Saturday, February 15, 2014

Lost Brook Dispatches: The Best Vista in the Adirondacks

Wallface in SnowI’ve been preoccupied with Adirondack vistas of late.  Two recent copies of Adirondack Life had pictures with Burton’s Peak in them: one was a cover picture and the other placed in the 2014 Photo Contest (those of you who are savvy about my Lost Brook Dispatches and have followed the clues can see if you can identify it).

Like so many of us, I cherish beholding a corker Adirondack view perhaps more than any other experience in the park.  There is something magical about the combination of grandeur and intimacy in wild Adirondack vistas, studded with lakes, ponds and streams and infused with a dark, raw primeval power impossible to capture in words.  Quite frankly I have never experienced a stronger sense of wild harmony and beauty anywhere else I’ve been.

Call me biased, but the view to the east from our own Burton’s Peak is one of my favorites in the park.  It’s really spectacular.  Yet despite my home field prejudice, even I would not rate it number one… and I do actually have a clear number one.  In fact I’m going to share my top five as I get through the article.

For the purposes of this post I’m going to leave out the views from any of the High Peak summits.   Those are debated and ranked endlessly and we don’t need to do that again.  Besides, I have always found that the best vistas – the most dramatic and stirring ones – occur not on the summit of lofty peaks but on the sides of them, or from lesser peaks.  The effect of being in the middle of a bunch of vertical, with depths below and heights above, works a special power upon one’s perception that I think every mountain hiker has experienced.   Your eye is pulled downward by the sweep of land below you and that in turn serves to greatly magnify the sense of vertical above you; the surrounding ridges and summits seem more lofty and grand than they really are.

This perceptive effect is very strong in some of the most iconic Adirondack vistas.  For example, there is the Ridge Trail up Giant.  The first opening onto bedrock as one climbs up from the Washbowl is perhaps the most renowned spot for this vertical effect in the entire park.   One emerges onto the curved rock face to see the formidable cliffs on Round Mountain, so imposing and immense when they were viewed at the beginning of the climb along Route 73, now well below you.  Beyond them the cone of Dix, looking worthy of a peak in the Rockies from this perspective, towers above you. The effect is tremendous.  The first time I saw this view it was dramatically revealed to me as clouds briefly parted in the midst of a stormy afternoon, accompanied by a rainbow shooting up behind me.  It was an unforgettable tableau.  Notably, the view from Giant’s summit is nowhere near as good as that from the Ridge Trail, which sits squarely at number five on my list.

Other well-known vistas sporting this effect would include Mount Jo, Indian Falls (note the picture posted on the Almanack last week), Castle Rock (which makes Blue Mountain look truly massive), Deer Leap overlooking Lake George and Mount Adams.  For my money Indian Head and Pyramid deserve a special category, for the vertical effect in both places is especially incredible.  Pyramid sits at number four on my list, Indian Head at number three.

Number two on my list takes some nerve to get to: the open rock upon which one emerges as one comes out of the Mount Colden Trap Dyke.  The plunging downward pitch along that face, with Avalanche Lake and cliffs below, is utterly dizzying and the effect upon the view of Algonquin is stunning.  This view blows away the analogous panorama from Colden’s actual summit.  To stand there (or crouch there, gripping for dear life) is to feel vanishingly small.  I highly urge more adventurous readers to try it, however heed this advice: no matter what, don’t attempt this route in inclement weather.  I know someone who did that and came hair-splittingly close to biting the farm (but survived, to the dismay and consternation of those who don’t like his diversity posts).

Before I reveal my number one vista, I want to encourage you readers to share yours via the comments.  Most of the ones I’ve described are well known but there are innumerable vistas less well known that would be wonderful for people to hear about.  So what are your favorites?  What’s wrong with my rankings?  What glaring winner have I left out? (surely there are multiple votes for Noon Mark…)

I dreamed about hiking to my number one vista for literally three decades, having seen it from afar dozens of times and having always imagined that it must be an incomparable place to sit.  When I finally got there seven years ago it actually exceeded my imaginations.  Trust me, despite the variety of wonderful views available throughout the park, it has no equal.  Certainly it is peerless in terms of the vertical effect.  In one direction mountains tower overhead; in another the view extends for forty or fifty miles.  Yet despite the overwhelming sense of height and the distant views it is also close and intimate.  Virtually by definition of its location it represents the apex of raw, primeval Adirondack awe.  Finally, it happens to be a vista very few park visitors or residents have seen.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you a throne of rock, made to have your legs dangling over the edge of the abyss: the top of the cliffs on Wallface.

