Everything to Know About Hiking the Indian Head Trail in the Adirondack Mountains NY (+ Rainbow Falls and Fish Hawk Cliffs)

Post summary: Everything you need to know about hiking Indian Head in the Adirondacks, Rainbow Falls, and Fish Hawk Cliffs in Upstate New York; including how to get there, what to expect, and the best time to visit (updated 2023)

View of Lower Ausable Lake from Fish Hawk Cliffs, Keen Valley, Adirondacks

Many visitors to the Adirondacks think you have to hike the High Peaks to find mind blowing mountain views. But one of the most stunning views in the Adirondacks isn’t even on a High Peak at all. In fact, it’s on a rocky overlook that hangs a little less than 2000 feet above Lower Ausable Lake – and might actually make you believe you’ve been transported to the Norwegian fjords.

Indian Head is arguably the best hike near Lake Placid and has quickly become one of the most recognizable and insta-worthy hikes in all of Upstate New York. With its unique view of Lower Ausable Lake and the surrounding High Peaks, it’s easy to see how so many people have become enamored with it’s breathtaking vista.

This in-depth hiking guide covers:

  • Driving directions to the Indian Head Trail and where to park
  • Exactly how to get a hiking permit
  • Three different ways to hike Indian Head (+ trail maps)
  • A detailed hiking trail description, including how to hike Rainbow Falls and Fish Hawk Cliffs
  • The best time and season to plan your visit
  • A packing list and FAQs

So let’s dive into everything you’ll need to know to plan your hike to “The Fjords of the Adirondacks”!

Remember to Leave No Trace

.It’s no secret that outdoor spaces continue to suffer the negative impacts of exposure on social media (and the internet in general). Areas like the Adirondacks are particularly affected because they lack the much of the funding, trail systems, and oversight to mitigate the negative resource and social impacts caused by overcrowding, overuse, and pollution.

So, in in collective effort to keep the beautiful places listed above wild and free for generations to come, please leave all areas better than you found them and practice the Principles of Leave No Trace.

The Leave No Trace (LNT) Principles are built on scientific research, aiming to minimize human impact through respectful, responsible and sustainable outdoor practices.  The Principles include:

  • Plan ahead and be prepared
  • Travel and camp on durable surfaces. Always stay on the trail!
  • Carry out all of your trash (that includes apple cores, orange peels, etc.)
  • Minimize campfire impacts
  • Respect all wildlife (don’t feed or harass them)
  • Be considerate of other visitors
  • Leave what you find. Take only pictures
  • Minimize geotagging on social media

For additional information, please review the new Social Media Guidelines for Leave No Trace.

Sunset is the best time to hike Indian Head in Keene, NY

About the Indian Head Trail in New York 

Indian Head is a low summit that overlooks Lower Ausable Lake in the Adirondack Mountains. The trail is located on the private land of the Adirondack Mountain Reserve (AMR); a private stretch of land between two sections of the High Peaks Wilderness, owned by the Ausable Club.

The trails on the AMR are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week by way of a hiking easement, that allows the public to hike on designated marked roads and trails within the reserve.

However, there are strict rules and regulations for hiking on AMR property. 

These rules are strictly enforced:

  • You need a permit between May 1 – Oct 31
  • No dogs allowed
  • No vehicles or bicycles allowed on the trails
  • Hikers must stay on designated trails
  • Entering buildings on the AMR is prohibited
  • Hikers must park in the St. Huberts parking lot. Parking has recently been reduced at the St. Huberts lot, so keep reading for essential tips, parking information, and how to get a permit to hike Indian Head

For a complete list of rules and regulations about the Adirondack Mountain Reserve, visit the NYS DEC website.

How to Get to the Indian Head Trail in the Adirondacks

The Indian Head Trail is approximately 30 minutes south of Lake Placid, 3.5 hours from the Hudson Valley region, and about a 4.5 hours north of New York City.

The best way to get there is to drive. However, you can also take Greyhound or Trailways bus lines into Keene Valley. The nearest bus stop is at Noonmark Diner, which is about 3.0 miles from St. Huberts parking area.

