Hiking Mount Marcy, New York’s Highest Peak
A trip report and history lesson from the little known 6-million-acre Adirondack Park, the largest publicly protected natural area in the lower 48
The largest publicly protected natural area in the continental US is not a national park, and there’s a very good chance you’ve never heard of it. Located some 275 miles due north of New York City and just 15 miles south of the Canadian border sits the the 6-million-acre Adirondack Park, a unique patchwork of public and private lands bigger than the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, the Great Smokies, and Glacier National Parks combined. (And if you’re wondering, yes, the classic wooden lounge chair did originate within it.)
Once a territory shared by the Iroquois-speaking Mohawk and Oneida, and the Algonquian-speaking Mahicans, the Adirondacks are home to the oldest mountains in North America and some of the most pristine wilderness encompassing more than 3,000 lakes and ponds, nearly 30,000 miles of rivers and streams, and, of course, the 46 Adirondack High Peak mountains (more on that in a bit). The area is literally bigger than New York State’s neighbor to the east, Vermont, and is a haven for hikers, rock climbers, mountain bikers, birders, canoers, etc, etc. It’s a special place.
And here’s further proof—the Adirondack park is the only wilderness area that is controlled by the state legislature and protected by a state constitution. Consisting of 2.6 million acres of State-owned land designated in 1892 a “forever wild” forest preserve that will “never be sold, leased, or taken by any person or corporation, public or private,” plus 3.4 million acres of privately held land that’s actively preserved by owners and an overseeing Adirondack Park agency, the area stands as a shining—and sadly rare—example of public-state cooperation for the benefit of all outdoors lovers. It’s genuinely inspiring. And stunningly beautiful.
And standing high above it all is Mount Marcy, the highest peak in New York State.
It took living in New York City for seven years before I ventured north to the Dacks. But once I exited Interstate 87 and wound my way to the quaint mountain town of Keene Valley, viewing vibrant conifer forests, pristine rivers and waterfalls, and craggy peaks as I went, I was hooked.
While canoe camping on Saranac Lake has become a favorite summer tradition in recent years——paddling to your campsite on a private island is something else—backpacking throughout the Adirondack High Peaks region is really my favorite way to explore the vast wilderness. Most recently, I set my sights on the 5,344-foot high Mount Marcy, the tallest 46er located in the Eastern High Peaks zone on state Forest Preserve land.
What's a 46er? Within the Adirondack Park sit some 46 High Peaks above 4,000 feet in elevation. These are the 46ers, and an Adirondack 46er is someone who has summited each and every one of them. Now, before you Colorado kooks laugh and leave, consider the elevation gain required to reach Mount Marcy’s summit is nearly 4,000 feet over just eight miles, making the loop a steep and grueling 16.6 miles. Then consider the legit slab free climbing required to summit Saddleback, or the exposed scrambles to top out Gothics, Basin, and a dozen others. Not to mention the heat, humidity, and black flies.
All this is to say that hiking in the ADKs is no joke. As a snobby outdoorist born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, I’m a hard sell on East Coast outdoors. But trust me when I tell you that the Adirondacks are the real deal.
"I’ve learned one very important lesson about ADK hiking—the way down is almost never faster, nor easier, than the way up."
With me on the mission was my trusted hiking partner Gabrielle and Field Mag contributor Justin aka @trailheadjustin. Kitted out with Hyperlite Mountain Gear's Junction 2400, Summit Pack, and Windrider 2400 on our backs—and the recently released Camera Pod on my chest—we set our sights on Mount Marcy, ranked by the bible of ADK hiking as difficult with many a large vertical ascent. The reward? Arguably the best views in the whole Adirondack Park. Perfect.
While many visitors to the region prefer a luxe stay at the High Peaks Resort or similar lodge near Lake Placid (home to the 1980 Winter Olympics), my go-to is a lean-to, a three-sided log cabin of sorts popular in the Northeast and along the Appalachian Trail.