The maw beneath you, jumbled and tumbled with massive boulders, looks more violent and bestrewn than it does from any other perspective.  The McIntyres soar far above you on a dramatic diagonal up to the left, each peak in the range ever higher, looking every bit as lofty from this perspective as a range in the Alps – especially in winter.  To the south, where the view fades into vaporous ridges, Henderson Lake glistens.  The height of the hard, dark cliffs plunging straight down from your hanging feet cause your chest to clench a little.  Wallface is an unmatched perch upon which to sit.

There are two ways to get to the top of the Wallface cliffs.  One is to be a rock climber good enough to do a 600 – 800 foot multi-pitch ascent in the 5.8 or 5.9 range.  The other is to bushwhack up the back side.  For those of you who are not up to the rock wall, here’s a bushwhack route to take.  Believe me, it is well worth it.

I have explored the back side of Wallface extensively and can testify that there is a hellish amount of blow down and plenty of brush on large parts of the mountain’s upper elevations, but I have found a reasonable path through.   You start by taking the trail to Scott Pond all the way to the outlet of Indian Pass Brook.  Bushwhack down the brook about a 1/3 of a mile; it’s easy rock hopping.  You’ll know you’ll have gone far enough because you will reach a cleft going up the back of Wallface, angled to the Southwest.  Just past that cleft take a compass bearing directly magnetic south.  Twenty minutes of uphill bushwhacking will bring you the height of the ridge.  As you work down the other side of that ridge you will quite suddenly come upon the edge.   Push through the bushes and brace yourself; you’ll never forget it.


Give me your favorite vistas!

Photo: Wallface from Henderson Lake

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Pete Nelson is a teacher, writer, essayist and activist whose work has appeared in a variety of Adirondack publications, and regularly in the Adirondack Almanack since 2005. Pete is also a founder and current Coordinator of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council, which is working to make the Park more welcoming and inclusive.When not writing or teaching mathematics at North Country Community College, Pete can be found in the back country, making music or even walking on stilts, which he and his wife Amy have done professionally throughout the United States for nearly two decades.Pete is a proud resident of Keene, and along with Amy and his dog Henderson owns Lost Brook Tract, a forty-acre inholding deep in the High Peaks Wilderness.

15 Responses

  1. Tim says:

    OK, Pete, here’s one: the Palisades at Split Rock Mountain Wild Forest:
    It can be seen close up only from the water. I’ve visited it many times, by kayak, sailboat, and, recently, skis. Best view on the lake.

  2. Nancy Sill says:

    We are fairly new to mountain climbing and we have only done smaller ones. We have two favorites, Lowes Ridge where you feel like you can see forever after such a short easy climb. The other one is Peak Mountain at Thirteenth Lake. The vistas on the climb and the lunch break at Peak Mountain Pond makes the climb to the summit well worth it. The view at the summit is so beautiful and endless.

  3. Great point that the best vistas aren’t from the top of the High Peaks. One of my favourites is from the south face of Pyramid looking up the Great Range. The view simply humbles you and makes you feel small in relation to God’s creation! Here’s a couple links:


  4. George says:

    For at least the best vista in the northwest Adirondacks and achieving remoteness combined with serous bushwhacking, top out on West Mountain. This peak is west of Azure Mountain in the Bushy Top-Lost Mountain complex which harbors many different outcroppings and views-an area I have not seen much written about. This is part of the Champion Lands Easement and thus became available in only the most recent years.

    West Mountain is an open summit probably due to intense fire many decades ago. The views are similar to Azure Mountain but a different perspective-the whole northwest Adirondacks and St. Lawrence Valley are spread out in front of you. The nice thing is you will always enjoy it alone for the mountain requires approaches of several miles no matter what the starting point.

    • Pete Nelson says:

      This is unknown to me and sounds fantastic. I just put it on my list. Thanks.

      • Bob Meyer says:

        me too Pete.. i do know that the Azure [Blue] Mtn. road is only seasonal. always was curious about West & Bushy Top as seen from Azure
        i’ve done Azure a few times. it was great before the tower was re-opened and now even better. a very interesting birch hardwood forest on top.

  5. I am fond of Owl’s head Peak (overlooking Keene Valley off the side of Cascade) and Mt Jo but the view from Pyramid toward the Gothic and the Great Range is my 5 star #1. Most places where there is an open view you are a long way from what you are seeing but on Pyramid’s summit you are only a quarter mile from the top of Gothic by trail, less than that in the straight line of view. The sheer immensity of the Range and its slides are right there, in your face, as in no other location I’ve been in the ADKs.

