Two Hikes in the Blackhead Range

Cliff east of Black Dome

Cliff east of Black Dome.

September 14th/15th, I took two hikes in the Blackhead Range. The range lies in the far northeast of New York’s Catskill Mountains. I hadn’t planned on two hikes, it just turned out that way.

The first trek—the longer—took me over the range’s three main summits—Thomas Cole, Black Dome, and Blackhead, all nearly 4,000 feet high. There were things to enjoy along the way. I’ve always liked Catskill rock formations, which somehow are easy to imagine as the seabed they once were. The hike also involved some ridge-top flat stretches on soft carpets of pine needles. But the day did not offer views. From start to finish, the Blackhead Range was shrouded in wind-driven cloud. This was atmospheric but it meant I missed, on the flank of Blackhead, views that according to the Catskill Mountain Guide “are considered among the Catskills’ very best by knowledgeable hikers”.

At nine miles, amply filled with summits and saddles, rocks and roots, this out-and-back Blackhead traverse had been fairly strenuous, and I only committed myself to returning the next day in search of those best views after a long sleep and confirmation of a much-improved weather forecast.

My second trek was shorter and easier, a quick climb of Blackhead via Batavia Kill and a short descent to the ledges on its flank.

And what a difference a day makes! From those south- and west-facing ledges I felt I could see most of the Catskills, from the summits and notches traversed by the Devil’s Path in the middle distance to—far off—Slide Mountain, the Catskills’ highest peak.

Blackhead Mountain Trail - view from Blackhead Mountain

Looking SW from Blackhead – Hunter Mountain middle distance, center image; Stony Clove Notch between Hunter and Plateau Mountain left; Slide Mountain far distance just left of center.





Blackhead Range Routes

Day Hike Notes – Ashokan High Point

Slide Mountain from Ashokan High Point

Slide Mountain from Ashokan High Point

This was my first visit to the Catskills in a year and a half. The Catskills are just that bit too far from home to encourage frequent trips. The trailhead for this hike is a 110-mile drive each way and I had to be on the road soon after 5am to hit the trail decently early. But the Catskills are my nearest big mountain range, both in terms of elevation (up to 4,190 feet) and extent (half a Rhode Island of mountainous forest), and when my Friday opened up, I decided to make the trek. Ashokan High Point was a new hike for me. I enjoyed it, but would not rate it as highly as some of my other Catskill treks.

DATE: Friday, July 26th.
START & FINISH: Kanape Brook parking area on CR 42, West Shokan, NY (GPS 41.934993, -74.328989).
ROUTE: Ashokan High Point Trail, which is a lollipop loop. I went around the loop counterclockwise.
DISTANCE: Just under 9 miles.
TIME: 5 hours (7:45am to 12:45pm).
TERRAIN: It is a 2,000-foot, 3.6-mile climb to High Point. The first 2.6 miles are a very steady 1,000-foot ascent on a broad track; the next mile, obviously, is steeper, but still on good trail. Coming off the summit, the longer part of the loop is rough and overgrown in places, and occasionally hard to follow. I don’t think it is much used.
MAP: AMC Catskill Mountains.

WEATHER: Sunny and warm (60s early, rising to low 80s).
WILDLIFE: Nothing much.

BREAKFAST: Bagel on the road.
LUNCH: Cheese & ham baguette sat on a log near the end of the hike.
UPS: Undoubtedly the blueberry bald just beyond High Point with fine views of Slide Mountain and other peaks to the NW.
DOWNS: Pushing through brush, cobwebs, and bugs on some sections of the loop on the return leg.
KIT: A few months ago, I started recording my hikes with Gaia GPS. Gaia lets you see your route on a topographical map, which I enjoy (the track of this hike is shown below). But I have also discovered that you can import a Gaia track into Google Earth and see your route across the landscape in 3D. Very cool!
COMPANY: On my way up I met a young woman with a full-size backpack. She’d spent the night out, she said, and had felt scared. I was much older than her when I spent my first night alone on a mountainside and I had felt anxious too.



Ashokan High Point -- GPS

Day Hike Notes – West Kill Mountain

There is no reason to linger at the very top of West Kill Mountain (3,890 feet). It is utterly wooded in, nothing to see but fir trunks and fir branches and a sign announcing the summit attached to one of those trunks. But a short distance east of the summit, and scarcely lower than it, the real reason for scaling West Kill Mountain is found; this is Buck Ridge Lookout, a narrow outcrop with 180-degree views of Catskill summits, valleys, and notches. Buck Ridge Lookout will bring me back to West Kill Mountain again and again.

