Winter hiking can get dangerous pretty quickly. One minute you could be trotting along atop a magical winter wonderland and then the next minute, you might take your gloves off to take a picture and be left wondering if you’ll ever feel your hands again. Your water might freeze in your backpack at the summit of a mountain and if you’ve layered with cotton and start sweating on your ascent, you’ll stay wet for the duration of the hike. Winter hiking in the Catskills is only for the experienced or very prepared. At the very least, take spare socks, t-shirt, food and don’t wear cotton under- or base garments. Drink a liter of water before you set out and eat a hearty breakfast. Take a lighter, some pocket hand warmers and a gadget that turns snow into water. Or wait until Spring. Just stay at home and read, catch up on correspondence or binge watch quaint BBC period dramas because if I haven’t mentioned it, winter hiking in the Catskills can get serious suddenly and without warning.
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.
52F at 8am, with breathtaking skies ribboned with marbled cloud. 65F at 1pm and humid. A sombre dulling of the northern Catskills’ peaks.
35F at noon with morning snow and blustery with fast-moving clouds and periods of sunshine. A bitterly chilly day. Update: 38F and snowing by 3pm.
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.
46F at 8.30am and humid with thick fog. Update: 72F by mid-afternoon and a brilliantly sunny and warm day. Fall just seems to be getting better.
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.
59F at 8.30am with hazy sunshine, quickly rising to 72F by 10.30am with scattered clouds.
74F at 9.30am with mist evaporating into the sunshine. 82F by lunchtime with scattered clouds. Heavy overnight rains had given the landscape a good soaking, and left the rivers gushing and thick with mud.
79F by 10am and bright despite thick haze over the mountains. A scorcher with a few sprinkles.
It’s easy to miss the 3500ft elevation notice on Panther Mountain for two reasons. One reason is that it seems to be split down the middle and folded together slightly so that, on the ascent to the summit at 3720ft from Giant Ledge, it’s facing away from you. Second, it’s at the top of a particularly steep and (more) rocky part of the trail, so if you’re focusing on your footing and not looking up, you will miss it. Also easy to miss is the summit sign at 3720ft. On and on I hiked, until I was about three hours in from the Giant Ledge parking area, so I decided to turn back. I’m no slow coach, so I knew something was wrong. It had started to rain and, not only was I slipping alot, a large tree lay across the trail. I took this all as a sign and walked back to the second Panther Mountain view, in about half an hour, where I found the trio of hikers from the Adirondacks that I had passed at Giant Ledge. They were having their lunch. “I didn’t reach the summit,” I told the lead hiker “This is the summit,” he said. “Where’s the sign?” I asked. “People steal signs,” he said with a shrug.
A second source just confirmed the rumour. Someone stole the Panther Mountain summit sign. Maybe I just confirmed the rumour, but I’m too exhausted to think about it much. My round trip took me almost six hours, but on the plus side, the rain had stopped by the time I had returned to the summit from the other side and the mountains were steaming. I sighed and gasped at the views, took pictures and ate my lunch. I didn’t stop for long though, because I realized I had over two more hours of hiking ahead of me. They call it a hike, but there’s a considerable amount of climbing involved on this trail. During brief pauses in my hike, I would take pictures of my dog disappearing at the top of what looks like a very large pile of rubble.
On the thigh-busting descent to the Giant Ledge parking area, I was certain Giant Ledge was so-named because a giant went up to the summit, broke off the top of the mountain and threw it to the base. It crumbled as it tumbled and rocks are strewn all the way down. Unless you’re as nimble as a sprite, hopping from one half-buried rock to the next, the descent is a tedious search for sure footing.
According to Catskill Mountaineer, Panther Mountain “sits on top of a 375 million year old meteorite hit. The meteorite was approximately a half-mile wide. It sits 3300ft below Panther Mountain. Most of the rock on Panther Mountain is sand stone, which is just deposited sediments. If you go down near the Esopus Creek you will see significant fractured rock, which is evidence of the meteor. You will not find this fractured rock on top of Panther Mountain. The mountain is earth that has risen over time”.
