Hiking the Adirondacks: Haystack, Basin and Saddleback
Heading to the Adirondacks in Lake Placid has become our tradition over the Labour Day weekend. This was our third year taking the usually 6.5 hour drive to Lake Placid, where we are gradually checking mountains off the 46 high peaks list. We took the day before and after the long weekend to act as travel days, leaving 3 full days of hiking and summiting! Rather, that was the plan…
Our long weekend trip started off with a few mishaps, including me forgetting my passport (an unthinkable likelihood given my planning and organizing neurosis) and a highway shut down that added an extra two-hours to our already long drive. We were keen and excited and tried not be too phased by everything happening late, including arriving at our hostel, eating dinner and getting to bed.
As we sat and ate dinner in the common room of the hostel, Tmax and Topo, we looked over our map and notes and made a plan for the following day. The forecast was looking absolutely perfect and would likely be the best weather day of the weekend. Naturally, we thought it best to coincide the best weather with our ‘biggest day’.
Earlier that week I had prepared a list of suggested hikes of various length and difficulty, and with a particular focus on hikes where multiple summits could be completed in one day. (There is nothing more awesome than finishing off a day of hiking with two or three summits complete!). We had already completed a few of the highest top 5, and something about getting another in the top 5 was very appealing.
Now, it was probably my fault that we ever considered Haystack, because I had it on the list. It had been described as one of the hardest high peaks, not only because it was technically challenging, but because it was far – farther than even Marcy, which is known for being a long hike but at least fairly approachable. Yep, Haystack, farther and harder (much harder!), of course we would go for something like that!
So, we had decided on Haystack. Most of my online resources had suggested doing Haystack alone or making a two-day go of it by camping. But when we started looking at the map and planning our route it seemed that adding Basin and Saddleback appeared doable as well – they were pretty much on the path and wouldn’t add much mileage to the day, just a little more up hill and down hill… I admit that I was a bit apprehensive. We talked it out a bit and spoke with a few other hikers sitting at our table; I was looking for someone to deter us from this arduous sounding day, but we never got it, just the agreement that ‘it would be a long day but it could be done’. Evidently, that was enough for us. So, we went back to our room, packed our bags and went to bed for our gargantuous hiking day ahead.
Day 1 – 20+ miles
Mount Haystack #3, Elevation 4960, Ascent 3570
Basin #9, Elevation 4827, Ascent 3650
Saddleback #17, Elevation, 4515, Ascent 2990
We decided to take the route starting from The Garden in the Keene Valley. This route is a little bit longer if you are just doing Haystack, but the first 4 miles are relatively flat. Since we were trying to knock off three summits this trail made the most sense. We had known ahead of time that parking was limited at The Garden, but we took a chance – the chance did not work in our favour despite arriving before 6am. On weekends, particularly long weekends, we were advised parking fills up there at 5am – this should have been no surprise to us! So, we drove to the base of the road and parked at the Keene Valley public parking lot and walked the 2 miles to the trailhead (the alternative here is the overflow parking at Marcy Field and taking the shuttle which typically runs from 7am-7pm).
It began as a quite cool morning at 3 degrees and a thin pair of gloves and a hat were definitely needed. But after a few miles my body warmed up and the sun began to warm the air. The hike began so beautifully – the sun was shining, the air was fresh, the trail was fairly quiet and we even saw a few deer. I was in love. Thus began the love-hate relationship with the trail.
We took the John Brook Trail to the Loj and continued on passed slant rock towards Marcy, we took what we perceived as a ‘shortcut’ which would trim a bit of distance off the day. We later learned this shortcut is nicknamed ‘shorty-shortcut’ which is a gruelling straight up and straight down trail that is often only used for people who need to quickly “get the hell out”. It is much clearer to me now why we didn’t see anyone else for that few hours… And this is probably where the day became unnecessarily gruesome. It really was a steep up and down, like way down. There really is not much more disheartening then going down when you haven’t even gone up the mountain yet, this was the reoccurring theme of the day!
Here is the other thing about Mount Haystack – to get to Mount Haystack you have first go over Little Haystack, which I coined Little Asshole. From afar it all looks like no big deal, but as you clear the dome of Little Haystack the big climb suddenly seems much more daunting. But we did it, of course we did it!
Views from the bald summit are grade-A – Mount Marcy on one side, views of the Range on the other with a speckling of beautiful lakes in the distance, perhaps the best views I’ve encountered in the Adirondacks to date.
We lingered for a half hour or so refuelling and enjoying the views. We ate boiled eggs, bananas and home made granola bars, then it was time to move on.
To get back on trail we had to go over Little Asshole AGAIN and descend to the trail toward Basin. Man, Basin was another beast – a fairly steep and slow going ascent similar to what we had already encountered that day. I can’t recall anything too specific or memory-provoking from this part other than being fixated on getting to the top and trying to conserve my water. At this point I was already feeling it in my knees and hips, and I had already changed the bandage on a forming blister twice. Reaching the top was another beautiful moment of reprieve, gazing upon Haystack which we had just accomplished. Two down, one to go – we could do this. We HAD to do this. Literally, the only trail at this point was the one going over the final mountain and back to the car.
