During my trip at Saranac Lake in the Adirondacks, I had made it my goal to try to do all of the hikes of the Saranac Lake 6er challenge. I reached the peaks of two of the six mountains (St. Regis and Ampersand) on my first day, and the next day I was aiming to reach two more summits: Haystack and McKenzie Mountains.
Haystack and McKenzie Mountains are located east of the village of Saranac Lake in the McKenzie Mountain Wilderness. The two mountains are connected by a trail and there are two ways to get there: either via a small parking lot located along Route 86, near Saranac Lake, or via the Jack Rabbit Trail near Lake Placid. Since I was staying in Saranac Lake, I opted for the first option (but in hindsight, I think the second option would have been shorter…and possibly easier).
I had hiked over 20 kilometres the day before and my legs were still a bit tired when I got to the trailhead. But I had the whole day ahead of me and I told myself that I would take all the time I needed to reach the summits.
There are two mountains with the name “Haystack” in the Adirondacks. One is part of the High Peaks and is the third highest mountain in New York State. The other one (in which direction I was hiking), is a little smaller (877 metres high) and a little easier to get to.
I had decided that I would start my hike with Haystack Mountain first before heading up McKenzie, to start with the closest and smallest summit. The trail to the top of Haystack Mountain is 5 kilometres (3.3 miles – one way) and it seemed like a realistic first goal despite my sore legs.
Luckily for me the hike started off easy. For more than three kilometres, the trail winds through the forest, with slight ups and downs. The forest was quiet and very pretty with its fall colours. The trail seemed a bit narrower and wilder to me than the St. Regis and Ampersand mountain trails.
The trail eventually descends to join Ray Brook and runs alongside it for a few yards. I really liked this section. The sound of the small waterfalls of the brook accompanied each of my steps on the trail and it made everything feel so peaceful.
Along the creek is the junction of the Haystack Mountain trail (which continues along Ray Brook) and that to McKenzie Mountain (which goes straight into the forest). After another few metres of following the creek, the trail eventually took me across it. And that is where the real climb began.
This aggressive climb offers little respite, and it was made a bit more difficult by all the fallen leaves covering the rocks and roots. And I admit that this is where the fatigue of my legs began to be felt. I had to take several breaks to catch my breath and rest.
Fortunately, this steep climb is not very long and the view suddenly cleared in front of me. I had reached the top of Haystack Mountain.
The summit offers superb views of Whiteface Mountain and the High Peaks region. It was the perfect place to take a long break to rest my legs and get ready for the rest of the hike.
After this break, I continued to follow the trail, this time descending the northern side of the mountain, towards McKenzie Mountain. I could see it between the trees, and I admit that I was very tempted to turn back to return to my starting point. McKenzie Mountain suddenly seemed very imposing and very high, and I was exhausted just looking at it.
So it was a little nervous and less sure that I wanted to do this that I continued my hike. Fortunately, going down Haystack Mountain was rather easy and I reached in no time the Jack Rabbit Trail, a fairly flat cross-country ski trail that took me to the intersection with the trail leading to McKenzie Mountain.
I took a deep breath and tried to muster my courage, then began my climb. At first, it wasn’t too difficult. The trail was covered in water and mud in spots, but I was able to jump from rock to rock to keep my feet dry.
Then the climb became more and more steep, and more and more difficult. The trail picks up a lot of elevation quickly, and I had to work hard to climb, sometimes having to grab hold of rocks with my hands. I’m not really used to trails that are more technical and have lots of rock scrambling and this climb is perhaps one of the most difficult I’ve done so far.
This climb seemed endless and a little strenuous, but the trail eventually stopped gaining elevation and I was able to catch my breath a little. I hadn’t reached the official summit of McKenzie yet. The mountain actually has five peaks and the trail took me down and up those. The trail continued to offer some steep sections, but at this point I was no longer surprised and I admit I was just anxious to get it over with.
It is at that point that I met on the trail Alexandre of Paddle & Hike (it’s always great to meet other French Canadians in the US!). Alexandre is used to hikes and challenges in the Adirondacks and I must admit that talking with him about the other mountains in the area helped me get back some of my motivation to complete the 6er challenge.
I had more rock scrambling to do, more muddy sections to cross, more elevation to gain, but I finally made it to the official summit! This one is identified by a simple sign on a tree. A few rock ledges nearby, however, offer a pretty view of the surroundings.
At 1,164 metres above sea level, McKenzie Mountain is the highest summit in the 6er challenge. However, it is a few metres too short to be part of the famous 46ers (the 46 highest peaks in the Adirondacks). But for me, after all these difficult kilometres, reaching this summit almost felt like a victory.
I started the descent and it was obviously long and a little painful. My knees were really sore, my legs were very tired, my boots were muddy, and I was running low on energy. The hike back seemed endless, and I almost screamed with relief when I finally spotted my little car in the parking lot, nine hours (!!) after I started that hike.
In all, I hiked 23 kilometres (14 miles) with an elevation gain of 1,046 metres (3,431 feet). For me, who is not so used to more difficult mountain hikes, this represents quite an achievement. With hindsight, I think that doing this hike when I was not sufficiently rested did not allow me to fully appreciate the experience. But I had four 6er challenge summits under my belt, and that made me feel pretty proud.