Live the dream: How to become a Saranac Lake Winter 6er

The Saranac Lake 6ers: Baker, St. Regis, Scarface, Haystack, Ampersand, and McKenzie. You hiked them one-by-one in the summer and marveled at the variety of views they afforded — distant High Peaks and uniquely shaped lakes. So now what? Time to try them in winter, that’s what!

In the Adirondacks, nice summer hikes turn into full-blown adventures in the winter. It’s a beautiful time to be outside, for sure. Ice sculptures stream down sheer cliff faces, baskets of snow collect on pine boughs, and many animals are hunkered down, giving the forest a soft, pleasant quietness. It’s also a more dangerous time to be outdoors because the days are shorter and much, much colder. Sweat-soaked clothes can freeze quickly; moderate pitches become impossibly slick slides of glassy ice. But don’t fret! There are ways to safely deal with these challenges.

The view from the backside of Mount Baker.

Get it together

The rule of thumb for winter day hikes, even short ones, is to bring extras of almost everything. If a shirt or pair of socks gets wet, you’ll be able to swap it out for something dry and potentially avoid frostbite or hypothermia. Bring plenty of food, a warm drink or soup in an insulated container, and a headlamp in case it gets dark before you’re out of the woods.

A note about feet: Snowshoes and microspikes are a must. Snowshoes make it easier to walk and prevent postholing, a situation in which a hiker’s leg plunges through the snowpack leaving a knee-deep hole behind. This is annoying for the hiker and potentially dangerous for cross-country skiers, who also use our trails. Microspikes stretch over most boots and provide better traction than snowshoes. They are best for steep sections covered in ice.

What to wear is pretty simple:

  • No cotton. Try wool or something synthetic, which won’t absorb moisture.
  • Layers trap heat, making them better than big, bulky clothes.
  • Wear heavy wool socks and bring an extra pair in case they get wet.
  • Think extremities: hat, snow pants, and gloves or mittens.
  • Bring a face mask and wind breaker for windy summits.
  • Pack extra layers, like a wool sweater and thin base layer.
  • Snowshoes and microspikes are a must.

The bridge over Ray Brook on the way to Scarface Mountain.

Order of operations: BSSHAM

OK, so BSSHAM isn’t quite as pronounceable as PEMDAS, but it’s all we have. The best way to tackle the Winter 6ers is to start small and work your way up. All of these mountains are stunning, but it could be argued they get more exciting, and more difficult, when done in this order: Baker, St. Regis, Scarface, Haystack, Ampersand, and McKenzie.

Baker (2,452 feet) is located in Saranac Lake, jutting up from the shore of Moody Pond. The path leaves the road and immediately goes uphill at a moderate pitch, then gets steep (see microspikes section above) just before the summit. Check out the ledges to the right — there are excellent views of the village of Saranac Lake and the High Peaks.

St. Regis (2,865 feet) requires a long hike over rolling terrain through a lovely forest before climbing to the ridge of the mountain, then it swings left and continues to the summit. There’s a newly restored fire tower on top; climb it for a slightly better view than the one from the expansive summit rocks.

Scarface (3,088 feet) also has a long, easy beginning section, but it’s beautiful. The trail starts in a forest mostly composed of tall red and white pines, then it crosses a bridge over Ray Brook — a great spot for wildlife viewing — before entering a dense, young evergreen forest. It soon begins climbing and becomes steep before rounding out on the summit.

Haystack's (2,878 feet) trail meanders through a forest that’s littered with small ledges and boulders, then it swings right and heads uphill as it follows a gorgeous brook with plenty of small waterfalls. After crossing the brook it climbs steeply through a washed-out gully, then continues steeply to the summit ledge, where a nice view awaits.

Ampersand (3,352 feet) is easy until it gets steep, then it’s pretty unforgiving but the payoff is worth it. You’ll know you’re close when the trail levels off in an area of enormous boulders. It turns right after that, then it’s a scramble up open rock to the only bald summit on this list. The top isn’t naturally treeless — they were cleared years ago to build a fire tower, which has since been removed — but who cares? The 360-degree view of lakes and mountains is nothing short of breathtaking.

McKenzie (3,861 feet), the highest mountain on the list, is also the hardest. There are a couple of ways to tackle it, one of which begins on the Haystack trail, and neither is easy. You’ll climb up the steep sides of the mountain, then proceed over some knob-like features before finally emerging onto the broad summit ledge.

Saranac Lake is an outdoor lover's paradise. With just a short drive you can go downhill or cross-country skiing, then be back downtown in time for dinner.

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