Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Climbing Colden, Table Top, and Phelps

With a good stretch of weather forecasted, I wanted to visit some mountains with great views. I set my focus on hitting some of the Adirondack 46er summits that I haven't been too yet.  Since Choya hasn't gone on a longer hike lately, I wanted him to come along.  My first thought was to climb Phelps and Table Top in the middle of the High Peaks.  The two peaks would have made for a respectable 12 mile day.  Glancing at the map, I saw Colden could also be added to these two peaks.  This would put the hike in the neighborhood of 18 miles and over a mile of elevation gain.  This would be in the upper range of anything Choya hiked, but he seemed to do alright on comparable hikes.  I never climbed any of these peaks.  As an added bonus, Colden often ranks high among hikers as a favorite 46er peak for views.  Phelps's views are known to be pretty good as well.  Foliage in the High Peaks area was reaching peak, making the hike sound even more attractive.

We set out on our hike on Wednesday September, 23rd.  Although the forecast called for some cloudiness, it didn't sound like visibility would be an issue.  I decided to hike from South Meadow as an alternative to the extremely busy Adirondack Loj trailhead. Although slightly longer, the South Meadow approach is said to take about the same amount of time to reach Marcy Dam.

We started are hike around 640AM.  Unlike the Adirondack Loj, South Meadow doesn't really offer a parking lot.  I parked along the road near the gate to the trail.  The South Meadow route follows an old truck road from the 1930s. The road travels through the High Peaks Wilderness and no longer allows any vehicles apart from emergency equipment.  The road is smooth with gradual terrain changes and hikes rather quickly.  


View by South Meadow Brook

South Meadow Brook
Trail/road from South Meadow

I reached Marcy Dam in less than an hour.  Despite seeing nobody along the road, the area around Marcy Dam was quite busy.  Fortunately, most of the traffic seemed to be headed on the Van Hoevenberg Trail toward Mt Marcy, Phelps, and Table Top.  I started my day heading toward Colden first to climb the tougher of the three peaks with fresher legs.

Looking promising from Marcy Dam
Just upstream from Marcy Dam

The rocky trail begins soon after Marcy Dam

Apart from a few people camping at the sites above Marcy Dam, I didn't see any other hikers after splitting away from the Van Hoevenberg Trail toward Colden.  As with any trail in the High Peaks, the route became rockier as I moved further away from Marcy Dam.  The route never got too tough and climbing remained fairly gradual.  After a dry past month, the trail didn't hold too much mud either.

Nice bridge

Creeks are low this time of year
Getting into the rocky areas

Beyond Marcy Dam, I passed a couple junctions, making my way toward Lake Arnold.  I saw only one group of hikers since leaving Marcy Dam, just below Lake Arnold.  The trail toward Lake Arnold becomes wetter with frequent bog bridges, often in rough shape.  I was looking for my next junction when Lake Arnold came into view.  I started to descend for several tenths of a mile, which didn't seem right. Meanwhile, I never saw Lake Arnold.  It looked like I may have bypassing Colden.  I stopped and checked my map, which confirmed my suspicion.  I should not be descending this much and likely passed Lake Arnold.  I turned around.

Luckily the elevation loss wasn't too steep.  I very quickly passed the hikers that I saw just below Lake Arnold.  They confirmed I passed the junction.  I don't think I overshot the junction by much more than a half mile, but it was slightly frustrating.  I'm just glad I didn't go much further.

Sure enough I reached the junction in a couple minutes.  The junction occurs in  an area of bog bridges in poor condition.  A dilapidated bog bridge heads toward Colden's trail at this point.  I mistook it as an old bog bridge thrown aside.  I must have been too busy watching my footing to notice the signs at the junction, several feet above my head.  As for Lake Arnold, you had to know to look for it through the trees  Even then it's barely visible from the trail.  It sat lower than the trail and was otherwise obscured and very easy to miss.

Waterfall running nearly dry

Trail before turning toward Colden
The clouds haven't completely
 obscured everything yet

At any rate, I was back on track.  From Lake Arnold the trail climbed nearly 1,000 feet over 1.4 miles switching between gradual and steep terrain.  As I gained elevation, I passed open areas that normally would provide some views.  The clouds had dropped considerably since I left Marcy Dam and I couldn't see any higher terrain.

Lake Arnold
Easy climbing near Lake Arnold

Choya leading the way on a bog bridge
Uneven trail

Choya stopping for a photo

The trail breaks out above treeline briefly on Colden's north summit.  From here, I could see the main summit a few tenths of a mile away, but not much else. Beyond the north summit the trail drops back below the trees and climbs an impressive set of steps.  Quickly the trail pokes back out of the trees and into the open.  The trail passes under a large rock opening before generally staying above the scrubby trees.  In the short distance from the north summit, the clouds dropped further completely obscuring any view. 

Colden from the north summit before
the clouds drop in completely

Clouds starting to obscure the view
Long set of steps enroute to Colden

Large boulder shelter near Colden's summit
and nice spot for a snack out of the wind

Mount Colden stands as the 11th highest peak in the Adirondacks at 4,715'  Its location sits between Mt Marcy and Algonquin Peak, the two highest peaks in the state and features open rock on its summit with a small alpine area.  It's known to have some of the best views in the Adirondack.  Unfortunately, I saw none of it.  I could barely see 100 feet.

