Thursday, April 30, 2009


Cold and dreary, in the low 40s with wind and persistent rain & snow showers. It was supposed to improve in the afternoon, but didn't. I really wanted to go for one of the shorter bushwhack 3500-ft. peaks. (Twelve of the 35 summits have no trails, and for the most part there are not yet heavily-trodden herd paths as you find in the Adironacks.)

By early afternoon I was twitchy, so I drove over to the parking spot for Halcott Mountain in Deep Notch and sat glumly for an hour, hoping the rain would stop. (In the Catskills, the hardwood whacking is not bad when it's wet from recent rain, at least before the leaves come out, but I hate starting a whack while the water's still falling from the sky.)

No go, so I drove out through the scenic Spruceton valley to the Spruceton Trail, the launching point for the fairly short whack to 3680-ft. Rusk Mountain. At least here I'd be doing the first half-mile on a trail.

Started at 3:20 pm, and the rain actually seemed to stop. The Spruceton Trail was a very pleasant walk on an old jeep road, following Hunter Brook.

A half-mile in, there was a brand-new bridge over the brook.

Just beyond, I started the whack, heading up at a steady grade through open hardwoods, following the logical route up a small hogback.

Higher up the slope steepened, but the woods remained open. Occasionally I found traces of a herd path.

Nearing the ridgecrest, things got a little thicker with ice storm damage and prickers.

The ridgetop conifers greeted me with a fresh dusting of snow, and it soon started snowing again.

Along the ridge there was an obvious herd path, which led to the canister. Only an hour and a half up, thanks to the mostly open woods.

The Catskill canisters are heavy-duty, solidly built.

Of course, I signed into the register.

I then spent two hours poking along the south and east edges of the summit area for views. Scrubby vegetation, both hardwood and conifer, made for slow going along the rim. Meanwhile it finally stopped snowing and the clouds started to lift off the peaks. Though there were no wide open perches, I did find some decent stand-up views over the Spruceton valley.

From another spot there was an intriguing look into Diamond Notch, the wild gap between West Kill Mountain and Southwest Hunter.

These views were hard-earned!

The whack back down to the trail only took an hour, and I strolled out without pulling out the headlamp. Of course it was perfectly clear when I got back to the car, promising a brilliant day for the morrow.

After a day housebound by dense fog, we were anxious to get out for a day in the woods. Despite a threat of showers in the afternoon, the day turned out fine with sun followed by high clouds. We headed over to the Big Hollow trailhead for a loop over Acra Point, a 3100-ft. peak on the Escarpment, the eastern front of the Catskills that rises abruptly from the Hudson valley.

Unexpected morning sun beamed down on us as we climbed the mellow mile to the ridge on the Black Dome Range Trail. Yellow violets and spring beauties graced the forest floor. Up in the trees a squadron of sapsuckers kept up a constant chorus of tapping, my favorite sound of the April woods. At the ridgecrest, we turned right on the 24-mile-long Escarpment Trail.

After a short climb we emerged on a flat sandstone perch with fine views, prompting Carol to break out her video camera. Burnt Knob (L) and Windham High Peak (R) are behind her.

The classic view from Acra looks across the Big Hollow valley to the distinctive profile of the Blackhead Range. L to R: Blackhead, Black Dome and Thomas Cole.

While sitting here, we watched two adult bald eagles play a swooping game of tag high above the valley. After an hour in the sun, we headed south on the Escarpment Trail for an easy 2 1/2 mile ridge walk, mostly through hardwoods badly damaged by the 2007 ice storm, then segueing to conifers at the end.

At the Batavia Kill Trail junction, Carol turned right and ambled down this mellow trail to complete the loop back to the car.

Meanwhile, I continued south towards Blackhead Mountain, wanting to check out a viewpoint called Yellow Jacket Lookout. If possible, I would make a loop over Blackhead and return to the car from Lockwood Gap. But the upper part of this climb is very steep and I knew it could still be icy. On the climb to the lookout the trail led through some nice birch forest.

