This outing was a "Julie meetup" - joining up with fellow hiker Julie Moran on a trip that worked towards her objective of a 4th round of the ADK 46. When she stated that her objective for the day was Mount Haystack - 3rd highest in all of the state and probably the state's best overall summit, I thought "Hey, Haystack - I can't pass that up!". Provided that the weather is clear, the views from and near Haystack are excellent and not to be missed.
You have to pay to enjoy's Haystack's charms, though, in the form of a long hike - no matter which way you approach it. Today, we chose to start from the South Meadows trailhead, near ADK Loj. The parking is free and the walk in to Marcy Dam along the South Meadows truck trail is only marginally longer.
Initially, we had agreed to meet Julie at 6:00 am - but then at the last minute I pushed that back to 6:30, to allow some leeway for the drive down. In the end, this was a mistake. We arrived at 5:50 a.m., way ahead of schedule, and Julie ended up being delayed by the setup for the Lake Placid Ironman, which was taking place this weekend. As a result, we only got started at 6:40 a.m.
The walk from South Meadows to the Marcy Dam area was easy and pleasant - the wide track of the trail (technically a fire access road, but it is continually growing in and is now pretty narrow to be considered a road) and the gentle grades and no roughness made for a fast walk. I decided to hike this smooth section of trail in my comfy sneakers, with my hiking boots stored in my pack for the rougher stuff later on.
It took us about 55 minutes to walk to Marcy Dam, where we saw signs of the breakup of the low morning cloud. Here, we switched to the Van Hoevenberg trail towards Marcy; the VH trail would allow us to reach the upper Phelps Trail, which would in turn allow access over to Haystack.
The Van Hoevenberg Trail got gradually rougher as it slowly ascended alongside Phelps Creek. We soon passed the turnoff to Phelps Mountain, then not long after that turned right over the creek and started along a steeper stretch up to Indian Falls. The Indian Falls Lookout was especially pretty today, with a view over a bank of low clouds that nicely framed the summit of Algonquin Peak.
From Indian Falls, the Van Hoevenberg Trail continued its ascent, now quite gradually, up the northern flanks of Mount Marcy. For such a major trail, this upper part of the Van Hoevenberg is actually fairly smooth, with only a few stretches that could be considered truly rough. In places, it is actually quite pleasant walking.
We took the Van Hoevenberg trail all the way up to 4800 feet - just 550 vertical feet shy of Marcy's summit - before reaching the Phelps Trail. The Phelps Trail comes in from Johns Brook Valley, and it would provide us with a connection over to the main trail leading up to Haystack. On a map, it was not the most efficient routing, but it is the best that can be done when approaching Haystack from the north - as we were doing today.
It was now time to give up some hard-earned elevation, by descending the Phelps trail nearly 700 feet to the notch at the head of Panther Gorge. To add insult to injury, this section of trail is quite tedious and rough, with lots of large boulders and such.
Once at the low point, we turned off of the Phelps Trail and onto the main trail to Haystack's summit. Immediately we started climbing again, gaining nearly 600 extremely steep feet to the first of two sub-summits leading to Haystack's main summit. Although the first sub-summit is mostly treed, it does have a couple of small points of rock that protude above the trees, and they offer a fantastic view of the surrounding terrain - especially the view up Haystack's main ridgeline.