Getting there by car

From Lake Placid, follow Route 73 through Keene Valley until you reach the St. Huberts Parking lot. The lot will be on your right, directly across the street from the small parking lot for Giant Mountain.

From New York’s Hudson Valley or New York City, take the Adirondack Northway (i87) to exit 30. Turn left after the exit and then follow Route 73 to the Indian Head parking lot.

If you’re coming from the south, take the Adirondack Northway to exit 30 and follow Route 73 to the parking lot.

You have to park in the St. Huberts parking lot and hike 3 miles to the end of Lake Road to get to the Indian Head trailhead. From there, it’s another 1.5 miles to the summit.

NOTE: When using Google Maps for directions, enter your destination as “St. Huberts Parking Area”. If you follow the option for “Indian Head, Keene NY”, it will lead you to the start of the Indian Head trail, which is on Lake Road. However, you will have to park in the lot directly off Route 73 because you can’t drive on Lake Road unless belong to the AMR.

Traveling by Bus or Train

From NYC, take Amtrak to Westport, NY  via the Adirondack Line.

Alternatively, you can take Greyhound or Trailways Bus Lines into Keene Valley. The closest bus stop to Indian Head is a thet Noonmark Diner, which is about 3.0 miles from the Indian Head parking area. From there, you will need to get a cab, Uber, or Lyft to get you to Indian Head.

You do not need a permit to hike Indian Head if you arrive by public transportation, but you do need to show proof of your bus or train ticket and start your hike within 24 hours. This means that you can take the bus to Keene Valley the night before and start your hike any time the next day – as long as it’s within that 24 hour window.

READ NEXT: How To Plan Your Road Trip With Google Maps (Tutorial With Examples)

Essential Parking Information – Updated 2023

Parking for the Indian Head trail is at the St. Huberts parking lot, directly off Route 73 across from the Roaring Brook Trail for Giant Mountain.

  • Between May 1 – October 31, you can only park in the St. Huberts Parking lot if you obtain a parking reservation permit to hike Indian Head prior to arrival. Keep reading for more information on how to obtain a permit.
  • From November 1 – April 30, you do not need a permit. While this is considered the off-season, I still recommend arriving as early as possible to get a parking spot in the St. Huberts parking lot. The St. Huberts lot is the main parking area for all trails originating on the Adirondack Mountain Reserve (not just for Indian Head) – and it’s a small lot – so it fills up fast.

Parking along Route 73 is strictly prohibited, and anywhere outside of the lot on AMR property. Doing so will result in a hefty parking ticket or having your car towed entirely.

Indian Head overlook at Lower Ausable Lake, Adirondacks

How to Get a Permit for Indian Head Adirondacks

Planning to hike Indian Head between May 1 and October 31? If so, then you will need to obtain a free parking reservation permit from the Adirondack Mountain Reserve.

In May 2021, the New York State Department of Conservation and the AMR implemented a Parking Reservation System to regulate the surge in hiking traffic. The permit system applies to all trails located on the Adirondack Mountain Reserve – including Indian Head

AMR staff checks for permits at several spots along the hike. If you do not have a permit between May 1 and October 31, you will not be able to hike Indian Head or any of the other trails on the Adirondack Mountain Reserve.

Here is exactly how to get a free permit: 

  • Set up a free profile at hikeamr.org
  • Search for your desired day. Reservations open 2 weeks in advance at 12 PM.
  • Choose a time slot.
  • Complete your reservation.
  • The reservation is sent to your email. Take a screenshot of it and present that to the staff at the gate.

