Hiking Mt. Marcy

I finally hiked Mt. Marcy, with 5,344 feet the highest peak in New York, and an adventure it was. I am a West Coast hiker. I am used to blue sky, heat in the day, cold at night, the need for sunscreen, high altitude trailheads and even higher peaks. And I am used to switchbacks.

The Adirondacks are a whole different beast. Mt. Marcy has a number of reasonable trails reaching it, the shortest of which starts at the Adirondack Loj (spelling intentional by its builder, Melvil Dewey, who was an advocate of “simplified spelling”) at Heart Lake. The trail is 7.2 miles long. Marcy is therefore a fairly remote hike. I can do 7.2 miles one way, no problem. But the trail up Marcy is not different from the trail up Algonquin and Ampersand. Straight up, all the time.

You can click to enlarge the map above. The trail starts at Heart Lake, the same trailhead I used to hike Algonquin a couple of years ago. That trail is visible here in brown. The blue arrow points to the peak. You can see that the trail is about twice as long, making Mt. Marcy a remote mountain to reach from any road.

I started out by driving to Lake Placid the afternoon before. I started in Saratoga Springs where it was sunny and hot, and two hours later as I entered Lake Placid it was raining hard. It looked like an afternoon thunderstorm, but I found out later that there was a tornado warning not ten miles away to the north. All evening and into the night it rained. Unlike I did in my youth when I pitched a tent at the trailhead, this middle-age soft hiker checks into a hotel the night before. So the rain didn’t bother me, except I knew that if it didn’t let up, there was no way I could go. And I only had one day on my schedule.

When I looked out the window at 5:30am, it didn’t rain, but it was gloomy, misty and chilly out. Hoping for better weather later, I drove to the trailhead and took my first steps onto the trail at 6:30am.

The trail is usually very rocky, over high boulders, up sheer rock slabs, and it’s difficult on the feet, even with a good pair of boots.

The photograph below shows a sample section of the trail. The yellow marks are paint marks on the rock letting you know the way. It looks vertical in this picture, but don’t be alarmed. You can “walk” this. You just need to be careful. I strapped my poles to my pack and scrambled up using my arms. It’s most tricky when it’s wet, of course. And coming down.

Some kids do it in running shoes. That must really hurt by the end of the day. And it’s killing my 54-year-old knees. It takes me longer to go down a mountain than up. I can climb up like a mountain goat, but I hobble down like an invalid, supported by my poles, picking my way down, trying not to stress my knees, bend them as little as possible, always fearful of a fateful twist of the ankle or worse. But that is part of hiking when we get older, and we love doing it nonetheless, particularly looking back afterwards.

All the way up it was cold and rainy. I had to put on the rain poncho from time to time. The trail was muddy and slippery. The woods were eerily distant and forbidding.

There was a nice view of Mt. Colden from Marcy Dam. This was one of the clearer moments.

I took that picture from Marcy Dam, a section of which you can see below:

For reference, Marcy Dam is shown on the map above at the red arrow, and Mt. Colden at the green arrow.

Once, about halfway up, I came to a 4-way intersection in the trail at 3.6 miles. Left and right were labeled “ski trail only” and forward was labeled “to Tabletop Mountain”. It didn’t say Marcy, but I figured close enough. It seemed to be the right direction. When I pulled myself over mud holes and around birch trees without any clear way further I came to the conclusion that I can’t possibly be on the main trail to the highest peak in New York. I was stuck.

The map above shows my little detour (red arrow), which cost good time and energy, all in steady rain. When I got back to the intersection I had clocked at least an extra half a mile and 30 minutes of hiking, and got into some of the worst terrain of the day. Note to self – let’s not climb Tabletop via this route. Note to the reader – the Adirondacks are pretty wild, and there aren’t always signs when and where you need them.

Little did I know that I was just a few feet away from “Indian Falls” (green arrow) that I trudged by in frustration. I didn’t realize that until I researched the trail and map when I got back.

When I finally got within a half a mile of the top, the weather became outright inclement. I had read about people dying on Mt Washington in New Hampshire (6,288 feet high) during freak snowstorms in the summer and I could never understand how that can happen at such comparatively low altitude, as judged by a Californian. On Mt. Marcy I got my enlightenment. Even though I wore every stitch of clothing I had brought (my T-shirt, my long-sleeve hiking shirt and my windbreaker, I was whipped by an icy storm. Frozen raindrops pelted me sideways from the west. I had to face away from the wind so my hood didn’t get blown off and I could see. And through this I was picking my way up sheer rock slabs, slippery from the water, steep and sometimes without any good footholds.

When I got to the peak around noon, there was nobody at the top, so I used the timer with the camera on a rock to take this picture of me. I was sheltered from the wind a bit by the slab of rock (the peak) behind me.

I might mention that just as the camera had snapped this picture, the wind actually blew the camera off the rock. As I saw it bounce I was afraid that it would never work again, but I guess I was lucky.

The view from Mt. Marcy is supposed to be spectacular. I saw only white mist not too far out. I took this picture to illustrate my point and to test whether my camera was still functioning after the fall.

