Wednesday, April 29, 2009

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!

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