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For David Hughes, of Newcomb, New York, there is nothing better than getting up and going out to do something big first thing in the morning. “It’s such a great way to start the day,” he adds. While many of us are tucked in bed or making an early breakfast, David is out hiking. And, honestly, after listening to him speak, I don’t know why I’m not out hiking at dawn more often.

A colorful sunrise silhouettes mountains and trees.

Live. Experience. Hike.

According to David, and, not surprisingly, many others, the Adirondacks is a special place. Whether we’re discovering something for the first time or revisiting an old favorite, the grand beauty and scale of this place is almost too much for words. There is so much to experience each day. And, thankfully, the Adirondacks is filled with opportunities to explore. Hiking is one option. “It doesn't matter what month you’re out there hiking, the Adirondacks are absolutely beautiful,” says David.

Turns out, it also doesn’t matter what time of day you’re hiking either. “Hiking at night is definitely different,” David revealed. “It can be a little frightening. It’s got its pros and cons, depending on the hiker's comfort level.” Indeed, when the woods are dark, it seems like a different world. Preparation is important. There are a few things hikers can do to prepare for a safe hike before dawn, but the most important is to make sure you have a headlamp, and a backup one. And some spare batteries. Good, sturdy hiking boots, extra layers, and poles are also highly recommended to help you navigate the trails.

A man points to a spot on a map.

When you hike during the day, you can see everything: every root, every rock, every tree. You can look down the trail to see what’s ahead. But when hiking before sunrise, that view is limited. “You can’t see what’s coming up,” says David. “Your focus is right immediately in front of you. You are just concentrating on what’s illuminated by your headlamp.” To me, there’s something poetic about that. Not just in David’s words, but in the notion itself. Be in the present. Hike for right now. Spend less time focusing on what you can’t see ahead and more time figuring out how you’re going to get over the current root. Hiking in the early morning hours is not for everyone. I understand that, but we can all appreciate “the now.” Maybe that’s what hiking in the Adirondacks is all about.

Good karma

One of David’s favorite hikes is Mount Adams, a remote fire tower peak located in the heart of the wild Adirondack backcountry. Mount Marcy, the tallest mountain in the state, is only 6-miles away as the crow flies. This is truly a wild place.

A man takes in the view from a fire tower cab as the sun rises behind the mountains.

But the fire tower links it all back to humankind. In the early 1900s, huge forest fires swept through this area. In the fall of 1903 and the fall of 1908, the landscape may have looked a little different than it does today. Thousands and thousands of acres were burned. In an early fire detection effort, New York state began to implement a fire observation station program. Some mountains were badly scarred and observers could stand atop bald, rocky summits and see for miles. Others needed a way to see above the trees on the summit. Thus, the fire tower observation station system was born. 

Pine trees and distant mountains in the early morning sunlight.

Across the Adirondacks, even New York state, there was a network of these fire towers, staffed by observers. The observers lived on their mountains and spent the fire season keeping a watchful eye on the land in hopes of spotting forest fires before they got out of control. As David notes, it was a huge responsibility to be part of that larger picture. When describing the observer's job, David uses words like “proud” and “admirable.” While the fire towers are no longer staffed (there are far more efficient forest fire detection methods now), we can visit the structures that still stand to pay homage to those who worked so hard to protect the Adirondacks.

That’s some good karma.

David’s philosophy is “the more you give, the more you get.” No, we aren’t talking about material things here. He’s talking about doing good deeds. Practicing good stewardship. The observers from the 1900s did their part to protect the Adirondacks, and now David says it’s up to us. Pick up litter. Respect wildlife. Good energy will be given back to you if you do your part today.

A man hikes by the old fire tower observer's cabin surrounded by forest.

The observers are gone, but their “offices” and homes are not. Along the trail to Mount Adams, you’ll find the observer’s cabin. Today, it’s overgrown, seemingly left behind and forgotten. But it’s another reminder that there have been people before us who literally put their civilized lives on hold to protect Adirondack wildness.

The valleys filled with fog in the early morning sunlight.

Catch a sunrise

To David, a sunrise hike is “better than a cup of coffee.” It kick-starts your day. By the time you get back to your car, “you’ve accomplished so much, so early.” There is inspiration in every dawn, on every path, and in every valley. Reminiscing after an early hike, David says, “it’s easy to appreciate the beauty above the valleys and hills.” But, more importantly, being outdoors, especially before dawn, connects us to nature in a new way. Whether you’re visiting the Adirondack Hub for a day, a week, or a whole season, do as David says: “Get out there and do something you don’t normally do. Put a different twist on things.” Just don’t forget the coffee.

The Dawn Patrol, a series of videos created by Adirondacks, USA, follows incredible locals as they share what the Adirondacks and their favorite outdoor activities mean to them. Join us for scenic wonders and unforgettable moments as the sun rises.

The Dawn Patrol series:

Episode 1: Mark

Episode 2: John

Episode 3: Beth

Episode 4: Mitchell and Bethany

Episode 5: Ali

Episode 6: Amanda

Episode 7: Erin

Episode 8: Keith

Episode 9: Stacy

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