Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Hiking the Seward Range

While there is no shortage of mountains in the Adirondacks, the Seward Range caught my attention.  The Seward Range is the western most range of the High Peaks and makes up the eastern skyline of my town, Tupper Lake.  As I have in the past, I set out to climb mountains that I see regularly.

There are four readily accessible peaks in the Seward Range.  Seward Mountain tops out at 4,361 feet and stands as the high point in the range.  South of Seward along the same ridgeline are 4,140-foot Mt Donaldson and 4,040-foot Mt Emmons.  These three peaks make up the skyline visible from Tupper Lake.  A fourth peak, 4,120-foot Seymour Mountain is separated by Ouluska Pass to the east and is also accessible.  Climbing Seymour requires a different route from the other three summits however due to dense forests and cliffs.  I set out to climb Seward, Donaldson, and Emmons on June 28th with my frequent hiking companion, my dog Choya.

There are two routes that climb to these three peaks.  I chose to climb via the Calkins Brook herd path.  The route starts at the Seward Mountain trailhead, sometimes referred to as the Coreys trailhead. 

Before I even opened my door, mosquitoes found my car.  I thought I was in for a miserable time.  While I got my gear in order, the mosquitoes kept me on my toes.  Fortunately, the mosquitoes were most dense at the trailhead and thinned within the first half-mile.


The terrain stays pretty mellow for the first several miles of the hike.  The trails follow the remnants of former truck roads from long ago logging operations.  As a result, the path still remains wide and fairly gentle.  I traveled just over a mile on the Ward Brook Truck Trail before heading south on the Calkins Brook Truck Trail.  Despite the monikers, the route travels through the High Peaks Wilderness and any vehicles have long been banned from using the roads.

Gentle trail near the trailhead

Calkins Brook Truck Trail

After 3.3 miles of easy travel, I turned off the official trails onto the Calkins Brook herd path.   This junction is easy to miss.  The first few feet of the herd path don’t stand out.   No signs mark the trail.  A crumbled cairn with a metal bucket marks the trail.  This could easily be mistaken for trash if you don’t know it’s the trail marker.  As with many of the higher summits in the Adirondacks, unofficial and unmaintained herd paths are used to reach summits.  The Calkins Brook herd path has no signs or official maintenance.  The only markings along the route are two cairns that mark the trail on either side of the ford of Calkins Brook. 

This bucket marks the turn to the Calkins Brook herd path

After a few feet, the herd path becomes more defined and easier to follow.  After following Calkins Brook a short distance, the path crosses the rocky brook on an easy ford that most can step across on stones under normal water conditions.  Any confusion on finding the trail after the ford is eliminated by cairns on either side of the brook.

Calkins Brook

From the brook, the path begins climbing toward the crest of the Seward Range.  In the lower elevations the path can be somewhat less defined in the less dense hardwood forest, but never difficult to follow.  Along its course, the route crosses numerous creeks and a few muddy spots that may make the route slightly less straightforward, but again, never difficult to stay on course.

Rougher section on the upper reaches of the Calkins Brook herd path

The path travels about three miles before reaching a junction on the main path across the crest of the Seward Range. Another cairn marks the upper end of the herd path. While there are some muddy spots, I managed to keep my feet fairly dry.  I was fairly sweaty by the end of the climb however.  The humidity was quite thick and it was shaping up to be a warm day by Adirondack standards.  Even though I grew up and spent most of my life in the northeast, living in Colorado the past five years has left me unacclimated to the summertime humidity on the east coast.

The main path across the Seward Range is a herd path as well.  The path features no signs or maintenance.  Despite this, the route sees a fair amount of traffic and following the path remains straightforward for the most part. 

This junction sits less than ¼ mile from the summit of Donaldson.  One can turn left at this junction and climb Seward or right toward Donaldson and Emmons.  I headed right.

Almost immediately, the path faces a slabby section with requires hands to negotiate.  Choya handled this with ease, leaping over the initial rise and impressing a couple other hikers at this spot.  The path goes over or bypasses a couple ledges before soon reaching Mt Donaldson. 

Challenging slab below Donaldson

Rocky ramp below Donaldson

The trail climbs the crevice between the rocks

Donaldson’s marked summit is quite small.  A small open rocky area sits below the summit sign.  Of the three peaks on this stretch of the Seward Range, Donaldson offers the best views.  From the summit proper, Seward Mountain stands out a short distance to the north, giving a glimpse of the route later in the day.  The view to the east is pretty wide open as it looks over the Cold River drainage to the heart of the High Peaks.  The Santanoni Range towers just over the Cold River to the southeast. 

Donaldson's summit

Santanoni Range rising above Cold River

High Peaks


With the small summit, I didn’t linger as the hikers I just passed arrived.  I continued south toward Emmons.  Not long after leaving the summit, the path passes a high, open ledge with far reaching 180-degree views to the west.  Although lacking the High Peaks in the view, this vista is just as impressive as the actual summit.  Lakes dominate this view with much of Long Lake visible to the south, Tupper Lake and Village to the west, Ampersand Mountain and Lake to the north, and the Saranac Lakes beyond.