Look for large pebbles embedded in the rock.
At least I managed to have tea and a biscuit at Giant Ledge. Time for some yoga.
82F by noon, clear skies overhead, warm and breezy with scudding clouds on the horizon.
73F at 8.30am with dewy spider webs in freshly mown fields drying in the hazy sunshine.
63F at 7.30am with the rising sun quickly burning through the thick mist hovering over the mountains. Update: the morning mist cleared quickly and the day turned out to be a 85F scorcher with high humidity.
As Jeff Vincent explained a couple of months ago in our conversation, “one day of hiking with somebody, you feel like you’ve known them for months and months” and it’s true. Jeff runs Catskill Mountain Wild, an outdoor guide business and he is also authorized to conduct marriages on top of mountains in what he calls “wild weddings”.
Wild red raspberries are plump and juicy this year. Get them before the bears and slugs do. Look for low lying bushes with leaves that have serrated edges.
64F at 11am. A hazy, misty morning with thunder forecasted for later on.
Some of the wild flowers I’ve seen fade so quickly that catching them in their prime requires daily survey. I don’t know what these flowers are, but they are blooming and wilting in abundance. Update: this is crown vetch which was introducted to the United States in the 1950s, primarily for soil erosion control, from the Meditteranean region. According to the USDA: “crown vetch is a useful but overused erosion control plant. Its spreading growth habit, and strong root system provide soil holding ability and ground cover. The dark green foliage and profuse flower have aesthetic value. It is a good plant for road bank stabilization in areas where rocky conditions predominate, but… in general, however, crownvetch dominates other plants and tends toward a monoculture”.
61F at 8.30am, partly cloudy with some bright sunshine, rising to 71F by noon.
65F at 9am with a sodden landscape and mist over the mountains. A light breeze whips rain out of dripping trees. Update: Sun! 74F with hazy sunshine over the lunchtime period, although more showers expected.
55F and raining at 11am.
When he finally dragged me out camping upstate for the first time, my husband tucked his socks into his trousers and his shirt into his Christmas tree pyjamas, because NOBODY wants Lyme disease. Consequently, I had never seen a tick on him before last week. It was a wood tick that I had not expected to be that large because local lore has it that they are everywhere and that the nymphs are about as visible as specks of dust.
70F by 9am, misty clouds moving quickly over the mountains and the wind gently shaking last night’s rain out of the trees. Humid, with gunmetal skies issuing threatening sprinkles by noon. Stormy weather forecast. Update: Rain late afternoon and into the evening.
75F at 10.30am, warm and sunny with hazy clouds on the horizon. Last night’s rainfall still lingering in the shadows.
55F at 8am, raining, overcast and gloomy. Update: 77F by 4pm with low rumblings of thunder in the air. Rain late afternoon, with a tornado watch in effect for the Catskills.
Regular readers already know about my love of tea and my obsession with Earl in Paris from Organic Traveler’s Tea, which makes a delicious cold brew that I take on the road. Yes, I travel with the Traveler’s, which is an organic tea that’s blended and sold locally. Now that the weather’s good for hiking, I’ve found tea that’s perfect to take up a mountain: Trekker’s Reprieve. You can cold brew it or take bags up a mountain and make sun tea with it while you eat your lunch. It’s gunpowder green with orange peel, spearmint, cinnamon and blue vervain. Blue vervain is a native plant from the mint family that grows all over the American prairies, meadows and plains and allegedly revered as a herb of great healing powers by the ancient Greeks. According to the USDA, it’s used internally to treat depression, fevers, coughs, cramps, jaundice, and headaches. So it’s healing for the hiker, tasty and refreshing. The citrus element serves to repel insects although nothing will stop the flies from dive-bombing your eyeballs.
A brisk 50F at 9am. Foliage dripping and ground drenched with last night’s much-welcome rain. Update: no rain, but soggy and 55F for the rest the day.
