The Great Range Traverse
Updated: Nov 25, 2019
Photos and article by Brent Robillard
The Adirondack forest at night is silent, dark, and a little foreboding. So, fifteen minutes into my journey, when my headlamp picked up the flash of two feral eyes, the only sound I could hear was the rasp of my own ragged breathing and the hammering of my heart in my head. My mind went immediately to wolf, coyote…oh, God, please, don’t let it be a bear.
We stared, sizing each other up, for what seemed like an eternity, but probably did not last more than thirty seconds, all told. The eyes were eerie and disembodied like a Jawa in a Star Wars film. They appeared to float up and down, side to side, but otherwise made no threatening moves, no guttural growls. Raccoon. I tried to reassure myself.
Turning my back on the glowing orbs, I continued to move up the trail, drawing comfort from the tapping of my telescopic poles.
The Great Range Traverse is an arduous day-hike, once ranked as the third most difficult in the US by Backpacker Magazine. Depending upon your route, it encompasses eight High Peaks and two smaller mountains, for a total of 37 kilometres and more than 10 000 feet of elevation gain.
It is not recommended for inexperienced hikers.
Elite trail runners have been known to tackle the range in just under six hours, but realistically, finishing in fifteen hours is a more reasonable goal. Inevitably, this will involve some time hiking in the dark.
I left my home in Athens, Ontario at around 10pm and arrived in Keene Valley in the neighbourhood of 1 o’clock in the morning. My plan was to chain my bike at the Garden parking lot and then move on to the Rooster Comb trailhead to begin the hike. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to me, the municipality had closed the Garden due to numerous parking violations and complaints from residents. In its place, a shuttle from Marcy Field had been arranged, running from 7am to 7pm. But this wasn’t much help to me in the middle of the night. Quickly, I resigned myself to walking the extra distance, and parked at the Rooster Comb Trailhead as planned.
Although I had been hiking in the Adirondacks for more than a decade, the only nighttime experiences I had were those evenings coming off the mountains later than anticipated. But those moments are best described as dusk, not dark. And I was always with others. That night at the Rooster Comb lot, I was alone, staring at the forbidding forest, and rethinking the feasibility of my plan.
In for a penny…I eventually pitched off around 2am, across the duckboards and over the marsh into the dark. After my initial brush—an instance of unfounded fear--with the raccoon, the night went smoothly.
I summited Rooster Comb (2762ft/842) in short order. It offers a broad, flat, rocky outcrop with a lookout over the valley, but on that night the moon was a waning crescent, just above the peaks and offered no light. The valley was a shadow with distant silhouettes against the deep blue sky. But there is something to said for its silence and tranquility at that time of day. Rooster Comb is a normally busy peak and heavily trafficked as a hike of its own.
From here, you must retrace your steps in order to summit Hedgehog (3389ft/1033m). True to reports, Hedgehog is an easy summit but steep at times. However, in the dark, I passed it by almost without noticing. It is fully forested and at night offers only the stars above as a view. It wasn’t until I had begun my descent, that I fully realized I had summited at all. I should note that the trail flashings here are well-placed and well-maintained. Had it not been so, I am certain that I would have wandered off trail at certain points. As it was, my headlamp often picked up the markings in advance of any decision making.
The first real climbing begins after Hedgehog. A short descent gives you a false sense of having bottomed out in the col, but you must climb over the Wolf’s Chin first and then tackle the true col afterward. It is steep, but not as steep as the next climb out of the valley and up to Lower Wolf Jaw (4175ft/1272m).
Although the summit of Lower Wolf Jaw is wooded, similarly to Hedgehog, there are several points on the ascent that offer staggering views. It was during this ascent that I encountered the sunrise, as I had hoped to. The quality of light in those early rays is ethereal and make the 2am start worthwhile.
The descent into Wolf Jaw Notch is another steep one. The climb out as well. Upper Wolf Jaw (4203ft/1281m) has a dramatic false summit to boot, which takes just that much wind out of your sails. But the views from the true summit are much better than from Lower. From the exposed peak, vistas open to the south, offering grand views of Pyramid, Gothics, Haystack, and Marcy. To the north are glimpses of far-off Whiteface and Cascade. For me, the skies were clear and crisp with only a distant hint of cloud.