Yellow Jacket Lookout looked far out over the Hudson valley to ridges in Massachusetts on the horizon.

The trail continued up through gnarled, scrubby old hardwoods, with a couple views back to Acra Point and the ridge we had traversed.

At 3500 ft. the ice began. As this side jaunt up towards Blackhead was impromptu, I didn't have my Microspikes or Stabilicers with me. I picked my way up another 100 ft. or so in elevation, but on the really steep pitch, which was merely an icy chute, I decided it would be foolish to continue up. Even with 'spikes or 'icers, I probably would have turned back.

I descended back to Batavia Kill Trail and followed it down past the Batavia Kill lean-to.

Near the bottom, Batavia Kill (in the Catskills streams are called "Kills," a Dutch word) flows over mossy ledges, a typical scene in these mountains.

After the hike we went into the ski town of Windham for dinner and discovered the Cave Mountain Brewing Co. They just opened last September and offer great food, beer and atmosphere. Highly recommended!

Wednesday, April 29, 2009


With rain in the forecast in the afternoon, we decided to stick with a mini-hike or two as long as the weather held out. In the morning we went to an unusual place called Pratt's Rock, in the town of Prattsville. Zaddock Pratt was an ambitious and eccentric businessman who ran a large tannery operation here from the 1820s into the 1840s. It's said a million hides were tanned here using tannin extracted from the bark of thousands of hemlocks cut from the surrounding slopes. Where we had lumber barons in the Whites, the Catskills had tanner barons. Apparently Pratt was well-liked, for the locals changed the name of the town in his honor. He went on to become a U.S. Congressman and founded the National Bureau of Statistics.

Pratt also had an ego the size of Slide Mountain, and he commissioned a series of sculptures in a cliff near the tannery to memorialize his life.

A rather steep half-mile trail led up to the base of these cliffs, where we got a close-up view of the sculptures.

An extension of the trail brought us to the top of the cliffs, where we got some nice if chilly views up the Schoharie River valley to North Dome and Sherrill, two of the Catskill high peaks, in the distance.

After checking out a gravesite where Pratt buried his favorite dogs and horses (he owned over 1,000 horses during his lifetime), we drove to the town of Hunter for our annual stop at the excellent Catskill Foundation bookstore. Still no rain, so we took a stroll to a waterfall and old concrete dam a half-mile up the Becker Hollow Trail, one of the major routes up Hunter Mountain.

Next we drove a couple miles up the road to the famous Stony Clove, a deep gap between Hunter and Plateau Mountains. Nineteenth century visitors reveled in its gloom. One wrote, "It is the loneliest and most awful corner of the world that I have ever seen...It is the type of valley of the shadow of death; in single file did we pass through it and in single file must we pass to the grave." The small Notch Lake adds a softer touch to the scene.

While Carol waited in the car, I hiked a quarter mile up the Devil's Path (great name!) and made a short whack up a brook to a mossy cascade called Stony Notch Falls in the Catskills Waterfalls book and on one of my numerous Catskill maps.

It began snowing while I was admiring the waterfall, time to leave the woods and head for our house for the rest of the day.
After a 5 1/2 hour drive on a gorgeous sunny day, we arrived at our rented farmhouse in West Durham, NY on the northern fringe of the Catskills. This was our 5th spring trip to the Cats in the last 7 years. In late April, these beautiful mountains, with their open forests of hardwoods and hemlocks (replaced by spruce and fir only on the highest peaks) are mostly snow-free.

Though there are no open summits with 360-degree views, the Catskills offer numerous and dramatic 180-degree vistas from flat sandstone ledges. The view below was taken from Twin Mountain, on an earlier trip.

The elevations are modest, but there are some rugged trails here where you'll be scrambling with hands as well as feet.

To help us find those trails and views, we use several resources: the newly published 2nd edition of the "AMC Catskill Mountain Guide," with a new map giving trail mileages; the ADK "Catskill Trails" guide; and the NY-NJ Trail Conference "Catskill Trails" waterproof map set, with viewpoint stars on the trails and trail mileage logs on the back.

