Haystack, Basin and Saddleback: A JBL Adventure

One of my favorite Mary Oliver quotes is:

“That’s the big question, the one the world throws at you every morning: Here you are, alive. Would you like to make a comment?”

Yes, actually.  Almost 2 weeks ago, Mallory and I responded with answer of “alive’ with a side of “heck yeah!”  On July 10th,  we would climb the infamous HaBaSa trio.  We hiked into the Johns Brook Lodge the night before, which is a terrific place to stay!  All of your meals are included and the trail lunches were perfect. (Not to mention the Snickerdoodle cookies!) Our caretaker and crew were amazing! They pack in 65-70 lbs. of food for our stay.  If you ever have the chance to stay during the summer months, I highly recommend it!


After a filling dinner and some friendly chatter, it was time to settle in for the night.   I truly appreciated breaking up this trip, having hiked 3.5 miles already.  My hips were still in “test mode” so chunking this 20+ mile hike into 3 days was extremely helpful.
On Sunday morning, we headed out on the Phelps trail at 8 a.m., right after breakfast. It was a 1.5 mile hike to Bushnell Falls, where our next junction point was located.  Aside from the mud, the beginning of the hike was quite lovely.  The trail weaved along gradually with ease.  From the JBL, the total mileage was predicted to be about 12 miles.

I think at this point I should mention I’ve been afraid, no…terrified of Haystack for quite some time…ever since I caught him looming at me, as if on a dare,  from the summit of Marcy a year ago.  I’ve heard claims of how challenging Haystack can be. It is all mental for sure.  Our original plan, by the way, was to climb Haystack and Basin (since we summited Saddleback in the winter).  We both agreed that the call  would be made after Haystack, whether to continue onto the Saddleback Cliffs or turn around and head back down via Basin.

For the next 40 minutes, we enjoyed the gentleness of the trail and the smell of fresh mud…wondering, in anticipation, when the toughness would begin.  I prayed my hips would hold up this time around. Haystack alone would be a huge accomplishment with this dysplastic body.


Once at the Bushnell Falls junction, we opted to skip the steep descent down to the falls and continued on for the next 1.9 miles towards Slant Rock.  The terrain alternated between brook crossings with creative rock hopping to gradual inclines along the trail.  Whether stepping across the brook or on trail boulders, careful footing  was still required because of the slick rocks. The wet, mossy rocks definitely provided the most trail cha-cha-ing! Slippery!  Red trail markers guided our way now.


The projected distances were precise on this journey! About an hour later, Slant Rock was staring right at us!  It was quite a massive sight to behold.


A few steps after our photo-op, we arrived at the Shorey Shortcut junction.  And this, is when the fun began!


The Phelps trail landscape from here on out transformed into steep ascents via boulders. Boulders after boulders after boulders!  I don’t remember any reprieves as far as grade goes.  Mallory took the lead now, as concern about my hip started to creep in.  The pain was minimal, thank goodness.  However, I was more afraid of slipping and falling, as we made our way up and over the boulders. This is my least favorite part of hiking. I struggle at times with the smaller ones, especially on the descent.  I would much rather climb slides, rock scrambles and open-faced slabs of thrill!


The weather remained overcast and mild, thank goodness for that! We welcomed the wind gusts that came and went, providing us with good ‘ol mountain air-conditioning. On occasion, we were blessed yet again, with another beautiful mudpit.  Mallory found herself victim to a dastardly ka-boom into a beloved murky bank.  Such a trooper! (I would have my turn on the descent, as I typically do!)

At 10:30 a.m., we reached the 3rd junction crossing where we bid the Phelps Trail farewell, and hopped on the State Range Trail following blue markers now.  Everything increased…the boulders grew larger, the inclines steeper, the rock slabs and slides in abundance!  This was definitely the best part of the hike! I love climbing!  The sun graced us from time to time. It was absolutely beautiful.  Rugged and physically demanding, yet one of the most breathtaking landscapes. As Glennon calls it…”brutiful.”


As we approached what felt like some sort of summit and a true sense of accomplishment fell over us, we quickly realized the sort-of-summit was the nub before climbing Little Haystack!  So there we sat, to enjoy our trail lunches and rest. It was 11:00 a.m. and I was thankful my hips were holding up well so far!

While we munched on those delicious homemade Snickerdoodle cookies, close-up views of Miss Marcy could be seen.  You witness Marcy in a view that is unlike any other.  Her massive slides and scars…I’ve never seen them before in all of the vantage points Marcy. (and I’ve had alot!) Only from hiking Haystack, can you truly appreciate her regalness. Her mountain battle wounds among her majestic beauty.  The sign of a true warrior.   I was in awe.