Since this was my first summit of the day I didn't linger.  There wasn't much point to linger anyway.  The clouds were damp.  Combined with a stiff wind, the moisture was unpleasant.  Occasionally the clouds would lift for 20-30 seconds to catch a glimpse down the Trap Dike and see Avalanche Lake and Pass.  The clouds would sink back as quickly as they cleared.  I returned to the shelter of the rock overhang to escape the elements long enough for both Choya and me to get a snack.  With the clouds lowering, they left the rocky parts of the trail slick with moisture on the descent.

Clouds blocking any views from Colden

Choya on Colden
Clouds briefly lifting above Avalanche Lake

Quick glimpse toward Avalanche Pass
Not so much for views

Choya on the narrow path on Colden
in the scrub
Colden's north summit just barely visible

A momentary break in the clouds

Once below Lake Arnold, I soon rejoined my loop and made my way to Indian Falls.  Less than a mile from this junction I reached the Van Hoevenberg Trail at the top of Indian Falls.  From the top of the falls, the view look toward the MacIntyre Range.  The clouds parted enough to get at least a partial view.

From the top of the falls, you don't really see the actual waterfall.  I made a tricky descent to the bottom of the falls to get a good look.  After a dry summer, the falls didn't have much flow.  In spring, I'm guessing the falls are quite impressive.  I didn't notice an obvious path to the bottom of the falls, so use caution if you choose to get a closer look.  I took a longer break back at the top of the falls.  A few sprinkles fell.  

Indian Falls with a low flow

View from the top of Indian Falls

My next objective was Table Top Mountain.  Table Top is reached by a spur off the Van Hoevenberg Trail.  Although technically a herd path, the route to Table Top remains obvious along its length.  In typical Adirondack fashion, the herd path traverse numerous roots on a rough surface.  I passed a handful of groups going both up and down.  The spur travels less than a mile before reaching the summit.

Start of trail to Table Top

4,427' Table Top usually doesn't rank too high among the 46ers for it its scenery even though it stands respectably as New York's 19th highest point.  Like its name implies the summit is relatively flat and marked with a sign.  Without the sign, the high point wouldn't be obvious.  There are supposedly limited, obstructed views near the summit.  Either way, the clouds dropped even lower than when I was on Colden.  I could barely see beyond the treetops.  Even though I had the summit to myself, there was no point lingering in the dense fog.  I had slightly better brief views on my descent.

Cloudy view from Table Top

Slight view during descent of Table Top

I rejoined the Van Hoevenberg Trail while making my way toward the side trail to Phelps Mountain.  Phelps is reached by a spur that travels just over a mile from the main trail.  Unlike the spur to Table Top, the trail to Phelps has official status and markings.  Despite its status as an official trail, the footing enroute to Phelps travels over rougher terrain with more rocky scrambles than Table Top's route as well as more elevation gain.  Choya started to slow down a bit on the climb of Phelps.  We covered more than 12 miles at this point.  

Start of trail to Phelps

Rough section enroute to Phelps

Phelps Mountain rises to 4,160' and stands as the Adirondacks's 32nd highest point.  Unlike Table Top, which stands nearly 300 feet higher, Phelps rewards you with pretty expansive views. By the time I reached Phelps's summit, the clouds began lifting and I finally had some views for the day.  The visibility improved the longer I lingered.   This was my first summit of the day that I shared with others as a handful of groups enjoyed the scenery with me when I arrived. 

Clouds are starting to lift

Colden and Avalanche Pass

Phelps was the only summit that I rested upon for any length of time.  Both Choya and I refueled as I enjoyed the scenery.  From the summit, the views stretch from Big Slide to the east and include Giant, the Great Range to Marcy and west to the MacIntyres.  Colden dominates the view in the foreground.  After Choya ate and realized I wasn't going anywhere immediately, he relaxed and eventually took a nap before we left the summit.

Choya resting on Phelps

Choya contemplating a nap
Taking a nap before the final few miles

Colden and Avalanche Pass
Mt Marcy out of the clouds

Marcy and Colden
Great Range

A couple hours later the skies were nearly cloudless

Colden, Algonquin, and Wright
Algonquin and Wright

Leaving Phelps, our climbing for the day was behind us.  Back on the Van Hoevenberg Trail Choya seemed energized and took the lead again, moving at quick pace.  He led most of the day, but slowed up on the Phelp's Trail, turning the lead over to me.  After passing Marcy Dam, we rejoined the easy trail/road toward South Meadow.  With the gentle terrain on the trail to South Meadow, we picked up the pace to a jog.  Choya seemed to be game for this and moved faster than I wanting to go.  

Parting shot from Marcy Dam

We reached the trailhead just after 330PM, just shy of 9 hours from our start.  With my extra mileage missing the trail at Lake Arnold, I put our total distance around 18.8 miles and our total elevation gain at just over a mile.  This was right around Choya's longest distance in a day, even though he has climbed more elevation gain in a day.  With the rough trail conditions in the Adirondacks, this may have been his most challenging hike.

While I have little desire to climb Table Top again, I would gladly revisit Phelps.  I will most likely climb Colden again on a day with better visibility to take advantage of its raved about views. It's pretty common for Phelps and Table Top to be climbed together for a roughly 12 mile trip out of the Adirondack Loj.  Experienced hikers that can handle an additional 6 miles should be able to add Colden if two peaks aren't enough for the day.  While I would have liked better weather on my first two summits, the lifting clouds and views on Phelps saved the day and made the trip worthwhile.  

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