Thursday, August 4, 2011

Backpacking in the Great Range of the Adirondacks: From Johns Brook Lodge to the Summit of Mt. Marcy

"Because it's there."
George Mallory, 1923
English mountaineer

This July I had the pleasure of backpacking in the Adirondack Mountains of New York State with my daughter. It was actually our first, extended excursion together without the rest of the family. We went to the Great Range, an 11-mile chain of a dozen or more contiguous mountains in the High Peaks region with names such as the Wolf Jaws, Armstrong, Saddleback, Gothics, Haystack, Big Slide, and of course Mt. Marcy, the highest peak in the state at 5,344 feet. Summer haze can obscure visibility from the summits due to heat and humidity, but our climbing conditions were picture perfect. We had warm and dry weather with deep blue skies and big white clouds.

This four-photo panorama of the Great Range extends from the southeast to the west. It was taken from the summit of Big Slide Mountain (4,240 feet) which we climbed the following day. Johns Brook Valley lies in the foreground of the range with Johns Brook Lodge basically in the center. From the far left the peaks include Giant, the Rooster Comb, Lower Wolf Jaw, Upper Wolf Jaw, Armstrong, Gothics (with the big slide), Saddleback (two summits), Basin, Haystack, Marcy (the pointed peak right of center), Gray (tucked behind Marcy), Colden (pointed peak), Phelps (small), Algonquin (also a pointed peak) and Wright.
Click for a larger view.

I've backpacked the Great Range four times over the years, having first done it back in high school with a very close friend, a good 45 years ago. Equipment in those days was heavy and cumbersome, and qualified as being called "no-tech." Backpacks were made out of heavy, green canvas that got even heavier when wet, and stayed that way. There was no such thing as "cotton kills." Wool and down worked fairly well back then before being replaced by fleece and other breathable-microfibers. And certainly, there was nothing like DEET, which works well against the Adirondack's notorious blackflies. I remember a big frying pan dangling from my backpack that banged against my legs! Things have definitely changed for the better.

Fortunately, to my great delight, everything looked just as I remembered: the scenic drive up the Adirondack Northway (I-87), the majestic stretch to Keene Valley on NY 73, the quaint, little town of Keene Valley, the better-get-there-early car-park in the Garden, the 3.5 mile hike into the valley of Johns Brook, and finally, the lodge of the same name, maintained by the Adirondack Mountain Club (a.k.a. ADK). The excitement hadn't changed either! I hoped my daughter would experience the same. 

This old man and his young daughter are looking "ready, willing and able" at the Garden car-park. 

Johns Brook Lodge, known to many as JBL (but with the "J" written backwards stemming from an old tradition), is an unforgettable oasis in the woods. It’s the perfect base from which to initiate hikes into "some of the best hiking in the northeast." It’s rustic (c. 1925) and isolated (over an hour from the car), but clean as a whistle and very well-maintained. A veritable haven of peace, quiet and tranquility. You'll feel the stress flow from your body as you approach it. There’s no electricity, just a solar-powered refrigerator and a propane-powered stove. Even the lights are propane-fueled. By the way, all the food is backpacked in three times a week by the dedicated JBL crew. The lodge has a great porch-deck with chairs for hanging out. And what a view of the tops of the High Peaks through the trees!

The lodge has high ceilings inside with big beams and a massive, stone hearth. There are long, wooden tables for dining family-style. Listen for the dinner bell! There's hearty, home cooking with great deserts. How about some hand-churned ice cream? There’s lots of socializing. “What did you climb today?” "What's the condition of the trail?" “What’s the forecast for tomorrow?” Guest-lectures are in the evening after dinner. Scrabble. UNO. Monopoly. Bunk beds for 28 guests. Quiet time after 10. Even earplugs for non-snorers! Hot coffee and oatmeal are served in the morning when the breakfast bell rings. Pancakes too, with real maple syrup. My daughter absolutely raved about the lodge and can’t wait to come back next summer. 

Johns Brook Lodge

View of one of the range's peaks from the deck of the lodge

The Adirondacks have a distinctive look and addicting appeal. Hiking them is very different from my experiences in New England, and certainly out West. All the repeated ups and downs. The high water-bars made of logs that test the merit of your tendons and ligaments. The gnarled, exposed tree roots that offer a step-up to the next level, as well as a chance to trip your gait. The huge steps of rounded, glaciated-stones. Ascend and work your heart and lungs; descend and blast your knees and quads! And of course, there’s the wet, black muck. Step in it and risk pulling the hiking boot right off your foot. By the end of your trip, you will have acquired the balance of the Flying Wallendas by walking on all the narrow bridges made of wooden planks and logs. 

