80F by noon with an armada of clouds.
61F by 8am, still humid after overnight rain with mist rising off the mountains. 82F by mid-afternoon with very hazy sunshine and early evening rain.
43F at 11am with a mix of sun and clouds, breezy and warm. 48F by 2pm.
It certainly wasn’t the plan to complete the Catskills Winter 35 (hiking every peak over 3500ft between the dates of December 21st and March 21st). In fact, the plan was to do the four required winter peaks of the regular Catskills 35 and resume in the spring, but like many carefully laid plans, this one failed. Being a city girl, before moving to the Catskills, all my walking was of the pavement persuasion and, truth be told, I only started hiking to wear out my puppy. I am not prepared for spring at all (and never was), but thanks to my friends at Hillsound, I am perfectly winterized with crampons, ultra crampons and gaiters, which are nifty contraptions, like hiker’s leg warmers that don’t wrinkle. Gaitors have stirrups that prevent the gaiter from rising up so that snow does not go up the trouser leg.
30F by 10am and cloudy with a slight breeze. 34F by mid-afternoon.
There’s something magical about the valley through which Vly Creek runs and possibly it’s the wealth of great people who live there. Downstream from the Vly headwaters that originate alongside the trail to Vly Mountain, you’ll find Morse’s maple syrup, Vly bottled water and delicious, cream line milk from the DiBenedetto farm where the product is sold on the age-old, country honor system. As you drive along Route 37 crossing from Delaware County to Greene County, to get to the trailhead on Route 3, you’ll pass house after beautiful house in vibrant colors in a cozy, well-lived valley and photo opportunities galore with classic cars hidden behind barns, registered landmarks, and ancient houses. It looks like a movie set; Route 3 would make a riveting long walk in itself for this reason.
43F by 11am, overcast, but still bright. 45F by 2pm.
The Pecoy Notch trail must be magical in the summer because even in the winter, when it’s bare and cold, it’s charming in a way that other gaps and passes are not. The first 0.25 miles is a gentle incline and before you have time to be surprised at how quickly you arrived at it, you’re upon Dibble’s Quarry, a defunct quarry that runs down the side of the incline, on which someone has built a large stone stage and several over-sized stone chairs in which to relax. Behind the stone stage there’s a small room that looks like it’s on its way to becoming a small stone cabin equipped with stone picnic tables inside and out. Downhill, there are various lookout notches and seating built in the side of the hill from stone. The entire landmark is essentially a bluestone auditorium with a stunning view of Kaaterskill High Peak. Before you come to Pecoy Notch itself, which is a notch between Twin Mountain and Sugarloaf, you pass a frozen lake and then a frozen swamp, which adds an unexpected air of mystery. From the frozen swamp, you can clearly see the two mountains. The Notch from there to the next mile markers is a dense thicket of spruces with a soft forest floor covered in gnarly tree roots and fir needles. After the quarry, but well before the Notch, there’s a half-frozen, roaring waterfall that cascades across the trail and over the edge of the mountain. This stream is is a little tricky to cross, but shallow enough, and there are just enough boulders to help you pass.
31F at 8.30 with hazy sunshine, rising to 43F by 3pm.
30F by 9.30am with flurries of snow mid-afternoon and a few inches of snow on the peaks.
Oh, the joy of crampons. It’s nice to muster a decent pace with a good, long stride on the Catskills trails and I’m talking about the sort of stride that confirms the saying “to stretch the legs”, which British people call going for a walk. The only way you can do that in is in the winter on long stretches of iced mud, wearing crampons or “spikes”. Most Catskills trails are rocky, and I understand when I hear about hikers who go barefoot in good weather, because it’s easy to lose your footing if it’s wet or mossy. In the autumn, when the trail is covered with leaves, it’s too easy to slip between rocks and turn an ankle, especially when you’re on your descent and tired. Crampons are inadvisable other than when it’s icy or snowing because otherwise you’ll punch up the trail. They and snowshoes both make winter hiking rather special. Hillsound make a fabulous set for a reasonable price and I wore a pair yesterday for the very first time. Hillsound had sent us two pairs to try out for free and I love them.