After this grandiose view from the peak toward the east, and since there was little shelter from the wind and no shelter from the rain, I took just enough time for a couple of granola bars and an apple, before I started the long trek back.

And very long it was indeed. The sky broke open in the afternoon, and there was even some sunshine. Hikers later told me that the view from the top also opened up. The way down always seems much longer than the way up. With the goal, the conquest of the peak behind me, I just want to get back.

I arrived at the trailhead about 12 hours after leaving, thoroughly sore, wet, hungry, exhausted and eminently satisfied. Another goal achieved. Another mountain conquered. Another great day in the Adirondacks! Can’t wait to go back.

16 thoughts on “Hiking Mt. Marcy

  1. Great post! I’ve done a trip out to Mt. Marcy (from Wisconsin) three straight Novembers and didn’t summit until the 3rd attempt. The weather there is something else.

  2. Derek

    Great post! We are heading to Mt Marcy Memorial day weekend. I noticed at the intersection you spoke about you commented how you went straight and it ended up being the wrong way. Which way was the right way? Hopefully we don’t make the same mistake.

  3. Krystal

    I’m inspired after reading this. You’ve sparked my interest in conquering this peak. As far as hiking is concerned, my experience consists of climbing with a partner to the top of Kaaterskill falls, NY, a week long canoe/camp trip down the Saco, Maine, and a few trips here and there to parks in NJ and NY. Wonderful post, and greatly detailed. Sounds like something else!

  4. Krystal – the background you are describing may not qualify you for a good experience on Marcy. This is a brutal hike. You might try Mt. Ampersand instead (search this blog). It has many of the Marcy attributes but it’s much shorter a hike, and less brutal a mountain – and nothing to laugh at. Build up your experience one step at a time. Happy trails!

  5. Krystal

    Totally appreciate the feedback! I will definitely check it out and take your word for it 🙂 I’ve got plenty more years to gain more experience so I’m truly looking forward to future adventures!

  6. Chris F.

    I just hiked Marcy this past weekend, my first Adirondack climb. I’m writing because your post sounds like it could have been written by me as far as the “climbing up like a billy goat but down like an invalid!” I’m 51 and ride a mountain bike quite a bit so my stamina was not an issue, but hiking DOWN this trail was painful in my “bad” knee. Then I remembered I had packed some ibuprofen in case of headache, never before haven taken any pain relievers for my knee. They seemed to help and by then the trail had eased off a bit. I was with my 64 year old brother-in-law. Unlike your trip, we had beautiful weather and spectacular views from the summit. We departed the Adirondack Loj parking lot at 8:30am, reached the summit at 1:40pm, departed the summit about 2:30pm, and reached the parking area at 8:00pm. On the way down we halfheartedly decided to check out Indian Falls and take a short break. It turned out to be a great decision. We were greeted with a fantastic view of Algonquin at the top of the falls. You really can’t see the falls themselves because you are at the top, but Algonquin is perfectly framed. Well worth the 50 yard detour. This was a hike I will never forget, worth a few stiff muscles!

    comment: Your photo of the rocky cliff-like trail is a little deceiving. On this part I tied my hiking pole to my pack so my hands were free to help me scramble up, but my brother-in-law held on to his hiking stick and made it up fine. I never had the feeling I was climbing a cliff and might fall off. I just mention this for folks who are hesitant to climb vertical walls (like me!)

    (by the way, Mt. Washington is in NH)


    1. What a nice summary and comment! Thanks.
      Yes, no cliffs there, just dramatic photos.
      I think I am now ready for another Adirondack hike. I was there on June 1 in Lake Placid, but the black flies were voracious. I didn’t even dare walk down the street in town, let alone climb a mountain!

    1. Thanks, Tyler. Search the site for “Adirondacks” and you’ll find about 5 more hikes that might be of interest. Enjoy. I have never been there later in the season, like right now. I should go.

  7. I enjoyed reading your account of your hike. I just finished hiking Mt. Marcy myself and could relate to many of your details, like the horrible weather up top and the steepness of the approach being daunting. I came up from Johns Brook Lodge. It was my first hike in the Adirondacks, and I loved the area!

  8. Great post, Norbert. We just climbed Marcy with a group of 14 for a friend’s 50th b-day and her 46th Adirondack peak. Great going up, but my 56-year-old knees didn’t love the descent. As a Floridian, it was tough to train for. I hope you are still climbing!

    1. Wow, Gary, nice message. I was actually tentatively scheduled to be in the Adirondacks THIS WEEK but could not make it due to business schedules. I might have run into you on that mountain. It’s due to be conquered again…. My knees are 61 years old next month and oh, boy, that hike DOWN is a killer. Check out my most recent writeup about Skyline: https://norberthaupt.com/2017/04/30/the-skyline-hike-one-of-the-hardest-day-hikes-ever/ . There is a hike to beat up hardened hikers! Nothing like THIS in Florida.

  9. Reblogged this on Norbert Haupt and commented:

    Even though this post is over 7 years old, I still get nice comments from readers from all over the country. I was planning on going back to the Adirondacks this week after a conference in Saratoga, but didn’t make it this year. Things got too busy at work. I miss the Adirondacks, and here’s to share some of its adventure!

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