By Erik Schlimmer
With their steep trails, thick forests, rocks, bugs, and mud, the mountains of the Northeast aren’t always kind to would-be record-setters. Despite these challenges, runners and hikers have put up some impressive times on tough trails, from Vermont’s Long Trail to the White Mountain 4,000-footers to the High Peaks of the Adirondacks.
But for those looking for their own piece of tierra nueva, a place where there are no records to surpass, only records to set, there is a new long-distance challenge here in the Northeast. Officially just a few months old, the 236.4-mile Trans Adirondack Route has seen only one traverse. In 2010, I thru-hiked the route at the rate of 19.7 miles per day, finishing in exactly 12 days (including one day completely off), a sluggish pace, at least compared to what a runner might be able to do.
The trail pieces together approximately 40 different footpaths, 35 segments of paved and dirt roads, and nine sections of cross-country travel, or bushwhacking. The footing is nearly as varied as the ecological attractions, which include 55 bodies of water, three summits, and five life zones. Millions of trees hem each side of the pathway. It’s a wild trek that crosses five wilderness areas and eight wild forests, all of them set within Adirondack Park, the largest park and forest preserve in the Lower 48.
The history of the Trans Adirondack Route began during the winter of 2005. By that time I had more than 10 years of backpacking experience under my belt, the majority of it in the Adirondacks. I had also thru-hiked a half-dozen long-distance trails and climbed the Northeast’s 770 peaks above 3,000 feet, of which 420 are trailless. With such love for long-distance hiking and traveling off-trail I figured that combining these two activities would make things twice as fun.
As the spring of 2005 arrived, I planned my first long-distance bushwhack: an off-trail journey across the entire Adirondack Park. The plan was to not set foot on any roads or trails for more than 200 miles. Unlike the Trans Adirondack Route we have today, my proposed off-trail trek was a mountain route, not a valley route: I planned to ascend seventeen 3,000-foot peaks and one 4,000-foot peak. Overall, the route would climb a hefty 43,000 vertical feet. If I was successful on this trip, it would be ranked the burliest bushwhack ever completed in the East. The start date was August 1, 2005.
Sadly, this trip never happened. To be honest, just a few weeks before the start of this adventure I had the realization that traveling cross-country for more than 200 miles, which would have taken at least three weeks, didn’t sound fun. At all. So, with a bit of shame, I cancelled this epic Adirondack journey.
It was not until the summer of 2010 that I reconsidered a hike across the entire Adirondack Park. But I still didn’t have the motivation to complete nearly a month of continuous bushwhacking. Instead I asked myself, What if I hike across the Adirondack Park using trails that parallel the off-trail route I had planned? After scanning a stack of topographic maps, I knew I could do just that: cross all of the Adirondack Mountains via a continuous hike. There would have to be a little off-trail travel here and there—a mere nine miles as it turned out—but, boy, did this new route look good. During the first week of August 2010 I found myself standing on the northern border of the Adirondack Park with my backpack on, headed for the southern border 235 miles away. The rest, as they say, is history.
The main draw of the Trans Adirondack Route is that it’s a valley route, not a mountain route, which is rare in the Northeast. More often than not the Trans Adirondack Route roves shorelines and riverbanks, content to wind through forests and hop from lake to lake. The route climbs a modest 25,000 vertical feet end to end; about 100 vertical feet per mile. This amount of climbing may sound like a lot, but when compared to other Northeast long paths, it is not. The Vermont Long Trail, for example, climbs about 65,000 vertical feet during its 270-mile journey—about 240 vertical feet per mile. The Trans Adirondack Route climbs just three mountains: Catamount Mountain, Mount Van Hoevenberg, and Whiteface Mountain. The first two mountains are mere hillocks when compared to the third one.
At 4,865 feet high, Whiteface Mountain, the highpoint of the Trans Adirondack Route and fifth highest summit in New York, is a fine looking peak. It has been called “the most graceful of all Adirondack peaks.” Author William White wrote that it “can appear in its isolation like some sacred peak helping to hold up the sky.” There are no two ways about it: It is a serious mountain. With a base-to-summit rise of at least 3,000 vertical feet, Whiteface Mountain rises more than most Northeast high peaks do. And it has serious weather. Summit lows have dipped to minus 43 degrees while the average annual temperature is only 30 degrees (by comparison, the average annual temperature for Mount Washington, in New Hampshire, is just slightly colder: 27 degrees). An annual average of 220 inches of snow fall on top of Whiteface Mountain, and wind speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour have been recorded. During the Memorial Day weekend of 2013, a snowstorm dropped three feet of fluff on the summit.
Whether you’re following a shoreline or scrambling up a mountain, it is important to realize that the Trans Adirondack Route is just that: a long-distance route, not a long-distance trail. The differences are significant. Simply put, trails are for beginners. Routes are for the experienced. It is usually difficult to get lost on trails. It is usually easy to get lost on routes. You will see many people on trails. You will see few people on routes. Trails may be tough. Routes are tough.
But it’s really not a matter of if you are tough enough for the Trans Adirondack Route. For this audience of athletes, it’s a matter of if you want to break records on ranges and trails that have seen their fair share of records, or if you want to find that new piece of land to traverse. A piece of land crowded with loons, moose, and lakes, not with other athletes chasing records of their own.
Erik Schlimmer is founding member of Friends of the Trans Adirondack Route and author of Blue Line to Blue Line: The Official Guide to the Trans Adirondack Route.