Sunday, August 16, 2020

The Great Range Traverse

Every now and then I like to push my limits when hiking.  Single day range traverses make for a fun, yet brutal way to push my body's limit while taking in scenery.   I have shared my experiences in the past on this blog of some of these hikes.  The one day Presidential Traverse in New Hampshire and the 30 mile Barren- Chairback Range day hike in Maine are couple such hikes that come to mind.  Now that I live in the Adirondacks, the Great Range Traverse caught my attention.  

The Great Range Traverse travels roughly 25 miles over the High Peaks of the Great Range.  Along the way the route ascends 10 summits, including 8 of the Adriondack 46ers.  The route's climbing climaxes on Mt Marcy, The highest summit in New York.  The route also reaches the top of the 3rd highest New York peak,  Mt Haystack.  Basin and Gothics are also traversed and rank in the top 10 highest peaks in the state.  Generally the summits get higher the further along you hike with Haystack as the 9th peak traversed for the day and Marcy as the last peak and highest point of the climbing.  Once on the summit of Marcy, after 15 miles of rough trail, the remainder of the route descends 9 miles to the Garden trailhead. Another 1.8 miles of road walking round out the route returning back to the Rooster Comb trailhead where the day begins.  Going by the Adirondack Mountain Club's trail guide for the High Peaks, the total distance traveled surpasses 26 miles, with roughly 9,500 feet of elevation gain. (These numbers are taken from the most recent edition of the High Peaks Trail Guide, numbers vary depending on the source and GPS numbers) 

I have done similar traverses in the past.  Given the brutal nature of the trails in the Adirondacks, I wasn't entirely sure what to expect on how my body would handle the traverse.  Not so much because of distance or elevation gain, but because the trails in the Adirondacks are in particular rough shape,  resulting in slower than average hiking times.  The closest comparison was my Presidential Traverse which features similar terrain, distances, and elevation changes.  Seven years have past since I did that trip.  I feel like I am in better endurance condition now though.  This year alone I had roughly 1,400 miles on my feet between hiking, running, and cross country skiing before tackling this hike in a day.

I finally pulled the trigger and headed out the morning of Thursday, August 13th.  The weather called for mostly sunny skies around 80F in the valleys with 60s on the summits.  Covering the terrain on the Great Range Traverse requires a long day and an early start.  I set my alarm for 330AM aiming for a 5AM start.  Unfortunately I was unaware of a road closure in Keene Vally, just shy of the trailhead.  Roughly three miles from the trailhead, the road was closed requiring a 30 mile detour.  That pushed my start to 530AM.  If nothing else, it meant I didn't need to start the hike with a head lamp.

 The trip began at the Rooster Comb Trailhead.  The Rooster Comb is the first peak of the day.  At 2,788', the Rooster Comb is the lowest peak on the traverse.  Despite its low elevation, the climbing begins at the lowest point of the trip and it requires about 1,750' feet of elevation gain to the summit.  Fortunately, the trail to the summit is in much better shape than the rest of the traverse.  Even at its modest elevation, open ledges at the summit offer some nice views.  My legs took a little longer to wake up than I anticipated and I enjoyed the nice breeze on its summit.  The summit of the Rooster Comb requires a mile round trip detour from the main trail.  

Early view before sunrise

Ladder below Rooster Comb

Sun just peaking out from Rooster Comb

Wolf Jaws from Rooster Comb and a distant Marcy

Rooster Comb vista
Marcy from Rooster Comb

My next objective for the day was Hedgehog Mountain.  Beyond the Rooster Comb Trail, the trail to Hedgehog becomes more rough and "Adirondack" in nature with more rocks.  The climb to Hedgehog has its steep sections, but generally the terrain climbs gently.  Even with nearly 600' of elevation more than Rooster Comb, Hedgehog has little to offer.  If you don't pay attention, you barely realize you cross its summit.  A few brief views look back over Rooster Comb during the climb. 

Rooster Comb junction

Fat toad

Keene Valley beyond Rooster Comb

The Wolf Jaws are the first two 4,000 foot summits on the route.  4,175' Lower Wolf Jaw is climbed first, followed by 4,185' Upper Wolf Jaw about 1.5 miles further.  The terrain becomes quite steep like most trails in the High Peak Wilderness as it works its way through ledges.  By the time I reached Lower Wolf Jaw my legs were fully awake and I felt strong.  Lower Wolf Jaw offers partial views.  I wasn't sure when I was actually on the summit of Upper Wolf Jaw.  Views are found on a short unmarked spur a short distance beyond what I think is the actual Upper Wolf Jaw summit.  Various spots along the ledges of both peaks allow for nice views.

