I didn't plan to summit Haystack twice in the same day but sometimes life is full of surprises. My goal was a long loop trip, starting from Elk Lake, that I aborted below Sno-bird. As a result, I returned by hiking over Haystack again.
Eliminating goofing-off time, and the second ascent, it took me about 4 hours to reach Haystack (10.4 mi, 3600') and a tad less than 3.5 hours to return (10.4 mi, 600'). Despite not achieving my original goal, I had a great time in the mountains on a sunny, warm and cloudless day.
Pee Wee's Big Adventure
I had set out to "redline" a noose-shaped route that pieced together three unvisited trails. In a nutshell, I would head from Elk Lake to Panther Gorge, up over Haystack to Sno-bird, down the Haystack Brook trail to Warden's Camp, along the Carry, up Blake, close the loop via Pinnacle Ridge, and return to Elk Lake. The route consists of 6760' of elevation gain over a distance of 26.5 miles. It was an ambitious plan (for me) but I was eager to give it a go; nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Little House on the Highway
Even at an average pace of two miles per hour, I'd need all the daylight hours I could get plus more. Requiring a pre-dawn start, I camped near Elk Lake at the Blue Ridge Falls campground (on Blue Ridge Road). It was not quite what I had imagined.
I arrived at 7:00 PM and was charged $28 for a full-service site (I indicated I was only tenting) that overlooked the highway. I balked at the location but the owner indicated it was the best site. He added that if I didn't like it he'd "see what he could do".
Admittedly, site #2, situated about thirty feet above the highway, had a clear view of the mountains to the south and the rapids in The Branch (across the highway). I took a quick tour of the campground in search of a quieter location. It was filled with seemingly unoccupied trailers that appeared to be parked for the season or, by the look of some outbuildings, for eternity. For example, I can't imagine anyone going to the trouble of erecting a flagpole and Confederate flag for just one weekend (um, well, maybe I can). I couldn't get to some areas indicated on the campground map owing to road closure. It seemed like the only free spots bordered the highway. Oh well, lesson learned.
Clear skies made for a beautiful sunset. The first pale blush of red foliage added to the spectacle. The rosy hues on the nearby hills faded while the sky slowly changed from cobalt to ink. The rushing waters from the nearby rapids provided a lullaby that was, sadly, overpowered by trucks engine-braking during their descent. They were mercifully few but, even muffled by ear-plugs, difficult to ignore. Sleep seemed to come easily only moments before my phone's alarm rang at 4:00 AM. I envy the folks who can sleep in their car at a trailhead. It is a practice that straddles the line of illegal camping but seems to be tolerated by rangers. You awaken and you have nothing to put away and you are ready to begin your hike.
Early Morning Brain Fog
I prepared my feet for the long day ahead, tossed my dew-laden tent into the trunk, devoured my bucket of cereal, and departed for the Elk Lake trailhead. The stars were shining brightly and I was treated to the sight of a new moon, a slim nail-clipping low in the sky. I had chosen to camp here because it was close to Elk Lake road yet, in my morning stupor, I managed to drive past it!
The miles sped by and when I reached the twisty part of Blue Ridge road I uttered a few dark words in realization I had screwed up. I backtracked, stopped at every road junction, and finally discovered it was, as I had originally thought, just a few minutes west of the campground. It was mere seconds west of the buffalo rancher. I must have been dreaming of bison burgers when I drove past the intersection. The first glitch of the day; I was off on the wrong foot.
I signed in at the register at 6:05 AM, far later than planned, and headed west in dawn's early light. My head lamp was needed for a mere ten minutes. The temperature was cool (11C, 52F). I could hear loons calling on nearby Elk Lake. It felt good to finally be on the trail.