The impressive and picturesque Johns Brook Lodge area offers unparalleled access to about a dozen 46ers with three lean-tos available for nightly rent through the nonprofit Adirondack Mountain Club, plus a number of first come, first served lean-tos and primitive campsites. An actual lodge with bunks and staff-cooked meals is also available for those seeking a cushier Haute Route vibe, and the namesake brook hosts some dang fine swimming holes for all.
We started the Mount Marcy hike at the Garden Parking Lot trailhead just outside of Keene Valley, NY. That is, after a requisite stop at The Mountaineer, which is easily one of the best old-school outdoor shops in America, to rent bear cans and snag a last second snack.
The quick and mostly flat three-mile walk to Johns Brook was breezy enough to leave us feeling fresh and confident the following morning. A handful of miles into our designated 11-mile route up the Hopkins Trail, however, that feeling began to turn to, "Wow, I’m out of shape," though confidence and excitement never wavered.
Hiking steadily through pine forests, the trail's elevation gain was constant but never jarring. As a relatively recent UL hiking convert, I revelled in the low weight of our ultralight backpacks; each of us carrying little more than spare layers, food, water, and an emergency shelter (base weights hovering around five pounds, all around). As we reached the Van-Hoevenberg Trail junction, which heads westerly towards Table Top Mountain, Marcy Dam, and eventually the Adirondack Loj at Heart Lake, we stayed the course towards Mount Marcy itself.
This route culminates with roughly 900 feet of elevation gain in the final mile, almost entirely spent hiking above the treeline on ancient and exposed rock faces. It’s a wonderful thing to experience on a clear, mild day and a miserable one to endure when the weather turns. Lucky for us, and against all forecasted odds, we were welcomed to the summit by both the mountain and an Adirondack Mountain Club educational greeter under mostly blue skies.
With nine of the 10 tallest 46ers seemingly within reach and dozens more spread out in all directions, we couldn’t have asked for a better spot for lunch. Views of Mount Colden flanked by Iroquois Peak, Algonquin Peak, and Wright Peak impressed to our west. Haystack, Basin, Saddleback, and Gothics stood prominently on our east, representing a portion of the Great Range Traverse, a killer traverse crossing 12 different mountain peaks in 25 miles with 10,000 feet of elevation gain (in 2005 Backpacker Magazine named the route one of the toughest hikes in America). Knowing we weren't taking on such a forbidding trail made our lunch of tortillas, salami, cheddar cheese, Fritos, and hot sauce taste even better.
The highest point in the region, Mount Marcy’s summit made number 10 of 46 peaks bagged for me. Not exactly a number to write home about, but a modest benchmark nonetheless. But the summit isn't a day done. Throughout my time in the Adirondacks I’ve learned one very important lesson about hiking here—the way down is almost never faster, nor easier, than the way up. A quick cat nap followed a celebratory Snickers; reward and rest for the six grueling hours of rocky, heads-down hiking that still stood between us and a skinny dip in Johns Brook.
Our descent down the Phelps Trail was as boggy and waterlogged as it was the last time I hiked up it—October 2019 on my way to Haystack. Shin-deep mud housing swarms of mosquitoes lay around and between every bend. At times, the hiking trail consisted of nothing but downed logs and wishfully placed stones bobbing in sludge. In this area it’s not uncommon to go a hundred yards without touching dry dirt, spring showers and trademark East Coast Summer humidity make sure of it.
"The descent on these long day hikes can become a mental battle—how can two miles take two hours?!"
After the ascent, the descent on these long day hikes can become a bit of a mental battle. The hiking trail simply never ends. How can two miles of descent take two hours? Carefully placing each footfall becomes an exhausting chore, and a potentially dangerous one as feet get heavy and minds begin to wander. Frequent snack breaks help. Singing Harry Styles does, too. Having a trusty, ultralight backpack full of even more snacks (and water, a butt pad, and so on) certainly won’t hurt.
Eventually we heard the sound of Johns Brook rushing into Bushnell Falls. A few miles of more manicured trail later, and, mercifully, the lodge itself appeared. Tired but satisfied, we stripped down to our birthday suits and slid into the cold creek waters. Canned wine we had hid the night before supplied a well deserved toast before a thunderstorm chased us back to the cozy lean-to to tuck us in for the night.