What else you need to know about Indian Head parking permits: 

  • Reservations can be made up to two weeks in advance of the date of reservation, up to
    12 hours before.
  • Each reservation accommodates up to 8 people, but only reserves one parking spot. So if you have a group arriving in more than 1 car, each driver needs a permit.
  • Walk-ins are NOT allowed. You need to make a reservation in advance
  • All hikers need a reservation, even if you get dropped off or arrive by bicycle
  • Those arriving to Keene Valley via Greyhound or Trailways bus lines may present a valid bus ticket from within 24 hours of arrival to the AMR parking lot attendant in lieu of a reservation.
  • The AMR parking lot is open from 5AM-7PM every day. If you enter without a reservation before 5AM, you will have to provide your reservation upon exiting the AMR gate.
  • You cannot postpone your hike if the weather is bad on your reserved day.
  • You can make up to two reservations per week, and only one per day. There are no limits to the number of reservations you can make over the course of the season.

Visit this page for more information on the AMR Parking Reservation System.

What to do if Indian Head Reservations are Full

The AMR Reservation System is competitive and only allows 70 reservations per day. These reservations can be taken by vehicles, drop offs, and hikers who arrive by bicycle.

So what do you do if you don’t get a reservation to hike Indian Head?

  • Keep checking back! People do cancel and sometimes a reservation opens up. Unfortunately, there’s no waitlist for cancellations so you will have to keep checking.
  • Pick a different day and/or time
  • Choose a different hike! There are so many beautiful hikes around Keene Valley and Lake Placid. Check out the guides below for some ideas

Hiking in Lake Placid: 10+ Amazing Hikes Near Lake Placid in the Adirondacks

Short Hikes with Epic Views in the Adirondacks

Hiking the Mount Van Hoevenberg Trail in the Adirondacks (Amazing Views for Little Effort!)

Hiking Indian Head, Adirondacks at Sunset
View of Lower Ausable Lake in the fall at sunset

Hiking the Indian Head Trail

Indian Head trail length: 11 miles round trip

Difficulty rating: Moderate; strenuous for some people due to the length

Hike time: Approximately 6-7 hours round trip

Trail type: Can be done as a loop or straight out-and-back

Elevation gain: 2000 feet (610 meters)

View from Indian Head Hike, Adirondacks in the fall
.View of Lower Ausable Lake from Indian Head

The actual trail to Indian Head is at the end of Lake Road, the main access road running from the Ausable Club to Lower Ausable Lake.

After you park your car in the St. Huberts lot, follow Ausable Road for about 0.5 miles through the AMR. The golf course will be on your right. Note that the AMR and Lake Road are closed to all vehicles and bicycles, except for those owned by members of the AMR.

Turn left onto Lake Road at the tennis courts in front of the Ausable Clubhouse, and follow the road for about 200m until you reach the big pine entrance gate. Sign in at the trail register. The register is used for collecting data for the DEC and its referenced in the event someone needs to find you in an emergency – so don’t forget to sign in!

Pine entrance gate to Lake Road on the Adirondack Mountain Reserve
The pine entrance gate to Lake Road and the hiking trails on the AMR

After you register, walk around the gate onto Lake Road. From here, walk to the Indian Head trail. Keep reading for a breakdown of the three most popular routes to take.
.

Hiking Routes: Three Ways to Reach the Indian Head Lookout

.There are three main routes to get to the Indian Head Lookout. They are outlined on the trail map and discussed in detail below. Which route you take will depend on your level of fitness and personal preference.

*The color of the routes on this map are intended for visualization purposes only, and do NOT correspond to the color of the actual trail markers.*

Indian Head trail map. Source: AllTrails.
(1) Saint Huberts Parking lot; (2) Pine gate sign in; (3) Lake Road – West River Trail junction; (4) Lake Road – Gill Brook Trail junction; (5) Lake Road – Indian Head trailhead junction; (6) Indian Head summit; (7) Fish Hawk Cliffs

Route 1: Lake Road (out and back)

Shown in red on the map. 

Taking Lake Road out and back is a popular route for hikers who are interested in getting directly to Indian Head and back. To take this route, follow Lake Road for 3 miles until you reach the junction for the Indian Head trail to the lookout. Return the same way you came.

Ignore the other signs for Indian Head you see along the way, as those will lead you up a different trail. Wait for the Indian Head junction all the way at the end of Lake Road (you’ll know you reached the end when you see the shore of Lower Ausable Lake).

