A Winter sunrise on cascade mountain

James on Cascade Mountain

Wednesday February 7th. After weeks of nothing but gray skies around the Adirondacks we got a stretch of strange weather. Weather that was so unusual and foreign to us this winter that we didn’t recognize it- we got some sunshine. Yes It was magnificent to finally see blue skies, and the yellow sun reflecting off the snowy trees. With temperatures in the high 20’s all week, and minimal snowfall- that meant one thing- pristine winter hiking conditions. The trails we’re going to be smooth, packed, and fast. So after a few days of enjoying the much-needed beautiful winter weather I decided to catch the sunrise from a High Peak. I couldn’t decide which mountain I wanted to hike though. I was debating between Cascade and Wright that morning and decided to make a gameday decision while I was driving to the trailhead.

My alarm clock rang nice and early and I was up and moving. I quickly packed up my gear, loaded the van, and started driving a couple miles towards the trailheads. As I approached the Adirondack Loj road it was time to decide between Wright and Cascade. I’ve never watched the sunrise from Wright, but it’s a longer hike meaning a bigger risk of missing first light and that amazing maroon glow behind the mountain silhouette that marks first light. On the other hand Cascade is a faster hike, less time commitment and I knew I’d make it up with time to spare. My van rounded the bend past the Olympic Ski Jumps and it was time to decide. What’s it going to be, James, Wright or Cascade. You must choose now. I continued up the road and ultimately drove past the Loj road on Route 73 towards Cascade. Ok, Cascade it is. A mountain that never disappoints.

I pulled up to the trailhead where one car was parked and still running in front of me. Clearly another hiker who had the same idea I did this morning. Perhaps he was getting himself mentally prepared since it was only 10° at the trailhead, meaning the summit would be subzero for sure. Speaking of cold, it was now that time. The time to take off the jacket and put it in my pack. When you’re winter hiking it’s important to be bold, and start cold. I’ll tell you though, that first mile is always a cold one. I strapped on my pack, closed the van door, and started walking towards the trailhead. I signed in at 4:45am- the first sign in of the day. The official sunrise was slated for 7:07am. My goal was to be on the summit by 6am to enjoy the whole experience from pitch black sky to the early maroon glow, all the way to the sunrise. Time to hit the trail.

The plan for today was to hike the 2.25-mile, 1900’ of elevation gain up Cascade in the dark and arrive on the summit by 6am to enjoy the peaceful winter sunrise. Cascade is usually one of the windier mountains therefore extra layers and finding cover on the summit from the wind would be paramount to wait out the sunrise- but I was ready. Another beautiful, clear star-filled sky blanketed the Adirondack High Peaks. It was going to be a great morning.

I was all signed in and started up the trail. I had my snowshoes strapped to my pack and wore my microspikes to start the climb. The Cascade trail is a steady climb from the road to the summit. There are some flat stretches but for the most part the trail ascends at a steady and consistent pace. The beautiful thing about this trail is that there isn’t an approach, and the climb begins right from the trail register. This means it’s a quick trip to the summit. The last time I hiked Cascade back in the summer I made it to the tree line in exactly 60 minutes, but my goal today was to move slightly faster and make it to the true summit in 60-mintues. The final 0.25 miles of the hike has you above tree line hiking up the amazing rock slab that is the Cascade summit. The summit has 360° views and is truly spectacular. If I wanted to make that time I had to start moving.

Right from the start the trail was exactly as I hoped it would be- flawless. Thanks to the abundance of nice weather and temperatures staying below freezing, the trail was like a snow-covered sidewalk. It was perfect and fast. Broken out, packed down, with little to no ice to be seen anywhere. It was like someone shoveled a path up the mountain. So, I cruised up the trail.

I pushed myself because I wanted to make that 1-hour sign in-to-summit mark and I knew today was a day to do it. The snow filled in all the nooks and crannies from the rocks and roots as it always does and there were no sections to slow me down. I hustled up the trail crunching along the packed snow. My body began warming up and feeling good, besides for my fingers. I like to hike in my glove liners until I need the entire glove and it was evident quickly that the gloves needed to go on. I find when it comes to winter hiking it’s hard to warm up the fingers once they get cold so it’s best to keep them warm early on. By this point however, the single digit temperature wasn’t a bother anymore. Onward, up the mountain.