After our 10 minute refueling, the excitement began to build as we left the nub and marched our way over to Little Haystack. Ok…Little Haystack.  The views from the summit were incredible! Ascending was relatively simple, following the cairns and the right angle yellow blazes…some footing challenges for the short girl here, but nothing scary.  An ominous cloud system appeared to be tailing us, with strong wind gusts from time to time. You know, typical Adirondack summer weather 🙂


Now…descending Little Haystack was a different story.  At first glance, he seemed to drop straight down. I shook my head, like “no way not going..”  I couldn’t see the footholds and ledges from where I was standing…slightly disconcerting!  But, just take one yellow blaze at a time and hike the moment you are in.  I had to do a few of my “turn around and climb down backwards” moves, but I did it!

The rest was a walk in the park.  An ADK park, that is! The ascent to Mount Haystack was incredible!  The intimidating summit did not disappoint!  I know why many people choose it for their final peak now.  The most challenging aspect of climbing Haystack, for me, was the wind gusts. We’ve been on windier peaks…but that was in the winter, when I could use my snowshoes and poles to anchor myself, haha!   He certainly made the short girl fight for this one!

And…at 11:40 a.m., victory!  The summit of Mount Haystack and  my 32nd peak!  Mal accomplished her 9th as well. Haystack stands at 4960 feet high and is the 3rd highest peak in the Adirondacks.  We only stayed on the summit for about 10 minutes.  The darkening clouds brewed overhead and the wind was fierce.


Just slightly windy 😉



Another view of Miss Marcy…

Alpine Cottongrass and pretty white flowers…



The climb back up Little Haystack was much easier this time around and before we knew it,  we were back at the split on the State Range Trail to head towards Basin.  It was 1.3 miles to the summit.  You descend quite quickly for the half of the trail. Down, down, down…back to the careful footing and small boulder hiking.  Once at the junction for Shorey’s Shortcut,  the ascent to  Basin begins.  At this point, we paused again for some refueling and pretty much decided that there was no way we would reclimb all of those steep boulders again! So we committed to the Saddleback Cliffs and settled on the loop route! Oh boy…


Basin.  In my opinion, it was one of the most exciting mountains to climb! All rock slabs! For .7 miles, it was straight up with little reprieve.  However, you really didn’t notice that.  A Swallowtail butterfly followed us for a part of the trail.  I am always amazed at the contrasting symbolism of a climb.  There we were, exerting force and enormous amounts of energy, while the delicate butterfly gracefully fluttered along with us.  Simply brutiful.


After enjoying the gift of the ladder, we glanced back behind us.  It revealed our first look at what we had just climbed!  The nub, Little Hay Hay, and Haystack…and Miss Marcy. Massive sight to see!  The unique views from Basin, coupled with the “full of smiles”, whole body ascent, easily made it my new favorite mountain.

We departed Haystack around 11:50 a.m. and at 2:00 p.m., we found ourselves on the glorious summit of Basin Mountain! It was about 2 miles from summit to summit as well. My beloved Basin granted my 33rd high peak summit and Mallory’s milestone into double digits now!   It stands at 4827 feet tall and is the 9th highest peak in the park.  I have climbed all but 1 of the top 10 highest peaks, with the exception of Dix.  (Saving that one for my finish on a special day in May.)


On the summit of Basin would also be where we met Charlie and Lindsay, an amazing couple from Pittsburgh.  Truly great people.  Possibly even trail angels in disguise. Mallory instantly bonded over talks of her family coming from there as well.  After 10 minutes of chatting and photo ops, it was decided that we would tackle the cliffs together.  Charlie and Lindsay had taken some bouldering classes and suggested that to us as well.  In hindsight, it would have been beneficial for just those 2 sketchy spots right at the start of the cliffs.  But I’ll get to that shortly…

Delicate Mountain Sandwort on the summit of Basin. 
The distance from Basin to Saddleback is a little less than a mile and the descent off of Basin was fast.  After about 30 minutes of descending, the first glimpse of the cliffs caught my eyes.  I shouted back to Mallory,  “Yeah, noooo….I’m not going up that!”  At which point she tried to tell me it was just like Short Job.  Yea ok.  Haha!


Pretty tree moss Mallory tried to distract me with, to keep my mind of those cliffs!


Yep…no turning back now!


We reached the base of the cliffs at 3:00 p.m. so roughly 45 minutes since leaving Basin. At first, it seemed completely doable.  First few climbs went well following the yellow blazes.



So away we go!

Sketchy Spider-man moves followed.  There was a tiny ridge, maybe protruding a half-inch, we had to put the tip of our toes on, while staying pressed up against the sheer drop rock face.  Mallory went first, followed by Lindsay.  Then it was my turn.  I kept shaking my head no.  Don’t look down.  Just a step at a time.  My heart was literally beating out of my chest and sheer panic overtook my face.