Ampersand Mountain and Lake

Hazy view toward Tupper Lake

Long Lake

The path becomes quite muddy and rough as it leaves Donaldson.  Larger pockets of deep mud make it difficult to keep your feet dry.  Numerous cliffs and slabs slow progress as well.  Choya handled most of these obstacles easier than I did.  The trail seems to drop a fair amount of elevation between the peaks.  The final climb to Emmons doesn’t seem to gain too much of that elevation back.

Tricky section of rock

House size rock covered in moss

Mt Emmons offers the least lackluster summit of the three summits.  There is a fairly small window of views through the trees.  Not enough to make Emmons a destination on its own.  There was a decent vantage point toward slides on Seward, but not much else to see from the tiny summit.  When I climbed the final slab and saw the sign for Emmons, I was surprised that I reached it and by the lack of features of the summit.

Emmon's summit

I took a break for a snack on Emmons.  Before long, the black flies found me.  I couldn’t eat my bar fast enough before leaving the thick cloud of flies.  This was the worst I have seen since I returned to the northeast.

From Emmons, I retraced my route back over Donaldson to the junction of the two herd paths.  The uneventful return seemed to go by much quicker traveling back north despite the numerous slabs and cliffs along the way.

Once past the junction, I continued north along the path, descending over more sections of slabby rock.  Eventually the slabs ended when I reached the low point between Donaldson and Seward.  The path becomes more threaded as it splits into a couple paths at spots.  Despite this, the paths never separate too much and rejoin quickly.

Rooty section of path

The path begins climbing soon enough, becoming quite rough along the way.  Initially the route follows a rocky gully.  The terrain becomes steeper as it climbs a rocky cleft with sections of even more slabs.  One final slabby section close to the summit features the best views that I encountered on Seward, with a good look to the west.

Hiking a rocky gully

Passing under a cliff

Tricky section of rocks

jumble of rocks in cleft

Steep slab

The summit proper is marked with a sign on a featureless wooded high point about .7 miles north of Donaldson.  I felt no desire to linger and backtracked to the rocky viewpoint just south of the summit for another snack before more black flies hurried my departure.

Seward's summit

Long Lake in the distance beyond Donaldson and Emmons

The Saranac Lakes 
Beyond the summit, the herd path continues north, eventually descending to the Ward Brook Truck Trail making a loop possible.  While I can’t speak from experience, nearly every report on this route I read makes it sound brutal at best with no benefit to travel it.  Two other hikers I passed enroute to Seward confirmed this.  While I usually prefer loops, this time I opted to retrace my steps and returned back to the Calkins Brook Herd Path.

The top of the rock cleft on the return

Donaldson and Emmons

I made it back to the junction quickly and descended the Calkins Brook herd path.  As I dropped in elevation, I could feel the temperature increase.  I took one last break at the ford of Calkins Brook.  I submerged my head in the brook to cool down.  The still frigid water takes your breath away.  The final 3.5 miles went by quickly on the gentle trails back to the trailhead. 

The Santanoni Range from a outcropping south of Seward

The heart of the High Peaks from the same outcropping

Another slab 

I arrived at the trailhead shortly after 2PM.  Following this route, the hike covers more than 15 miles and took me roughly 7.5 hours.  While I haven’t been in the Adirondacks long enough to know them that well, I get the impression that climbing these three peaks has the reputation of being a trudge.  I guess I can see this.  There are not a ton of views for the elevation and distance.  The trails can be somewhat rough going as well. 

Not much wildlife on this hike but I saw at least 30 toads

I can’t say that I have a great desire to repeat this full hike any time soon.  I would consider climbing Donaldson again.  From the Calkins Brook route, this is the quickest summit to reach, and easily has the best views.  I also enjoyed the fact that I could see my town, Tupper Lake, from the west side of the mountain. 

As for Choya, the 15 miles on this hike barely fazed him.  Sure he napped afterwards, but several hours after we were home, he was letting us know it was time for his evening walk.

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Monday, July 1, 2019

Climbing Whiteface and Esther Mountains

With our new “old” house requiring much of our attention and a spell of dreary weather, I needed to climb some mountains.  Wednesday June 12th had the first clear day with no chance of rain in a while, so I made my plans.

It’s somewhat difficult choosing a destination when you’re new to an area that’s surrounded by mountains.  I chose Whiteface Mountain as my goal.  It stands separated from the other Adirondack peaks.  More than 10 miles stands between it and its nearest 4000-foot neighbor to the south.  As a result, Whiteface dominates the skyline around Lake Placid and Wilmington, NY.  Since I would be passing by its 4,240-foot neighbor, Esther Mountain, I decided to hit that summit as well.

With the Cactus Mutt (Choya the dog) in tow, I began my hike a little after 7AM on the Wilmington Trail.  Several trails veer off the Wilmington Trail the first .4 miles.  While the junctions aren’t all marked, red discs marked the main trail.  A snowmobile trail intersected the trail at .4 miles.  This trail junction was marked in my trail guide.  The red discs, up until this junction, are excessive.  The main trail continues straight here, but the markings stopped.