Again, the descent down Basin was surprisingly steep. (I kept wishing that some outdoor genius had set up a zip line to skip this whole part, oh the money I would have paid!) But with every step we continued to descend into the valley I knew we would have to go back up again. The last and final ascent was Saddleback.
Saddleback as the third and final summit seemed so daunting, but actually may have been one of my favourite parts of the day! I recall coming up to its sheer rock face and the trail markings just point up and I kind of laughed for a moment looking around thinking, ‘What?! How?! Where?!’. This was scrambling and rock climbing like I had never done before. There were a few scary moments with slight grips and hoping for the best, but it all worked out okay – we were happy to be going up that way as opposed to coming down. Fortunately, getting up those rockslides kept me alert and focused and the summit was upon us very quickly. It felt awesome getting to the top knowing the hard work of the day was over.
Now, I have a bit of a reputation for being a grumpy hiker on the nasty uphills, but this long walk back to the car was absolutely treacherous. After hours of pounding the downhill on those boulders everything was sore from my feet to my shoulders, and my right knee was particularly problematic. Bryan too was battling his own knee issues. We always knew those last few hours felt the longest and hardest, but that far surpassed the previous days we experienced on the trail. We were exhausted, but the descent was taking longer than expected and there was no time for breaks, we were starting to lose light! We trudged on as quickly as we could, only having to pull out our headlamps for the last half hour or so.
After several hours of feeling like crying (me, at least) we finally came to the parking lot – sweet relief! Now we were aware that our car was still 2 miles down the road and there was always a risk that no one would be there to hitch a ride from, but fortunately there was! We quickly found two Quebecois guys that were kind enough to drop us off at our car.
20 miles roundtrip, 13 hours on the trail and 3 mountains later we sat on the hitch of our truck pealing the nasty socks off our worked and raw feet, cold beers in hand, completely exhausted but feeling accomplished nonetheless. We finished it.
So we headed back to the hostel, it now being 8:30pm, where we cooked up our chili and drank some wine, allowing our injuries and sore muscles to really settle in – we were hobbling around like old people, cringing every time we had to sit or stand.
The day was much more intense then we ever thought possible, and we very likely bit off more than we could chew. Bryan had completely messed up his left knee and I had messed up my right knee. We were grateful to see the weather was calling for rain the following day and were going to take full advantage with a rest day.
Day 2 – Absolutely nothing.
When we went to bed we thought there would be no way our bodies would be in shape to hit the trails again, and boy were we right! I can’t recall the last time I woke up feeling so rough. But the weather was quite cold and rainy, so we didn’t feel so bad about not getting out on the trails.
We slept in. Rested. Went for breakfast at the Noonmark diner in the Keene Valley and ate the most glorious breakfast of eggs, sausage, potatoes and cinnamon raisin toast, and brownies to go, because we are us. We took shelter in our room and lay out with a bit of Netflix.
As the day went on we debated what to do with the following day, the weather was looking good, but our bodies were not. This is where things can get hard – mentally, we want to do more, we want another day on the trail and we want to get another peak. But, physically, our bodies are just not there. We had already tackled some of the shorter peaks you can do from roadside, so when you look at a ‘short hike’ it is still about 8 miles round trip. Of course as hikers we are looking for a challenge, but it is very easy to get in over your head and get hurt. Once you are out there, there are no cars, no safety net and no escape button – you carry your ass out. We knew going out again wasn’t smart, what was only pain at that moment could easily become a very real injury if we didn’t give our bodies the rest we needed.
Day 3 – Heading home
We decided to play it by ear and see how we felt that morning. When that morning came and there were no major improvements from the day prior we decided that was the end of this years hiking. It was disappointing to not get out again, but we were happy to have crossed off three peaks, one of them being one of the toughest – and we wouldn’t have to go back that way again, wahoo!
Without more hiking and in an effort to save a bit of money we headed home a day earlier than planned.
Where We Stayed
Tmax and Topos Hostel – this is the most affordable and comfortable accommodation we have encountered to date in Lake Placid, which is known for being quite expensive. They are predominantly bunk style beds at $35US/night, but they also have a suite and motel style rooms that feature private washrooms. We were in the motel style room, which could sleep 5 and had private washroom, microwave, fridge and dining set up for $86US/night. There is lots of room for cooking, eating and hanging out after a long day, and we were super happy with this choice. Having the kitchen and the ability to cook is a huge money saver. After three years we have found a place I can confidently say we will come back to. The owners were friendly, helpful and the place is clean and well kept in all the right places.
A Few Last Reflections and Tips
-Would I do this hike again? No. Not ever!
-Would I recommend this hike to someone else? No, not as a day hike. MAYBE if you do this type of thing on the regular you might be better equipped to handle it, but I still question this.
-This should go without saying but have all the necessary safety equipment – map, compass, extra layers, iodine tablets or water purifier, etc. This was our first hike where we ran out of water and had to refill on the trail, and I am so glad we were prepared.
-Cut your toenails, you will regret it if you don’t. Despite doing this I still have a toenail that is slowly turning purple (eww!).
-Stay somewhere that you can cook for yourself; it will save you loads of money!
Book the trip. Take on the challenge. Climb the mountain.