Hiking Indian Head in the Adirondacks (+ Fish Hawk Cliffs and Waterfalls, too!)

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The Adirondacks are located in the northeastern corner of New York State and encompass over 6 million acres, or 5,000 square miles, of land. They are known for their breathtaking beauty and rugged terrain, which has inspired artists and writers alike. The hike to Indian Head in the Adirondacks is one of those breathtaking spots.

The Adirondack Mountains are home to some of the highest peaks in New York State, including Mount Marcy (5,343′feet), Algonquin Peak (5,114 feet), and Mount Haystack (4,960 feet). These mountains are part of the High Peaks region, which stretches from Lake Placid to Saranac Lake.

In fact, there are 46 of these High Peaks, all 4,000 feet or taller, within the region. Summit them all, and you can become an Adirondack 46-er! 

There are plenty of other spots to explore at lower elevations, which are just as beautiful. The hike to Indian Head and Fish Hawk Cliffs is one of those Adirondack hikes.

Indian Head & Fish Hawk Cliffs Stats and Trail Highlights

Distance: 10.4 miles as a loop
Indian Head elevation: Approximately 2,700 ft
Fish Hawk Cliffs elevation: Approximately 2,600 ft
Elevation gain: Approximately 750 feet from Lake Road
Parking Area Coordinates: 44.14977,-73.7680

Is Indian head a High Peak in the Adirondacks?

Sorry, no!

Indian Head is a lower summit, but it is surrounded by plenty of Adirondack High Peaks for you to explore. The approximate elevation is much less than those 4,000-footers, but that doesn’t mean you should skip this hike.

There are so many hiking trails around Lake Placid and the Keene Valley that it can be hard to choose. Indian Head, although busy during some of the summer months, provides a little different scenery than some of the other popular peaks with the view overlooking Lower Ausable Lake.

How to Get a Permit to Hike Indian Head

Hiking Indian Head in the Adirondacks does require a reservation. This is merely a reservation for parking, as the lot for public access isn’t very large.

In the past, dangerous situations have come up because people parked along the very busy highway. There is no parking permitted along Route 73, and your car will get ticketed and towed.

The reservation system, which is free to use, guarantees a parking spot in the small lot and access to the trails, which cross private property.

Reservations are required from May 1 through October 31. There is typically both an attendant at the entrance to the parking lot and also back on the trail entrance of the Adirondack Mountain Reserve. 

These reservations can be made through hikeAMR. 70 of these are available per day, and they cover up to 8 people in your group. If you plan to hike with more than 8 people, you’ll need to get more than one reservation. 

Permits go live daily at noon on a rolling basis, but only two weeks in advance. If you have a day in mind for this hike, you’ll want to be on the reservation website at 11:50 am exactly 2 weeks before.

You can also check back periodically for cancellations if you do not secure a parking permit right away.

How to Get To the Trailhead

Coordinates to the Public Parking Area: 44.14977,-73.7680

Indian Head can be found in the Keene Valley area of upstate New York, near Lake Placid. You won’t have to travel far, and apps like Google Maps do a great job of getting you where you need to be to start this hike.

Copy those above coordinates into Google Maps, and you’ll be directed right to the parking area. If you have trouble with the coordinates, you could also navigate to the Roaring Brook Trailhead on Route 73 just south of St. Huberts. The AMR Hiker Parking Lot can be found just across the street, right at the corner of Route 73 and Ausable Road. 

From the parking area, you’ll have to walk along Ausable Road, past the golf course and tennis courts, and turn left onto Lake Road. You’ll pass the golf pro shop, a few cottages, and find yourself at the gate to the AMR where staff will be waiting to check you in.

The staff can be quite helpful in finalizing your route and ensuring you are aware of the latest trail conditions and warnings. 

