Last weekend, between the snowstorm and the thunderstorms, we had two days of warm, summer-like weather. We decided to take advantage of this little window and go on our first overnight hiking trip of the year.
Inspired by the impressive view of Dix Mountain during our recent trip up Noonmark and this article over at the Adirondack Almanack, we were eager to explore the Dix Range for the first time. We were also looking forward to bagging our first “trail-less” High Peaks.
We started out with much bigger plans than what we actually managed to accomplish (why does that always happen?). The original plan was to hike in via the Elk Lake Trailhead, drop our packs at the Slide Brook lean-to, climb Macomb, South Dix and East Dix, spend the night at Slide Brook or Lillian Brook, and then climb Dix and Hough the following day. We successfully accomplished the first part of the plan, but the rest will have to wait for another day.
We arrived at the Elk Lake Trailhead a little after 11:00 on Friday morning. Thankfully, the gate was open and we were able to cruise right into the parking lot, saving us more than a mile of road walk. From what I’ve read, the gate usually opens for the season on May 1, but due to the warm weather this spring we got lucky and it opened earlier.
The Elk Lake area is surrounded by mostly private land. The lake itself and most of the surrounding trails are owned and managed by the Elk Lake Lodge. In other words, you must be a paying guest in order to use them. However, there are two main public trails that run through the Elk Lake property. One takes you through Panther Gorge and over to Mt. Marcy, the other leads you right into the Dix Range.
It was 65 and sunny as we packed up all of our gear. The snowshoes strapped to our packs seemed a little out of place, but we knew they’d likely come in handy over the course of the weekend. I, of course, volunteered to carry the bear canister. WHY do I always do that? That thing is heavy.
Soon enough we were hiking the easy 2.3 miles to Slide Brook where we’d then pick up the herd path to Macomb.
The trail was wide, well-traveled, and flat – a stark contrast to what we’d face later on in the day. It was pretty muddy in spots, but some careful rock-hopping kept our feet dry.
We arrived at the Slide Brook lean-to around 12:15. We hydrated, pumped some more water, and packed a couple of day packs with food, a first aid kit, headlamps, and a warm layer. No sense in carrying full packs up and over three High Peaks. From here, the plan was to climb Macomb, South Dix and East Dix and then return to camp. We were curious about what we’d find since all three of those peaks are considered “trail-less.” Sure, people climb them all the time, but there are no marked trails and they are not officially maintained by the DEC or the Adirondack Mountain Club. Instead, these peaks are climbable via herd paths (some more obvious than others) that are maintained by volunteers.
Ready to get hiking, we reviewed the map and guidebook, which provides a decent description of the trail-less summits. Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for us to get confused. Somehow – and I have NO idea how – we failed to see the ENORMOUS cairn (which we noticed with no problem on our hike out) marking the start of the trail up Macomb. We just happily hiked right on by and continued on to the lean-to. However, we knew that the herd path followed the north bank of Slide Brook, so from the lean-to we headed east and then made our way south to the brook and quickly found the trail. Lesson #1 of the day.
The hike to the base of the slide was pretty uneventful. The trail was much narrower – and the surrounding woods much denser – than the marked trails we’re used to hiking on, but it was still very easy to follow. The first glimpse of the slide was pretty neat as we wound our way towards it.
And before we knew it we were climbing up it. The slide is not a difficult climb, but it is made up of pretty loose rock, so it’s best to be careful and deliberate about where you place your feet – especially in bad weather, or in the dark as we would learn later on.
It’s also not all that long – only about 1400 ft – so we were at the top in no time. Of course, we lost a few minutes here and there by turning around to enjoy the views behind us.
Once at the top of the slide, the trail meanders back into the woods and remains very steep until you reach the summit of Macomb. It was slow going during this section due to snow on the trail. It wasn’t quite deep enough for snowshoes, but was slippery enough to slow us down.
Macomb’s summit is tiny, but there’s a rock outcrop that provides a nice spot to hang out and take in the views of Elk Lake and the Colvin range to the west.
By now it was about 2:30 in the afternoon. According to the map and guide books, the trip over to South Dix promised to be easy going. We decided to head on over and re-evaluate our timing and pace there.
We opted to strap on our snowshoes at this point, since we had been advised that the snow on the ridge might be deep in spots. It was also slushy, soft and very slippery so our snowshoes provided some welcome traction.
As promised, the terrain over to South Dix was easy, but the trail was not always easy to follow. It was obvious from the fresh snowshoe tracks that there had been a party ahead of us that day – unfortunately their route-finding skills were about as good as ours and more than once we followed their tracks into a dead-end. Fortunately, there isn’t a whole lot of room on the ridge to get too far off course and we always hooked back up with the trail in a matter of minutes.
