Adirondack Hike: McKenzie and Haystack

Updated on August 5, 2018
McKenzie from Haystack
McKenzie from Haystack

On August 4, I made the trip up to the Adirondacks to start knocking off a few mountains on one of the many challenges the area provides. The previous year, I had ventured up later in the Summer and knocked off the Tupper Lake Triad. This year, in doing some research, I discovered the Saranac 6 Challenge that included Haystack, McKenzie, Baker, St. Regis, Ampersand and Scarface Mountains.

Haystack is listed at 2,874 feet and McKenzie is formidable at 3,861 feet, but I had been up on twenty-nine of the high peaks in the area in the last fifteen months, so I felt fairly confident I could handle the hike solo.

Parking Area
Parking Area
Sign for Haystack Trailhead
Sign for Haystack Trailhead

I had seen the parking area and sign for Haystack and McKenzie often since we drove by it on our way into Lake Placid. Whoever decided there needed to be a Haystack Mountain and a Mount Haystack (high peak) in the same area didn't think that one through very well.

The trailhead is off route 86 after you come out on the east side of Saranac Lake, on the left side. There were about fifteen cars there when I arrived at about 2:20 p.m. and I was all geared up by 2:30 p.m.

For this trek, I had my hiking pack and poles, three liters of water, a few peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, two apples, and five granola bars packed away.

Sign In Book
Sign In Book

I took a photo of the sign in book and then started on trail at 2:35 p.m. I actually had to walk back as I forgot to actually sign in and then remembered before I got too far. I noted the last entry before mine was also a single hiker and then hit the trail.

I noted right away that the trail markers were in blue and the trail is pretty easy to follow in terms of the markings.

The early section of the trail is pretty wide open forest and is easy to navigate, but the scary thing for me was that I could hear some thunder in the distance as I got started. It was in the eighties, temperature-wise, so I wasn't worried about getting rained on, but I've never liked lightning. Especially when carrying a set of metal poles in the bag.

I was determined to get a hike in though so I pressed forward and came across four or five groups of people scampering back to beat the rain that was in the area.

Thirty-Minute Marker
Thirty-Minute Marker

The trail weaves in and then starts heading west and somewhat downhill for a while. I like to note certain markers at thirty minute intervals whenever possible, and this little stream hop and shredded tree was at that time point.

About a minute after I took the photo, I saw a flash of lightning as the wind picked up and some light showers came through the area. I took shelter under a huge boulder off to the right for a few minutes, debated turning back momentarily, but eventually pressed on.

The trail stayed downhill for about twenty-five minutes with a couple of additional stream crossings, but the terrain is pretty easy. Eventually, it did start to angle up, but it was moderate.

Haystack/McKenzie Split
Haystack/McKenzie Split

An hour into the hike, I came to the split for the trails to McKenzie and Haystack. McKenzie heads off to the right and is an orange marked trail. I figured with the unpredictable weather around me, I would start with the shorter summit of Haystack and at least get one in in case I had to abort later on.

I came across a couple that was coming down and they told me it was a bit of scrambling near the top and they estimated an hour to the summit still. I veered left and started a light climb upwards.

Stream Crossing
Stream Crossing
Stream Crossing
Stream Crossing

A couple of minutes after the split, there is a stream crossing. Right after that, the trail starts to increase its pitch a bit. For the first twenty minutes, the trail goes up for about four minutes, then gives you a flat section to catch your breathe. There were three of these right in a row, so it's nice to be able to recover after a little incline.

Some Incline, finally
Some Incline, finally

After that third flat section that's twenty minutes from the split, it becomes all uphill and with some good elevation. This section took me about twenty minutes to navigate before reaching the summit, with the part that looked like a stairway (see below) at the thirty minute mark after the split.

I ran into the other solo hiker in this section and he let me know I was close and that he was also doing McKenzie, so that gave me some goals to try and catch him at some point.

Hour and a half in
Hour and a half in

Just after that steep section, you get a lookout point where you can look out to the south and see a lake, the Seward Range, and bits of the area to the east. From this point, the summit was only another ten minutes.

I hit the summit at 4:15 p.m., so about an hour and forty minutes from when I left the parking lot. I only spent about ten minutes up there, but was happy it was clear. I knew that I'd be pushing it in terms of sunlight and had left my headlamp at home, so I was going to need to keep a healthy pace.

The Summit!
The Summit!

The descent off of Haystack took twenty-six minutes before I was back to the split for McKenzie and Haystack at 4:55 p.m. I wasted little time and made the turn and started heading up. From the view on Haystack, you could tell this was going to be a long gradual ascent at first and the terrain was moderate to start and then gets a bit flatter after the initial part.

You're still heading up, but it's a very gradual incline for the first thirty minutes until you come to a point where four trails converge. There is a sign there pointing the way back and the mileage and the way forward is well marked.

Four Corners
Four Corners

The terrain gets rocky right after the four corners and then you come to an area with some tree roots. Shortly after that, the ascent begins. This is a pretty steep ascent, much steeper than I had thought it was going to be. It reminded me of the trip up Phelps, honestly. It was steep and rocky.

I was getting a little bit nervous because I knew I was the last one on the mountain and the terrain was a bit damp and with the steepness, I knew I was going to be all alone on this ascent. It was the first time I was going to be the last one on the mountain, so I knew I was going to need to be careful.

McKenzie Terrain
McKenzie Terrain

The hike up to the top took me a good fifty minutes. I ran into the solo hiker about fifteen minutes from the top and got an overview from him of what the summit was like. After grabbing some quick video on a lookout ledge, I was on there by 6:14 p.m.

McKenzie was a little tricky. From a distance, it looked fairly moderate and the opening march to the elevation lulls you into a false sense of security. That elevation is no joke and really is a challenge. Doing this mountain would be a good warmup for any of the forty-six high peaks.

I didn't stay long on the summit, taking a shot of the big boulder where you can look out to the east and grabbing a quick granola bar. I was going to need to make a quick turnaround to avoid hiking out in the dark.

East lookout
East lookout

I was very careful on the descent off of McKenzie and it took me thirty-eight minutes to reach the four corners at 6:55 p.m. I made good pace and hit the split in another twenty-seven minutes at 7:22 p.m.

With the gradual terrain and uphill in the last section, I was able to make it to the parking lot as dusk set in at 8:20 p.m. and was the last person left in the parking lot.

The total hike took five hours and forty-five minutes and that puts me at two of six for the Saranac 6 Challenge. On my way out of town, twenty-five minutes later, I spotted the Ampersand parking area and there were still five or six cars in that lot, so I wondered if people were doing the Ultra, all six in one day. I was tired enough after these two. My fitbit said fifteen miles (always high) and 32,000 steps though.

This was my third solo trip in the mountains with the Tupper Lake Triad and Looking Glass Rock (NC) hikes being my two others. This was definitely the most challenging pair yet alone. The late start, inclement weather, and difficult terrain made me rethink how to supply for such a hike. It was exactly the distance I wanted though to get in a good workout and I was looking to finish the Saranac 6 by the end of the Summer, so I'm glad I finished them. All-in-all, a very enjoyable, yet challenging hike.

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