Hiking on Lake Road

Route 2: Lake Road – Gill Brook Trail (loop)

Shown in red and yellow on the map. 

This route is, in my opinion, the best one because it passes over Fish Hawk Cliffs and brings you past several beautiful waterfalls on the way.

To take this route, follow Lake Road for 3 miles until you reach the Indian Head trail at the end (red). Ascend Indian Head. Then, follow the signs for Fish Hawk Cliffs and descend via the Gill Brook Trail (yellow). The Gill Brook Trail eventually meets back up with Lake Road to lead you back to your car.

This loop can be done either way, but I suggest approaching Indian Head via Lake Road and descending via the Gill Brook Trail. If you do it the other way around, the ascent up the Gill Brook Trail is incredibly steep

Route 3: West River Trail

 Shown in green on the map.

This route is more difficult, but it’s incredibly scenic and passes by several gorgeous waterfalls before finally connecting with the Indian Head trail at the end of Lake Road. To take the West River Trail, follow the junction off Lake Road a short distance from the pine gate.

Ascending the Indian Head Trail

.At the end of Lake Road, you’ll see the main trailhead sign pointing to “Indian Head/Fish Hawk Cliffs” just before you reach the shores of Lower Ausable Lake. Turn into the woods onto the yellow marked foot trail. Here’s a picture of the trail sign:

Foot trail to Indian Head and Fish Hawk Cliffs
The main trailhead for Indian Head located at the end of Lake Road..

The trail starts out relatively flat before before approaching a side trail known as “Gothics Window” after about 0.3 miles. You can follow this side trail for a short way to see a stunning view of Gothics Mountain through the trees. The trail to Gothics Window isn’t very well marked, so pay attention to where you’re going if you choose to take this detour.

Past the junction of Gothics Window, the Indian Head trail to continues to climb steadily for another 1 mile to the top. A series of ladders and switchbacks help you navigate the narrow, rocky trail.

The ladder and switchbacks on the Indian Head foot trail.

NOTE: Make sure to wear sturdy shoes, because the trail is often muddy and slippery in places, especially after rain or snow. Every time I visit Indian Head, I see people hiking in white sneakers, who have seemed to underestimate the length and/or difficulty of the hike. They always look super uncomfortable and end up ruining their good shoes.

Make sure that’s not you by downloading this free packing list for a list of everything you need to hike Indian Head comfortably and safely
.

.
The trail ends at a 3-way junction at the top of the ridge. To the right is the short walk to the Indian Head Summit. Straight ahead is the trail to Fish Hawk Cliffs. And to the left is an alternate route to the Gill Brook Trail and the return.

For now, turn right and continue a short way through the woods to where the trail opens up to rocky summit. This first view from the summit is awe inspiring, but don’t be afraid to explore a bit! The best views are actually on the lower cliff.

Carefully navigate your way down the herd path leading from the upper vista to the lower one. Here, the wide open views of Lower Ausable Lake will surely take your breath away. With the Lower Great Range on one side and the Pinnacle Range on the other, it becomes immediately apparent why many consider Indian Head one of the most beautiful hikes in the ADK.

Indian Head Summit Viewpoint
The Indian Head summit viewpoint

Hiking to Fish Hawk Cliffs

.Fish Hawk Cliffs is an alternate overlook of Lower Ausable Lake from the cliffs below Indian Head.

As the crowds on Indian Head grow every year and more people choose to hike out-and-back via Lake Road, Fish Hawk Cliffs remain relatively quiet and unexplored. I’m not sure if its because the hike to Fish Hawk Cliffs takes extra effort, or if people don’t know what the view from the cliffs looks like, but if you’re looking for views similar to Indian Head without the crowds, then this is the place to go!

Indian Head and Fish Hawk Cliffs Hike overlooking Lower Ausable Lake

To reach Fish Hawk Cliffs, follow the sign at the top of the Indian Head trail. The trail to Fish Hawk Cliffs descends very steeply down the ridge for about 0.25 miles before leading to the cliffs below Indian Head.

