Monday, September 30, 2019

Saranac Lake 6ers

While the 46ers may be the best known peak bagging challenge in New York, numerous other mountain challenges exist throughout the state.  A few posts back, I wrote about the Tupper Lake Triad.  This consists of three peaks local to Tupper Lake that can be climbed to earn a patch.  Tupper Lake’s neighbor to the east, Saranac Lake has a similar hiking challenge, the Saranac Lake 6ers

The Saranac Lake 6ers, as its name implies, consists of six peaks in the vicinity of Saranac Lake.  Similar to the Tupper Lake Triad, anyone that climbs the six peaks can earn a patch, sticker, and recognition.  With twice as many peaks as the Tupper Lake Triad, the Saranac Lake 6ers offer a little more variety and challenge.

While I didn’t initially set out to climb the 6ers, I had already climbed two of the peaks.  Since the remaining peaks are clumped together, I decided to finish the list as my first summer in the area wound down.  I’ll describe the peaks in the order I climbed them.  These aren’t necessarily the order others climb them.

Ampersand Mountain

Ampersand Mountain seems to be the most popular of the mountains on the 6er list.  Ampersand stands to the west of Saranac Lake on the northern side of the High Peaks Wilderness.  I read about the mountain before I moved to the Adirondacks.  Since it’s not too far from Tupper Lake, where I live, I knew it would be one of my first hikes when I moved to the area.  Ampersand turned out to be my second hike after moving to the area.  I hiked it on May 30th while my friend J Man was visiting and my dog Choya went along for the climb. 

Ampersand trailhead

From the trailhead, the hiking starts out fairly mellow.  When the elevation starts to increase, it does so quite steeply.  Gentle trail turns into steep rock with no relenting, gaining 1,300 feet in the last mile. Rock steps help on the upper reaches. The trail to the summit only travels 2.7 miles, gaining 1,775’ of elevation.  Sections of small cliffs require hands to navigate.  The agile Choya needed to be lifted on at least one occasion, something that doesn’t happen very often, and he has seen some rough areas.  Since we hiked in the early season, we faced mud season conditions and sections of running water.

Easy going at the start

The steep climb doesn’t come without reward.  The summit features a large, wide-open, rocky perch.  The views are impressive and far-reaching.  Views to the south allow an unobstructed look at the High Peaks over Ampersand Lake.  To the north, the Saranac Lakes and other bodies of water dot the landscape.

View over the Saranac Lakes

Seward Range over Ampersand Lake

Looking into the High Peaks

WhiteFace in the distance

At 3,353 feet, Ampersand stands as the second tallest 6er peak.  I thought the summit had the best views of all the 6ers.  Despite its modest 5.4 mile roundtrip, the hiking seemed slow with the mud season conditions.  Allow plenty of time to soak in the summit views and explore different areas of the open summit.  Ampersand is a very popular hike and the trailhead is usually overflowing on the weekends, so plan accordingly.

Endless waves of mountains 
Ampersand Lake

Choya with the Saranac Lakes beyond

St Regis Mountain

My second 6er summit took me to St Regis Mountain.  St Regis is the furthest of the 6ers from Saranac Lake, actually in the little settlement of Paul Smiths, about 15 miles out of town within the St Regis Canoe Area.  I climbed St Regis in early July.  With the exception of the final summit push, St Regis climbs gradually over 3.3 miles on a nice trail.


One of the few rocky stretches

Just below the summit


After gaining over 1200’, the 2,874’ summit is reached.  The summit offers a wide view mostly to the south from open rock.  A firetower stands on the summit.  Climbing the tower allows hikers to rise above the trees for uninterrupted 360-degree views.  While the High Peaks and plenty of other mountains can be seen from the summit, the view over the endless lakes and ponds in the region are what make St Regis really stand out.  With the aid of the tower, I rank the views on St Regis second only to Ampersand among the 6er peaks.

Lakes of the St Regis Canoe Area 

Endless mountains

Whiteface and the McKenzie Range

Scarface Mountain

Scarface stands at 3,088'  in elevation, just a few miles east of Saranac Lake.  The summit of Scarface is reached by a 3.4-mile trail after gaining 1,480 feet of elevation.  From the trailhead, the trail descends to Ray Brook.  The brook, crossed on a nice bridge, forms a meadow that offers views toward the summit.  After gradual climbing, steeper sections lead to the higher reaches of the mountain.  Occasionally a steeper section might require the use of hands to scramble.  The trail traverses the top of the mountain for a while before actually reaching the true summit.

Gentle trail at the start


View from the bridge

Mossy mountain creek

Scarface disappointed me.  I regretted hiking it on a clear day when I could have hiked somewhere with much better views.  The views are minimal.  I actually found the view from Ray Brook, over the meadow, to be the most enjoyable.  The summit sits in a small clearing in thick woods with a sign marking the high point.  There is nothing to see from the summit.  Traveling over a ledge while gaining the summit, one brief opening in the trees gives a narrow view into the High Peaks.  Very brief glimpses through the trees allow for minimal views to the valley.  Returning to the trailhead, the roundtrip hike clocks in at 6.8 miles. I have no desire to revisit Scarface.

Rough terrain

Trail over open rock

The only view into the High Peaks

Lackluster summit

Baker Mountain

Sitting only a mile from downtown Saranac Lake at 2,452’ in elevation, Baker Mountain stands as the low peak among the 6ers.  Although it sits at the edge of the village, Baker lies entirely within the McKenzie Mountain Wilderness. Reaching its summit only requires .9 miles of travel.  Don’t let the modest stats fool you.  Baker packs a surprising punch for such a short hike.  In those .9 miles, you gain nearly 900 feet of elevation.  You climb pretty much continuously from the start.  The terrain is often rocky and slabby.  Fortunately, for those looking for a quick outing, the summit gained rather quickly.  I reached the summit in only 20 minutes.


