Climbing mountains as popular as the Adirondack High Peaks doesn’t regularly require skills bordering on tracking, but here I am, on the rocky side of a mountain in the Dix Range, without a trail to guide me through the thickly-wooded col to the next peak. There’s no obvious rutt or path leading down to the trees, no rock cairns to show me the easiest way in. The hike would be only slightly preferable to a full-on bushwhack, with the less-than-shoulder-width channel through the trees creating scratches that stack up into tiny streams of blood all over my forearms. Without markers, a vague route is only barely distinguishable, constantly forcing you off into the briars before backtracking and trying again.
There has to be a better way than this, but for so many of these mountains, there’s not. Welcome to the Adirondacks.
Herd Paths: Toughest of the Tough
Regular trails in the ‘Daks are known to be rough on their own: narrower, rockier, and more poorly maintained than many of their more heavily-used counterparts. Hikers are lucky to have enough room to squeeze their backpacks through. They’re lucky if, in a swampy section, someone has had the good sense to lay a log along it to keep the mud from overtopping their boots. They’re lucky if the standard “Hmm, I don’t think this is a trail” moment only happens a few times during a hike.
But not all trails are so lucky. At least 19 of the 46 High Peaks in the Adirondacks are only accessible by using some stretch of “trail” that isn’t maintained by the state. Known as “herd paths,” these vague routes lead miles through the woods with little-to-no markings, regular upkeep, or any other signs of travel. Their maintenance comes simply from the beating they take from hikers' boots, creating a lot of diversity and ensuring no one path is ever the same.
The most obvious pattern that these informal routes follow is a lack of a pattern. While most designated, maintained trails use some mixture of disks or blazes to mark the route, herd paths have no consistent markings, as they can range from ribbons tied on branches, to cairns above the treeline, to nothing at all.
At the same time, the visibility of the trails alternates from obvious paths that look not unlike their official counterparts, to narrow, meandering lines reminiscent of game trails.
In fact, many actually are game trails, or at least began that way. Others form from the natural path of least resistance along a ridgeline or stream, created by repeated trampling. Still others are charted by intrepid hikers taking routefinding into their own hands.
Lacking signage or even inclusion on maps, navigating these routes often requires prior research with varying levels of helpfulness. On at least one occasion, I’ve started hiking up a herd path that I believed led to one peak, only to find a sign at the summit with the name of a completely different mountain.
But despite all their difficulties, unlike the bush trails, disused logging roads and bushwhacks found elsewhere in the country, Adirondack herd paths are a regular and respected aspect of Adirondack hiking. For anyone working to complete the popular list of 46er peaks, a large portion of their time will be spent on these pseudo-trails. In the Adirondacks, these routes have become the norm.
“Hmm, I don’t think this is the trail.”
Eventually, I figured out a trick that allowed me to naviagate my way across the rocky unmarked summits. By following the scratches left in the stone from other adventurers' crampon points, it became easier to find the way, even if the non-rock part was still a painful trek through the dense woods.
On our last summit, I looked down and tried to pick out a discernible route to the trail below, running along the base of the mountain range.
I wasn’t looking for the trail at this point; that would be a lost cause. Instead, I began reading the features, looking for the easiest route down, as if there were no trail at all. In the end, that resulted in losing the herd path altogether about halfway down the mountain and realizing it far too late to turn back. I finished the day with a long hike down a streambed—wading through water, rock hopping, and flailing through outstretched tree limbs—until it intersected with the actual trail.
Elsewhere, it might have borderlined on being lost, but on the Adirondack herd paths, it was just another day in the mountains.