Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Hiking the MacIntyre Range and Avalanche Pass

The first two weeks living in the Adirondacks have been quite hectic.  Our new home requires a lot of work and has been ongoing and nearly nonstop.  The weather has been typical of spring, which means lots of rain.  I was ready for a little diversion.

The J Man, my occasional partner in adventuring while in Maine, had vacation time to use by the end of May.  He made the trip to New York to visit, help with a few projects, and some time outdoors.

I was ready for my first Adirondack adventure.  It just so happened to be my birthday, and I wanted to make my first trip in the Adirondacks worthwhile.  I set my sites on the MacIntyre Range.

While I had never explored the Adirondacks, I am fairly familiar with them.  I especially started to look into the area when we bought our home here. The MacIntyre Range is an area I’ve heard about long before I knew I was moving to the area.  The MacIntyre Range is the second highest subrange in the Adirondacks.  The second highest peak in New York, 5,114-foot Algonquin Peak, anchors the range.  The range sits in the heart of the High Peaks Wilderness, surrounded by the highest peaks in the Adirondacks. I first heard of Algonquin Peak nearly 20 years ago, and ever since wanted to climb it.

We started our hike mid- morning on Wednesday, May 29th.  As with many of the hikes in the High Peaks, we began our hike at the Adirondack Loj/ Heart Lake Trailhead.  Despite a decent weather forecast, the rainy weather from the day prior was slow to leave.  While not actively raining, the skies featured a heavy overcast and clouds obscured the higher peaks.
While an out and back hike to Algonquin isn’t too strenuous by itself, we had more ambitious goals.  We put together a loop that covered the three main peaks of the MacIntyre Range, then planned to drop down toward Lake Colden, Avalanche Dam, Avalanche Pass, and Marcy Dam to form a loop.  The High Peaks Information Center at the trailhead advised against this loop due to lingering snow and wet trail, but we forged ahead.

Entering the High Peaks Wilderness

Despite modest temperatures, I immediately noticed the humidity in the air.  Having spent the last five years in Colorado, my body was slow to acclimate to the 100% humidity of the morning.  I soon removed the legs from my pants and continued in shorts.  The trail was wet from the heavy rain the previous day, but not as bad as mud season conditions.  Several streams flowed near the trail as well as a nice waterfall. 

Nice trail work

First of many waterfalls

After 3.4 miles, we reached a junction to our first objective, Wright Peak.  The climb to Wright is fairly short and to the point.  At times the trail follows slabby rock, which made for some interesting footing in the wet conditions.  During the climb, a few breaks in the clouds allowed for some views of Algonquin Peak, but not much else.  Soon the trail climbed above treeline. 

Climbing Wright

Above treeline

At 4,580 feet, Wright Peak stands as the 16th highest peak in New York.  Despite its alpine summit, dense clouds limited the views.  A short distance away, Algonquin popped in and out of the clouds.  The tops of other nearby peaks briefly came into view.  To the north, a higher peak –possibly Whiteface, poked out above the clouds intermittently.  A nearby plaque marks the spot of an Air Force crash in the 60s.  We didn’t linger to long in the obscured conditions.

Algonquin peeking out from the clouds

Not too many views from Wright

I believe Whiteface poking out above sea of clouds

Just a few summits occasionally poked out

We headed onward to Algonquin.  Despite the clouds, we could see our goal.  We passed a few patches of lingering snow along the ridge.  We climbed above treeline fairly quickly and soon reached the open summit.

The trail to Algonquin can be seen in the trees on the right

Rocky route to Algonquin

A rough spot of trail

The first small patch of snow of the day

Above treeline on Algonquin

We took a break on the summit.  Our view didn’t reach much beyond the MacIntyre Range.  Wright stayed out of the clouds for the most part.  To the south, Iroquois was generally visible as clouds passed by.  The ski jumps in Lake Placid could be seen to the north as well as Whiteface as it occasionally poked out above the clouds.  Majority of the High Peaks remained hidden.

A brief ridge visible above the clouds

Looking toward Iroquois

Whiteface poking out again

A break of clouds in the valley

Algonquin's summit

Iroquois making a brief appearance

Tomcat assessing the terrain ahead

Only the MacIntyre Range is visible

Dropping off Algonquin

We dropped off Algonquin, heading toward Boundary and Iroquois Peaks.  As we descended, we started head east and lose excessive elevation.  With the clouds, Iroquois was now hidden.  I suspected we missed a turn toward Boundary and Iroquois.  Looking at the map confirmed my hunch.  We decided to backtrack and saw the unmarked junction that we missed.  I don’t think it was much more than a ¼ mile that we needed to backtrack.

