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Whiteface & Esther: Unexpected Grandeur on the 4th of July

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  • Whiteface & Esther: Unexpected Grandeur on the 4th of July

    The Backstory:

    I've been up Whiteface Mountain several times over the years... by car. It was the first High Peak summit I ever visited, during my first trip to the Adirondacks as a kid some 30-ish years ago. I've been back many times since, with different family members, friends, girlfriends, anyone who was visiting for their first time. As such, I've been reluctant to actually climb it. "Been there, done that" don't have a lot of motivation to hike to a tourist trap. Yet, with my 46 list dwindling, I knew it would soon be time to face the 'face and I struggled to find a way to make it interesting and worthwhile. Last summer, baking on my way up Nippletop on the 4th of July in the 90+ degree heat, it came to me as a revelation, or possibly a hallucination.

    Climb Whiteface on the 4th of July and watch the fireworks in Lake Placid from the top!

    Fast forward one year....


    My partner and I set up camp in a lean-to at the ADK Loj on July 3rd and made our way back into town for pre-hike pizza & beer at Big Slide Brewery. Necessary hiking fuel, right? I had no illusions of this being a "true back country experience" so I decided to live it up a little. We were in bed before 10pm and up earlier than I would have liked knowing that there was, oddly, no rush to leave immediately for a sunset hike. We made breakfast and derped around all we could before heading towards Wilmington around 11am. I wasn't sure what to expect with parking or traffic. The Loj lot was full, but barely. Not many cars parked along the road either. We rolled up to SUNY ASRC at about noon (after a quick hydration stop at Stewart's). There were about a dozen cars at the trailhead, nothing crazy, but not empty either. I brought along a much larger pack than usual for this hike, as we had planned on "cooking" (ie. boiling water) dinner at the top, and I brought along a lot of extra clothes for the unpredictable summit weather at night. I have to admit, it sure felt funny, and kinda dumb, carrying winter clothes on a hike when the temperature was in the high 80's, but it turned out to be the right choice.


    Whiteface was our intended destination, but Esther needed to come first. It was along the way, and I wasn't about to do this twice. We found the trailhead (sans register) and set off.

    This trail was pretty much everything I expected it to be. It seems like once you're north of 73 the mountains are rocky, sandy, and dry. Dry being a relative term here. Certainly much drier than the southern and western peaks anyway. The grade started steep and stayed that way, but no hands required. A distinct lack of mud and roots, but a steady grade nonetheless. We passed by several concrete slabs, which I'm guessing may have supported an abandoned gondola? Up to the stone slab clearing on marble in about an hour.

    After a short walk along "flat" ground, we hit another hour-long climb to the swampy "plateau" on the northeast shoulder of Whiteface where we found the ridiculously huge cairn denoting the junction of Esther. The hike so far had been relatively bug free, but that all changed in here. It was time to don the $9 bug nets we just bought and hope for the best. Black flies were abundant from here on out, and the mosquitoes weren't shy either. We set off on the relatively easy walk to Esther arriving after about a half an hour. For an "unmaintained" trail, this was stupid easy to follow and came complete with a set of bog bridges. Unmaintained?? Really?? o_0

    A couple quick pictures of nothing and we made our way quickly back to the cairn. The air was hot, humid, and still all day, which really didn't make for the best bug situation, but it is what it is. No going back now.


    There's a nice "break" here in the marshy, bug-ridden plateau, where there really isn't much elevation gain for a while, and then it all suddenly picks up again for the 3rd and final steep section of the day. The trees started getting shorter, the trail drier once again, and the scenery more interesting and unique to Whiteface. We crossed over ski trails and past a chair lift. The road came into view and the sound of cars(?!) apparent as we drew closer to the summit and it's tower. Before long, the highway's support wall loomed overhead and my partner started to bonk and hit a wall of their own as we reached it. The promise of cold water and a real bathroom provided enough motivation for the extra push.

    We made it to the road, and then up and over the sketchy section of trail that runs along side of it. I wasn't sure what to expect up here, but this final part was easily the most physically challenging, although it still pales in comparison to much of the rest of the 46. We made it to the tower shortly before the 5pm road closing time and quickly road the elevator(?!) down to the bathrooms before they closed. The cold air in that tunnel was the best feeling all day. The restaurant and gift shop were closing, but the day's real MVP behind the counter refilled my water bottles for free, saving me $6 or whatever they charge for bottled water up there now. It was a surreal experience for sure.

    Summit & Sunset:

    Not long after returning to the summit, the caretaker made his rounds, escorting everyone else back to the tower and herding them back towards their vehicles. Seeing my oversized pack he was assured we'd be fine, and wished us "goodnight" before retiring for the evening. And thus began an unprecedented 5-hour stay on the summit unlike any other I'd ever experienced before. We suddenly found ourselves alone, on Whiteface, a luxury I had NEVER been afforded in my past trips by car. To my complete surprise it gave me a whole new appreciation for this mountain and the views it afforded. The black flies were relentless, but a breeze had finally started to pick up, blowing many of them away. The air was hazy, yet the sky was clear, and the evening light on the lakes to the west and the peaks to the south was otherworldly. You could see nearly every other peak from here, and then some. Since the last time I was up here I had climbed almost all of them in view, which also changed my perspective.

