The High Peaks are popular for a lot of reasons — they’re rugged, they’re challenging, and above everything else, they’re beautiful — but with the rising popularity of hiking, many of our taller mountains can be downright crowded, especially in the summer. The solution to your crowded-summit woes lies just down the road from downtown Saranac Lake, where hikers will find the gateway to the Western High Peaks, four mountains higher than 4,000 feet that will test the legs and lungs on even the most experienced hiker. These trails are unmarked and unmaintained. Expect to encounter fallen trees, muddy inclines, and rock scrambles. The journey will be difficult, but the views are worth it, and once you’ve emerged from the wilderness you can head into Saranac Lake for the hippest downtown this side of the Rockies!
Since getting to the base of the Western High Peaks requires a fairly long walk in of about 5 miles, many people tackle these peaks over two days, staying at one of four lean-tos that are near the herd paths leading to the peaks. By spending the night, hikers can summit the three mountains in the Seward Range (Seward, Donaldson, and Emmons) in one day and then do Seymour Mountain on its own.
How to get there
Corey’s Road leads straight to the Western High Peaks and can be used to access the four mountains there. From Saranac Lake, take Route 3 west, toward Tupper Lake, for about 12.5 miles and turn left on Corey’s Road. There’s a large DEC sign at this turn. Continue on Corey’s Road (it turns into Ampersand Road after a few miles) for 5.5 miles and look for the parking area on the right. Note that this road is seasonal and may be impassable in winter.
By the numbers
- Seward: 4,361 feet elevation
- Donaldson: 1,140 feet elevation
- Emmons: 4,040 feet elevation
From the yellow gate, take the left trail toward Blueberry and Ward brook lean-tos. The path follows an old truck trail, so it’s wide and never gets steep, but there are ups and downs. The Blueberry lean-to appears in about 4.5 miles; after that, bear right and continue for another half mile to the cairn marking the beginning of the unmaintained trail up Seward, which is on the right.
The trail up Seward is easy to moderate as it follows a stream, and it steepens as it ascends the mountain, becoming quite steep as it nears the top. Be prepared to deal with mud, fallen trees, and scrambles up small ledges as you hike.
Crossing over Seward, the path steeply descends a scenic and rugged gulled as it enters the col between Seward and Donaldson. Since Donaldson is a smaller mountain, the trail to its summit isn’t as long or demanding as the trail up Seward, just keep in mind that you’ll have to go back up the gulley on the return trip. The trek from Donaldson to Emmons is even easier, as the path follows the long ridge to Emmons’ summit.
By the numbers
- Elevation: 4,120 feet
- Elevation gain: 2,200 feet
- Distance: about 7 miles and 2,600 feet in elevation gain one way
Follow the directions for the Seward Range and continue past the cairn marking the beginning of the herd path. The trail soon passes the Ward Brook lean-to, and after a mile or so the cairn marking the herd path up Seymour appears on the right.
Turning right, the trail begins a steep, direct charge up the mountain. Eventually an overgrown slide is reached and things only get steeper as the path ascends the bare rock. After a lot of scrambling and root grabbing, the trail emerges on the open ledge that’s just below Seymour’s true summit.
Western High Peaks in winter
Corey's Road is not plowed past a certain point in winter, making accessing the Western High Peaks from this direction a long and difficult endeavor. Many people opt for the southern approach, which begins at the Upper Works trailhead in Newcomb. That approach is also long, but there is plenty of parking and the trail is well marked.
Regardless of the approach, anyone new to snowshoeing should try an easier mountain first. The Western High Peaks are challenging mountains that should only be attempted by experienced hikers, especially in winter. Snowshoes are a must, and microspikes or crampons are necessary to climb the steep sections. Plan on the temperature in the higher elevations being at least 20 degrees colder than in the valley, not including the windchill. Bring several extra non-cotton layers, a headlamp with spare batteries, extra food, a windbreaker, goggles, face mask, and supplies for spending the night in case of emergency.