|6:00 AM. Bright third-eyed and bushy-trailed.|
The last time I hiked the Elk Lake-Panther Gorge trail was in 1984. My girlfriend and I hiked from the Loj over Marcy and down to the Panther Gorge leanto where we'd meet my buddy and his girlfriend who departed from Elk Lake. We would exchange car keys and continue in opposite directions. A major rainstorm altered our plans. We saw nothing on Marcy, were drenched during the descent into the Gorge ("like descending the levels of Dante's hell") and arrived at the leanto, cold, wet, and tired. The leanto was not today's lovely specimen but a floorless muddy hovel with a sieve for a roof; calling it shelter was awfully generous. We laid out garbage bags and ponchos on the muck, used tarps to redirect the water flowing through the roof, and huddled for warmth. The other couple arrived late and indicated they would be returning the way they came which was now a flowing stream. The following day was a long, soggy march to Elk Lake. My only recollections of the trip were rain, cold, mud, an argument with my girlfriend, and the loss of a fork in the rushing waters of the brook. I recall next to nothing about the terrain or the scenery.
Fast forward 28 years and I am having a great time on the same trail. The section through private property is known as Pinaud Road and it is a broad, smooth, grassy road where you can stride with ease. The path rises 600 feet to clear the southern end of the Colvin Range (or is it the northern end of the Boreas Range?) but does so with little mud, rocks, roots, or erosion. The final descent to Marcy Swamp is a bit rocky but nothing outrageous. It was noticeably cooler in the Swamp (45F) and shrouded in fog which added an air of mystery. The bridges spanning the major water crossings are in good shape but a few of the smaller ones have fallen apart. A significant section of the Swamp is traversed by a log "sidewalk" and it is intact. The terrain was very dry and I crossed the Swamp with ease.
|Boardwalk and fog in Marcy Swamp.|
Somewhere along the route I took a photo and was surprised by my camera's message indicating its memory was full. So soon? I scrolled through the photos, noticed something was amiss, opened the camera and discovered what I feared, it had no memory card. Fortunately, it had a small amount of built-in memory, so I deleted the existing photos and cranked the resolution down from 14 to 3 megapixels to maximize space. The camera indicated it had room for 46 photos and that was fine. The second glitch of the day; I overlooked to check my camera.
The pause that refreshes
The last stretch rises about 1300 feet, beginning with deciduous forest and ending in boreal. I made good time and covered the nine mile route in three hours. I stopped by Marcy Brook, near the former leanto site, and spent time replenishing my water supply, snacking, and reminiscing about days gone by. At 9:30 AM, I departed for Haystack. The stretch from Panther Gorge to the junction with the Bartlett ridge trail would be new territory for me.
Same old, same old
The section of trail I was "redlining" (0.7 miles and 600') was a bit eroded but presented no significant obstacles. I reached the junction in twenty minutes and proceeded up the reknown southside of Haystack. The last time I ascended this route was almost thirty years ago, with a framepack, and I couldn't remember much other than it was steep. It is steep yet provides plenty of decent footing and handholds. A few sections might be considered tricky in wet weather but today was sunny and the rock was warm and dry. More importantly the route provides spectacular views of Allen and all points south. The final section ascends open rock with numerous cairns and I summited at 10:30 AM.
|Little Haystack and beyond.|
The day was young, I was feeling strong, and I looked out at my ultimate objective, Pinnacle Ridge. Funny how the real thing looks more formidable than what one derives from a topo map. I had hiked from the Carry to Blake (1.7 mi, 2000') so I knew what lie in store. Those bumps leading from Blake to Pinnacle add up to about 700 feet of ascent but sure look worse when viewed from afar. I ignored a creeping sense of foreboding.
Doubt rides a pale horse over me
Once again, the intended trip length prevented me from lingering atop much-beloved Haystack so I began my descent to Little Haystack. I met my first hiker of the day atop Little Haystack and, after a short chat and photos, continued on to Sno-bird. I arrived at around 11:15 AM and stared at the sign indicating 3.35 miles to the Warden's Camp. The calculator in my head said I had 9 miles and 2700' of ascent before I closed the loop (plus 5 more miles to exit). Whew! I was barely halfway! I began my highly anticipated descent of the purportedly beautiful Haystack Brook trail. The first several hundred yards of trail was far from beautiful, unlike the pristine southside of Sawteeth. I descended perhaps three short ladders and stopped at the top of a long ladder. Something wasn't right.
