Climbing Blackhead Mountain is like driving to New York City via the Tappanzee Bridge for the first time. By the time you’re more than halfway there it has become ridiculously difficult and you’re suddenly slightly afraid. You’ve got vertigo and you want to turn back, but you’re on a mission and survival is obligatory. The worst part about climbing Blackhead is the realization that, once you get to the top, if you want to be part of the Catskill 3500 Club, you have to return and repeat the experience in the winter. Four peaks are required hiking between December 21st and March 21st for entry into the club – Blackhead, Slide, Panther and Balsam – and Blackhead will require crampons, snowshoes and an ice pick – or all three. I already have a superb set of crampons from Hillsound, which I will be testing out on all four peaks.
I don’t know what possessed me to try and do the Catskill 35 peaks over 3500 feet, but I think it was to wear out my new rescue puppy Alfie, and I must psychic because he has only steered me the wrong way once and technically that wasn’t really the wrong way. Yesterday I decided to do three peaks in one day and now my knees feel like they’re 85 years old.
The trail to the Blackhead/Black Dome loop starts at the end of Big Hollow Road, a long road that starts just outside Windham. The first mile and a half of this trail is extraordinarily gorgeous and reminds me of the Balsam Mountain hike, a magical journey that weaves around a roaring brook named Batavia Kill. It might have had something to do with the heavy rain from Hurricane Joaquin, but the kill was running strongly with waterfalls too numerous to count and most of the trail up was wet with two bridge crossings. There were a number of small swimming holes that I noted for the summer and there’s a lean-to for day hikers, but no camping allowed: an utterly spellbinding hike, especially on a warm fall day with a gentle breeze blowing yellow confetti. I took the yellow blazed trail that ended at the junction with the blue blazed Escarpment Trail and took a right towards the summit of Blackhead and that’s where the climbing started. To stay it was steep and strenuous was to say that my English breakfast tea just did not cut the mustard. This climb requires a strong cup of coffee.
At first it was merely a rock scramble, but then it turned into a sheer rock climb all the way to the summit, only surmountable by holding onto the thick roots of trees and pulling myself up between large boulders. Alfie found ways around the rock that were easier: my trusty guide. I looked down once and my legs almost turned to jelly. I became so focused that I went off the trail at one point. I approached a cliff face and paused, incredulous, wondering how I was going to get up there. As I hung onto the roots of a birch tree trying to get some footing in the rock, I looked around for Alfie. When I looked back into the forest, he was standing underneath a blue blazed tree like he can read DEC signage. The trail had taken a right turn a few paces back and I had missed it. He was waiting patiently for me to notice or he was having some fun at my expense. Either way, thanks puppy. Hikers we met at the top were amazed that the dog had made it up, but I would never have made it without him.
I took a few pictures of the breathtaking views from the trail to Dutcher Notch and then pressed on to Black Dome. On the descent of Blackhead, the trail opened up, offering us a stunning, and somewhat daunting, view of our next destination, Black Dome, so named because the summit is covered in conifers.
It’s as steep as it looks, and I gasped at the sight of it. The ascent was almost as difficult as Blackhead’s, but I managed it quickly and stopped to admire Blackhead and take some pictures before we pressed on to Thomas Cole. I thought I could see the peak of Thomas Cole from the descent of Black Dome through the trees and could not believe I was going all in for another peak and it was slow and difficult because I was so tired. I spent this third hike of the day refuting the “easiness” of Thomas Cole with expletives all the way to the top. There’s no summit sign on it, but you can overshoot it to see if you can find the place further west on the trail where you are afforded “limited views”. Alfie and I began to head back when it was obvious that we were beginning a steep descent on the other side. We stopped on Black Dome for two more stunning views and then headed back to Lockwood Gap for a rather painful and boring descent to the parking area via the Black Dome trail, which is blazed red. A brief respite for my exhausted thighs was found amidst the lush foliage and roaring waterfalls of Batavia Kill while watching Alfie frolic in the freezing water. An exhausting hike, but completely worth it for the multiple remarkable views of the Catskills. Strenuous, sometimes dangerous, hiking like this clears the mind, sweeping out the cobwebs like a brush, but you really have to be fit to climb these three.
Go here to do the exact hike that I did, as instructed by Catskill Mountaineer, my source of preference for all my day hikes.