The Great Traverse is famous as a long hike or very long dayhike, depending on your predilection. There is no one way to do the Traverse, nor one clear list of peaks that must be summited along the way, so there are really several Great Range Traverses. Probably the most famous variant comes from a 2005 article in Backpacker Magazine about “America’s Hardest Dayhikes,” which is discussed in below in more detail. What all variations have in common is that they cover all of the major peaks in the Adirondacks Great Range, including New York state high-point Mount Marcy.
What is the Great Range Traverse?
There may not be a definitive answer to this question, but if you look at various trip reports, summit posts, articles, etc. they generally converge on this: the traverse starts at Keene Valley on the Rooster Comb Trail and then proceeds to climb Rooster Comb, Hedgehog, Lower Wolfjaw, Upper Wolfjaw, Armstrong, Gothics, Saddleback, Basin, Little Haystack, Haystack and Mount Marcy. The traverse ends via the Phelps Trail to The Garden near at end of Johns Brook Lane. In summary:
- 25 Miles from the Rooster Comb Trailhead to The Garden. This distance is not precise, but it’s pretty close. It is of course farther if you want to walk from The Gardens back to your car at the Rooster Comb Trailhead.
- 11 Peaks, eight of which are over 4,000′ (i.e., 8 High Peaks or 46ers).
- Nearly 10,000′ elevation gained.
Note that the Phelps Trail going from The Gardens to the Johns Brook Lodge (or vice-versa) is not the same as the Phelps Mountain Trail, which instead goes from Adirondack Loj to the top of Phelps Mountain.
What is the Great Range?
The simple answer is that the Adirondacks “Great Range” is a series of peaks (mostly) along a ridgeline that runs southwest from near Keene Valley. The peaks along this ridgeline, starting from the NE, are Rooster Comb, Hedgehog, Lower Wolfjaw, Upper Wolfjaw, Armstrong, Gothics, Saddleback, Basin, Little Haystack and Haystack. Mount Marcy, the highest point in New York state, is included in the Traverse but it is not formally part of the Great Rang itself.
All of the peaks in the Great Range are in the 4,000′ Adirondack 46ers list except Rooster Comb, Hedgehog and Little Haystack. Sawteeth, south of the main ridgeline, is generally considered a spur of Gothics. It’s also worth noting that the Adirondacks are not actually a mountain range — they are a part of a wide geological dome — and hence the Great Range is not a mountain range per se. But that doesn’t make it any less great.
This provides a somewhat overly detailed list of milestones along the Great Range Traverse. If you skip over most of the trail junctions, you can see the peak distances and elevations. However, more detail is provided so you can more easily track progress and splits if so desired.
0.0 Miles – Trailhead
The Rooster Comb trailhead is directly south of Keene Valley on Route 73.
2.0 Miles – Junction to Rooster Comb
The trip up Rooster Comb requires a 1 mile R/T detour off the the main trail and back.
2.5 Miles – Rooster Comb (1)
Rooster Comb is the northernmost peak in the Great Range, and the first peak to climb if you’re starting a traverse from Keene Valley. For all summer traverses, this means summiting via a spur trail that adds aboug 1 mile R/T to the traverse.
4.1 Miles – Hedgehog (2)
Hedgehog Mountain (3,389′) is the second peak on the Traverse. If you skip the side-trail to Rooster Comb, Hedgehog is only 3.1 miles from the trailhead.
4.5 Miles – W.A. White Trail Junction
At this point on the trail, you continue the Traverse on the W.A. White Trail, which meets the RC Trail after climbing up from near the Ausable Club. This is one of several trails that climb up to the ridgeline from Lake Rd other parts of the valley and the Ausable lakes.
6.0 Miles – Lower Wolf Jaw (3)
Lower Wolf Jaw (4,175′) is the mandible of the Wolf Jaws, the part that let’s the wolf bite down (up) on your trembling body as you trudge along the ridgeline toward eternal glory or death or, well, a few blisters and a nice sunburn.