I felt a hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach combined with a wave of nausea. What fresh hell was this? I had endured several days of stomach trouble prior to this hike but couldn't believe it was the cause. I had been eating enough throughout the hike but maybe not enough? I didn't know what to make of the symptoms but they were very disconcerting. While eating a Clif Bar, doubt crept into my mind and the Warden's Camp seemed to recede out of my reach. My inner voice said 'today is not the day'. Body and mind had to be committed to the task. The third glitch of the day; I lost my self-confidence.
It was not an easy decision to curtail the hike but, when hiking alone, 'know thyself' helps keep one out of trouble. I sorted through my options and retreat seemed prudent. Retreating meant about 2.5 miles less distance and 1700' less ascent which would be very welcome should I experience worse symptoms. Besides, it was a gorgeous day and what better place to be than on Haystack. I'll "redline" the Haystack Brook trail another day in another way. I turned around and began my second ascent of Haystack.
If you abort a hike and feel good thereafter you're bound to second-guess your decision. I felt good ascending out of the col and never experienced nausea for the balance of the hike. Oh well, so it goes. It took me a half-hour to reach Little Haystack where I met an elderly gentleman named Brian. An aspiring 46er, a mere two peaks away from his 46th, Brian and I chatted about the peaks for a good half-hour before we departed. I encouraged him to join the forum and share his experiences. Fifteen minutes later I was standing atop Haystack for the second time.
|Second time on Haystack.|
The descent from Haystack to Panther Gorge took me forty-five minutes. I must admit that, as odd as it may sound, Haystack's steep southside was more enjoyable as an ascent than descent. I made good use of the vegetation for handholds.
Feet don't fail me now
I arrived at Panther Gorge brook at 2:00 PM. I had plenty of daylight left to return to Elk Lake so I decided to spend some time lounging by the brook (again). My right knee, painful for many weeks, felt great. Joints, muscles, ligaments and tendons were doing fine but my feet were unhappy. No blisters whatsoever but the balls of my feet, and my large toes, were on fire. I'm almost certain I sighed as I dipped my overheated feet into the brook's cold waters.
|Prescription for overheated feet.|
I sterilized more water, laid my things out to dry, sat on a rock in the brook, and just enjoyed the moment. Sunshine, warm dry air, no bugs or people to distract me from contemplating my perfect surroundings. I reflected on the day's experiences and, although slightly disappointed with not achieving my goal, I was grateful for the opportunity to visit Haystack (twice) on such a lovely day. After forty-five minutes of relaxation, I gathered my gear and began the nine mile hike back to Elk Lake.
|Yeah, I'm happy to be here!|
The afternoon's hike to Elk Lake was simply the morning's hike played in reverse. The spiders had restored their webs across the trail so I had the privilege to collect them with my head all over again. No one else had come to Panther Gorge so it was easy to spot my solitary footprints in the mud. Marcy Swamp was now warm and inviting. I paused by the bend of a sinuous stream and marvelled at its inviting sandy shoreline. At about 4:00 PM I reached the junction with the Pinnacle Ridge trail. What time would I have arrived here if I had continued with the original plan? Why speculate when you can try the entire hike again!
PhotosSee all photos.
Distance: 24 miles
Ascent: 5320 feet
Hiking time: 9h 35m
Goofing off time: 2h
Total time: 11h 35m
Elk Lake, 6:05 AM
Pinnacle junction, 7:45 AM
Panther Gorge Leanto, 9:08 AM
Depart Panther Gorge, 9:29 AM
Bartlett Ridge trail junction, 9:51 AM
Haystack, 10:32 AM
Depart Haystack, 10:35 AM
Range Trail junction, 10:57 AM
Sno-bird, 11:13 AM
Stop, 11:25 AM
Start, 11:35 AM
Return to Sno-bird, 11:54 AM
Depart Sno-bird, 12:00 PM
Range Trail junction, 12:20 PM
Little Haystack, 12:29 PM
Depart Little Haystack, 12:54 PM
Haystack, 1:09 PM
Depart Haystack, 1:17 PM
Bartlett Ridge trail junction, 1:44 PM
Panther Gorge, 2:03 PM
Depart Panther Gorge, 2:52 PM
Pinnacle junction, 4:05 PM
Elk Lake, 5:40 PM