Trip Report: Camping in the Dix Mountain Wilderness and hiking Dix Mountain via Hunter’s Pass
As I sit writing this account of my recent trip to the beautiful Adirondack Mountains of New York, I can still feel the lingering tingle from the sunburn that covered most of my back and neck, the itch from mosquito bites on my arms and legs, and the mostly faded aches in my knees that serve as a reminder that I need to do this sort of thing more frequently. However, these minor physical discomforts are not what has stuck with me since returning to Vermont. Instead I can still picture the beauty of so many 4,000 foot peaks that seemed to rise endlessly behind one another, still remember the intoxicating feeling, vaguely like vertigo, that set upon me as I looked thousands of feet down to the lowlands, and still feel the peaceful bliss of descending a quiet, narrow trail through ambrosial pines with tired legs and a pensive mind. Our trip wasn’t the most grueling, dangerous or intense, but sometimes just being outdoors and taking the time to truly experience a unique trail, a stunning view, and the beauty of nature is the most affecting kind of trip.
At 4,840 feet, Dix Mountain is the sixth tallest mountain in New York State. It serves as the prominent peak in the Dix Mountain range, which is a five mountain grouping just south of the main High Peaks region of the Adirondacks. Dix is characterized by steep, unique trails to the summit and a series of characteristic slides, which help identify the peak when taking in the vista of the area from neighboring mountains. I had climbed Dix before in 2012 with a friend and at the time, I was thoroughly impressed with how interesting and fun to hike the Hunter’s Pass trail was, as well as how gorgeous the views from the summit were. Since the weather for the weekend looked beautiful, I gathered two friends, Steve (a fellow OGEr) and Dave (a former OGEr), who brought along his dog Ringo, and proposed we go across the lake to camp out and hike one of my favorite mountains.
We planned to catch the ferry on Friday, June 27th around 6 p.m. and ride it across to Essex, NY. From there we would drive to the Adirondack Northway and take it down to North Hudson where we would hop on the Blue Ridge Road. From there we could travel a few miles to Elk Lake Road, which leads to the beautiful Elk Lake Lodge and the parking lot for the Dix Mountain Wilderness Area. The parking lot was, naturally, packed with cars. Though we had expected that the High Peaks would be busy on this beautiful, pre-Fourth-of-July weekend, the amount of cars and names before ours in the register was a bit discouraging. Suddenly our plans to grab one of the two lean-tos along the trail and set-up a base for our hike seemed like an unlikely prospect.
The trail from the parking lot begins on private land owned by the Elk Lake Lodge, accessible as a result of an easement. Usually, the beginning of the trail, which is wider and less carefully controlled than the state trails, is easy to walk and can be covered quickly. However, recent rains had flooded the trail and the rocky, packed earth had become a muddy mess. To compound on our general sense of apprehension and (slight) discouragement; buzzing, biting bugs pestered us from the moment we left the car. We put our headlamps on, begrudgingly sprayed ourselves with deet bug-spray, and ventured onto the trail.
Once we crossed onto state land, the trail was narrower, the running water from earlier rains were diverted away from the path, and the moon shown through dense green canopy above us. We reached a narrow, three plank bridge across Slide Brook —a landmark signifying that the lean-to and a few campsites were just ahead. However, once we crossed the bridge, I was surprised to find that my memory of that place suddenly seemed inaccurate. This is where the lean-to should have been, but where was it? After a bit of searching, we found that the lean-to had been moved off the trail (a better position for it in my opinion) and also that both the lean-to and many of the campsites were full. Yet, in spite of the abundance of other campers, we found a nice, clear spot to set up our tents, with a perfect tree to hang our food bag from. We had also brought a few six-packs of beer with us for a small post hike celebration. Years ago, I read my now favorite book, The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway, in which the protagonists travel into the Basque territories of northern Spain for a fishing trip. In order to keep their wine cool while they fished and enjoyed the outdoors, the characters put the bottles in a small cascading pool in a river. In this tradition, we stashed our post-hike libations in a small pool where the cool stream water could run over the cans, and secured them with a rock. Camp was now set and we could settle in for the night; wrapped in the scent of pines, cooled by the clean, night air and watched over by twinkling stars.
