There’s a part of the final metres of the ascent to Blackhead Mountain that is a vertical climb and one from which you should not look back down if you suffer the slightest vertigo or you will invite a case of the wobblies. It’s even worse now that it’s entombed in ice. My husband and dog hopped up it like mountain goats and I was left in the metaphorical dust, grappling with uncertainty, stabbing my spikes into the ice and, finally, hoisting myself up over the rocks with the roots of an aging birch tree. As I finally managed to haul myself over the top, I wondered if there was such a thing as hand crampons attached to a set of gloves because they would have made the job much easier.
I’ve climbed Blackhead before and it’s my favorite Catskills hike, but what makes it utterly stunning in the summer renders it very complicated in the winter.
The first mile or so of this hike winds around Batavia Kill and is astonishingly gorgeous, but wet with too many stream crossings to count and a couple of bridge crossings. Here is a summer haven in which you could sit all day with your feet in a cool pool, allowing the chatter of waterfalls to clear your mind, lift your spirits and wash your worries downstream. It’s one of the Catskills’ best-kept secrets. In the winter, half the water turns to ice making the ascent extremely awkward without spikes, but it’s still breathtakingly beautiful. The balsam begins early on this hike and that’s noteworthy because balsam doesn’t grow well in the shade, which is why you find them at the top of mountains. A local forager once told us that studies have shown that ten minutes spent under evergreens can significantly improve the immune system.
Blackhead Mountain is on a mountain range of the same name and part of the Escarpment trail. From the parking area at the end of Big Hollow Road just east of Windham, it’s possible to do a loop and the most beautiful but most difficult way is in a clockwise direction. Go here to read my extensive summertime description.
From the Big Hollow Road parking area take the red blazed Batavia Kill trail, but veer left at the mile markers and join the yellow blazed part of that trail. You’ll pass a lean-to and be making many icy river crossings, so wear waterproof boots and crampons. The ice wanes as you ascend and turns into snowpack, but resumes when you take a left at the next mile markers onto the blue blazed Escarpment trail to the summit of Blackhead. The descent to the beginning of Lockwood Gap from the summit of Blackhead is quite treacherous with ice this time of year and I spent a good deal of it sliding down on my backside.
Go here to get a set of indispensable maps from the New York New Jersey Trail Conference.