While trails exist, many of the summits in the High Peaks do not have official trails.  These paths are often well defined but have no markings or maintenance.  The trail to Boundary and Iroquois falls into this unofficial designation.

The route, despite no maintenance, is fairly straightforward.  After traveling through scraggly trees and bog, Boundary Peak’s open summit is quickly reached in .2 miles.  Boundary is considered a subpeak of Iroquois and not ranked.  From Boundary, the trail dips back into the trees before reaching rough stretches of rock above treeline.  After .7 miles we reached 4,840-foot Iroquois Peak, the 8th highest summit in New York. 

Bog bridge enroute to Boundary

A closer look at Iroquois

Clouds engulfing Iroquois

Iroquois featured the densest cloud cover of the day with no views.  We retraced our steps over to Boundary.  In this short distance, the sky quickly began clearing.  To the west and north, the views really opened up.

Clearing as we retrace our steps toward Boundary


A cloudless Algonquin

As we descended toward Lake Colden, the clouds started to disperse all around us.  We were given a solid view of Mt Colden and its impressive slides as well as Mt Marcy just beyond. 


From Algonquin’s summit to Lake Colden, the trail drops 2,350 feet in 2.1 miles.  Despite traveling downhill, the travel was incredibly slow.  Water flowed in much of the trail.  Patches of lingering snow slowed progress a few places.  At times, the trail seemed to follow a creek bed that required rock hopping to traverse.

Snowy section of trail

That's the trail

Is it the creek or the trail?

Small waterfall

Pleasant section of creek

Travel was much slower than I expected.  With all the water came a lot of mud as well.  Despite the treacherous travel, the trail follows next to, and often in the creek, which features numerous waterfalls along its course.  We were happy to finally see Lake Colden and the end of the wet and muddy descent.

Nice cascade

Yet another waterfall

As far as I could tell, none of these falls are named on the map

A long slide

Pretty multi-tiered falls

The trail climbed gradually from Lake Colden.  This is a key junction in the High Peaks.  Algonquin, Mt Marcy, Mt Colden, and Avalanche Pass are accessible from this junction.

Soon the trail reached Avalanche Lake.  This area is often regarded as one the finest spots in the Adirondacks.  From the outlet of Avalanche Lake, Mt Colden and Avalanche Mountain frame the lake.  Mt Colden features solid rock dropping to the lake and its well-known cleft, the Trap Dyke. Avalanche Mountain’s sheer cliffs frame the west side of the lake.

Avalanche Lake

Trap Dyke

The trail follows the catwalk along the cliffs

Cliffs off of Colden

The hike around the lake is quite scenic.  The trail is a jumble of rock that makes for slow progress.  Where cliffs make a trail impossible, bridges hang from the cliffs and travel over the lake. The water is surprising deep just a few feet from the cliffs.  Frequent small ladders negotiate gaps in the rock and steep boulders.  An impressive waterfall flowed the length of the Trap Dyke. 

A look up the lake toward Avalanche Pass

Closeup of the cliffs

Another look at the cliffs

JMan ascending a ladder in a rocky section

Once past the lake, the trail finally climbs to the height of land in Avalanche Pass.  Once on the north side of Avalanche Pass, the trail substantially mellowed.  We made much better time as we descended to Marcy Dam.  We picked up the pace below the dam on much easier terrain and we were happy to finally reach the trailhead. 

According to the mileage on the map, the total distance for the loop was around 13.5 miles.  I figure our total to be around 14.0 miles with our backtracking at the missed turn to Boundary and Iroquois.  Our time to complete the loop was about 9 hours, which is somewhat slow for us.  The travel between Algonquin and Avalanche Pass was particularly slow on the jumble of rocks, rough downhill, mud, and water flowing on the trail.  I wouldn’t recommend this route to someone new to hiking, even in better conditions.  This was a pretty rugged hike.  More experience hikers would enjoy the scenery and challenge, but perhaps a little later in the season.

We made this hike early in the season.  Mud season had not yet ended at certain sections of this route.  Although limited, rotten snow further complicated matters.  High water and run off, particularly above Lake Colden, hampered travel.  At least the bugs were nonexistent until we reached the trailhead at the end of the hike.

While I would have liked the skies to clear sooner on this hike, I did enjoy the area.  I would have liked more views of the surrounding mountains while we above treeline.  The clouds that obscured our visibility made for interesting views nonetheless.  The route seemed to be a good introduction for my first hike in the Adirondacks.

Tomcat on Algonquin with Iroquois in the distance

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