I set off with renewed vigour into the col between Upper Wolf Jaw and Armstrong, the next target. Equally steep, the trail offers wooden ladders at different points to aid you in your ascent. But Armstrong Peak (4400ft/1355m), like Upper Wolf Jaw before it, lends you visually stunning vistas. I stopped here for an early lunch and to rest for about twenty minutes.
I had once climbed Gothics (4736ft/1443m) from the valley floor, eight years earlier, and I remembered it as an extremely difficult and steep ascent. By comparison, the trip via Armstrong is one of the easiest points in the traverse. Three-hundred-and-sixty-degree views are available from Gothics’ bald top—so named for its rock slides like Gothic architecture. This is the 10th highest peak in the Adirondacks and is conveniently placed at the heart of the Great Traverse, so that you can follow the spine of the Great Range visually backward or forward—with indications of almost every peak in your journey.
I took another breather here, knowing what was in store on the far side of the mountain—a steep descent aided by cables and ladders into the valley next to Saddleback. But it is a good place for photography, and difficult to miss a shot.
The rise out of the deep valley toward Saddleback (4515ft/1380m) is steep, but not overly technical. You must pass over another false summit, but once on top, there are plenty of exposed sections and some very tricky rock scrambling. A small bank of clouds had rolled in and become hung up on the peak when I arrived, but otherwise, trail visibility was good and the rocks were dry. The western edge of the ridge is certainly the most dangerous and involves movement on all fours at times. There are steep drops that I found a little uncomfortable. I accomplished some sections of the descent seated on my rump, while inching my way forward.
Basin’s (4827ft/) summit is bare and exposed on the West but treed to the south. Expansive views are available back in the direction of Saddleback and Gothics. It was around here, that I realized I would need to move a little faster to meet my fifteen-hour end goal.
The descent on the far side of Basin is steep and wild. Nonetheless, it leads to one of my favourite climbs in the Adirondack Park. The trip to Haystack (4960ft/1512m) appears off-the-beaten-path when compared to the other peaks in the Great Range. Its remote location means that it is less frequented than other High Peaks, but it is worth every step to get there—including “The Devil’s Half Mile,” a steep, tough section of the trail. Haystack, and Little Haystack just before it, are otherworldy. Their bald rock formations look as though they come straight out of a shoot for Lord of the Rings. Like Gothics, Haystack also offers some of the greatest views to more remote areas of the Park.
The only thing left after Haystack, is Marcy (5344ft/1629m)—the tallest of the High Peaks. But to get there, you must retrace your steps (something unnecessary since Rooster Comb), back up over Little Haystack and then head through the col between Basin and Marcy. Technically, Marcy is not part of the Great Range, although they do intersect. But most Great Range Traverses include the peak.
Unlike the other mountains in the Great Range Traverse, Marcy offers spectacular views of the MacIntyre Range, including Mount Algonquin—itself one of the most picturesque hikes in the Park, when done from Avalanche Pass. Its summit is also very attractive with exposed rock and veins of alpine vegetation.
Many people hike Marcy and then break north down the Van Hoevenberg Trail to the Adirondack Loj. The other route is to descend Marcy the way you go up and head out Johns Brook. This route takes you past Slant Rock, Bushnell Falls, and Johns Brook Lodge. It is a rolling path, though heavily populated by boulders, that exits at the Garden. I chose this so that I could feasibly return to my Jeep on foot.
After the strain of climbing—or worse, descending—the relatively flat trail out is a welcome change. But it is 7 miles (11 kilometres). You have a lot of time to think about your aches and pains, or to begin planning your next mountain adventure.
In the end, it took me just over 14 hours to complete the traverse. I travelled 39.65km (including the final jaunt to my vehicle), which was the equivalent of 55 537 steps. And if Google Fit can be trusted, I burnt 1 190 calories doing it. It was certainly the toughest day of hiking I ever had, particularly coming down Saddleback (frightening, at times), Basin, and Marcy. My knees were shot by then, I think. But it was also the most rewarding.
There is something quite serene about solo hiking, and aside from my time on Gothics, I was alone on each peak. Those that I met on the trail offered cursory, but friendly greetings, and then were gone. The experience was a bit like meditation during the tough sections—your mind being fully engaged in the moment—and the rest of the time allowed for daydreaming and deep thought. Something not always in abundance in the modern world.
Not bad. Not bad, at all.