What to Bring to Hike Indian Head in the Adirondacks

  • Daypack: We love Osprey packs, and The Tempest is a great day pack option for women’s fit. The Talon is a great men’s fit option.
  • Water bottle: Hydroflask bottles will keep your drink cold all day, even in the heat of summer.
  • Camera: I shoot with a Nikon D7500, but it’s a bit heavy for some hikers. Pick your own poison!
  • Snacks: Clif Bars are our go-to hiking snack.
  • Lunch: Whatever you like, here!

Indian Head & Fish Hawk Cliffs Trail Overview

After hiking nearly one mile from the parking area to the AMR gate and trail register, you’ll have to continue on a dirt road, Lake Road, passing trails that head off, mostly to the right. Don’t worry, we’ll get back to those later.

A wooden gate closed on a dirt road leading on to the Adirondack Mountain Reserve to Indian Head.

Take caution, as this dirt road is not solely for hikers. The Ausable Club does have a bus used to transport their guests to the Lower Ausable Lake and to the base of Indian Head and Fish Hawk Cliffs which uses this dirt road. There are also sometimes maintenance vehicles traveling the dirt road, too.

the dirt Lake Road is where you will hike to reach Indian Head in the Adirondacks

After walking for another 45 minutes or so on Lake Road, you’ll cross a bridge over Gill Brook. Gill Brook will go from being on the right side of the road to the left. Shortly after this crossing, keep an eye out on the left for a narrow trail labeled by a small wooden sign as the Gill Brook Trail.

We’d recommend taking the Gill Brook Trail on your way to Indian Head and Fish Hawk Cliffs because you’ll be hiking opposite the flow of the stream, so you’ll be able to see all of the beautiful falls and features of the brook without turning around or craning your neck the whole time.

a small footbath is well marked as the Gill Brook Trail

Following the Gill Brook Trail, everything is well marked. Continue along the Gill Brook Trail following signs for Indian Head and Fish Hawk Cliffs. You’ll also see signs for Colvin, Elk Pass, and Nippletop.

While on the Gill Brook Trail, you’ll pass by several smaller named and unnamed waterfalls, including Artists Falls.

a narrow waterfall tucked away that can be found along the Gill Brook Trail

When you come upon a trail taking off to the right called the Fish Hawk Cliffs Trail, you’ll head directly up the mountainside to Fish Hawk Cliffs. This section is steep with some very large rock steps.

The cliffs are tucked away, with less room to sit and enjoy the view than in the next spot. That doesn’t mean they’re not worth a stop, though! You’ll be able to see the other lookout from the side, and capture the beautiful profile shots!

the view from Fish Hawk Cliffs

After taking in the views, continue on the Fish Hawk Cliffs Trail, which will lead you to the namesake overlook. It’s a very short distance to cover between the two.

Once you reach Indian Head, this is a great spot to sit and have lunch or a snack, relax your legs, or spend some time snapping some photos. You’ll never want to leave this view! It will feel like you have left upstate New York.

After you’ve taken in all of the views at Indian Head, you’ll want to take the trail back down the other side of the mountain, heading to the left as you move away from Indian Head. This trail seems to be much more established and maintained. 

Adirondacks Indian Head overlook

Covering a much shorter distance, though still quite steep, this trail will return back to Lake Road. If you’d like to return to your car now in the easiest way possible, you can travel along Lake Road the way you came.

There is more to see, though, along the trails on the other side of Lake Road. This is the way we’d recommend you plan a return trip. There are multiple waterfalls, taller than those along the Gill Brook Trail, to explore. 

a small footbridge near the dam of Lower Ausable Lake

Cross over a small footbridge beside the dam. The bridge is like a gateway to so many other things to see!

The first, just on the other side of Lower Ausable Lake, requires a 0.2-mile detour. You’ll come to an intersection, and a trail will go off to the left towards Sawteeth and Rainbow Falls. Take the trail towards Rainbow Falls!