From Buck Ridge Lookout—Hunter Mtn (left) and Plateau Mtn (center distance)

From Buck Ridge Lookout—Hunter Mtn (left) and Plateau Mtn (center distance)

DATE: Monday, December 11th.
START & FINISH: East end of Spruceton Road, West Kill, NY.
ROUTE: Diamond Notch Trail to Devil’s Path to West Kill Mountain summit.
DISTANCE: 6 miles.
TIME: 5 hours (8:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.)
TERRAIN: 1,800-foot ascent/descent, made somewhat tougher and trickier by 3-5” of powdery snow hiding—and making slippy—the trail’s underfoot features. A few half-scrambles. Trails otherwise good, with most of the climbing achieved on the first mile on the Devil’s Path.
MAP: AMC Catskill Mountains.

WEATHER: Mostly overcast, calm, cold (23 degrees at start, likely less on summit).
WILDLIFE: I was scolded, or so it seemed, by a wee bird when I paused in the spruce forest.

BREAKFAST: McDonald’s, Kingston.
LUNCH: Sandwiches and snacks at different times and places.
UPS: The views from Buck Ridge Lookout—fantastic!
DOWNS: None really.
KIT: I used microspikes on much of the descent; I was glad I took water bottles instead of my reservoir (tube would have frozen); I wished I had brought a second pair of liner gloves—mine became wet from sweat, and therefore cold when I rested at the lookout.
COMPANY: A set of footprints preceded me on the climb. At the lookout, I learned they belonged to Ron, whose company I shared for about a minute before he headed down.

No views from the summit (3,890 feet)

No views from the summit

Day Hike Notes – Hunter Mountain

Notch Lake, Devil's Tombstone Campground, Hunter NY

Notch Lake, Devil’s Tombstone Campground – Start and Finish Point

The Catskill Mountains are over 100 miles from home. It’s hard to get an early start to a hike. I solved the problem this time by camping at Devil’s Tombstone Campground the night before, more or less right at my planned trailhead. I didn’t take much gear—1-person tent, sleeping bag & pad, pillow. It made for an easy, low-stress morning. I’d struck camp, breakfasted, and packed my day-pack in time for a 7 a.m. departure. The one drawback was no coffee, but I got over that eventually.

DATE: Friday, September 1st.
START & FINISH: Notch Lake, Devil’s Tombstone Campground, Hunter NY.
ROUTE: Devil’s Path, Hunter Mountain, and Spruceton trails to Hunter summit, then Spruceton and Colonel’s Chair trails to the Colonel’s Chair. Return by same route.
DISTANCE: 10-11 miles.
TIME: 7.5 hours, with rests and a (short) wrong turn (7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.)
TERRAIN: A real mix: A steep, rough 1,000-foot climb for starters, followed by much gentler grades for the next 1,000 feet. Hunter Mountain summit has flat soft trails. The 950-foot drop to the Colonel’s Chair is accomplished mostly on good, broad tracks.
MAP: AMC Catskill Mountains.

WEATHER: Sunny and cool (48 degrees on Hunter Mountain at noon).
WILDLIFE: I scared a covey of ground nesting birds, that’s about it.

BREAKFAST: A bagel at the trailhead.
LUNCH: Manchego cheese sandwich on Hunter Mountain.
UPS: September 1st, but no bugs!
DOWNS: Hunter Mountain resort at the Colonel’s Chair must give a lot of people a lot of fun, particularly skiers. For a summer hiker, it’s an eyesore.
KIT: I could have done with gloves at times.
COMPANY: South of Hunter Mountain, a solitary backpacker; north of it, two runners and, at the Colonel’s Chair, a troop of zipliners.

Looking northwest from the Hunter Mountain fire tower —Thomas Cole Mtn, Black Dome, and Blackhead right of center

Looking northwest from Hunter Mountain fire tower —Thomas Cole Mtn, Black Dome, and Blackhead right of center

Taking a Hike – Housatonic Range Trail

On the Housatonic Range Trail

The Housatonic Range Trail between Pine Knob and Candlewood Mountain

Two subjects in this final post of 2015:

(1) Belated notice of my December column.
(2) A hiking highlight for each season of 2015.

(1) December’s “Taking a Hike” – Candlewood Mountain and Macricostas Preserve in western Connecticut – is available at Hersam Acorn as A holiday hike: New discoveries and at The Hour as Try something new – you can’t go wrong.

I still post older columns in full on this site with a 3-month delay (mouse over the “Taking a Hike” tab, and pick a year). There is now a 34-hike archive. Eighty percent of the hikes are either in Fairfield County, CT, or within a couple of hours drive. Most columns include “if you go” information like where to park, find a map, how long the hike will take etc.

(2) On now to the highlights. I have come to think of 2015 as being spoiled, hiking-wise, by knee trouble. Looking back now, I see how ungrateful that feeling is. My knee trouble did force the abandonment of what I hoped would be a culminating week of fall hiking in Baxter State Park, but otherwise the year still brought great moments in great places.