    I boiled my water, poured it in our pouches, and we enjoyed the finest freezed-dried delicacies that EMS had to offer. Another pair of hikers we had been leapfrogging all day were hanging out by the tower, then another pair we had passed by the Esther cairn arrived. Two more came up from the lake, and then it was just the 8 of us for a while, enjoying these unique and impressive views. I was very thankful that I had lugged all that cold weather gear with me, as the temperature began to plummet and the winds picked up. The bugs were gone now, but winter sweaters and hats were

    Then, just before sunset, another, much larger group arrived, via bicycle! Many of them locals and athletes who had made it a sort-of local tradition to ascend Whiteface on the 4th to watch the fireworks. This was an unexpected surprise all to its own, but they were a fun bunch. Much merriment was had, but unlike the horror stories from other peaks, this group still maintained a level of respect for the mountain. No littering. No trampling vegetation. No toilet paper strewn about. Just a bunch of VERY in-shape locals living their best lives.

    Shortly after a spectacular sunset, the fireworks began. A trickle at first. Smaller blooms from docks and campsites. A few smaller local towns began. Jay, Elizabethtown, some flickering from Saranac behind McKenzie. To the darkening east, all along the shores of Lake Champlain, Vermont began its celebration. The lights of Montreal shown in the distance. Tiny flashes of light could be seen in the direction of Tupper and Malone. If you're a real hard-core fireworks person, let me advise that this all could be a bit underwhelming from 4800 feet. Even the biggest blooms were tiny in the grand scheme of the lakes and mountains all around us, and you could absolutely not hear anything until Lake Placid finally got underway nearby, but even that was barely audible and seemed so, so small from on top of Whiteface. I'm not a huge fireworks guy myself, but there was something very pleasing and almost calming about this evening and it's relative quiet, all the tiny flashes and splashes of color, decorating the fading mountain vistas. I had really sold this hike short, but perhaps ended up making the best decision I possibly could have by hiking it on the 4th.

    ( I will note here, that I didn't take or post any photos of these fireworks on social media, as I really don't want to spoil the locals' secret and risk making this more of a "thing" than it needs to be, but I feel like this forum is a respectful enough community to at least make mention of it in text form. )

    After the celebrations died down, we opted to walk down the road, as opposed to the trail, mostly in order to save ourselves some time getting back to the Loj campground. It still took about 2 hours and gave me the first real blisters I've had in years from hiking. I guess my feet just aren't used to asphalt? All in all, a great day, great evening, and full of unexpected surprises.

    45 down, 1 to go...

    20190704_202152 by akoszuta1, on Flickr

    20190704_202221 by akoszuta1, on Flickr

    20190704_202205 by akoszuta1, on Flickr

    20190704_183533 by akoszuta1, on Flickr

    20190704_184019 by akoszuta1, on Flickr

  • #2
    Wow, really great pictures! That sounds like a unique and great way to celebrate the 4th. What peak do you have left?


    • ndru
      ndru commented
      Editing a comment
      Just Marcy.

  • #3
    Wow that is a cool way to do Whiteface! I have been up there many times but have always managed to avoid climbing it when the road is open, hence have yet to experience the tourist aspect of the mountain. Maybe I have to make it a sunset hike when I do it for my summer round to continue this streak. Perhaps not on 4th of July though, but still that is a pretty neat idea.

    Good luck on your last peak... what's left?


    • ndru
      ndru commented
      Editing a comment
      I saved Marcy for last. Just waiting for the perfect day now. ; )

    • mbowler
      mbowler commented
      Editing a comment
      Good choice of last peak! I imagine that Marcy is a lot more people's first peak than their last.

  • #4
    [QUOTE=mbowler;n498666]Wow that is a cool way to do Whiteface! I have been up there many times but have always managed to avoid climbing it when the road is open, hence have yet to experience the tourist aspect of the mountain. Maybe I have to make it a sunset hike when I do it for my summer round to continue this streak. Perhaps not on 4th of July though, but still that is a pretty neat idea.

    There are a lot of ways to climb Whiteface, walk the road (when legal), ascend from the ASRC, the Dam, the lake, climb a slide, maybe Neil knows of a good bushwhack route?

    NDRU: You've already done it, but some people save it for last, in part so non-hiking friends / family can join them. You can even get married up there! (We did!). You can also fill up water in the bathrooms.
    Tom Rankin - 5444W "In the depths of Summer, I finally learned that there lay within me an invincible Winter"

    Proud Member #0003 of ADKHP Foundation
    Volunteer Balsam Lake Mountain
    Past President Catskill 3500 Club
    CEO Views And Brews!


    • ndru
      ndru commented
      Editing a comment
      Yeah, I've heard of people saving Whiteface for last, for all of those reasons, but the reality is my family all live hundreds of miles away and I'm not trying to have a big celebration or anything at the end really (not that there's anything wrong with that, it's just not me).

      The bathrooms were my next source of water had the restaurant not panned out, but I've often had trouble fitting water bottles in bathroom sinks and/or dealing with "pre-mixed" luke warm water coming out of the faucets. I was hoping for something colder. (Do note: I still had enough water for dinner and hydration, but wasn't about to pass up a re-fill when I could get it!)