Typical Adirondack rock and root

Trail up slabs

View back from ledges

Distant Marcy


Big Slide

Armstrong with Gothics peaking behind it

Marcy is constantly visible

Below Upper Wolf Jaw

Beyond the Wolf Jaws, the trail travels just over a mile to Armstrong Mountain.  Between Upper Wolf Jaw and Armstrong I had some nice bird sightings.  Initially I saw a large woodpecker that flew down the trail.  It stopped a few times just long enough for me to snap one quick photo.  

The real treat however came a few minutes later.  A bird fluttered out of the thick trees and landed just off the trail.  It perched perfectly on a branch and allowed me to watch it for several minutes.  It was a saw whet owl.  Saw whets are interesting because they are quite small, only 6 inches tall or so at full size.  The owl watched me with curiosity as I enjoyed the sighting and took a few photos.  It flew to a further branch briefly before flying out of sight in the dense woods. 

Lower Wolf Jaw

Passing through dead trees

View from Upper Wolf Jaw

Wolf Jaws
Prominent slide on Saddleback with Gothics in foreground

Saddleback, Haystack, Basin, and Marcy

MacIntyre Range

Hairy Woodpecker I believe

Saw whet owl

Looking with curiosity

Owl on a distant branch

Not long after the owl sighting, the trail began a rough section enroute to Armstrong.  A long ladder negotiates the worst part of exposed rock followed by a steep, rooty section.  A few more rocky sections require hands to climb before reaching a nice outcropping at the summit.  I took a few minutes to eat a snack while enjoying the view that gives a good look at most of the remaining peaks.  Five peaks down and five to go.  


Long ladder below Armstrong

View from Armstrong

Colden and MacIntyre Range

Good look at slides 

Leaving Armstrong, Gothics stands less than a mile away.  At 4,736' in elevation, Gothics stands as New York's 10th highest peak and was the highest point so far on the hike.  Despite the elevation, the climb to Gothics seemed rather tame.  Gothics just barely peeks out above treeline and its bare summit had the best views of the day to that point.  Another ledge just beyond the summit looks at the highly scarred slides on the peaks ahead.

MacIntyre Range 

Sign below Gothics

Lower Ausable Lake below Gothics

Dix in the background

Gothics view

Lake Champlain in distance

The peaks to be climbed next

Good look at Colden and MacIntyre Range

South from Gothics

Nice look at the slides on Saddleback and Basin


Slides on Basin

Upper Ausable Lake

Water south of Upper Ausable Lake


Lots of layers to the mountains

Leaving Gothics the trail drops dramatically down a steep slab.  To aid hikers, cables have been bolted to the slab.  At places, hose covers the cables to make it easier on the hands.  Over time the cables have been frayed and they are broken at a few spots.  Even without the cables, passage would be possible, but they make the route safer.  In wet conditions, I would avoid the steep slab even with the cables in place.

Top of the cables

Saddleback and Basin

A look at the slide with the cables

Looking down the cables with hose

Looking back up at the cables


Near the bottom of the cables, looking up


Saddleback Mountain is reached just over a mile from Gothics.  While climbing Saddleback, there are good views back to the steep descent from Gothics.  I passed the 10 mile mark of the day just below the summit of Saddleback.  At 4,515', Saddleback sits slightly lower than Gothics and not as open on the summit.  Good views stretch from its many ledges however.

Gothics Col
Looking back at Gothics, cables are on the
narrow strip on ridge

Large slides on Basin

Upper Ausable Lake


Basin and Marcy

Leaving Saddleback, the trail passes one of the most interesting section of High Peak's trails.  The route descends a series of steep ledges requiring scrambling and frequent use of the hands.  Yellow blazes on the rock mark the route.  Reading reports prior to my hike, I expected a tense passage down the ledges.  Once I made my way down them, they weren't nearly as bad as previous trip reports made the section sound.  I wouldn't want to deal with the ledges in wet conditions, but while dry, they weren't too bad.  I may rate the route an easy class 3, but the exposure wasn't too scary.  My years of off trail alpine route finding in Colorado put me in much worse terrain.