We awoke to the sounds of other campers stirring, many waking early to tackle the five-mountain Dix Range in a day. We boiled water on our camp stoves and before long, we had hot coffee and tea, along with oatmeal for our breakfast. We then packed our summit packs with food, water and an extra layer, then hit the trail. The primary route up Dix mountain heads northeast from Slide Brook, over a bridge that crosses Lillian Brook, then along the shore of Dix pond. shortly after Dix pond, the trail splits and hikers have the option to take either the Hunter’s Pass trail or the Beckhorn trail to the summit. We chose the Hunter’s Pass trail, because I remembered what a beautiful and interesting trail it was. From the junction the trail travels into the valley between Nippletop (4,610 feet) and the northern shoulder of Dix. We traversed a narrow path through blowdown and rubble that had slid off of a section of slab that was exposed during Hurricane Irene in 2011. To our right, steep cliffs of dark stone rose tall and towered over the lower valley. Dave and I are both rock climbers, so as we looked at the beautiful rock faces we remarked on potential lines and wondered how many of those remote routes had never been climbed. Hunter’s Pass and the valley seems more remote than many places that I’ve been in the Adirondacks with marked trails, perhaps because of the relatively lightly traveled path, or just because the stark exposure of the cliffs and violent rubble of the blowdown magnify the feeling of wilderness.
Rising steeply out of this valley is the meat of Hunter’s Pass. Steep trail hiking, punctuated by sections of wet slab, twisting rock steps and scrambles quickly sapped our energy. After the steepest 8/10ths of a mile, we were drenched with sweat and had to rest. Ringo was the only one of us who didn’t need to catch his breath, but I’ll attribute his stamina to the Ruffwear harness pack that he wore, which allowed Dave to pick him up like a suitcase and carry him over or to the top of a difficult section. One of the funniest moments of the trip was seeing how stoic he was as he was being lowered suitcase style off of a boulder or raised up to the top of a rough section. He is certainly an happy and capable hiker! Eventually, the grade of the trail mellowed and we were able to move more quickly. After a few instances where we thought we were nearly to the summit, only to see the actual summit rising in front of us, we made it to the rocky top!
The views from the summit were gorgeous. To the south, lower mountains carpeted in a luscious green surrounded shiny lakes filled with innumerable islands. To the north, we had a unique view of the south faces of the Great Range (Lower Wolfjaw (4,173 feet), Upper Wolfjaw (4,203 feet), Armstrong (4,429 feet), Gothics (4,734 feet), Saddleback (4,528 feet), Basin (4,826 feet) and Haystack (4,960 feet), a view that is only visible in such resplendence from a select few peaks. Additionally, we could see the tallest mountain in New York, Mount Marcy (5,343 feet), as well as the ski trails on the face of Whiteface (4,865 feet). Additionally, the peaks of the other four mountains in the Dix range looked beautiful in such close proximity. We spent over an hour at the summit, enjoying our snacks and hydrating, while letting our shirts dry. Dave and I, through a bit of poor judgement, didn’t use any sunscreen and each had some red and sore backs once we returned to camp, but the feeling of laying out in the warm sun after a fairly strenuous part of the hike was worth a little bit of residual pain.
Eventually we decided to get packed up again and head down via the Beckhorn. This trail was delightfully unique, as it provided us with sublime views of the slides on Hough Peak as well as fantastic profiles of Giant of the Valley (4,626 feet) and Rocky Peak Ridge (4,390 feet). The trail itself is exposed at times and required some scrambling to descend. We walked on large rock spines, balancing boulders and meandering paths, following pale tick marks that indicated the trail. The Beckhorn itself was worth spending some time on, so we paused a few times to snap pictures. The awesome views and unique terrain on this section of the trail stirred my curiosity, so I made a mental note to return to Dix in order to summit via the Beckhorn trail. After leaving the horn itself, the trail continued steeply around large rocks and over ledges. It was not an easy descent, since the steep grade and obstacles meant that we had to navigate the terrain carefully, yet the beautiful views and amazing character of the trail persisted as we hiked downward.
The Beckhorn trail was tricky and steep, so our knees and ankles took a bit of a beating on the descent. Once we’d reached the junction however, the trail back to Slide Brook was relaxing and cathartic. A soft yellow sunlight shone in visible beams through the canopy overhead, bathing the brown earth in a patchwork of shimmering waves of warmth. We reached Lillian Brook, refilled our water bottles and soaked our bare feet in the water. The stream carried a penetrating cold that rejuvenated our tired feet. After each of us had a hot dehydrated meal to replenish our sapped energy and an icy cold beer to celebrate a great day, it was off to an early bed. It was a full day spent among friends in the midst of obvious beauty, closed once again under the light of the stars.