In no time we found ourselves climbing up over the rocks on South Dix’s summit. Two down, one to go. We climbed out to a little ledge to snap a few photos, drink up, and discuss our plan for the rest of the day.
By this point, the temperature had dropped considerably and our feet were fairly wet from traipsing through slushy snow. Dave, unfortunately, is blessed with atrocious circulation in his limbs so his hands and feet always freeze long before mine do. It was on the summit of South Dix that I learned he was having trouble with both his hands AND his feet. But he insisted he was fine and that we head on over to East Dix. Well, okay, then.
Once again, the walk over to East Dix was pretty easy going. It’s about an hour over the ridge via a side trail. The views were awesome, as usual.
And Dave took the opportunity to check in with work. This picture says it all.
By the time we were back on the summit of South Dix, it was 5:45. We decided to take the Lillian Brook trail down instead of climbing back over Macomb and descending the slide. The most recent High Peaks guidebook advises using the Lillian Brook trail only in cases of emergency, but I had read several recent trip reports that said the Lillian Brook trail had been cleared out and was now a pretty pleasant trail. Unfortunately, due to the recent snowfall, fatigue, our general noobness on unmarked trails, or whatever, we could not find the trail. Seriously. The Lillian Brook trail splits and has a junction at the col between South Dix and Hough and also the ridge between Macomb and South Dix. Nope, didn’t come across either of those junctions. So, at 6:30 we decided to suck it up and hike out the way we came up – back up and over Macomb and down the slide.
Dave’s feet were frozen solid by this point. We were both hungry and had only a little bit of water left. To put it mildly, we were annoyed that we had lost so much time and now wouldn’t be getting back to camp until after dark.
But there’s always a bright side, isn’t there? The views were stunning as we descended South Dix for the last time. The sun was getting low in the sky and beamed through the clouds. Had we not dilly dallied trying to find the Lillian Brook trail, we would have missed this view.
Our moods picked up once we made it back to Macomb’s summit. As they say, it was all down hill from there.
We were about two-thirds of the way down the slide when darkness finally hit. We are no strangers to night hiking thanks to our inability to ever get an early enough start, so it was no big deal to hike by headlamp for the last hour and a half. Dave’s feet had thawed by now and I had reached my third or fourth wind. We were feeling darn good under the circumstances.
Finally, at 9:30 we stumbled back to the lean-to. We gathered the rest of our gear, taking care not to disturb the slumbering inhabitants, and found a tent site to set up camp. After stuffing our faces and drinking about a gallon of water each, we crawled into our bags and passed out for the night.
I made a lame attempt the next morning to convince Dave that we should stick to our original plan and hike Dix and Hough that day. He pretended not to hear me and then kicked me out of the tent. I can take a hint.
So home we went – a little beat up, but three peaks closer to being 46′ers.
Where: The Adirondack Park, near North Hudson and Elk Lake Lodge
Directions from Lake Placid: From 87, take exit 29 and head west on Blue Ridge Road. After 4 miles, turn right onto Elk Lake Road. Follow Elk Lake Road just over 5 miles to the trailhead – the road becomes gravel after 2 miles. During the winter, the last section of the road is not maintained, adding about 3 miles round trip to any hike from the Elk Lake trailhead.
Difficulty: Macomb, South Dix and East Dix can be done as a long day hike, about 12 miles total from the trailhead. By camping at Slide Brook, you shave off 2.3 easy miles. An early start is essential for this hike, since all trails are narrow and unmarked and the climb up Macomb is fairly steep in parts.
Summary: The Dix Range is a beautiful spot in the Adirondack park that feels more remote than more heavily used areas. In particular, Macomb, South Dix, and East Dix see less traffic than many other High Peaks because they are trail-less. This is a great area for a weekend peak-bagging trip, since there are five High Peaks within striking distance.
- Salomon XA Pro 3D Ultra Trail Runners – Dave’s favorite trail running shoe (they work fine in light snow/ice)
- La Sportiva Women’s Sandstone GTX Shoe – Jess’ favorite hiking boots
- Marmot Original DriClime Windshirt – Dave recently rediscovered, and re-fell in love with, his old Marmot windshirt
- MSR Denali Evo Ascent Snowshoe – We use these excellent snowshoes
- Granite Gear Nimbus – We both use an older version of this pack for longer trips. It also cinches down tightly for use as a more technical day pack.
- Big Agnes Seedhouse SL2 – It’s not possible for us to be more in love with a tent.
- Big Agnes Horse Thief and Air Core Pad – Our sleeping bag, and pad, of choice
- REI Peak UL Women’s Trekking Poles – Jess’ hiking poles
- Leki Hiking Poles – Dave uses a pair of Leki’s similar to these
- Jetboil – Our camp stove of choice.
- Adirondack High Peaks Trail Guide – Amazon.com
- Trails Illustrated, High Peaks Trail Map – Amazon.com