Beyond the junction, I noticed bike tracks on the trail.  The red discs stopped.  After a half-mile, I reached another junction with a sign marking a bike trail.  This wasn’t in my book or map.  I thought I missed a turn.  I backtracked to the last junction, confirming I was on the proper route.  Unfortunately, I added an extra mile to my trip.

Now with confirmation that I was on the proper trail, I continued.  The lower reaches traveled through mostly hardwood forests with little mud.  The trail gained the ridge by Marble Mountain and traveled on the level for a short distance before climbing.

The climbing stayed fairly consistent on increasingly rough terrain.  A few slabby sections of rock make up the trail.  The trail became increasingly wet as it climbed.  Before long, the trail remained consistently muddy.

A less muddy section

I tried to step on strategically placed rocks and logs to avoid the worst mud.  Unfortunately, dry feet didn’t last long as I slipped a few times.  Although the trail traveled on brief sections of dry ground, swampy trail was the norm.

Water crossing

Unlike most of the Adirondack High Peaks that are contained in a Wilderness Area, Whiteface stands outside the Wilderness and has substantial development on its slopes.  The trail passes a ski trail and, a short distance later, the top of a ski lift.  The slopes of the ski area can be seen a few places along the trail.  

Top of ski lift

Not long after passing the ski lift, the trail travels under giant rock wall.  Similar to Mt Washington, Mt Mansfield, or Pikes Peak, a toll road travels to near the summit of Whiteface.  This wall is part of the road.  The trail leaves the road’s wall a short distance before climbing above it. 

Passing part of the auto road

Once above the road, the trail travels along an arĂȘte.  The summit building comes into view as the trail rises above treeline.  This part of the trail is rather impressive as the mountain drops abruptly to the left with unobstructed views over bare slides.  The ski area infrastructure is visible below.

Looking over the ski area

Approaching the summit structures

Following the arete

The summit of Whiteface, like other similar mountains, is a strange atmosphere.  While the scenery from the alpine summit is spectacular, the scene is somewhat odd after hiking more than 5 miles.  A stone structure stands on the summit of Whiteface that is used for weather research and records.  The road falls short of the actual summit.  A parking lot lines the end of the road with a walkway or elevator climbing to the top. As a result of the road, there are more tourists.   Observation decks and pay per view binoculars are placed on the summit as well.  As far as I could tell, I was the only one that hiked to the summit to that point on the morning I was there.

The auto road 

Despite the distractions, the summit still offers some impressive scenery.  At 4,867 feet, Whiteface stands as the 5th highest summit in New York.  The bare rock summit stands well above treeline.  From its lofty perch the views are hard to beat.  From the observation decks, signs label the distant peaks.  The bulk of the Adirondack High Peaks dominate the scenery to the south.  I found the most scenic part of the view is toward Lake Placid, both lake and town, which sits 3,000 feet below the summit.  On a clear day, views reach into Quebec and beyond Lake Champlain.

Lake Placid

Looking into the High Peaks

Choya on the summit

Summit sign

Both the Cactus Mutt and I had lunch before leaving the summit.  We retraced our route on the Wilmington Trail.  Descending down the arĂȘte gives an interesting perspective.  I passed a couple groups of hikers now making their way to the summit.  I also had a good look at my next objective, Esther Mountain.

Descending with auto road below

A good look in to the High Peaks along the descent

The junction to Esther Mountain is marked with a large cairn.  A sign also marks the junction and indicates that the trail receives no maintenance or markings.  Despite this, the trail is very obvious and well worn.

A look back at Whiteface

From this junction, the trail travels about 1.2 miles to the summit of Esther.  The elevation gain is fairly modest and not too difficult.  The real challenge with reaching the summit is navigating the nearly endless mud.  Nearly the entire trail involves traveling through some soupy tread.  There was no avoiding it.  Choya plowed through it the best he could.  At one point he sunk up to his one shoulder in the mud.

A muddy Choya

Reaching the summit of Esther is a pretty uneventful moment.  The summit is wooded and marked with a plaque in honor of the first known climb of the peak by its namesake Esther McComb in 1839.  Other than a few glance at Whiteface, there isn’t much to see beyond the mud.  I was surprise to pass several groups on this trail.

Esther summit plaque

After leaving Esther, I had 4.9 miles to hike, mostly downhill to the trailhead.  This meant a lot more muddy travel.  The descent was pretty uneventful.  While the hike including both peaks clocks in at just under 13 miles, I figured I added an extra mile in the beginning when I backtracked to confirm my route.  Choya had a lot of energy this trip.  He pulled more than usual to the end, even with 14 miles under his feet.  Maybe he was knew the mud would end when he got to the car.

A good view into the High Peaks
Even with the infrastructure at the summit, I recommend a climb of Whiteface. It's alpine summit is quite impressive. Unless you are trying to climb all the 4000-foot summits in the Adirondacks, there isn't a great draw to Esther.  And for those that don't hike, you can always take the auto road to enjoy this one.

Lake Placid from the summit of Whiteface

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