I made it!  First sketchy part done! Now it was time to ascend straight up.  There were some tiny spaces to use as footholds, but I was having a heck of time maintaining 3 points of contact.  There were moments when you could only use your fingertips to pull yourself up.  The next sketchy part was tricky for all of us, except Charlie. So he actually buzzed past us and then gave each of us a hand to aid our maneuvering. It was that 3 points of contact challenge I was faced with again.  The best way I can describe this part of the climb is that you scale along a crevice in the Cliffs.  Then at the end of the crevice, there is a very small ledge, maybe enough for your foot (or both feet if you’re a short person like me.)  Locating a second hand hold to propel me forward was overwhelming.  I so desperately tried to maintain some sort of calm composure. So Charlie provided us with that additional hand.  In order for me to reach his hand, I actually had to let go of both hands, push off the ball of my foot and grab his hand.  And on the count of 1, 2, 3…


Holy crap! My feet were planted on that little ledge! And I exhaled.  Charlie and Lindsay from Pittsburgh, you guys rock!  The rest of the climb was still “Don’t look down!” but there were open rock slab that you could wrap your hands around to use to pull yourself up.

“You want me to put my foot where?” I seemed to be saying.  Most likely, the words were “Holy S%@&, I did it!”


All in all, the ascent of Saddleback Cliffs took about 20 minutes. Once on level ground again, I cried as my arms started shaking.  Mallory needed a hug!  It was mindblowing.  I am quite certain there are plenty of hikers who both ascend and descend the cliffs with ease. (We actually met a few that were descending and one gentleman with a dog doing the same!)  But for me personally, this was another first.  Another fear overcome.  The unknown is scary.  Persistence, however, is good friend of the unknown.  If you let them work hand in hand, the impossible usually becomes possible in the end!

“Whoaaaaa…” said Mallory.  Yea, whoa was right! #wedidwhat


So…we did Saddleback justice this time around! At 3:15 p.m., an enormous sigh of relief and some “we did what??” as we enjoyed the summit of Saddleback once again! “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”  We must have thanked our new friends a bazillion times for climbing the cliffs together. Emotional encouragement and safety in numbers. 🙂

I was extremely grateful that it was all downhill from here!


Ore Bed, here we come! It would be 3.6 mile trek back to the JBL.

Crab walking and a summer version of buttsliding aided the down, down, down on the wet rock slabs. It was all covered in snow the last time we were on the Ore Bed Trail.


We did get to enjoy the enormous staircase this time around though!! A welcomed friend for sure!


Please excuse my delirium voice…started to get loopy!


And it just kept going…and going…and going..


The trail was very slick at the end of the slide and once back into the forest again. “Slip slidin’ away…slip slidin’ a-wayyy.  You know the nearer your destination, the more you’re slip slidin’ away…


Some more shots from the Ore Bed Trail..


Roughly a 2-hour trip back to the JBL, and at 5:30 p.m., we were safe and sound (and with time to spare before dinner)!  My hips, surprisingly, held up to the challenges of the day!  My quads and feet weren’t as forgiving!  Flip flops and lemonade in an Adirondack chair was were it was at!


Stories with other hikers were shared at dinner, as we all recounted our favorite moments of the day!

Total distance: 12 miles

Total time: 9 1/2 hours

A neat profile of the terrific trio:

There is something to be said about coming out on the other side…whole and secure.  Whether it’s climbing mountains, or making it through another second, minute or hour of a day.  We can only give each moment our best energy, whatever our best is in that moment.  And let me tell you, that other side is grounded in “Holy crap I made it!” and “Here’s your hug!”…and it is the most rewarding, exhilarating, exhaling experience ever.

To think, months ago, I was struggling to walk and even sit down with my hip…and now, I tackled one of my biggest fears and climbs ever!  Incredible.

“That’s the big question, the one the world throws at you every morning: Here you are, alive. Would you like to make a comment?”

 Comment:  Don’t give up.  A cliché saying, I know. But I am serious.  Do not give up, ever.  Uncertainty can rear its ugly head if you let it.  Or you can see uncertainty for who she really is…opportunity for joy.  Joy in living each day to the best of your ability!

To Mr. Haystack, Sir Basin, and Master Cliffs of Saddleback, thank you for the brutiful throwdown.  Your challenges and breathtaking landscape fostered my personal growth, once again.  You showed me that I may have been down, but certainly not out.

Trust the process. Trust in the unknown.  Trust in general.  A trio of Trust.  Yea you did.  Now here’s your hug.

Eternally grateful,





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