Here we go:

WINTER: Beautiful land- and skyscapes on Scotland’s Southern Upland Way in mid-January.

Southern Upland Way east of Overfingland

The Southern Upland Way east of Overfingland

SPRING: In April, meeting a school friend for the first time in 37 years, and celebrating with hikes in Shenandoah National Park.

Mike and Rob on Old Rag - Photo by Mike Mehta

Mike and Rob on Old Rag Mountain — Photo by Lou Egan.

SUMMER: In early August, finding a ledge on Table Mountain in the Catskills, and stretching out “on sun-warmed rock to watch the clouds dance’.

The Catskills Wilderness

A summer view of the Catskills wilderness

FALL: A perfect late-October morning on the “Old Growth Forest” trail at Mianus River Gorge, Bedford, NY.

The Old Growth Forest Trail

The Old Growth Forest trail

Wishing you many and beautiful trails in 2016.

Wittenberg Mountain, December


Wittenberg Mountain Summit

I remember planning this hike at work. Back then, I commuted three or four days a week into Union Square, New York. I traveled a lot too; not for a quick meeting in Chicago, but 15-hours-on-your-butt-each-way trips. Then there were the pre-dawn and late-night telephone conferences. The feeling of being trapped and sapped by all this gave my hike-planning urgency. I needed to get outdoors.

I bought leggings and liner gloves at Paragon Sports on Broadway, and – if my photo timestamps are to be believed – took Friday December 10th 2010 as a day off. Since I had major cobwebs to blow away, I headed not for my local woods and hills, but to the Catskill Mountains. I had good memories – one in particular – of hiking the Wittenberg-Cornell-Slide Trail before, but that had been in late May.

I don’t recall much of the 3.4-mile, 2,500-foot climb from valley to peak. I do remember that it was cold in the valley, but with little or no snow. As I climbed, ice lay underfoot, and I did not own microspikes back then. Higher up, snow covered the trail, but not so much as to impede progress. On Wittenberg summit, it was – leggings and two layers of gloves notwithstanding – far too cold to linger long.

I did something on this hike that I have never done on a day-hike before or since – I carried a stove, and with it a 1-pound can of soup, probably Beef Barley. I started down from the summit with a pretty good idea of where to set up kitchen.

[Flashback to the spring hike, and the particularly good memory: I am hiking the side trail to Terrace Mountain when I hear movement in the trailside brush. I look ahead and see a sleek black bear, too busy grazing to pay much attention to me. I shout and clap, and the bear retreats a few yards and resumes its grazing. I clap harder. The bear runs into the trees. Sometime after this encounter, the adrenalin only slowly wearing off, I find an open, rocky area where campers have built rock-slab seats and a rough hearth. I rest and eat, alert for any movement coming from the surrounding woods.]


Soup and tortillas on Terrace Mountain

Coming down Wittenberg Mountain, warming up a little, I headed for Terrace Mountain, which is really just a spur of the Wittenberg ridge. I thought how the bear would be hibernating by now. But when I reached the place where I judged the encounter took place, there were clawed tracks  in the snow, and pale blood smeared among them! I was even less expert at reading tracks then than now, and could not be sure what happened here. Maybe my bear was involved, or maybe a raccoon caught a squirrel. But as I heated my soup at the rough hearth in the rocky area, I was  again hyper-alert to any sound in the surrounding woods.

I would like to say that on Monday, December 13th 2010, I returned to Union Square restored, but I do not remember. Hikes do restore, but alas even the drive home is sometimes enough to undo the good work.

Taking a Hike – Peekamoose-Table Trail

Let me quickly proclaim publication of my August “Taking a Hike” column, then move smartly on to what is really preoccupying me right now.

So, “Taking a Hike” – Peekamoose and Table mountains in the Catskills – can be found at The Hour (Exploring the Catskills) and Hersam Acorn (Peace and big views in the Catskills). May’s column (about Shenandoah National Park) is now available in full on this site (via the Taking a Hike tab – 2015: “May – Shenandoah NP” – or by clicking here).

The human knee - courtesy staff

The human knee – courtesy staff

Now, my left knee!

It gave me significant trouble in June, then seemed to fix itself. I did some strenuous hikes and trail maintenance in late June and July, and everything stayed OK. The knee was fine after the Peekamoose-Table Trail too. Then, after a short stroll on asphalt, it began to play up again – big time.

One of the nice things about writing about my hikes is that I can go back and check a better record than my memory. A year ago, in the Catskills again, I complained of “bashing my knee on a misplaced boulder”. Hmm. In Shenandoah this spring, I was “feeling my knees a bit”. That was a month after my “legs fell unpredictably and knee-jarringly through the [snow] crust” on the CT Appalachian Trail. Then came the two weeks of soreness and stiffness in June, right after the Ives Trail.