Walk along the rocks until the view opens up to Lower Ausable Lake – and don’t forget to turn back and take a look at Indian Head! This is where you can see the rock formation that gives Indian Head its name.

View from Fish Hawk Cliffs over Lower Ausable Lake, Adirondacks
Looking back at Indian Head from Fish Hawk Cliffs

To descend, go back the way you came or follow the Fish Hawk Cliffs Trail to the Gill Brook Trail and complete the loop.

*Note: Due to sheer drop offs and open cliff faces, the trail to Fish Hawk Cliffs is not recommended for small children.

Indian Head Trail to Rainbow Falls NY

Extend your Indian Head Trail hike with a quick stop at Rainbow Falls.

To get to Rainbow Falls, follow the Indian Head Trail back down to Lake Road. When you reach the road, turn left and head toward Ausable Lake until you see a sign pointing to Rainbow Falls. Follow the gravel road down hill and cross the long bridge that crosses the stream running from Lower Ausable Lake.

At the end of the wooden bridge, you will reach the junction for Rainbow Falls. Follow the trail to Rainbow Falls Adirondacks through the woods for a short distance before entering a misty canyon covered in moss.

As you approach Rainbow Falls New York, the trail gets super rocky and ultra slippery from the moisture created by the waterfall. Watch your footing as you climb toward the base of the waterfall.

Hiking Indian Head Hike and Rainbow Falls will take the average hiker approximately 6-7 hours, including breaks.

What to Pack 

.If you haven’t already, make sure to download my FREE Indian Head packing list. It outlines everything you need in order to make your hike to Indian Head safe, comfortable, and enjoyable. It even includes a few things that might surprise you (because it’s always better to be safe than sorry).

Best Time to Plan Your Visit to Indian Head NY

Indian Head is a great all-year round hike and the views are gorgeous in every season. But there are some times that are a little bit better depending on what type of experience you’re looking for.

Here’s a breakdown of the best times to hike Indian Head, so you can figure out what works best for you:

Best Time of Year to Hike Indian Head

Summer (June – August)

In the summer, the weather is warmer and days are longer, which is nice for doing hikes as long as Indian Head. Lower Ausable Lake Valley is lush and green. However, beware black fly season between mid-May to early July!

Read more: How to Survive Black Fly Season in the Adirondacks

Fall (September – October)

Indian Head tops the list of best places to see fall foliage in New York because the green valley transforms into different shades of fiery reds, burnt oranges, and vibrant yellows.

The timing of peak foliage season in the Adirondacks is unpredictable because its a little different every year, but you can use this leaf tracker to help time your visit for leaf peepin’..

Winter (November – February)

Hiking Indian Head in the winter is great if you like the snow. Not great if you don’t.

There’s often a lot of snow in this part of the Adirondacks in the winter, which is perfect for snowshoeing and cross country skiing.

Temperatures at the summit are often sub-zero as the wind blows through the valley, so dress warm! Microspikes are highly recommended and often required.

Did you know that shoe shoes are required by law in the Adirondack High Peaks when there is 8+ inches of snow? Click here for more information on winter hiking preparedness in the Adirondacks.

Get the gear: Best Microspikes and Traction Systems for Hiking on Ice and Snow

Spring (March – May)

Hiking in the spring is not recommended for hiking due to “mud season“, which can be hazardous to both you and the ecosystem.

It’s also the start of black fly season. And sometimes the weather is still cold and snowy. You may run into ice near the summit, so microspikes are recommended.