    Although I’ve done all three slides on the back of Colden I’ve never attempted the Trap Dyke and, at 69, I never will. Never-the-less I cannot imagine it topping the view from Pyramid. Perhaps the terror of clinging to that slide just makes it seem better. 🙂

    • Pete Nelson says:


      At 69 you can do the Wallface bushwhack. Trust me…

      • I’ll hang onto your directions Pete. I adopt Scott Clearing Lean-to so maybe I could combine it with a maintenance trip. I also forgot to mention VanHoevenburg. Impressive in the opposite way from Pyramid, a vast expanse looking across South Meadow towards The McIntyres with Marcy off to the left. I’ve been there at dawn among other times. I need to do it again at sunset.

  6. Bob Meyer says:

    Pete, a brewing storm never let me get to the top of Wallface. Damn!
    1: Several views from the cliffs on the side of Pharoah. what a vista from the high Peaks to the S.E. Adirondack peaks. Much like the top but even more dramatic.
    2: On the edge of Bear Mtn. by Pyramid Lake.
    3: Of course, part way up any of the slides on Macomb are wonderful.
    4: Many decades ago I participated in a rescue on the Panther Gorge side of Haystack. The intimate awesome views from that steep side will always be with me!
    5: One very personal view is from what we at camp call Inspiration Pt.; an unnamed ridge N.W. of our camp that is just magic….and private. :-).
    6: I still say Pyramid Peak is the bomb!

  7. Tony Goodwin says:

    One forum post on this same subject once rate the best view in the Adirondacks as, “an empty parking space at the Garden.” All kidding aside, I will echo those who say the Pyramid Peak has the best view. It is close to the spectacular slides of the south side of the Great Range, but just enough removed to offer a perspective one doesn’t get from the summits of the Great Range.

    I first saw that view at age 16 when I was working with my father to build the trail over Pyramid to Gothics. My job was to clip after the larger trees – both down and standing – had been removed by my father. I remember clipping with my head down right up to the summit ledge, clipping the last piece of balsam, and then looking up to a view of slides and even some remaining snow. My opinion of that view hasn’t changed since.

  8. Lily says:

    The best view of the Adirondacks is whatever is before my eyes at that moment.

  9. steve says:

    Ah, Pete. . . those are all good. But you only gave honorable mention to the best; Castle Rock. Of course it’s only #1 with a bottle of ’89 Montrose.

  10. Dan Plumley says:


    Enjoyed this. The ridge trail vista overlooks are truly stunning — one of my favorites to be sure. Having climbed the Chapel Pond slab many times, it always amazes me to peer down upon it from the Ridge Trail overlooks. It just gives me such an appreciation for the truly significant elevational change we do gain here in our eastern Adirondacks.

    As a long time rock and ice climber, I have had the pleasure of enjoying unique vistas from so many high alpine locales that it would be hard for me to rate them, but I have to counter the trend to dismiss the views from the High Peaks with at least one example: Haystack.

    I’m sorry, but the views from Haystack into Panther Gorge, towards Marcy, towards the Brothers, towards the Great Range, or, well, wherever you care to cast your eye — I’m sorry, but it is the most glorious, enigmatic and exciting. Hands down, no argument. It is our Mona Lisa view – and yes, there are others, but Haystack is so commanding.

    From high on the Diagonal Climb on Wallface that I have done twice, it is spectacular to be sure, but I would still rate Haystack higher.

    The reality is, of course, that we are blessed with an embarrassment of riches in Adirondack Scenery. And we do have an obligation not only to compare, rate or judge its beauty, but to protect it. For example, the Adirondack Park Land Use and Development Plan, adopted in 1973 recognized 49 scenic vistas in the park from its roadways, but today – several decades later – we’ve yet to see promulgated any regulations, means or incentives to protect them, much less to identify more for safeguarding.

    The vistas we have add immensely to our tourism value and, for us residents, our quality of life. And the views from trail, peak, rock, ice and bushwhack are priceless.

  11. Paul says:

    Interesting to see the comments on the Azure Mt. area. I have been in lots of more “rugged” areas of the Adirondacks but that area is some what representative of views that are quintessentially Adirondack to me as well. I also think not of mountain vistas but of vistas that show the ponds, rivers, and lakes (swamps as well). These are ones that seem more “Adirondack” to me. This may come from having spent a number of years living in Colorado and being lucky enough to see some of the most spectacular mountain vistas. When I think of the Adirondacks and “home” where I grew up, I think of trees and water. probably the things I missed out west. It all depends on your personal experiences.