6.4 Miles – Wolf Jaws Notch
The saddle (notch) between Lower and Upper Wolf Jaw includes trail junctions with the Adirondack Ridge and Wedge Brook Trails, providing some opportunity for confusion. When you come down from Lower Wolf Jaw, stay right at the first two junctions and left at the third to stay on the Traverse.
If you go left at either of the first two junctions, you’ll end up heading south on the WB Trail. Right at the third junction takes you north down the AR Trail toward the John Brooks Lodge. The mileage indication for the notch roughly corresponds to the second of the three junctions. It’s easier than it sounds.
After the third junction, you’re now on the Adirondacks Ridge Trail and continue the Traverse up to Upper Wolf Jaw.
7.4 Miles – Upper Wolf Jaw (4)
Upper Wolf Jaw (4,185′) is attained via a challenging climb from the Notch, and offers some okay but not great views — certainly nothing comparable to what you’ll soon be seeing on Gothics. So keep movin’!
8.4 Miles – Amstrong Mountain (5)
Armstrong (4,400′) is one of my favorite peaks on the Traverse, not because it is particularly awesome or difficult, but because of the awesome slabby rock where you can plop down and enjoy views farther down the ridgeline. It’s a simple thing, but sometimes it’s nice to take a load off and enjoy the scenery.
8.8 Miles – Junction with Gothics Trail
The Gothics Trail from Lake Rd. joins the trail from the south at this point, but author has passed this point twice without ever seeing the junction or any indicator of a trail. Just keep on truckin’.
9.4 Miles – Gothics (6)
Gothics (4,736′) is generally acknowledged as offering the best views along the Great Range until you get to Haystack or Marcy, and the first full 360 view along the Traverse. It’s really quite a vantage point, and worth a bit of a pause if your schedule allows for it.
9.9 Miles – Junction with Orebed Brook Trail
The OB Trail heads north toward Gooseberry and the Johns Brook Lodge. After this point, the Traverse continues along the ridge on the State Range Trail.
10.4 Miles – Saddleback (7)
11.4 Miles – Basin (8)
12.2 Miles – Junction with Shorey Shortcut to Phelps Trail
This is the first of three tail junctions between Basin and Little Haystack as various shortcuts and paths cut across the ridgelines. Continue straight on the Range Trail.
12.3 Miles – Junction with Haystack Brook Trail
This is the second junction, this time coming in from the left (south). Continue straight as before.
12.8 Miles – Junction to Haystack Trail
At this junction, the Range Tail cuts north (right) toward Marcy and you want to turn left onto the Haystack Trail if you’re doing the Haystacks. If you’re skipping the Haystacks, take the right and stay on the RT.
12.9 Miles – Little Haystack (9)
You’ll glide over Little Haystack (4,662′) on the way to Haystack, and on the way back down for double the fun.
13.4 Miles – Haystack (10)
Haystack (4,960′) is the tenth peak on the Traverse, assuming you take the 1.2 Mil R/T side trail to climb it. Many hikers simply bypass Haystack and go on to Marcy due to time or other constraints. Mileage totals here assume that Haystack is included in the Traverse.
14.5 Miles – Phelps Trail Junction
The Range Trail ends at the Phelps Trail, which comes up from the northwest (right) and then proceeds up to Marcy. At this junction, stay left to continue the GRT to its final peak and the top of Mount Marcy (just 1.3 miles farther), or turn right to bail out and head back to The Garden. You’ll return to this junction on the return from Marcy.
15.8 Miles – Mount Marcy (11)
Wahoo! You’re there! You’re at the highest point in New York (5,344′) that’s not part of Donald Trump’s hair. And whether you got here via Rooster Comb and Haystack or skipped them, you’ve done quite a hike. Now where’s the escalator down…?