Rocks start early

One of the easier sections

I climbed Baker the same day I climbed Scarface.  The scenery on Baker made up for the disappointing views on Scarface.  The quick climbing allows you to take extra time to enjoy Baker’s views.  Despite its low stature, Baker offers plenty of views.  While the summit proper is lackluster, numerous cliffs and ledges around the peak make up for the lack of summit views.  Numerous short spurs lead off the main trail. The side trails all lead to a viewpoint.

The two summits of McKenzie

Looking into the High Peaks

McKenzie and Haystack

Looking over part of Saranac Lake Village

Vistas take in most directions.  The higher peaks of the McKenzie Range seem close by.  The High Peaks rise just to the south.  The Village of Saranac Lake sits just below the mountain.  Numerous lakes sparkle beyond the village.  All the other 6ers are easy to spot.  After enjoying the view, returning to the trailhead takes no time at all.

Another look over the Village

Plenty of lakes visible from Baker

Looking over Oseetah Lake

Haystack Mountain

Not to be confused with the much higher 46er of the same name, 2,864’ Haystack stands east of Saranac Lake in the McKenzie Mountain Wilderness.  A large parking lot along Route 86, east of the settlement of Ray Brook, serves as the main trailhead for both Haystack and McKenzie Mountain.  The two can be climbed together in one hike, but I’ll cover them separately.  I hiked the two in mid September.

Ray Brook Trailhead to both McKenzie and Haystack

From the trailhead, the trail actually loses elevation over the first mile or so.  The trail travels within earshot of Route 86, before following a stream.  The hiking becomes more enjoyable as it follows the stream.  A few small plunges dot the stream.  Old foundations sit along the trail in this stretch.

Old foundation

Small waterfall

Old dam

After 2.4 miles, the trail splits.  This split is easily overlooked however.  The more obvious trail continues over a dam before climbing aggressively at times to Haystack.  A sign on a tree, 15 feet above, marks the split for McKenzie Mountain at the junction and the trail isn’t obvious toward McKenzie from this direction.  I originally planned on going to McKenzie first but missed this junction.   

Sign showing trail split 15' in the air

Morning fog over the lakes

Ampersand over Oseetah Lake

Valley fog

Rocky stretch below Haystack

The climb to the summit of Haystack becomes loose and steep at times.  After 3.3 miles, I reached the summit quicker than I expected.  The wooded summit features an open overlook that takes in much of the High Peaks. 

Looking into the High Peaks

Close up of High Peaks

Lingering clouds 

Most guides to Haystack Mountain have you return the same way you climbed.  If continuing to McKenzie, continue north beyond the main overlook.  An unmarked, but well traveled, trail gradually descends to the Jack Rabbit Trail.  Haystack can also be climbed from this direction from the Whiteface Inn Trailhead.  Although not much different in length, this approach seems to climb less aggressively.  A cairn marks the junction from the Jack Rabbit Trail, about .4 miles beyond the McKenzie Mountain junction.

Cairn at the Jack Rabbit Trail to Haystack

McKenzie Mountain

At 3,861 feet, McKenzie Mountain stands as the highest of the 6er summits.  In fact, it’s even taller than the lowest 46er, Couchsachraga.  With its height, comes challenge.  McKenzie feels like a 46er when climbing it.  Its final approach climbs over rough, eroded trail with rocky obstacles much like a High Peak.

Typical rocky trail

High Peaks type terrain

While the Saranac Lake 6ers website suggests the same starting point as Haystack, this isn’t the best option if climbing McKenzie by itself.  The Whiteface Inn approach reaches the summit in only 3.6 miles.  Climbing it from the Haystack trailhead puts the roundtrip over 10 miles.  Combining McKenzie with Haystack, I recommend hitting Haystack, then traversing the unmarked trail to the Jack Rabbit Trail before climbing McKenzie.  This puts the roundtrip for the two peaks close to 12 miles roundtrip. 

No matter how you climb McKenzie, climbing the trail from the south requires scrambling over eroded terrain and steep climbing with over 2,000 feet of elevation gain.  Along the way, several spots offer good views.  McKenzie has two summits and the lower one is reached first.  A rough drop from the first summit leads to the saddle between the two peaks.  The true summit looks further away and more abrupt than it really is.

McKenzie's higher summit

Oseetah Lake


View to the west

High Peaks view

The actual summit offers no views in a wooded clearing marked with a sign.  Near the summit, multiple ledges offer nice views however.  The first looks over Lake Placid Village to the High Peaks beyond.  Whiteface is partially visible if you work for it.  The other outcropping provides a much broader 180-degree view to the west.  Returning to the south, the descent is rather rough.

Summit sign

Franklin Falls Pond

Saranac Lake Village

High Peaks

For a more isolated hike, McKenzie can be climbed from the north with the higher Moose Mountain.  A 10 mile loop is possible utilizing Lake Owners Association (LOA) Trails.  Before committing to this route, verify the LOA trails are open. In the past they have been closed.

Lake Placid

Choya enjoying a break

One last view on the descent

Final Thoughts

The Saranac Lake 6ers is a worthwhile peak bagging challenge if you are in the area.  The peaks offer enough variety to keep it interesting.  I would be willing to hike any of the six peaks again with the exception of Scarface, which was very limited on scenery.  Patches are available for those that complete the 6ers.  For more ambitious hiker looking an even harder challenge, separate awards are given for those that complete the 6ers in winter or in all six in a single day.

For more information on where to begin visit Saranac Lake 6ers.

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