Top of ledges on Saddleback, trail walks along this

Trail goes down here

Trail travels down this near vertical face

Paint blazes marking the route on the ledges

Wildflowers on the ledges

Looking back at the ledges


The 9th highest Adirondack summit, Basin Mountain, stands less than a mile beyond Saddleback.  Once past the ledges, the trail to Basin went by quickly.  At 4,827', Basin features a nice open summit.  By the time I reached Basin, I had covered more than 11 miles and nearly 7,000' feet of elevation gain.  I took a longer break to eat lunch and drink the Powerade I had with me.  Roughly 6 hours of time passed since I started my trip.

Boardwalk protecting alpine vegetation

Ledges below Basin

From Basin, I got a good look back on my route as well as my last two, and highest peaks, yet to come- Haystack and Marcy.  The route looked like I had a fair amount of descent and climbing for both peaks ahead of me.  While I ate my lunch, a handful of other groups were on Basin.  I had seen people on and off, particularly near Gothics, but this was the first summit that I didn't have to myself for at least a few minutes.  Most of the hikers seemed to have come up from Johns Brook.

Haystack and Marcy

Alpine vegetation on Basin

Leaving Basin, the trail descends quite steeply over ledges.  A ladder negotiates the biggest drop.  The trail bed becomes more consistently rocky, almost like a stream bed.  The only campsite and reliable water source up to this point can be found at a low point between Basin and Haystack.  Beyond the campsite, the trail climbs over its rocky course to the junction of the Haystack Trail.  

Rocky trail between Basin and Haystack

Haystack stands about .6 miles from the junction according to the guide book. (.5 according to sign at junction)  Despite a relatively short detour to Haystack, the trail gets rather rough.  A rocky subpeak, Little Haystack is reached first, with a rough descent before the final climb.  Nearly the entire distance stays above treeline with paint blazes and cairns marking the exposed route to the summit.

Little Haystack


Rocky terrain on Haystack

At 4,960', Haystack stands as the 3rd highest peak in the state.  While slightly lower than Marcy, Haystack was my favorite peak on the trip.  Its rocky, exposed summit feels more rugged and wild.  The views from Haystack take in the entire route of the day with a great look at my last obstacle, Mt Marcy.  I started to feel hungry and choked down an energy gel to hold me over until I reached Marcy, still two plus hiking miles away.

Marcy across Panther Gorge

Haystack view toward Upper Ausable

Alpine terrain along Haystack

Basin is the pointy peak and Gothics is the rocky mountain
with Giant Mountain in the distance

Basin on the right

Leaving Haystack, the trail descends to around 4,100'.  From the low point, it's 1.3 miles and 1,200' to the summit of Marcy.  Despite the steady elevation gain from the Haystack- Marcy col, the climb to Marcy never seemed too difficult, even with 15 miles on my legs.  I think it was the easiest climb of the day of the 10 summits I visited.  As I approached Marcy, I passed numerous groups that were descending and could see quite a few on the upper reaches.

Approaching Marcy from alpine meadow below summit

Cairn below Marcy

Just below Marcy

Marcy summit plaque

Looking across Marcy's alpine summit

At 5,344', Mt Marcy stands as the highest summit in New York.  As the high point, it sees more people than many of the High Peaks.  Talking to the summit steward, she said she counted around 100 people  visiting the peak for the day and was probably the busiest weekday of the summer. 


Despite the good views, the day was somewhat hazy

Closeup of the neighboring peaks

View over Panther Gorge

By the time I reached Marcy, I was quite hungry.  I ate a second lunch after taking a bunch of photos.  The summit features a large alpine area and excellent views in all directions.  The busyness distracts from its beauty a bit however.  I left Marcy around 245PM.  I had 9.1 miles of trail ahead, not including the road at the end, but it was all downhill.

Algonquin I believe

Descending Marcy

Haystack with Dix in the distance

Majority of Marcy hikers use the Adriondack Loj as there starting point, so I lost most of the summit traffic when I headed down the Phelps Trail toward the Garden trailhead.  The first several miles of descent traveled over rocky footing, slowing me down a bit at first.  

I knew the Phelps Trail followed water much of its route and planned to take advantage of it.  About two miles below Marcy, I sucked the last bit of water from my Camelbak.  As promised, water flowed much of the way and I refilled near Slant Rock.  I immediately drank a liter and put another 1.5 liters in my Camelbak. Once at Slant Rock, frequent campsites are found along the Phelps Trail to the Garden trailhead. 