Just a short distance back through the rocky riverbed, you’ll come upon the towering Rainbow Falls. Stand near the bottom, and you will catch the mist from the flow. 

a view of Rainbow Falls, with a person standing at the base of the falls for scale

After this short detour, continue to follow the west river trail along the east branch of the Ausable River. Over the next couple of miles, you’ll pass by more waterfalls from the tributaries flowing into the east branch, including the Beaver Meadow Falls and the Wedge Brook Cascades. 

These aren’t quite as tall as Rainbow Falls, but they’re still beautiful cascades. 

Beaver Meadow Falls can be seen along the trails near Indian Head.

Following the east branch of the Ausable River, you’ll also be able to see the rushing waters to your right as you return to the wooden gates of the AMR.

To return, you can take the River Crossover Trail a short distance, 0.3 miles, back to Lake Road. On this trail, you’ll cross over the Canyon Bridge and pass by the Canyon Bridge Memorial.

Alternatively, it is also possible to follow the West River Trail the entire way back to the AMR Warden’s Station. This way does get slightly confusing as there are multiple intersections with Link Trails and the Ladies Mile Trail. Just continue on the West River Trail to the end.

The AllTrails map of the area gives a pretty good idea of the points that you’ll want to see, as well as elevation profiles. Get the Pro version and download the map ahead of time because you won’t have any service in much of the area around Indian Head!

Best Time to Visit

Hiking to Indian Head Rock is possible at all times of the year, though you will need snowshoes and conditions can get quite icy in the winter.

Fall is very appealing for nature and landscape photographers when the foliage peaks.

Spring snowmelt will have the waterfalls flowing at their maximum potential if you don’t mind contending with muddy conditions.

Really, every season has its perks, and you can’t go wrong taking in the sweeping views of the Ausable Lakes.

Photography Tips

As you probably have seen before, the time to get the best photos is by visiting earlier in the morning or later at night. With the hike to reach Indian Head and Fish Hawk Cliffs being a little on the longer side, you might want to plan to set up camp at the bottom to significantly shorten your time hiking in the dark.

Plan to bring a tripod for some of the best photos, and so that your images are sharp and clear. You’ll want to look back and remember the stunning views.

Lastly, don’t be afraid to get creative!

Camping and Overnight Options

If planning to do an overnight on the AMR to include some of the High Peaks on either side, you’ll need to make sure that you get an overnight parking permit. These permits are available for up to three nights of camping and exploring the area.

The AMR is a popular starting point to access up to a dozen High Peaks, including Gothics, Lower Wolfjaw, Upper Wolfjaw, Dial, and Nippletop. Plan to camp and conquer a couple of these 4,000-footers!

Campsites are marked with either discs on the ground at the site or sometimes on the trees.

Please remember to Leave No Trace and camp only on obvious sites, putting your tent on more durable surfaces. 

Other Hikes not to Miss Near Indian Head

If you’re planning to be near Lake Placid to explore the High Peaks and beyond, there are plenty of spots that are must-visits.

One of the most bucket-list-worthy hikes is to summit Mount Marcy, the highest peak in the state of New York and the Adirondacks. You can see for miles and miles in a 360-degree view from the top.

Visiting Whiteface Mountain is also an extremely popular thing to do while visiting the Adirondacks. If you have a day to hike, plan to summit from one of the many approaches. If you are short on time, drive the stunning Veterans Memorial Highway and traverse the last rocky stretch, just a few tenths of a mile, to the peak.

Some of the best things to do in Lake Placid include these hikes, along with some less intense physical endeavors. There is something for everyone in every mood!

Final Thoughts

Although visiting Indian Head and Fish Hawk Cliffs in the Adirondacks is a popular hike and can be quite busy, especially in the fall, the area is absolutely stunning. The feeling is that of a European fjord, rather than the wilderness of New York.

Don’t let a few people scare you away from the beautiful scenery and fun adventure to be had exploring Indian Head and Adirondack Mountain Reserve.