There’s a sudden change of scenery on the trail to Windham High Peak after the first mile or so. An imposing, sky scraping spruce forest wherein you feel like you’re about to get picked off like Hansel and Gretel. To make it even spookier, the forest floor under the spruces is barren apart from intricately woven with thick tree roots snaking all over the path. A perfect Halloween scene if ever there was one.
When I hiked Eagle Mountain last month, I passed a group of Asian tourists sitting cross-legged in a circle, chatting excitedly while frying the contents of their bento boxes over Bunsen burners. Along with the hissing of hibachi, the clattering of chopsticks is not the sort of sound you would expect on a Catskills trail, but there’s a first time for everything. Much to their annoyance, my puppy took a keen interest in the visitors’ elaborate picnic, but I would rather eat a hiker’s sock than be impolite, so I decided not to take a picture of the lean-to where they were lunching. The picture below is one that I took last year in October, so I hope you an imagine it filled in with lush greens.
Peekamoose is a Catskill 35 that can be combined with Table Mountain, also a Catskill 35, if you arrive at the parking area early enough in the day. Alas, I can never manage to muster myself in time. Work usually gets in the way. Moreover, on the day that I hiked it, the weather was inclement: foggy and raining, which made for a very enigmatic lunch at the summit. On top of a mountain peak, with your soggy sandwich, you are in the weather and this peak has two superb views made more astonishing by layers of fog and rain. Peekamoose is already an unusually lonely and desolate place on a summer weekday because the parking area looks like a spent weekend. Visitors, who bring their barbeque sets, chairs, tables and literally set up camp by streams and swimming holes in the area like the Blue Hole, leave all of their garbage: all of it.
The start of the hike to the summit of Balsam Mountain from Rider Hollow Road is a soft, mossy incline in a slender canyon between two mountains, crossing back and forth five times over (two) bridges and gushing streams, enveloped by the heady, familiar aroma of evergreen trees.
It’s an exquisitely picturesque hike with a narrow trail off which the dog strays, excitedly sprinting down to the gushing stream for a splash around and then back up the mountain to chase chipmunks. After the last bridge, the going begins to get rocky and steep, requiring hands and feet both in places, giving little respite until the next mile marker. Even after the mile marker, it’s a first-rate clamber in parts, second in line to the great rocky Giant Ledge/Panther Mountain hike. However, I’ve only done five of the Catskill 35, so I’ve little to compare it to, but it’s a thigh-busting challenge.
However, as the great lady said, by heck, it’s gorgeous. Not only gorgeous, it’s magical, evoking memories of childhood books in which squirrels and other spritely mammals live in enormous trees, like they’re Brooklyn brownstones, and go to forest school in uniforms. The magic was compounded by the fact that the base of the mountain was shrouded in fog when I hiked, so my ascent was a misty rise into a lushly ethereal world. You are never really alone until you’ve done a steep, perilous mid-week hike into the mountains after the summer season has finished and revelers have retreated to their city habitats. Always sign in for hikes. It could save your life. There is nothing like the doom of having unwittingly wandered off-trail and being lost in the wilderness with darkness looming. I recommend it at least once, because if you have stressful concerns about business, trivial family wrangles or superficial worries, they will dissolve like a desert mirage once you get lost on a hike with no cellphone service.
Hiking the Catskills 35 has taught me that I can start a hike fretting about a demanding client and by the time I’ve gone off-trail, become lost and suddenly relying on the dog to get me back to civilization, that formerly important client is miraculously dead to me.
If the Spruceton Trail to the summit of Hunter Mountain were a movie it would be a Kate Winslett vehicle: remarkably efficient, obvious, solidly reliable with a spectacular finish. An old logging trail, it has a very wide berth, leading the way like any seasonal road flattened with pebbles and flinty rubble. There’s really no chance for an idiot writer to get lost on this trail; even the Black Lab fell in line quickly and took a steady, dependable pace all the way to the top where there is a large fire tower, upon which should read the words: don’t look down. Looking down from the midway of the fire tower invites a severe case of the wobblies.
72F at 9am, bright with some scattered clouds. 78F by lunchtime.