This trip report documents the first of a series of so-called "Twilight" hikes led for the Alpine Club of Canada, Ottawa section.
My local chapter of the Alpine Club of Canada had been sending out calls for people to lead more group outings for some time now. I decided to answer that call this year - but I wanted to offer something at least somewhere outside of the typical. I thought about this on and off over the summer, eventually seizing upon the idea of finding ways to experience the most scenic of atmospheric conditions: interesting clouds, undercasts, sunrises, sunsets. Out of this thinking was born the idea of the "Twilight Hike" - an outing undertaken such that one gets to experience twilight (and sunrise or sunset) from an expansive viewpoint. And, this being the Alpine Club, I felt that such a viewpoint should involve some sort of mountain.
I started off the invite and proposal process by picking a sunset outing. For such an outing, we'd leave late in the morning from Ottawa, aiming to arrive at the trailhead mid-afternoon. Then, we'd start out, hiking with the aim to arrive at open terrain and distant vistas at some point before the sunset (which in November is usefully very early). We would then observe the transition of day to night: late-day sun, sunset, and all of the phases of twilight.
After soliciting input from ACC members, we chose as our first outing the long, ridgey prominence known as Jay Mountain, located on the eastern fringes of the Adirondack High Peaks region. Jay offered many attributes that made it very suitable for a Twilight Hike: it has extensive areas of open terrain along its ridgeline, and the distance from trailhead to the first open area is relatively modest. It also offered a superb view to the western horizon, where the sun would set behind the Central High Peaks.
The weather forecast indicated that the weekend of November 12 would be suitable for a sunset hike (Our definition of suitable was low precip probability, along with sky conditions that contained some clouds - but not overcast). I carefully monitored the detailed hourly forecast as the day approached, sending out update emails to the subscribed group (by this point I had about eight people interested) every few days.
By the time Saturday morning rolled around, we were down to just two participants, not including myself (actually, it would have been only one, but for a last minute request to join by Frederic). Saved from having to cancel the trip outright, we began our drive down to the Adirondacks at around 11:15 a.m.
It was a pleasant drive, snaking through various backroads north and east of the Central High Peaks. Unfortunately, a mistake in my chosen course cost us about 25 extra minutes of driving, and we arrived at the Jay Mountain trailhead roughly around 3pm - a bit later than we had intended, given the 4:30pm sunset time.
Jay through the trees
We hustled off in short order, beginning our walk at 3:15pm, climbing up along the "new" Jay Mountain trail. I knew that the first of the open lookouts on Jay's ridge were at the four kilometer (2.5 mile) mark, and almost 2000 feet higher than the trailhead. We had 75 minutes to cover that distance and elevation. Could we do it?
A brisk pace
Dianne led most of the way, setting a very brisk pace punctuated by only a few less-than-a-minute drink breaks. With all of the foliage down for the season, we could see both the sky above and the looming shape of Jay Mountain ahead. The cloud cover was at about predicted - at roughly 60%, but it was destributed in a strange way. Rather than many small clouds dotted across the sky, the sections of cloudiness were large and consolidated. The clouds themselves were wispy and not particularly thick. The cast of the light was flat and gray - not particularly appealing thus far.
As we approached the 3000-foot mark, we began to get a clearer view of the western horizon. Happily, we could see a strip of clear sky there, which was potentially good news. A setting sun shining horizontally through such a gap had the potential to create fantastic colors.
Beautiful evening glow
4:14pm, 2950 feet. Sunset was now only about fifteen minutes away. Off to the west, the sun descended into the clear gap we had spotted earlier, and suddenly, the entire western slope of Jay was bathed in a golden glow. Even though the temperature had not changed, it suddenly felt warmer and friendlier. I was now even more excited at the prospect of a spectacular sunset and twilight, but first we had to get to open terrain!
The golden light continued to intensify, strongly tinting the bare branches of the short, thick forest that grew near Jay's ridgeline. I could see crags of granite glowing in the light only a few hundred feet away on the ridge. Dianne must have sensed my desire for a sunset shot, for she encouraged me to go on ahead as we neared the ridgeline.
Sublime November Afternoon
At 4:23pm, I popped out onto the lookout on the far western end of Jay's Ridgeline. The fiery ball of the sun perched ever so close to the craggy western horizon, its bright glow preventing a precise visual estimation of how near it was to setting. In the other direction - eastward - the higher bumps of Jay Mountain's rocky ridgeline were beautifully illuminated. I took a few quick snaps from this spot and then returned to the main trail, and waited for Dianne and Frederic to arrive.
Dianne and Frederic caught up a few tens of seconds later. Knowing that there were only a few minutes left to spare, I again ran on ahead to the first of the larger and more expansive western viewpoints along the ridgeline. I arrived at 4:28pm, with only a minute to spare [before sunset]. The bright orange diamond of the sun sat right on the line of the High Peaks. Despite our late start, we had managed to make it to open terrain to witness the sunset. And a beautiful one it was, too.
In all this talk of running to catch the sunset, I've failed to mention the wind. It was flowing from the west in a powerful, mostly continuous flow. Fortunately the temperature wasn't too cold, roughly around freezing, so there wasn't really a chance of true frostbite. Nevertheless, it was pretty unpleasant, and soon we were are quickly fumbling to put on several warm layers to protect ourselves. It was at this time that I discovered that I had left my gloves in the car. I used the arms of an extra fleece I had to warm my hands between photographic shots.
Crag, Whiteface, and the Sun
Adirondacks at Sundown
The sunset, as beautiful as it was, was only a prelude to greater things. As we stood in the cold wind, watching the light fade, the sky above began to transform. Pale, washed-out yellows began to morph into delicate pinks and oranges. Far off to the northwest, newly-snowy slides on Whiteface actually started to reflect pink from the colors above. This was exactly the phenomenon we had been hoping for - an interaction between below-horizon sunlight off of clouds high above.
Buffeted by the cold wind, we watched as an impressive progression of colors played out across the sky above us. As the sun sank further below the horizon, the hues deepened, transitioning to wonderfully saturated purples and violets and intense pinks. The promise of our first twilight hike, I think, was fulfilled.
As the skies progressed towards nautical twilight, we decided to proceed a bit further along Jay's wonderful ridgeline. We walked uphill through open meadowlands of dried fall grasses, whipping wildly in the wind. Beyond that we walked over an area of clean, bare bedrock, stopping at the edge of a cleft that cut across the ridgeline (this cleft is known as Grassy Notch).
Further progress along the ridgeline would involve a bit of scrambling. The strong winds were making things a bit unpleasant, and, combined with darkness, made us stop and review our course of action. After a short discussion, we decided this was a decent enough turn-around point. Then, with a final shot of Dianne and Frederic against a darkening (but still colorful) sky, we headed back the way we came.
Headlamps turned on and powered by fresh batteries, we walked back along the ridgeline and then down into the forest, where we were soon sheltered from the wind. A straightforward walk back downhill brought us to the car shortly before 7pm, giving us plenty of time to drive back to Ottawa and arrive at a reasonable hour.
Summary and retrospective: this first "Twilight Hike" outing successfully proved the concept can work. It offers an extra dash of adventure and provides new scenic perspectives. I see this as the first of several hikes in a series, and I'm hoping a few tweaks to my messaging in the invite e-mails and to the start time of the hike will help garner a larger group next time.
Interactive trackmap with photo points - Jay Mountain (to Grassy Notch) - click map to view
Jay Mountain (to Grassy Notch) - Hike Data
* : +/- 75 feet