The woods were quiet this morning and wind was minimal leading me to think the summit might have a chance of being calm. I’ve been up Cascade enough to know it likely would still be very windy, but hey, ya gotta believe. The climb was smooth as I continued ascending through the snow-covered woods. Despite losing a lot of snow over the last couple weeks, the High Peaks were still a winter wonderland. Today’s hike wasn’t planned to be a long one since my only itinerary was to enjoy the sunrise on Cascade. I had to get back home to get some work accomplished this morning. As I climbed I noticed there weren’t any stretches of ice…anywhere. Zero. Not on the steep sections, not on the flat sections. It was truly a packed sidewalk of snow. This had me thinking one thing, “I am going to FLY down this mountain!”

I’m the type of hiker who prefers the ascent over the descent therefore knowing I can get down the mountain faster than usual was a big bonus for the day. It was going to be fast.

The woods were quiet as the glow from my headlamp lit up the trees and the trail in front of me. I stopped periodically for 10 seconds or so air out my legs since I was hustling up the mountain, trying to make it to the summit in under an hour. I was certainly hiking at a faster than usual pace but since this was the only mountain of the day, I pushed it. Up the steep climbs, across the flats, then up the next climb. I made my way up the dark mountain. The crescent moon was in the sky and the stars were bright. The vibe on the trail could not be beat. Well, actually, it could be beat if I was hiking with someone else, that would have improved it. All in all though, what a privilege it was being on the trail that morning with such perfect conditions.

I scaled the mountain quickly and soon arrived at the little open slab that sits just below the Porter Mountain trail split. I climbed up and turned around to the enjoy the glow of the town of Lake Placid in the valley below. For being such a small town, Lake Placid looks and feels a lot bigger when you’re looking at all the lights from Cascade Mountain. The bobsled track was light it up on Mt Van Hoevenberg, the Olympic Ski Jumps lights were on, it was a spectacular site as McKenzie and Moose Mountains silhouette above Lake Placid mirrored Cascade on the other side of the valley.

From this point it’s a hop skip and a jump to the trail split for Porter Mountain. I had another thought at the trailsplit of skipping Cascade and instead taking in the sunrise over on Porter since I’ve never watched the sunrise from Porter and the summit faces east. Ultimately I opted for another sunrise from Cascade, mainly because I was trying to accomplish a goal by getting to the summit in an hour. I hadn’t checked the clock yet to see if I was on pace for my 1-hour goal because it was cold, my phone was in a sock in my pocket, it would require me taking my gloves off, and it would just be “a whole thing”.

So at the junction without stopping I went left towards the Cascade summit, over the boardwalk, and out to rock. It was time to leave the tree line. Ok now I decided to check my phone and see the time. I took my phone out of my pocket, out of the sock, clicked it on…5:45. One hour from trailhead to tree line…the exact same time I hiked over the summer. So my goal of 1 hour trailhead to summit was missed. Oh well. I tried. But I was about to begin the final trek of the hike, and the most fun part, above the tree line on the rocks to the summit of Cascade.

The sky was beautiful, the stars were shining, Lake Placid was lit up down below, and the maroon glow was just beginning to show itself. It was perfect. The wind was blowing, not quite “whipping” status, for all you podcast die-hards out there, but it was blowing. I carried on up the snow-covered rock towards the summit, climbed the ladder, and landed on the summit od Cascade just before 6am. It was dark, the hard work was over, well, I thought the hard work was over, but I’ll get into that later, and now it was time to put on some layers and enjoy the show. The sunrise was coming. Good morning, Cascade Mountain, it’s nice to see you again.

 I drank some water and slammed a Blue Line Bakery cookie on the summit. A Bear Cub Maple cookie- my favorite of the Blue Line Bakery cookies. The maple syrup in the cookies comes from Bear Cub Road in Lake Placid in case you wondered where the name came from. I like a good summit snickers and summit sandwich, but a summit Blue Line Bakery cookie hits really hard too.

I layered up and since the wind was blowing from the west, I found some cover so I could sit and wait for the sun to rise without being blasted by the cold wind. I hopped down from the true summit and took cover between two boulders. It was a great spot since I could still see the sun rising directly in front of me and enjoy the show with minimal wind. I had a good hour until the sunrise. Just when I thought the work was complete, however, now the work was beginning.

Due to the cold temperatures and breeze, sitting and waiting was harder than hiking. It. Was. Cold. Every minute felt like an hour and I did what I could do to keep the body warmer now that I wasn’t hiking anymore. An hour stay on a subzero summit without any hiking is no joke. I was wearing base layers, a moisture wicking shirt, a fleece, an 800-fill EMS puffy jacket, and the EMS Vortex insulated jacket. Plenty of layers, still a bit cold. So, it was time for jumping jacks to keep the blood flowing and body warm as I watched the maroon glow grow bigger and bigger in the distance the left of the mighty Great Range while the crescent moon sat hanging just above the mountain silhouette. Truly picturesque and magnificent. I snapped a few photos with my iPhone. It’s absolutely mind blowing what cell phone cameras can do these days too, might I add. Incredible.