Slant Rock

Once past Slant Rock the trail leveled and became less rocky.  I took advantage of the terrain, running where I could.  Up until this point, there was very few stretches I could utilize this strategy due to rough terrain.  I stopped occasionally to take a photo.  Despite a very steep trail, I took the .2 mile diversion to enjoy Bushnell Falls.  I highly recommend Bushnell Falls to anyone passing by.

Johns Brook

Muddy stretch

Bushnell Falls

Closeup of Bushnell Falls

Johns Brook runs nice and clear

Most of the remaining trail went by quickly as I ran on the mostly flat terrain the last several miles.  I reached the Garden trailhead at 547PM.  From the Garden, I ran the last 1.6 miles until I reached Route 73.  Along 73, I walked the last .2 miles to the Rooster Comb trailhead to cool down.  I reached my car at 610PM.

View descending Marcy

Going by the guide book, my total route covered just shy of 27 miles while climbing in the neighborhood of 9,500 feet.  My time totaled 12 hours 40 minutes including breaks.  I didn't know initially how my body, particularly my knees would feel at the end of the day.  Surprisingly, my knees didn't even have the slightest discomfort.  I even went on a two mile walk with Puma and our dog Choya when I got home.  My Presidential Traverse left my knees throbbing.  I used poles this trip and I think that made the difference.  Even the days following the trip, I had tired quads, but no knee issues and was running the following day.

20 foot drop of Bushnell Falls

Overall I really enjoyed the trip.  I wouldn't recommend an undertaking like this as a day trip unless you know your capabilities and are conditioned.  Like I said early, I had nearly 1,400 miles on my legs this year alone prior to the trip.  I have successfully tackled several other long distance and high elevation gain day hikes over the years.  I routinely cover 20+ mile days on my backpacking trips and have done 50 mile trips as overnight hikes.  I was aware what my body can handle going into the hike.  

Knowing how to manage food and water for an outing of this length takes planning as well.  I carried more water than I wanted given the rather warm conditions and didn't regret it.  I consumed more than 7 liters of fluid on the hike and took advantage of water along the trail.  This trip would make a nice backpacking trip and most of the peaks would be worthy as shorter day hikes. There are numerous trails on both sides of the Great Range that would allow for more reasonable day hikes. 

Clouds over the tundra

I know this hike often gets compared to the Presidential Traverse in New Hampshire.  If weather cooperates, overall I would say the Presidential Traverse may be slightly less difficult.  The Presidential Traverse passes multiple huts and the Mt Washington summit buildings, which all offer water and often food.  The structures also offer some refuge from the weather if needed.  Water is limited on much of the Great Range and shelter doesn't exist until lean-tos are reached well below the summits. The Presidential Traverse runs slightly shorter with the climbing spread out more evenly.  

I personally liked the Presidential Traverse a littler more however, since much longer stretches travel above treeline compared to the Great Range.  The scenery is more consistently far reaching. Either way, both trips are worthwhile and among the best in the Northeast.  

Marcy view

View on Gothics

View at remaining summit from Gothics
Southern half of the Great Range from Gothics

For similar long distance, day trips that I have tackled, click the links below to read past posts on my blog.

Six Peak Adventure in Missouri Gulch and Basin- 6 summits including 3 14ers and 3 13ers in Colorado with 8,000 feet of climbing

Barren-Chairback Marathon Hike- Nearly 30 miles with 6,000 feet of climbing in Maine's 100 Mile Wilderness

The Presidential Traverse- 23 miles with 9,500 feet of elevation gain over 8 4,000 foot peaks including the 5 tallest New Hampshire summits

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  1. That's as nice and thorough trip report with great photos that I have maybe ever read/seen. One long day

  2. Hey, this is a great article; I'm a 46er working on a second set and am researching this traverse for next year. Do you need to summit hedgehog and roostercomb in order to get to the rest of the peaks or are they optional/" it doesn't count otherwise?"

  3. Thanks for reading. Every account of the Great Range Traverse includes Rooster Comb and Hedgehog. The trail goes directly over Hedgehog and it’s barely noticeable that you go over it. Rooster Comb is about .5 miles off the main route on a side trail and is could be bypassed. Rooster Comb does have a worthwhile view. There is no sanctioning body on what makes it an “official” traverse. If you want to skip Rooster Comb you certainly can The extra spur on a hike like the GRT doesn’t really add difficulty.