To the sun and back
Late to bed, early to rise
I’m not a morning person, but I do appreciate the finer things in life, and one of the finest things I’ve experienced is the sunrise from a High Peak.
I recently recruited two friends, Emilee and Dan, to accompany me on an early morning foray to the Balanced Rocks on Pitchoff Mountain, a 1.6 mile hike. It’s the kind of thing that sounds like a great idea until the logistics are revealed: Wake up at 2:45 a.m., drive from my home in Saranac Lake to Lake Placid, meet my companions, and hit the trail by 4 a.m.
To my surprise, I almost pulled it off. By 4:15, our headlamp beams were crisscrossing the forest as we climbed away from Route 73. It’s worth mentioning the parking area, which is the same one hikers use for the incredibly popular Cascade Mountain trail, was empty upon our arrival. That’s rare for this section of the High Peaks, so take note: If you’re looking to avoid the crowds, start early and pick a less popular destination.
The adventure begins
Our little group marched single file onto the crest of the low ridge that parallels Cascade Pass, with me in the front on spiderweb breaking duty. There are a couple of nice views overlooking the Cascade Lakes along this stretch, but we ignored them to save time. They’re easier to see in the daylight, anyway.
We carefully clambered up a steep section, then dipped down into a wet depression. This is my favorite area of the hike. Through the treetops, the rocky hump of the Balanced Rocks ledge can be seen, and the forest ahead is dotted with a jumble of boulders and ledges. It’s tempting to veer around swampy sections like this, but don’t. Doing so causes damage to the surrounding vegetation and widens and erodes the trail. Put those boots to use and walk straight through the mud.
As we climbed steeply past the base of an old slide, the sky was starting to get brighter — the show would be starting soon and we didn’t want to miss it, so we kept on moving. From this point on the trail stays at a pretty constant grade as it circumnavigates the cliffs below the boulders. There are a couple of misleading herd paths branching off to the right — keep left to stay on the main trail.
Before long, the trail reaches a three-way junction. Left goes to the summit in a half mile or so; right leads 0.1 mile to an expansive ledge with two enormous rocks. We scaled one of them and settled in, and while the sky turned from dark blue to a medley of oranges, grays, and yellows, we talked about how a morning hike is the best way to start a day. And androids. Yes, folks, artificial intelligence is happening, but that’s a different story.
Back to that first conversation, there’s nothing quite like sipping coffee as the hermit thrushes start to awaken. Mist rose from the various streams that are tucked into the folds of the mountains, creating temporary clouds throughout the panorama. The sun’s rays cast long shadows over the valley below, until its angle was such that it was level with our eyes, blinding us.
We took time exploring the area — there’s a huge overhang just beneath the edge of the west-facing ledge, and there’s also a cave-like crack to climb through — before packing up and descending. Leaving a place as special as Balanced Rocks is always difficult, but knowing we’d finished a 3.2 mile hike before our workdays even started felt great.
Distance: 1.6 miles one way to Balanced Rocks
Elevation: 2,990 feet
Elevation gain: 850 feet
Prepping for a sunrise hike
Get everything together the previous night: If you’re like me, everything takes twice as long in the morning. That's why before bed I always pack my gear, get the coffee maker loaded, lay out my clothes, and have a fast breakfast set up. The goal is to get out of the door as quickly as possible.
Start early: Estimate how much time you’ll need and add an hour — the worst case scenario is you’ll have extra time before the show begins.
Dress for a couple of seasons: Things are always cooler and windier on an open summit, and those factors increase with elevation gain. It might be shorts weather at your car, but it could feel like fall up high. This is especially true in the morning. My wife tends to be cold all of the time, so she brings winter gear — like mittens and a wool hat — for the summit on summer morning hikes. I bring a light winter hat, windbreaker, and thin gloves.
Bring an insulated bottle: And fill it with something warm! I love coffee, but anything warm — tea, broth, soup, hot chocolate — is divine during a sunrise. Insider tip: Don’t throw out that holey old wool sock. Instead, put your insulated bottle in it for an added layer of insulation.
Pack extra batteries: You’ll need a headlamp for most of a sunrise hike, so make sure you have extra batteries. I keep mine in a zipper lock bag, and they never leave my pack until they’re needed.
Extra socks: Hiking in the dark, even by headlamp, is harder than hiking during the day. It’s dark out there, making deep mud puddles difficult to avoid. There’s nothing worse than a long hike in wet socks, so toss an extra pair in your pack. These can also double as mittens if you didn’t bring gloves and the chilly summit nips at your fingers.
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