High above, the leafy tree-canopy sways in the breeze. Down below, the ever-present fallen trees are rotting and decomposing, covered with fungus, mushrooms and moss. Butterflies are everywhere, and unfortunately, blackflies and mosquitoes are too (mainly in the low wooded sections). Great smells, sights and sounds. Sensory overload. It all comes back to you, almost fifty years later. Tremendous!

Typical appearance of gnarled roots, exposed on the woodland floor

The infamous, Adirondack, boot-sucking, black muck has devoured my right foot.
This massive erratic in Johns Brook Valley was carried and deposited by glacial ice. In North America, the Laurentide continental ice sheet covered the uppermost half of North America during the Pleistocene, beginning 1.6 million years ago. It was characterized by several glacial advances and retreats, the most recent surge of which was the Wisconsin, ending about 10,000 years ago. Continental and later alpine glacial ice covered Mt. Marcy and the other peaks of the Adirondacks, as evidenced by glacial polish, glacial striations, and erratics such as this. 

On our first full day of hiking, my daughter and I plunged right in. We climbed remote Mt. Marcy at 5,344 feet. Starting at an elevation of 2,316 feet from the lodge, the distance to the summit of Marcy (my daughter and I still disagree on the mileage), is a total of 11.5 miles round trip (her figure is 13). The exact number matters little. It’s not a difficult climb to Marcy’s summit, but taking into account the distance from the lodge, and the elevation gain and loss of over 6,000 feet, it was a loooong day. Trust me. Our round trip was nine hours. Drink lots of water!
Our hike to the base of Mt. Marcy began from Johns Brook Lodge;
our hike to the summit began about 3 hours later. 
Heading southwest along the Phelps Trail (yellow markers) that essentially follows the brook,
we then skirted past Slant Rock (red markers) to summit from Marcy's northeast slope.
Notice the contiguous peaks of the Great Range that parallel our trail to the east.
You can climb them all in a Grand Traverse.
On our trek through the valley to Marcy, we've transitioned from the Northern hardwood forest zone
(of maple, beech, birch and hemlock) at the car-park and lodge to the coniferous spruce-fir forest zone
(of spruce, fir and balsam) at about 2,500 feet. A bridge of logs traverses a low, wet section of the boreal forest covered with Sphagnum moss, sedge and liverworts. As we gain altitude, the environment changes as well. The growing season is shorter. The temperatures are colder, and the effective precipitation is higher.  Notice our entry into a section of thinning, mature growth with a new, evergreen understory.

Sphagnum moss and Leather-leaf are right at home on the wet, boggy forest floor.

Decomposition is vital to renewal.
This gill fungus is probably Pluteus admirabilis that fruits on well-rotted wood.

Someday this rotting stump will be "borne-again",
 when its organic, nutritional components provide the fuel for new growth.
Ganoderma applanatum forms large, bracketed fruitbodies with distinctive concentric grooves.
It is also known as Artist's Conk, since it can be used for etched designs when fresh. It turns dark brown
when bruised. It occurs on living trees as well as recently cut stumps and logs.
There is some scientific evidence that indicates this mushroom has some antibacterial properties.

This epiphytic (tree) lichen (possibly Evernia prunastri or "Oakmoss lichen") is thriving
an a decomposing limb. Lichens are actually complex organisms, the result of a relationship
between a fungus and alga. In an alpine ecosystem such as this, the lichen functions as a soil-former
by converting atmospheric nitrogen into a utilizable form for other plants. 

After a while, it became a joke between my daughter and me.
All the butterflies landed on me, while all the mosquitoes landed on her. 
I actually had one beautiful butterfly that I was trying to photograph,
land on my hand that was holding my camera! This is a White Admiral (Limenitis arthemis).
It has a prominent white band across its wings making it readily recognizable on forest trails.

The well-camouflaged American toad (Bufo americanus) is a common trailside-insectivore.
The bracket fungus is Trametes versicolor with its characteristic shelving and overlapping of its fruitbodies.
Also known as "TurkeyTail," it's commonly found on downed logs and rotting stumps.
There has been recent research done on this fungus for its medicinal value
as an adjunct treatment for colorectal cancer and leukemia.
What at first appeared to be the top of Marcy is actually the summit of Little Marcy at 4,765 feet.
Many of the Adirondack's mountains have false summits and dual peaks. Read those maps!

