn and so many trails have been updated it was time to purchase the latest edition.
This purchase coincided with my recent training for the JFK 50 Mile ultramarathon in November. I was planning a long distance trail run in the High Peaks. As I scanned through my updated book to decide on my next adventure, a classic challenge captured my attention. Mount Marcy from Keene Valley via the Complete Great Range stood out in boldface type. The description states a traverse over the complete Great Range to Mount Marcy has served as a premier challenge to hikers in the Adirondacks for over 100 years. Others have taken note of this warning as a Great Range Traverse has been ranked among the toughest day trips in the United States by many trail and backpacking magazines and clubs.
As an aspiring 46’er I have put some consideration into which mountains I may want to summit last and then have worked to around these on previous outings. Two peaks in the Great Range were on my list to avoid until the end. The tallest peak in New York, Mount Marcy is very popular to complete early in one’s adventure. I had purposefully waited on climbing Marcy up until this point, thinking that a final ascent here would offer great views of the other peaks I had climbed along the way. Haystack Mountain is another I had mentally noted as keeping until the end because it is often noted as having some of the best views.
As with anything, timing is important. This trip that would test me physically and mentally for my upcoming ultra. The views of peak Adirondack foliage from the bald summits of Marcy and Haystack would be breathtaking. Last but not least, I had convinced two other individuals to tackle this adventure with me. For a hike that reads as a descriptor of difficult from the get go does not make it easy to talk others into joining. With all these things lining up there was no question that now was the perfect time to complete a Great Range Traverse.
Getting There – This most common way to complete a Great Range Traverse is by starting at the Rooster Comb trailhead off of NY Route 73 in Keene Valley. Individuals beginning their journey at this trailhead will finish by exiting the trails at the Adirondack Garden trailhead, located at the end of Johns Brook Lane. Parking one car at each trailhead saves approximately two miles by foot on the roads after completing the hike. An option for those who wish to avoid walking, but without two cars, is to bring a bike and store it at the ADK Garden for use after exiting the woods. Using a bike makes an easy two-mile ride that is all flat or downhill to your car.
The Trail – Follow a boardwalk across a small pond where you will sign-in at a trailhead register. Continue into the woods where you’ll be met with a moderate climb that is made easier by a series of steps. A junction is met after 0.7-mile with the Sachs and Rooster Comb trails. Stay right as the trail climbs at a moderate but steady rate over the next 1.3 miles to another junction. Enjoy the surrounding woodlands in this area. Each season will have its own unique features. We enjoyed a close-up view of fall foliage. Leaf coverage made it important to pay attention for trail markers on trees.
At 2.0 miles a slight detour to the right takes you 0.5-mile to Rooster Comb, your first peak at elevation 2,788 feet. The short trip is foreboding of what’s to come as you’ll pass under a massive boulder, a few short but very steep sections, and a beautiful broad open ledge summit. Bare rock, steep sections, and open ledges will be encountered frequently. Take in the view before heading back to the junction and continuing on the yellow marked trail to Hedgehog Mountain at 4.1 miles and 3,369 feet elevation. Take opportunities at the few spots that allow a glimpse at the surrounding High Peaks, back down at Rooster Comb from where you came, and up ahead towards the Wolf Jaws where you are heading all at the same time.
After a half-mile, continue on the yellow marked W.A. White Trail. Climbing relents in this section until reaching “Wolf’s Chin.” The trail then drops into a col, before climbing very steeply on switchbacks and over ledges to the summit of Lower Wolf Jaw, at 6.0 miles and 4,175 feet. Congratulate yourself on summiting your first High Peak of the trip. This is a good place to take a quick stop to refuel and enjoy the views before heading on.
From Lower Wolf Jaw, the next 3.1-mile section of trail culminates by summiting Gothics, after visiting Upper Wolf Jaw and Armstrong Mountain. The climb that follows is also steep and includes sharp switchbacks and climbing up onto ledges. If the weather is clear remember to take in a great view of Big Slide and Whiteface from this vantage point. After reaching the lesser summit of Upper Wolf Jaw, the trail relents and you have a gradual dip and rise in elevation, prior to summiting Upper Wolf Jaw at 7.4 miles and 4,185 feet. You have climbed a total of 4,500 feet since leaving Rooster Comb. The best is still ahead.
