Adirondacks High Peaks: Timing Is Everything

When leaves turn the colors on a painter's palette, head to the Adirondack's High Peaks Wilderness.
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When leaves turn the colors on a painter's palette, head to the Adirondack's High Peaks Wilderness.

A friend and I were midway through a summer hike on the Adirondack's Northville-Placid Trail when bouts with blackflies, rainy days, and blisters sent us home early. Feeling defeated, we vowed to return in September to finish what we had started, and that decision was well rewarded.

On a crisp fall morning, we returned to the trail at Long Lake and resumed our northward journey, meandering along the shoreline and marveling at the change in scenery. Brilliant curtains of yellow, red, and orange leaves danced and shimmered in the breeze. Gaudy stands of birch and maple lined both sides of the trail. I breathed deeply of the pine-scented, crystalline air, stopping for a moment to savor the prospect of what lay ahead: three days of blazing fall color, blue water, and clear skies. And not a bug or a cloud in sight.

New York's Northville-Placid Trail has an impressive history in Northeast hiking. The trail, the first project undertaken by the Adirondack Mountain Club, back in 1922, runs 133 leaf-peeping miles from Upper Benson to Lake Placid, bisecting the Adirondack Mountains and serving up a number of weekend-size hikes en route. Our 37-mile hike through the northernmost section crossed the High Peaks Wilderness between Long Lake and Averyville Road.

Along the way, the trail skirts a handful of inviting lakes and rivers, bouncing from rushing rapids and waterfalls to lazy ponds ringed with marsh grass and soft glacial sand. At Cold River lean-to, in fact, I was lulled to sleep by the hypnotic power of the swirling, gurgling stream.

On the second night, we stayed at Duck Hole, where my attention was equally divided between the dazzling leaves and the red squirrels pitching a spirited battle for our food. By the last day, when I signed out at the Averyville Road trailhead, I was euphoric, having finally completed the trail, under clear skies and amid fall colors.

EXPEDITION PLANNER

DRIVE TIME: The trailhead near Long Lake is about 120 miles (2 = hours) north of Albany and 158 miles (3 hours) northeast of Syracuse.

THE WAY: From the village of Long Lake (on NY 30), drive east on NY 28N for 1.5 miles. Turn left on Tarbell Road and proceed 0.7 miles to the trailhead (the Northville-Placid Trail crosses the road here). The trail ends at Averyville Road, a few miles south of Lake Placid.

TRAILS: The entire Northville-Placid Trail stretches 133 miles from Upper Benson to Lake Placid. This section, from Long Lake to Averyville Road, runs 37 miles. Take care to follow the blue trail markers (stay northeast at Duck Hole), because the path crosses private land.

ELEVATION: This section of the Northville-Placid Trail is primarily a lowland path, with elevations from 1,600 to 2,400 feet. Still, there are enough ups and downs to keep your leg muscles working.

CAN'T MISS: Big Eddy. Allow time for a swim in this refreshing natural pool.

CROWD CONTROL: Though the Adirondacks are a popular fall destination, this section of trail is relatively remote. During my September trip, I didn't encounter a single hiker after Cold River.

GUIDES: You'll need the Guide to Adirondack Trails: Northville-Placid Trail, by Bruce Wadsworth ($16.95), and the Trails of the Northville-Placid Region map ($5.95), both of which are available from the Adirondack Mountain Club, (800) 395-8080; www.adk.org.

WALK SOFTLY: Carefully hang all food, since black bears and other critters are common. Avoid making fires, because downed wood is scarce.

CONTACT: Adirondack Mountain Club, (800) 395-8080; www.adk.org.