We're now in the Krummholz or "crooked wood" zone at about 4,500 feet.
The trees have become shorter and are almost impenetrable with thick stands of balsam, fir
and black spruce. The inhospitably harsh climate here dwarfs the trees. The growing season
is barely two months. Along with the thin soil, extreme temperatures, winter winds,
and reduced sunlight due to clouding and fog, the flora appears in a miniaturized form.
That's Marcy's treeless dome, almost shrouded in the clouds, looming in the distance. Trees there can't survive the harsh summit conditions of its alpine climate zone. In the foreground, a poorly-drained depression has developed into a small alpine bog. My experience with bogs thus far has only included rather large, lowland bogs. Typically, the bog's tundral flora includes Sphagnum moss, sedge, leatherleaf, cottongrass and even carnivorous plants. Notice also the dwarf spruce and fir trees.
Final push for the summit!
Please visit my three posts on woodland bogs starting at:

While buffeting over 50 mile in hour gusts of wind at Marcy's summit, my daughter proudly exalts in the fact that she's the most elevated person in the State of New York, both geographically and emotionally.
Marcy's treeless and glaciated summit of exfoliating metanorthosite is speckled with lichen and moss,
the indigenous tundra-vegetation. Fragile patches of alpine soil are protected from the unsuspected trampling of hikers by rows of rocks. Non-native sedge has been planted to stabilize the sites so that native mosses can gradually revegetate the area. Johns Brook Valley, from whence we cometh, is in the distance and far below. Many of the plants in the alpine zone are rare, threatened or endangered, but all are protected. 

My turn on top!
The plaque at the summit officiates our presence.
Back at the lodge nine hours later, the cold Johns Brook is a sure-cure for tired, aching, blistered feet.
The brook is choked with large cobbles of rounded metanorthosite, also in gneissic and gabbroic forms. In fact the entire Great Range is underlain with this ancient, Precambrian rock. A compositionally similar version of metanorthosite is actually found on the Moon. The mysteries of the tectonic genesis of the Adirondacks as well as its curious, more recent doming, which accounts for up to 3mm of rise per year, remains a subject of heated debate and research. Thus, the Adirondacks are considered to be "new mountains from old rocks." It is a common misconception that the Adirondacks are merely old, eroded mountains. Another misconception is that the Adirondacks are geologically related to the Appalachians. In actuality, they are the only mountains in the eastern U.S. that aren't geologically Appalachian. The Adirondacks are related to a terrane called the Grenville Province and a mountain-building event called the Grenville Orogeny that far predates the formation of the Catskills, theTaconics, and the Green and White Mountains of New York and New England. I plan to address these issues in a future post.

Taken near the summit of Big Slide Mountain, climbed the following day, we were afforded an impressive view of of Big Slides' sheer slope, the Johns Brook Valley, the Upper Great Range and Mt. Marcy (to the right). On many steep slopes such as Big Slide and Gothic (seen in the distance), slides are common where a thin, soil cover over the basement of metaplutonic anorthosite has slid off. The groundwork for such slides was probably laid during the last ice age at elevations up to 2,000 feet or so. Clay and silts were deposited in large deep lakes in advance of the glaciers. Their deposition facilitates the conveyance of groundwater that contributes to slope instability especially on steep inclines. Heavy snowpacks, melting snow and rainfall over the millenia infiltrates the subsurface. At higher elevations, the soils that cling to the slopes are thinner making them less stable, especially when steep. Interestingly, talus at the base of the slopes is minimal.  

Back at the lodge at night and reflecting on the day's trek to Marcy and back, my daughter proclaimed “I’m really proud of myself!” And I, of her! There's an organization amongst climbers called the Forty-Sixers which recognizes those who have ascended the 46 High Peaks in the Adirondack Mountains. My daughter says she's interested.

Summiting Marcy was the second best part of the trip. The best part was doing it with her. Call it “quality time.” And, that it was.

P.S. I highly recommend the pocketsize Adirondack Alpine Summits by Nancy Slack and Allison Bell, as an ecological field guide with wonderful photos and concise descriptions.


  1. Great pictures and a lot of work put into this blog. Just awesome!

  2. Are your photos for sale. We hiked the Brothers last year and love the first one of the Great Range.

    1. Dear unknown, I don't sell any of my photos but grant their use on an individual basis. Perhaps you would like to identify yourself via email.