As we drove back to Burlington the next day, drinking coffees from Stewart’s and listening to the Grateful Dead, we watched the mountains of the Adirondacks drop slowly off behind nearer foothills. My legs and feet were tired, but my mind was both in a state of peaceful bliss and hungry for more adventures. Though this trip was not the most epic adventure that I’ve ever been on, it was never intended to be. Our goal was to go out into the mountains to get a little bit dirty while hiking among the giants of the High Peaks and to have some fun together. As with nearly all of my trips to the Adirondacks, this one did not disappoint!
5 Gear Highlights:
1) La Sportiva Boulder X approach shoes– The Boulder X is one of my favorite pairs of shoes that I’ve ever owned. I wore these all winter to break them in and simply because they were comfortable and durable. Once the weather improved, I started wearing them on actual climbing approaches. This trip to Dix was the first time that I had worn the Boulder X while hiking and they were incredible. They are fantastic for scrambling up rock and are stiff enough for a long day on the trail. I was happy to be wearing them on Hunter’s Pass and I can’t wait to hike more of the 46 high peaks in them.
2) Black Diamond Bullet day pack- I had never had a true summit pack before, but I decided to purchase the Bullet prior to our Dix trip rather than taking my 40 liter pack to the summit. The Bullet held my water, food and a layer with room to spare! It is low profile on your back, which is great for moving fast and scrambling. The straps are comfortable and the inclusion of a hip belt and a chest strap were appreciated. The Bullet also rolled up easily to pack away in my larger backpacking pack for the hike into the campsite.
3) PrAna Mojo shorts– The Mojo shorts are a favorite of many OGErs, including Steve and myself. I climb in these shorts, wear them to work, swim in them, and even wear them out on the town sometimes! They are a perfect hiking short because the fabric is light and quick drying, the fit is phenomenal, and the thick elastic waistband is unobtrusive under a pack waist belt.
4) Darn Tough Merino Wool Micro Crew Cushion socks- With a light hiking boot or approach shoe, I prefer to wear Darn Tough’s awesome Micro Crew socks. These Merino Wool socks are comfortable, yet have a performance fit that does not move around on your foot. Like all Darn Tough socks they are also durable and backed by an unlimited lifetime guarantee. I choose the Micro Crew because it does not go too high on my leg, but still protects my ankle.
5) Olicamp Vector stove– In camp, I used the Olicamp Vector to boil water for my coffee, oatmeal and dehydrated meal. The Vector is compact, lightweight and uses an isobutane/propane blend fuel canister. It boils water quickly and efficiently in the summertime, and is very easy to pack away. This stove is great for overnights, canoe camping, and lightweight backpacking. I’ve been very happy with it.
- Black Diamond Bullet
- Arc’teryx Alpha SL Jacket
- Nalgene 32oz wide-mouth water bottle
- National Geographic High Peaks region map
- Gerber Paraframe Knife
- Black Diamond Deployment Merino blend tee
- PrAna Mojo Shorts
- Darn Tough Micro Crew socks
- Icebreaker Anatomica Merino boxer
- La Sportiva Boulder X shoes
- 2 Clif Bars- Chocolate Brownie and Chocolate Chip
- Vermont Smoke and Cure smoked pepperoni stick
- Tube of Nuun drink tablets – tropical fruit
- Aquamira water treatment drops
- Black Diamond Infinity 60 pack
- Olicamp Vector Stove
- MSR Alpine Stowaway Pot – 775 ml
- Sea to Summit X Bowl collapsible bowl
- Light My Fire Spork
- A plastic coffee mug
- Bic lighter
- LL Bean 45 degree synthetic sleeping bag
- Therm-A-Rest BaseCamp self inflating mattress
- Black Diamond Spot Headlamp
- Mountain Hardwear Thermostatic Jacket
- Black Diamond Alpine Start Hoody
- PrAna Stretch Zion pants
- Black Diamond Deployment Shirt (additional)
- Darn Tough Micro Crew socks (additional)
- Nalgene 32oz wide-mouth water bottle (additional)
- 3 pack Starbucks Via instant coffee
- Packet of Quaker Instant Oatmeal – maple and brown sugar
- Good To-Go dehydrated meal – Smoked three bean chili
Group Camping Gear:
- Marmot Urban Hauler (for treeing food)
- 30 foot braided nylon rope with attached carabiner (for treeing food)
- Mountain Hardwear Skyledge 2.1 tent (no rainfly)
- Ruffwear Approach pack (for Ringo)
All Photos Courtesy of Steve Borchetta