60F by midday. Clear skies and very warm in the sun. Yard sales abound on Memorial Day weekend. Update: last night’s frost, which saw temperatures in the twenties, killed off the tomatoes, potatoes and some asparagus. The broccoli is also looking very poorly.
A gloomy and dismally overcast morning with light winds, still on 44F at 9am. Gusty and raining by noon. Update: still overcast by 3pm with briefest glimpses of sunshine.
The summer comes alive for artists when the En Plein Air group reconvenes for the season. Gracious homeowners kindly let our group gather every week in some of the most picturesque spots across the mountains and it’s difficult not to be stunned by the extraordinary beauty of the countryside. This year, May 7th was the group’s earliest meeting on record because of the extraordinary high temperatures for the day, but the landscape was still bare and it seemed like we were able to watch the leaves pop before our eyes. The sun had become so strong by noon on May 7th, however, that whomever didn’t have an umbrella had to move to the shade. Taking part of the day out to paint really clears the mind. To focus closely and solely on the landscape for a few hours is much-needed therapy after the long, arduous winter. All worries dissipate into the air with the drying watercolour and if the homeowner is home, we make a new friend. Today, we had a gorgeous view of the mountains.
74F at 9am, clear and sunny, rising to 80F by mid-afternoon.
60F at 8am with hazy cloud cover and a light breeze rising to 70F by mid-afternoon.
Marguerite Uhlmann-Bower is a registered nurse, herbal educator and wild foods forager who conducts“weed walks” in which she teaches us how to forage for wild edibles.
How long have you lived in the Catskills?
Manhattan and Brooklyn. I was born in Manhattan and spent part of my young life in Brooklyn. When I experienced the country when I was eleven, I knew that was where I was going when I got old enough.
There’s nothing more majestic than a towering hemlock, a evergreen conifer that seems to be loosely draped in its elegantly weeping branches that dangle delicately towards the earth. It can live to 800 years or more and grow to statuesque heights of more than 70 feet. Last year’s call for illustrations of the Hemlock for an exhibition ignited interest among artists of the Catskills and once I started looking for hemlock, I found them everywhere. I even found a short sapling on my property and it will outlive me by many many hundreds of years, if it’s not attacked by the Hemlock Wooly Adelgid, an invasive species native to Asia. The Catskills Center has a new programme for the pest that’s thought to have arrived in New York in the eighties.
From their website:
The maples have been tapped and the sap is boiling, old-school style, at the Hubbell Sugar Shack and will be boiling for the next month. This sugar shack runs on a wood-burning furnace and the product, Liquid Gold is sold at Catskill Rentals and Sandford Auto Parts.
“My muse is always nature.” Molly J Marquand, Catskills transplant and fellow native Brit, photographer, writer, naturalist, and wild flower gardener dishes the dirt to Upstate Dispatch in our new series Catskills Conversations.
How long have you lived in the Catskills? About two and a half years, I moved from New York City where my fiancé and I, Martin, lived for three years. I was born in England and moved to the Hudson Valley just before high school. I did go back to England to get my Masters Degree, in Taxonomy and Conservation of Plant Diversity (Botany) a joint programme with Kew Botanical Gardens and The University of Reading. But my undergraduate degree, which was in Ecology, I did at Bates in Maine.
What made you move here? I’d always had my eye on it, because I knew that I always needed space. We had this dream of having a farm and having wide open tracts of land. At the same time, I wanted to be close to my mother who lives in the Hudson Valley. [My fiancé and I] were both attracted to landscapes like the Rockies and Montana and places like that, but knowing that we were never going that far away because Martin’s family live in New York City.
A bright morning with more overnight snow and 30F at 10.30am.
More overnight snow, a few inches of fresh powder, but a clement 32F at midday. Overcast and gloomy.
Fresh overnight snow; 22F at 9am rising to 25F by the afternoon. More gloom.