Best Time of Day to Hike Indian Head

  • Early morning/midday: This time is best for casual hikers, groups, families. Aim to start the hike to Indian Head around 7-8AM (but the earlier, the better) to ensure a full day to enjoy the hike!
    . .
  • Sunrise: Sunrise is the best time to catch fog rising off Lower Ausable Lake in the fall. It’s also the least crowded time of day, so its your best shot at having the summit all to yourself – especially in peak season. Sunrise on Indian Head is not great for morning light, as most of the valley remains shaded until mid morning. If you hike between May 1 – October 31, the parking lot opens at 5AM if you have a regular hiking permit. You need to obtain an overnight permit if you want to arrive earlier.
    .
  • Sunset: Sunset is the best time to photograph Indian Head Adirondacks. The sun sets over Lower Ausable River, creating optimal light in the valley as it starts to set over the mountains to the west. To catch golden hour, arrive about 2 hours before sunset to set up your gear and claim your spot. If you hike between May 1 – October 31, the parking lot technically closes at 7PM, but the gate lets you leave at any time.

Visit this link to view lighting conditions on Indian Head at different times of the year/day using Caltopo.

Don’t forget your polarizer, which will cut the glare on the water.

Where to Stay near Indian Head Trail Adirondacks

The closest towns to Indian Head are Lake Placid and the town of Keene.

Keene is about 6 minutes from the Indian Head Trail. Staying here will give you a more small mountain town experience (plus, you’ll be close to Old Mountain Coffee, which is the perfect way to start your day before you hike Indian Head!).

Lake Placid is about 30 minutes away from the Indian Head Trail and is a lot more touristy than Keene. However, there are a lot more hotels and motels to choose from. Hotels in Lake Placid range from budget friendly motels to luxurious mountain lodges. Click here for a list of hotels in Lake Placid.

If a cozy cabin is more your vibe, check out my list of 17 Cozy Cabins to Rent in the Adirondacks on Airbnb!

Frequently Asked Questions About Hiking Indian Head

How long does it take to hike Indian head?

The Indian Head hike is about 11 miles round-trip and takes an average hiker approximately 5-7 hours to complete. This time includes breaks and time spent at the summit. Hike time may be longer if you’re hiking with children or a group.

Are dogs allowed on the Indian Head trail?

No. Dogs are absolutely prohibited on any of the trails/land of the Adirondack Mountain Reserve. This includes Indian Head.

Do you need a permit to hike Indian Head?

Yes. You need a permit to hike Indian Head between May 1 – Oct 31. Permits are free and you get one at hikeamr.org. A permit is not required between November 1 – April 30.

Is the Indian Head Hike free? 

Yes. There are currently are no fees associated with hiking Indian Head.

Can you camp near Indian Head?

While you cannot camp at the summit of Indian Head, there are a few designated backcountry/primitive campsites along the Gill Brook Trail that are first-come-first-serve. To camp between May 1 – Oct 31, you need to obtain an overnight camping permit. You can reserve up to 3 nights.

Are there restrooms on the hike to Indian Head? 

No. There are no restrooms after you leave the parking area. If you must relieve yourself during the hike, you must pack out all toilet paper/tissues/etc.

What other hikes can I access through the AMR?

Hikes accessed through the AMR gate are:

  • Dial and  Nippletop
  • Bears Den
  • Blake and Colvin
  • Indian Head, Rainbow Falls, and Fishhawk Cliffs
  • Pinnacle
    Beaver Meadow Fall
  • Cathedral Rocks and Bear Run

There are also trails from the AMR to the Lower and Upper Great Range, which includes  Lower and Upper Wolfjaw, Armstrong, Sawteeth, Gothics, Saddleback, Basin and Haystack. However, many of these mountains can also be reached via trailheads outside of the AMR.

Have you done the hike to Indian Head in the Adirondacks? Have you found this hiking guide helpful? As always, feel free to leave a comment below! I love to hear from you!

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Jackie - Adventure Travel Blogger and Author at The Adventures Atlas
( Adventure Travel Expert )

Hi, I’m Jackie! I’m a travel photographer and content creator based near the Adirondack Mountains of Upstate New York. I’m also a millennial who works full-time, yet I still find ways to travel frequently without breaking the bank, because traveling is what makes me feel most alive. Now I help fellow travelers who also work 9-5 and are looking for ways to travel more with limited PTO.

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