This is one of the last peaks that I need to complete the Lake Placid 9ers, and despite never really hearing any hype about it, I was so ready for this hike. Weather looked promising, and despite not sleeping the night before, I left my house at 7am with a sleepy puppy in tow and made it to the Cascade/Pitchoff parking lot on rt 73 by 10:15am. I was meeting my buddy Steve, and saw him parked in the very first lot closest to the trailhead, but I had to drive up the road a ways to get a free spot. Fortunately I found one – even mid-morning on a Tuesday, these lots for Cascade FILL UP. I took a moment to pack away my water and get Juno prepped for the hike while Steve made his way up to us.
Soon we left the car and walked on the side of the road to get to the trailhead. I had NEVER noticed this trailhead before; it’s literally right off of rt 73, there’s no lot directly in front of it, and it’s across the road from Cascade. We reached it at 10:50am, signed in at the register, and started up the trail. We were happy to note hardly any people signed in at the register, despite the packed parking lots!
Not 5 minutes after leaving the register, the trail started to climb. And boy did it. I was thinking to myself, there’s not enough caffeine in the world for me right now, so I stopped to take a few puffs of my inhaler to prep for the climb, and decided to down a Gu packet for good measure – these puppies are packed with nutrients and electrolytes, and though I’d never tried one, I’d heard great things. The taste was fine but the texture…let’s just say that “Gu” is an appropriate name. Coupled with the Nuun that I’d downed on the drive up, my body was ready, whether or not I was. So we heaved our packs back on and continued our upward slog.
I wanted to laugh; was this how the trail was going to be the whole time?? It didn’t even give us a warm-up, just immediately UP. I reminded myself, the first 20 minutes are always the worst, and 10 minutes later we had crested a ridge. The trail after that was GORGEOUS. We were up on a ridge that dropped off on either side, with a healthy vibrant canopy enveloping us, bright pops of orange, red, and yellow peeking through with the sunlight filtering through from above. I must have said many times “Woooow it’s so pretty!” at nothing really in particular but at the environment as a whole. I felt so content strolling this gentle dirt path along the mountain. We really weren’t particularly far from the road, but we were high enough and within enough trees that none of the sounds reached us.
We happily bopped along for the next 20 minutes of easy walking. I was so stricken by the beauty of the sunlight-dappled forest floor that I paused constantly to snap photos, sometimes without warning so that Steve would nearly slam into me. Sorry Steve! We reached our first lookout peering over rt 73 at 11:20am. I made sure to hook Juno onto her leash for these lookouts – curious rapscallion that she is, she gets a rush out of getting right up to the edge to look over 😬.
We hung out for a minute or two in no particular hurry, then found our next lovely perch some minutes later. I was feeling so much more energized than when I started, something I attribute to the Nuun and Gu. Nevertheless, we took a break here to set our packs down and snack on some fruit while looking over the map. There’s an icon on the map for something called the “Balanced Rocks”. I’d never heard of them, but on the map it looked like the trail to it hooked around and back from the main trail up pitchoff. It was hard to tell exactly where it was and where we were though, so we kept asking ourselves – “Do those rocks look balanced to you?” every time we spotted some boulders. We remained at our nice lookout for another 10 or 15 minutes. As we were packing up to leave, a happy older couple joined us, very excited to pet Juno. They were coming up behind us and asked if this lookout was the “Balanced Rock”. We replied that we thought it was further up the trail, chatted for a bit, then hoofed it on out.
Soon after, we reached some awesome boulders we had to craftily scuttle up, which obviously Juno immensely enjoyed, after which the trail started to descend a bit and wrap around, going deeper into the mountain ridge. At about noon, we heard voices up ahead and paused to let them pass. It was another sweet couple who warned us that the next 15 minutes would be a steep scrambley hell. I figured that maybe they weren’t used to the Adirondacks and assumed it wasn’t actually a nightmare – just as we reached the base of the steepest section of this trail.
This part was tricky to navigate, but honestly I thought it was pretty fun. Tough, obviously, but fun….That’s actually really easy to say now, sitting at home on my couch a day later; my sentiment may have been a little different in the moment….There were many places where we could see that many people had come down different routes. Honestly, it was a hot mess, a choose-your-own-adventure if you will, so we basically just let Juno run ahead and followed in her path. I stopped for just a few moments to admire some tiny mushrooms and the smoothest birch bark, but mostly we just slowly clambered up.
At one point, I could see Juno’s intentions to leap onto a narrow rock ledge on the side of a boulder and barked DON’T YOU EVEN THINK ABOUT IT! She assessed the ledge from another perspective, thought better of it (maybe because I was still shrieking at her) and turned away to effortlessly lope away up the steep mountainside. Showoff.
Amazingly, it only took us 30 minutes to reach the top, where we came to a junction that another couple had warned us not to miss on their way down. Written in tiny letters we could read “Balanced Rocks ->” on the top and “Summit <-” on the bottom.