About 30 minutes after arriving on the summit I saw a headlamp coming up the trail. It was the guy from the trailhead. I was excited to have some company as I waited for the sun to rise. Nothing warms your body up like good conversation, right?

We got to chatting and he said if I didn’t show up he probably would have napped in his car for a couple hours and started hiking after sunrise, and he thanked me for inspiring him to start hiking and catch the sunrise. Remember people, miles in the dark don’t count. Nothing like being on the summit or miles deep in the woods when the sun comes up and then you’re well into your hike. When the sun rises it feels like a whole new day and you’re already deep in the woods instead of just at the trailhead.

We chatted and took in the views as the maroon glow slowly turned into a sea of orange filling the sky behind the High Peaks. The definition on the mountains and the snow was beginning to reveal itself as the night started to fade and daylight approached.

Soon the mountain skyline was filled with orange and another couple of hikers arrived on the summit. About 15 minutes before sunrise. Two local women- shoutout to you two for listening to the podcast as well- I appreciate it. The sky above the Great Range glowed with a deep orange as the sky turned from black to blue. The clouds on over the Macintyre Range to the south were bright pink and the 360° winter views looked like a painting. You can see these views a hundred times and they will never get old. Especially on this mountain.

We all chatted, took pictures, and took in the views as we awaited the sunrise. Then it happened. “There it is!” I shouted as the sun officially rose from behind the horizon. Ten seconds ago the sun was hidden, and now there’s a ball of fire high in the sky as the orange glow lit up the snow everywhere. It’s always an unbelievable experience. If you’ve never been on a mountain for a sunrise period, add it to your list. I will say, however, having done so many sunrise hikes in my time, a winter sunrise hike takes the cake. It’s surreal. Add it to your list- it’s always worth the early wake up.

I wasn’t cold any more thanks to good conversation and moving around. As the daytime revealed itself it now felt like my time doing jumping jacks in the dark, or climbing up the mountain in the dark felt like it was days ago- not just an hour ago. It was a brand-new day and I was starting it on top of a High Peak. That, my friends, is why I say, “miles in the dark don’t count”. The feeling that comes from the sun rising is hard to truly describe.

I enjoyed the summit for another 15 minutes and decided it was time to get home. I looked at the time and thought “I can get down the mountain in 45 minutes”. Challenge accepted, James. Let’s move. I said my goodbyes, suited up, and started back down the mountain. Before getting back to the tree line I passed a woman who asked me to take her photo. She boldly and enthusiastically declared “oh my God, this was my first sunrise hike ever, look at the sun!’ Her excitement, and newfound self-confidence thanks to her accomplishment was contagious. I could tell how proud she was of herself for hiking up the mountain in the dark and seeing the sun just above the horizon. I snapped a photo for her and we parted ways as I went back into the tree line.

Next, I did something I’ve never done. Not even once. I literally ran down the mountain. From top to bottom I moved at a jogging pace. The trail was perfect and there was no better day to do it then today. I channeled my inner Bethany Garretson and sent it. In my own training I go for a run one day a week along the roads. I don’t trail run because I don’t like having to focus on every step. Running on pavement alleviates that. However, thanks to today’s trail conditions I didn’t have to focus on each step because of how smooth and packed the trail was but I got to enjoy the woods element of trail running. A winning combination.

The vast majority of the time I go running I wear a 50lbs weight vest. So despite running down the mountain wearing a 30lbs backpack with snowshoes attached, it felt very “normal”. Hard, but normal. I flew down the mountain at a fun pace and I passed zero people on my descent. As I was jogging down the trail I kept thinking how amazing today would be if I had either a sled or a fat tire mountain bike. I could have gotten off the mountain in ten minutes.

I was proud of the accomplishment of running down the whole mountain top to bottom and I signed out. What an amazing sunrise it was followed by a new physical feat I’ve never done. All in all, my morning on Cascade was as good as it gets. Having the opportunity to scale these mountains and experience their views is a privilege and is something I do not take for granted. Instead, I think of it as an honor every time that I’m truly grateful for. A mountain sunrise will remind you the world, despite its flaws, is a truly beautiful place, and the Adirondack Mountains showcases the best it has to offer. Every time.

Another successful day in the woods enjoying a weekday sunrise from Cascade Mountain. Another exciting winter day on the trail with perfect conditions. Remember to always leave no trace, do the rock walk, and if you carry it in, carry it out. See you on the trails!   

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