For those unfamiliar with the Catskills, there is a list of 35 peaks - the 3500-footers - that one may climb to attain membership in the Catskill 3500 Club. To earn the patch, you must climb four specific peaks again in winter.

I climbed my first Catskill peaks - Wittenberg, Cornell and Slide - on a Boy Scout backpacking trip in 1966. Though 95% of my hiking since then has been in the White Mountains, these are, in a sense, my home mountains. Four decades later I'm pecking away at that 3500 list.

Another shot from Twin Mountain, looking south to Slide Mountain and its many 3500-ft. neighbors.

After we unpacked the car, I dashed off mid-afternoon and drove 15 miles to the trailhead at the end of Big Hollow Road. This is a gateway for climbing the alluring peaks on the NE side of the Catskills, especially the trio of rounded, fir-capped domes - all over 3900 ft. - known as the Blackhead Range. Today's goal was to climb Black Dome Mountain - the middle and highest peak in the range. If time permitted, I would also visit a notable viewpoint on the flank of neighboring Blackhead Mountain.

After a half-mile warmup to the Batavia Kill Trail junction, I climbed steadily up the Black Dome Range Trail towards Lockwood Gap, the deep col between Black Dome and Blackhead. It was good to be back in the beautiful Catskill hardwoods after a two-year absence. This area showed alot of damage from the severe ice storm that hit the northern Catskills just before our 2007 visit.

It took about an hour to reach the junction in Lockwood Gap, a sunny hardwood col.

From here there was a steep 550-foot climb up the side of Black Dome, with a couple of scrambles.

At the top of the steepest pitch a short path led down to a dramatic clifftop perch looking across at Blackhead...

...and south to Kaaterskill High Peak and the eastern part of the rollicking ridgeline known as the Devil's Path range.

There was also a view straight down...

The flat top of Black Dome was encased in dark boreal forest, with a few lingering icy patches on the trail. Near the summit is a flat ledge with a classic view south to the Devil's Path peaks.

After savoring this vista for a half-hour, I dropped back down to Lockwood Gap. Though the hour was late, I couldn't pass up the climb to the west-facing ledge on Blackhead. The Blackhead Mountain Trail climbed steadily through gnarled old hardwoods, passing the 3500-foot elevation sign that is posted on all of the high Catskill trails.

The ledge proved to be a wonderful open perch.

Black Dome loomed close by looking back to the west.

To the southwest distant ranges rose beyond a beautiful long valley extending south towards Colgate Lake.

I hated to leave, but wanted to get out before dark, and made it back to the car at 8:15 without resorting to my headlamp. A great start to the week!

Friday, April 17, 2009

Another in a string of fabulous spring days, sunny and up to 60 degrees in the afternoon. The open hardwoods of Dickey Notch are a joy this time of year. This peaceful little backcountry nook between Dickey and Cone Mountains is traversed by the Dickey Notch Trail, a mountain bike route also called Brown Ash Swamp Trail. I poked along the little brook that drains south from the notch, investigating an active beaver pond (downstream from the string of old beaver ponds that the trail runs by) and a couple of mini-cascades.

Then I made a steep hardwood whack to a favorite ledge on the north face of Cone Mountain. On a sunny slope I saw a few spring beauties - the year's first wildflowers. Wood frogs were croaking down at the beaver ponds, and the staccato tap of a sapsucker echoed through the forest - classic signs of the season. At the ledge I stepped carefully to avoid trampling the abundant lichen. I found a grassy spot to sit and admire the unique view north to the sprawling spurs of Mt. Tecumseh: the endless ridge of Bald guarding Haselton Brook valley, West Tecumseh with its talus slopes, ledgy Fisher, spiky Green at the head of Shattuck Brook, and familiar Dickey and Welch. From the west and south Tecumseh is a whole different mountain - vast and wild, with no ski trails in sight.

The snow-capped Franconias gleamed far off to the north.

After a snooze in the sun, I picked my way carefully down the rocky hardwood slopes and was back to my car in less than an hour.