The short respite in the trail’s ruggedness continues for a half-mile until reaching a very steep climb that utilizes a ladder. The trail remains steep to the summit of Armstrong at 8.2 miles and 4,400 feet. You have summited five mountains so far and the five that lay ahead continue to get bigger. It is here we meet a party about to finish their 46th peak. After snapping a picture they will also continue onto Gothics and claim their final High Peak. After congratulating them, they recognize Bill and me from a previous Adirondack Sports article, chronicling Bill’s epic race at Leadville (adksports.com/2018-09-athlete-profile). It’s nice to be recognized on the trails for a previous adventure!
We wish the fellow hikers good luck and continue down the trail to a col. The trail meets a junction with a blue marked trail Beaver Meadow Trail. Stay on the yellow trail and climb a short but steep section to the eastern peak of Gothics. At this point you have entered the alpine zone of the Adirondack region for the first time of the trip. This area occurs above an elevation of 4,500 feet and represents a rare Arctic-alpine ecosystem. The trail to the summit of Gothics is moderate and mostly on bare rock. The formidable summit of Gothics is reached at 9.1 miles and 4,736 feet. Gothics offers unobstructed views of approximately 30 other peaks, and another fantastic view of both what you have completed so far, and what lays ahead. Proceed down the ridge to the open western face of Gothics.
It is here you will pick up the Adirondack Range Trail. This section can be dicey and we encountered patches of ice and snow on our trip. The going was considerably slowed for safety reasons. For those who fear heights be warned that this section requires focus and remaining calm. There are cables bolted into the side of the mountain to assist with the descent to the base of Saddleback. The climb up to Saddleback remains incredibly steep and contains sections with a grade greater than 50%. Saddleback is reached at 10.4 miles and sits at 4,515 feet. A shorter but equally steep 0.9-mile section descends to a col and then climbs steeply. The summit of Basin is at 11.3 miles and 4,827 feet. At this point, you still have more than half your journey in mileage ahead of you. Stay motivated by rejoicing in the fact that two of the most majestic mountains in the Adirondacks remain ahead.
Take the State Range Trail from Basin approximately 1.2 miles to a junction. Follow signs here for Haystack Mountain. Haystack protrudes south from the primary trail approximately 0.75 miles. The first part requires a steep quarter-mile climb and descent over Little Haystack. Even if you know the false summit is coming up it can be deceiving until you see Haystack proper looming ahead. Scramble to the bald summit of Haystack at 12.7 miles and 4,960 feet. This entire section is part of the alpine zone noted earlier. This exposed rock is well-marked with cairns and yellow paint blazes. Take some quick breaks to look around as you go. The view from the summit Haystack is one of the best I’ve encountered. After summiting Haystack, retrace your steps back over Little Haystack to the State Range Trail.
At 13.5 miles the State Range Trail joins with the Phelps Trail. The focus required to safely navigate the previous steep and icy sections had taken their toll mentally and physically on all three in our party. This was an opportunity to take a short break and discuss the options for continuing. We were tired but well-prepared and decided it was worth continuing onto Mount Marcy despite our considerable earlier delay.
After 0.5-mile the Phelps Trail continues onto the Van Hoevenberg Trail. The markers are blue in this section. After a short distance the trail reenters the Alpine zone for the last time. The trail remains well-marked by cairns and yellow paint blazes. Most sections are easily navigated but individuals should remain alert and be prepared to scramble along a few steeper portions. Finally, a plaque commemorating the first ascent of Marcy greets you at 14.7 miles and 5,344 feet.
The Great Range Traverse has now been completed with 10 summits, including eight High Peaks, and over 9,000 feet in the process. Enjoy the view and a sense of accomplishment from the highest point in New York State!
The trip back to the Adirondack Garden trailhead follows the Phelps Trail. From the summit of Marcy to the Garden adds 9.0 miles and another 2,000 feet of climbing. The final trip comes to 23.6 miles and 11,500 feet of climbing. Our delay earlier in the trip and the shortening days meant that our last several miles were in the dark. This was not a problem as we continued on with the help of headlamps. After arriving back at the Garden we made our way over to the popular Noon Mark Diner to rest and replenish.
For more info – Link to Strava (strava.com/activities/1905668263) and Relive video (relive.cc/view/1905668263). Finally, this is a very tough day hike, but it is feasible and worthwhile to do in multiple parts.
Tom O’Grady, PhD, MPH (firstname.lastname@example.org) of Slingerlands is an avid runner, hiker and lover of the outdoors. He is an epidemiologist with NYS Dept of Health. With a lifetime of racing experience, he’s a NYS Dept of Education Coaching License Level I and Jack Daniels certified coach for distance runners and endurance athletes.