There are 35 Catskills mountains over 3500 ft and there’s a club of volunteers devoted to maintaining these trails, and leading group hikes, called the Catskills 3500 Club. Two of the best extra resources are the Catskill Mountaineer website in which you can see a great deal of detail on each hike in the Catskills and a set of maps produced by the NYNJ Trail Conference. All the hikes are pretty strenuous, steep and miles long – not just your proverbial walk in the park. Furthermore, nine of the hikes are bushwhacks, which means there is no trail and you must rely on a map and compass. Some of the hikes are arrestingly beautiful, with waterfalls, lush vegetation and mountaintop lookouts that reward the hiker with stunning views that extend for hundreds of miles over the Catskills’ peaks. But don’t go unprepared. These hikes demand a high fitness level and expert advance planning, especially in winter. Novice hikers should not be attempting peaks in summer or winter without advice.
As an introduction to hiking, I hiked in the summer first and you never forget your first peak. Balsam Mountain in the summer is spectacular. Here are links to five reviews of the Catskills 35s: Continue reading →
I’ve written about Bearpen Mountain before after climbing it in March 2016. As I wrote then, it’s aptly named, being bearish not bullish, a long, gentle incline around a mountain following a snow mobile trail. Bare trees allow stunning, almost panoramic views, glimpses of the surrounding countryside, so it’s easy to keep your bearings. When the mountain’s covered in a few feet of snow, you can follow the tracks of previous hikers up or down a handy short cut that’s a dashed black line on the map and helpfully signed “Danger”, but this part of the trail is scantily marked, so I’ve never had the courage to bother with it before. It was a blessing on the way down on Sunday because all the hikers before us had decided to take the short cut so we had broken trail most of the long way up and – as usual – I had forgotten something, snow shoes, that would have made the going far easier. Continue reading →
It’s good to know when to give up and turn around and yesterday was one of those days. Rusk Mountain, a bushwhack that seemed easy on paper, was an almost vertical ascent the way we went, covered in a layer of thick snow, making it difficult to maintain traction even in snow shoes. After an hour of climbing, slipping, sliding and clinging to tree branches, the final straw was the formiddable rock ledge (pictured above) that greeted me about 20 minutes from the top. There were tracks up the side of this ledge from hikers that were ahead of us, but the snow was crumbly and there were no tree roots or rocks for support. Plus, I was cold, fatigued and we had started too late, so we were in a bit of a rush. Last time I ignored the conditions, I slid 30 feet down a mountain and slammed into a tree. I learned my lesson back then.
The Seager trail starts at the parking area at the end of Dry Brook Road, just past the covered bridge, in Arkville and it’s two miles of probably the most picturesque valley that I’ve ever hiked in the Catskills. New to both hiking and the countryside in general, I was introduced to the Seager Trail back in 2007. It was my maiden hike, if you like, and one of the most beautiful introductions I’ve ever experienced.
It’s an easy hike alongside a very wide brook with large stones of various shades of grey, with the faintest hints of pink and purple. A short distance from the parking area, the trail opens up into a wide open expanse that is a carpet of smooth rocks at a confluence of two waterways. Yesterday it was covered in a multitude of yellow coltsfoot and a magical sight to behold when emerging from the dark trail into the sunlight. A large downed tree has completely changed this part of the trail, having created a reasonably sized swimming hole that’s very attractive to furry, black Labradors. Further along, there’s a waterfall that fills a deep watering hole that’s about five to six feet deep, and bone-numbingly cold even in the summer, into which you can flop after a hot day’s worth of hiking.
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.
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.
A return to the stunning Slide Mountain for the second time this year, ascending into the seductive clutches of a dense forest of snow-laden conifers, with a copy of John Burroughs’ In The Catskills. A commemorative plaque to Burroughs is affixed to a large rock at the summit under which the writer frequently camped. Slide is so named because of a landslide that occurred in the early nineteenth century on its north face where the scar is still apparent after having been refreshed by another landslide in 1992 and the entire area was thoroughly traversed by the writer.
Winter hiking in the Catskills is mostly magical, tranquil beauty but uncomfortable if you’re ill prepared and occasionally terrifying. I’ve been conveying my winter hiking experiences here under the Outdoors section on Upstate Dispatch. Or, rather, I’ve been writing about what could possibly go wrong should you decide to attempt a Catskills high peak when it’s 10˚F and weather conditions are a fickle master. True to my British nature, I seem to have created A Pessimist’s Guide to Winter Hiking or a Pessimist’s Guide to Conquering Winter Summits. Last year, I decided to attempt to hike all 35 Catskills peaks over 3500ft in order to join the Catskills 3500 Club and there are four extra peaks required in the winter. What I discovered after having hiked those four is that you can see a lot more of the landscape when it has lost most of its foliage. You literally get the lay of the land. So I’ve been continuing down the list instead of doing the sensible thing and waiting for the spring thaw. However, winter hiking is not for the uncertain.
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.
Hillsound sent me two pairs of crampons – or “spikes” – to try out and my life hasn’t been so thoroughly changed for the better since I got my juicer. They must have taken pity on me because they read that I’m hiking the Catskills 35 in a pair of fifteen-year-old snowboarding boots that I bought in an emergency, during a torrential downpour on 14th Street in New York City, when I was on my way to meet a client.