50F by mid-afternoon, gusty winds, overcast, heavy rain leaving mist over the mountains.
There are a handful of naturally made trails on and near the summit of Fir Mountain, which oddly make you feel like you’re back in civilization once you’ve reached the summit, a feeling that’s short-lived. Fir was our first bushwhack and it’s less of a bushwhack than a sapling-whack and they’re not being whacked, you are. At this time of the year, the saplings are bare but you have to push on through them and continually get whipped in the face. Catskills bushwhacks are climbs to the summit that have no trail at all and no signage. The saplings are a reminder of how much work goes into trail maintenance of all the marked trails by volunteers from wonderful organizations like the New York New Jersey Trail Conference.
I’ve written about my summer ascent to Hunter Mountain here and it was a memorable hike. Last weekend, it was even more memorable owing to the presence of a team of Asian hikers at the summit, huddled in the cabin porch, chatting effusively in their native tongue, crouched around a hissing hibachi grill. This is the second time I’ve seen such a spectacle and it couldn’t be any more delightful, but I’m not entirely certain its legal above 3500ft.
In the Catskills hiking world, there’s such a thing as “The Grid”: the ascent of every one of the peaks in the Catskills 35 over 3500ft accomplished in every month of the year. If you hike a couple of peaks a day, it’s possible to get The Grid done in a year by hiking the all 35 Catskills peaks every month for a year but, at a whopping 420 hikes, for most hikers who have a job, it’s something to accomplish over a lifetime. In addition to this, there’s the Winter 35 where the hiker must ascend every peak between the December 21st and March 21st. The Upstate Dispatch Grid is filling in at a snail’s pace, but the Winter 35 may be completed by the end of the year.
Westkill is not one of the peaks you are required to ascend in winter, but it is one of the most beautiful during this time. Diamond Notch Falls’ rumbling cascade is a gorgeous place to sit and meditate in the summer. Go here to read our account of Westkill during the summer. It’s a difficult hike, with two miles that are a challenging, thigh-busting uphill battle, but the views from the summit make it all worthwhile. Yesterday’s light was utterly extraordinary. Plus, the drive on Spruceton Road, on which you’ll find a motel, farms and a church with a small graveyard, is just as beautiful as the hike up the mountain itself. At about 3pm, the sun came out, which pleased the horse (pictured bottom) no end.
It’s difficult to decide what was more remarkable about a hike up Indian Head Mountain during hunting season. Would it be the periodic burst of gunfire from the local sportsman’s club every few hundred yards of my 13th peak over 3500 feet, like distant, anonymous cheerleaders? Perhaps it was the burly, camouflaged hunters strolling nonchalantly around the parking area, with loaded weapons over their shoulders, incongruously set against our hippy neighbors in their tie-dye. Possibly it was the roadside pile of dead deer we passed on the journey, but I think it was actually the unseasonal weather: t-shirt warm and humid at 55F by 10am on December 13th. I had no mobile phone service at lunchtime, so I could not tell what exactly the temperature was, but it felt like at least 60F. We’ve had a smattering of snow this year, but thus far that has been all. Last year was a strikingly different story as you can see here from our Daily Catskills picture of the same day. The lower parts of the trail to the summit and back down were wet and there were frequent stream crossings, but they were very low.
54F at 10am, mild and warm all day with hazy fog hanging over the mountains and multifarious cloud cover.
The trouble with hiking the Catskills in the autumn is that thick layers of fallen leaves completely cover the path. It’s easy to lose your footing and stumble, as your boot disappears up to the ankle into the crunchy leaves, especially when the ground underneath is rocky or slippery. The hike to Plateau Mountain from Mink Hollow Road on the Route 212 end, is rocky, pebbly and everything in between. It’s also wet, wet, wet; with several knee-deep river crossings on the first 2.6 miles, and frequent muddy pools, so if you feel like hiking it now, take your waterproof boots. One river crossing necessitated the aid of two large trees that were downed halfway across the water. All the clumsy, ankle-turning stumbling that’s met with enthusiasm on the way up becomes quite tiresome – and downright dangerous – on the way back to the car when you’re exhausted.
If it sounds like a big pain in the backside, this would be the point to mention that it’s utterly gorgeous: a smorgasbord of beautiful Catskills landscapes in a 7.3 mile round trip, featuring thick, white birch trees mixed with soft evergreens, falling waters, mossy boulders, a spring and a lean-to complete with outdoor privvy.