24.9 Miles – The Garden (Wahoo!)
It’s roughly 9.1 Miles from the top of Mount Marcy to The Garden on Johns Brook Lane and, hopefully, your waiting ride or vehicle.
There are several other possible ways to traverse the peaks of the Great Range, and several ways back — including routes that add addition High Peaks to your peak bagger checklist (even if none of them are in the Great Range itself). For the sake or reference and maybe some amusement, here are a few of them. It’s not clear (yet) that any of these have been done as a dayhike, but if you find related stories, please tell us in the comments. And if you do them, well, you da hiker.
GRT v1.5 – The Double Traverse (29.4 miles)
This rather odd traverse option takes you all the way out along the ridgeline from Keene Valley to Rooster Comb to Haystack and then Marcy and back. This is both longer AND harder than the Main Traverse, as you have to climb every peak except Marcy, Little Haystack, Haystack and Rooster Comb twice (once on the way out, and once on the way back).
The omission of Haystack and Rooster Comb cuts 2.2 miles on the way back, and hence the R/T distance of 29.4 (15.8 + 13.6) miles. It’s not clear why one would do this, as it means working harder to bag the same number of peaks, but it sounds really hard and painful, so why not? On the other hand, GRT v2 (below) is almost exactly the same distance and adds two more High Peaks, so there’s a reason…
GRT v2 – Adding Yard & Big Slide (29.4 Miles)
This is exactly the same as the main traverse, except that on the way back from Marcy you do a jaunt up Yard and Big Slide, adding two additional High Peaks and lots more elevation to boot. You end at the exact same point, which is presumably barely conscious and somewhat peckish. But you’ve bagged 10 46ers in one day.
GRT v3 – Adding Skylight & Gray (28.6 Miles)
This is the same as the main traverse, except that you continue over the top of Haystack, turn north toward Marcy and then take a jaunt up Skylight and then Gray, return, climb Marcy, and then head back to The Garden. You add two more 46ers on this traverse, and lots of elevation. And some rock scrambling. This also gets you 10 46ers in one day.
GRT v4 = v2 + v3 = ADK Insanity (And 33.1 Miles)
Twelve (12) 46ers in one dayhike or hike. Need we say more? Other than take lots of water. And food. And a helicopter.
GRT v5 – One Way to Adirondack Loj via Skylight, Gray, Table Top & Phelps (Many Miles)
This is probably even longer than v4, but I’m not even going to estimate. Basically, you do v3 back to the top of Marcy and then take off toward Adirondack Loj instead of The Garden. On the way, you climb Table Top (no trail) and Phelps. Like v4, this gets you 12 46ers in one day or hike. Madness.
I’ll add more information here on the Great Range Traverse as hikers make comments and we learn more. In the meantime, good hiking!
Backpacker Magazine’s “America’s Hardest Dayhikes”
Much public attention was brought to the Traverse by an article in Backpacker in 2005 called, “America’s Hardest Dayhikes”. The article describes this now standard version of the Great Range Traverse. The stated distance is 25 miles, with an elevation change of 17,600′. The article describes the Traverse as the 3rd hardest dayhike in America, with “Endless ups and downs… numerous cols and false summits, plus heinously eroded trail beds, wear you down physically and psychologically.” And then, “Gut-check moments include a half-mile of teetering above a 700-foot drop on a knife-edge between the Wolf Jaws-inevitably followed by a steep climb-and the southeast face of Gothics, a scary-steep, exposed descent over open slab rock…” The omits mention of Basin, but this appears to be a simple typo.
The 46 Adirondacks High Peaks
If you do any variation of the Great Range Traverse, you’re going to bag a good percentage of the 46 High Peaks. So why not do them all? You know. Tomorrow.
Caveat & Disclaimer
These hikes are all potentially dangerous, and should not be undertaken without reference to more recent and detailed information. You should verify everything here and be in pretty great shape before even thinking about doing any of them.