We bore right to investigate the so-called balancing rocks we kept wondering about and were deposited by the trail onto a stunning slope of bare rock, with yet another boulder.
While we examined the boulder, again wondering, “Does it look balanced to you?” a Ranger approached from up ahead and laughed when I told her we kept wondering if rocks seemed balanced or not to determine if we’d arrived! She said to keep going, and described what we’d see ahead. I’ll not spoil it for you just yet, but we wasted no time in heaving our packs back on and trailblazing forward to figure out what was the deal with these balanced rocks 1.6 miles from the trailhead. Let me tell you……they are QUITE a deal.
I was in AWE. I couldn’t close my mouth, it just about dropped open all the way to my knees. I tossed my pack on the ground, grabbed my camera, and basked in paradise. I wanted to stay there taking photos forever. It was just…perfect. We could see SO MUCH! From the olympic center on the side of Mount Van Hoevenberg, to Mount Marcy and Mount Jo, even all the way to the ski jumps in Lake Placid, blanketed in a shroud of blazing red beneath a hazy sky.
I told him to “do something with his hands” because they looked awkward…
I had so much fun playing with my Peakfinder app and identifying all of the mountains in front of us!
I climbed up onto THE balanced rock (I think) to get a better perspective, and of course Juno threw a fit until she was up there with me! This slope of bare rock is characterized by huge boulders lying around and atop cracks and crevasses that cut straight down into the mountain below.
We remained for 30 minutes. It was so nice to be in no hurry today and to linger for as long as felt right. I took plenty of time to stretch my legs, hydrate (both myself and the pup), and soak in the splendor. At 1pm we turned away and padded back up to the junction, where the first couple we’d met that day was just finishing the steep climb. They remarked that this was NOT the “moderate, family-friendly trail” an acquaintance had told them it was, to which I responded, “It kind of is an easy one, compared to the rest of the Adirondacks”. Even the “easy” mountains here are still rugged. I feel for people who get suckered into thinking climbing an ADK mountain is like a walk in city park. Anyway, we pointed them toward the balancing rocks, and informed them that they’ll know it when they see it, just keep going until the end. Then we made our way toward the actual summit of pitchoff.
Looking back from the Balanced Rocks to see the summit of Pitchoff.
The trail descended a bit from the junction before climbing again. After about 30 minutes we reached what we thought may be the summit, from which there were no views but there WAS a very large boulder. With no signs, we recalled on the map that the true summit is the first high point along the Pitchoff range coming from the West trailhead (as we had), and from there it descends a bit. We continued on hoping for a nice place to stop, enjoy lunch, and stretch.
Sure enough, a few minutes later at about 1:30pm, we reached an open outcropping with a steep slope down the side of the ridge. I was a bit nervous with Juno so I leashed her to me, however it wasn’t really necessary – I had her food, cheese, and water, so she wanted nothing to do with exploring. We three sat and enjoyed our snacks, pondering how the view here doesn’t hold a flame to the one at the balanced rocks.
Still, we had the summit to ourselves, and we waved up to the constant filter of ant-sized human shapes we could see moving about the summit of Cascade across the way.
Again I took the opportunity to play with my Peakfinder app! I have so much fun with this thing. It was identifying peaks alllll the way into Vermont, which we could see as a pale blue silhouette on the horizon beneath a haze of wildfire smoke. My favorite of these was “Breadloaf Mountain”.
We stayed until 2:00pm, then took our leave. We were certain by now that the summit was just the big boulder we passed on the way up, so we patted it with our hands and strolled back to the junction, where we AGAIN encountered that same kind, happy couple for the third time that day. They asked us if the boulder was the actual summit, and said they didn’t explore further but were confused not to have seen us! We talked for a bit, then passed them to fall with style down the steep scrabbly slope. We quickly caught up to another group heading down with difficulty…I myself employed the ADK Butt Slide technique of, you guessed it, sitting on the near-vertical rock slabs and shooting down them on my ass. Luckily my pants are sturdy, and at the next tricky spot I opted instead to climb down backwards, facing the mountain and lowering 1 foot at a time.
That mess of rocks and plants and dirt….is the trail.
Before long we were at the bottom of the steepest section and felt light on our feet as we climbed back up to the ledge along the ridge to view the cascade lakes. We’d repeatedly caught up to the group in front of us, so they kindly let us pass by while gushing at Juno, much to her delight. She knows EXACTLY how cute she is.
A glimpse of Cascade Lakes
We made great time, and at 3:30 we were back at the register signing out while I lazily tried to get a pic of me and Juno together, without much success.
Walking back on the road I was excited to see the “balanced Rocks” from the road! Another landmark I can now happily identify on my drives through the mountains.
Juno slept the entire 3 hour drive home, after which we scarfed down a meal (sushi!!!) and were in bed by 8:30pm. This hike is in my books as one of my new favorite trails.
Pitchoff Mountain: 3500′ Elevation Gain: 1400′
Round Trip Distance: ~5 miles
Total Duration: 4.5 hours including who knows how long at summits/overlooks