So this has been coming, and there are potential causes aplenty (chief among them simple wear and tear). Last week, my difficulty putting weight on the knee, pain even at rest, and the size of my left knee relative to my right, combined to send me to an orthopedist. The doctor reckons it is a torn meniscus. I am hoping the MRI will confirm a nice, clean, fixable tear, just like one a friend had. He went waterskiing a week after the operation to remove the offending fragment of cartilage!

Day Hike Notes – Peekamoose and Table Mountains

Reconnoiter Rock, 1.9 miles along the trail

Reconnoiter Rock, 1.9 miles along the trail

This Catskill Mountain hike is a 2.5-hour drive from home. By the time I reached the trailhead, the small parking area was full – two cars deep! The cause of the congestion was not so much walkers as picnickers. Every available space beside the road for some distance was filled with people unloading coolers and grills for a day at the creek.

I got lucky. As I passed the trailhead a second time, a group of hikers was coming off the trail, and they gave me their space. Ten minutes into my own hike, the shouts and motors of the valley had faded to nothing.

When, around 4:30, I returned to my car, rangers and police were about managing the traffic and people. Everyone was good-humored, but it looked too much for the tight valley of the Rondout Creek. Garbage had been abandoned, and I wondered how many bottles lay at the bottom of the swimming hole and along the banks of the creek. Next time I climb Peekamoose Mountain, it will be a weekday in a cooler season.

Unknown Catskill peaks seen from Peekamoose Mountain

Unknown Catskill peaks seen from Peekamoose Mountain

DATE: Sunday, August 2nd.
START & FINISH: Peekamoose-Table trailhead on CR 42, 10 miles west of West Shokan NY.
ROUTE: Peekamoose-Table trail to Table Mountain and back.
DISTANCE: 9 miles.
TIME: 5-6 hours (10:50 a.m. to 4:30-ish).
TERRAIN: First and foremost, a 2,600-foot elevation gain; but on good trail, mostly free of scrambles and excessive “roots & rocks”.
MAP: AMC Catskill Mountains.

WEATHER: Mostly sunny, warm. Trail shaded.
WILDLIFE: A delicate, light gray bird – almost hummingbird size – sat for a while at the very tip of a summit fir tree. I have no idea what it was.

PHOTOS: Just those in this post for now (click here for more, added 8/11/15).

A stretch of the Peekamoose-Table Trail

A stretch of the Peekamoose-Table Trail

BREAKFAST: McDonald’s, Fishkill.
LUNCH: Manchego cheese sandwich on Table Mountain.
UPS: Lying on a ledge just off the summit of Table Mountain and watching the clouds dance. I didn’t actually sleep, but was nevertheless markedly refreshed for the descent.
DOWNS: The abuse of Rondout Creek.
KIT: I am still wearing a knee support on tougher hikes (since taking on the Ives Trail). Whether because of the support or not, my knee has been feeling fine the day after hiking.
COMPANY: The trail was not crowded exactly, but I ran into other hikers every 20 minutes or so.

Radio Arts & Leisure, June 5th

HAN RadioI took part in Radio Arts & Leisure on HAN Radio for the second time on Friday (the first time was a month ago). Thanks to Sally and Rob for having me on the show again.

Click here to access the podcast. (If HAN Radio is broadcasting, better to pause the broadcast before starting the podcast unless you are good at listening to two soundtracks at once.) I start at minute 29:30.

Topics covered included:

Hope you are enjoying a trail right now!

Spring view from the Wittenberg-Cornell-Slide Trail -- trailhead in Woodland Valley

Spring view from the Wittenberg-Cornell-Slide Trail — trailhead in Woodland Valley

Taking a Hike – Solo Hiking, Group Hiking

The Hiltebeitel Trail, Devil's Den, Weston CT -- destination of one of my AMC hikes

The Hiltebeitel Trail, Devil’s Den, Weston CT — destination of one of my AMC hikes

“Taking a Hike”, my monthly column, has now been published for October at both The Hour and Hersam-Acorn Arts & Leisure. It’s a bit of a ramble (appropriate, I suppose) on the pros and cons of hiking alone versus in company; and how I have started to appreciate social hiking more, helped along by two fun group hikes I organized for the AMC at the Devil’s Den in Weston, CT.

July’s “Taking a Hike” – a very solitary walk in the Catskill Mountains – is now available in full on this site (via the Taking a Hike tab – 2014: “Jul – Panther Mountain” – or by clicking here). Thinking back to its voiceless woods, I know I will never give up solo hiking entirely. There are photos for this hike here.