High Peaks Wilderness

Beyond all doubt, the High Peaks Wilderness is a land of superlatives. At over 272,000 acres in size, this is by far the largest protected wilderness not only in New York State, but in the entire northeastern region of the United States. It features Mount Marcy, the state’s highest summit, as well as dozens of other aptly-named High Peaks. Flora found nowhere else in the Empire State can be found on the loftiest summits, and our largest river springs from its mountain streams.

But there is also one other superlative figure that must be noted: the High Peaks Wilderness is far and away the most heavily visited region in the Adirondack Park, with allegations of overuse being a perennial cry since the late 1960s.

The wilderness credentials of this place are hard to deny, based just on the sheer size and ruggedness of the landscape alone; one would have to venture westward to the Rocky Mountains before encountering another protected area that matches or surpasses the High Peaks in terms of both size and quality. The highest summit, Mount Marcy, is 5344 feet in elevation – modest in the global scheme of mountains, but high enough to sustain an alpine habitat shared by precious few of its Adirondack neighbors.

Nevertheless, all these superlatives come with a tremendous amount of recreational pressure. Ever since the state began a concentrated land acquisition program here circa 1920, the High Peaks region has been managed for recreation. The “conservation aesthetic” of marked trails, signed junctions, and standardized lean-tos was pioneered here; for years the recreational appeal of the region was actively touted by a variety of regional clubs as well as the state’s Conservation Commission.

But by the late 1960s, a variety of factors contributed to an increase in public usage; while these visitation rates have plateaued a few times, they nevertheless continue to climb from decade to decade. No other area in the Adirondack Park is as scrutinized, debated, and explored as the High Peaks Wilderness. Several generations of wilderness advocates have advanced potential solutions, and yet visitors continue to come. Does the area suffer from “overuse”? Are there too many people at any given time? The answers are as numerous as there are visitors, it seems.

None of this should detract from the fact the High Peaks Wilderness is a region of tremendous significance, as beautiful as any national park. If so many people harbor strong opinions about how it should be managed, that can only speak to the spell it holds over all who have been here. Still, the questions of how the area should be managed are valid, and this is a place that will remain forefront in many minds for years to come.

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For many people, it’s all about the mountains.

There are dozens of named summits in the High Peaks Wilderness, ranging in size from minor foothills to alpine summits. The highest is Mount Marcy, which at 5344 feet in elevation is the highest point in New York State. Although there are many other mountains in the world that would dwarf this peak, it is tall enough to have a naturally treeless summit, vegetated by ground-hugging alpine vegetation of a variety found only on a few of its neighbors, and then not again for many miles to the north.

Many other summits in the High Peaks Wilderness are similarly bare, but not necessarily because of climate. Forest fires tore through the region in the early twentieth century, devastating many acres of what is now wilderness. Very little of the easternmost slopes was left unscathed, and the effects can still be seen a century later in the form of rock-scarred ridges and birch-poplar forests.

Not surprisingly, the state began acquiring many of these lands not long after the fires rendered them economically worthless. This includes one of the most popular sections: the Heart Lake region, with a trailhead used by more people in any given year than any other in the Adirondacks. A massive human-caused fire in 1903 swept through the region and burned the original Adirondack Lodge to the ground as its proprietor fled for his life through Indian Pass. For the next decade the J & J Rogers Co. salvaged the remaining timber, and it was their corduroy logging roads and lumber campsites that formed the basis of the later trail and lean-to network.

Small tarns may be found throughout the highest terrain, including the romantically named Lake Tear of the Clouds. Technically it’s the source of Feldspar Brook, but curators of Adirondack trivia will gleefully point out the pond’s status as the “highest pond source of the Hudson River.” Fittingly, Lake Tear is located at the foot of Marcy’s conical alpine summit.

The Adirondacks are made up of hundreds of mountains, but there is no escaping the observation that the High Peaks exhibit more jagged profiles than their less-lofty brethren. The slopes are steeper, and more prone to landslides. Many of the peaks are scarred by the paths of past landslides, both new and old. While somewhat rare elsewhere in the park, they occur frequently here, where extreme rainfall events can loosen the mountain soils and cause them to lose their grip on the steep bedrock undersurface.

Waters radiate in every direction. The streams tumbling down these anorthosite slopes are clear and cold, lacking the tannins that brown nearly every other Adirondack waterway. Waterfalls are almost dime a dozen; only the most distinctive have names.

It is not until this mountain water reaches the lower elevations that it begins to coalesce into sizable rivers, including the Ausable, Boquet, and Hudson. But if the High Peaks Wilderness can claim proprietary rights to any river, it would be the Cold – the liquid artery of the western half of the wilderness.

A region just shy of 300,000 acres is large enough to contain a variety of terrain types. The highest peaks are clustered in the east-central portion of the wilderness, with the Dix, Seward, and Santanoni ranges as outliers.

The Dix Range, which used to be the core of its own standalone wilderness until merged with the High Peaks in 2018, trails off into finger-like ridges to the east, bounded only by the Northway’s busy four lanes of traffic. Although heavily burned in 1903 and 1913, this area is every bit as rugged as the popular wilderness core, but its foothills are only seldom visited.

The southern slopes wrap around the vast iron and titanium mine at Upper Works, an unsightly intrusion into the wilderness, but the state’s most recent acquisition efforts have been focused here. Once a landscape of private parks and timberlands, the wilderness boundaries now include generous amounts of wild acreage near Santanoni Mountain and Boreas Ponds. The latter is a dammed body of water, but its vast network of connecting wetlands harbor populations of moose and offer some of the best mountain views of any waterway in the region.

The northern slopes are bounded by the busy (and populated) Tri Lakes Region, and here you will find the most trails – and the most people. This pattern of usage dates back to the late nineteenth century, and it has always been tied to the proximity of transportation routes to – and commercial services in – the surrounding communities. From the north, the mountains seem to rise spontaneously from the “lowlands” around Lake Placid and Saranac Lake.

In contrast to all of these other regions, the western half of the High Peaks Wilderness is vast and secretive. If “remoteness” can be defined as the maximum distance from motor vehicles, then the remotest spot in the state is found near the spot where Ouluska Brook flows into the Cold River. Other than the Seward and Santanoni ranges – the westernmost outposts of the High Peaks – this area is largely unknown. People who have hiked the Northville-Placid Trail along the Cold River may feel they know a thing or two about this area, but the empty spaces between the far-flung trails would be spacious enough to be protected as wilderness on their own merits, if they existed in isolation.

The long western boundary of this wilderness is completely unlike everything to its east. Here you will find a continuous waterway, from Long Lake to Axton Landing on the Raquette River. Nearly all of this is navigable, except for the treacherous rapids and flumes at Raquette Falls.

High Peaks Wilderness Image Gallery

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All photos © Bill Ingersoll. Site visitors are permitted to download an unlimited number of images from our website for personal, educational, scientific, or professional use only, with attribution. Commercial use and further distribution of images is prohibited without express written permission.