January 04, 2021
Ok, so technically it wasn’t winter. But with the thermometer reading 9 below zero and a couple inches of snow on the ground, it sure felt like winter.
Officially, doing a “winter” hike in terms of hiking challenges, even one you create for yourself, requires mountains to be hiked from December 21 to March 21 each year. But in the Adirondacks, winter can start and end much earlier and later in the year.
Leaving from the main trailhead in Ray Brook, I followed a faint set of days-old footprints that were barely visible in the beam of my headlamp. The sun wouldn’t be up for at least an hour, and no one had signed in at the register for a couple of days. Luckily, many of the blue trail markers were reflective, and the going was easy.
For the first two miles or so this trail — which is shared by Haystack and McKenzie mountains — is relatively easy. The flat, rolling trail allows hikers to look around and enjoy the open hardwood forest that dominates the landscape. At about 1.5 miles, the woods change to evergreens, which feel much closer. However, the tightness of the trees made the trail even more pronounced, and as the sun began to peek through the trees, I could finally turn off my headlamp.
At 2.4 miles, the trail splits, with Haystack following the blue markers to the left and the McKenzie trail forking to the right, following red trail markers from that point on. The split is not pronounced, and a small brown sign about 10 feet up a tree is the only marker that the split occurs.
Going left, I soon came to some old ruins - an old foundation and assorted concrete pieces. After checking in with the amazing folks at History and Legends of the Adirondacks, it seems that this was built in the early 1900s to provide water to either the Ray Brook Sanitarium or the nearby golf course (or perhaps both). But even without knowing exactly what it was, it’s cool to see out in the middle of the woods.
Shortly after that came the sketchiest part of the hike. The trail crosses Little Ray Brook — an actual stream — at an old dam. With a few inches of snow and a ton of ice, there was no good way to cross. The small pond above the dam had flowing water under it, as did the ice on the stream below the dam. Right at the spillway of the dam — which was maybe 30 feet across — there were a couple large blocks of ice to step on. I donned Microspikes and made cautious steps onto the ice. Once safely across, I had one of those moments where all I could think was, “Well that was stupid.” Being alone in the backcountry, making sketchy ice and water crossings — I’m lucky that nothing bad happened.
From the stream crossing, the trail begins to climb steadily. The Microspikes stayed on, and I was thankful to have them for the remainder of the hike. After another half-mile of pretty good climbing and a couple of short scrambles, the trail nears the summit ridge. With some openings in the trees to the right, the views of Ray Brook and Scarface Mountain start to appear.
At 3.3 miles, the ridge opens up with views of the High Peaks and the Saranac Lakes. Scarface looms large across the valley, and Whiteface can be seen in the distance as well. There’s plenty of room to spread out and have a snack, and the views are hard to beat. With the sun now fully up and shining on the snow, it was quite pleasant out, and it was great to sit down and have a snack as the sun warmed my face.
The hike down was quick, and since the sun was up and the Microspikes provided plenty of traction, it was an easy and pleasant walk. While the hike started out very dark and very cold, the warm sun of the summit more than made up for it.