The Catskills region – a two-hour drive from Fairfield County – contains 450 square miles of mountainous forest. That’s pretty much half the land area of Rhode Island. The mountains include by far our nearest 4,000-footers (Slide Mountain – the Catskills’ highest peak – tops out at 4,190 feet). There are hundreds of miles of hiking trails in the region, including 100 miles of the Fort Lee-to-Albany “Long Path”. Earlier this month, as I sat on a high ledge looking out on unbroken wilderness, I fancied I could happily live in a Catskills cottage and spend the rest of my outdoor life exploring all the folds of the local landscape.
I would certainly have plenty to discover. So far, my infrequent excursions to the Catskills have been mostly limited to Slide Mountain Wilderness, southwest of the hamlet of Phoenicia. It is not a small tract, but even so covers just one sixth of the Catskills’ wild lands. Other areas beckon from the map – Big Indian Wilderness, the Windham-Blackhead Range, and the Delaware Wild Forest, to name only a few. But for half a dozen years now Slide Mountain Wilderness has treated me well, and I chose a new trail within its bounds for my latest trek. I wrote in this column last summer (From a creek to a peak in the Catskills wilderness) about some of the things I liked about Catskills hiking – sun-dappled woods, the scent of pines, big views under a big sky, peace. I wanted more of that, and picked the Peekamoose-Table Trail to get it.
At 10:30 a.m. on an August Sunday, in the steep-sided valley of the Rondout Creek, the chances of peace looked slim. All along CR 42 picnickers were unloading coolers and grills from their trunks. Police traffic drums lined much of the road. The Peekamoose-Table trailhead parking was full – two cars deep! I learned later that the big attraction, apart from the shady creek, was dipping in the “Blue Hole”, a neat idea for after a hike too. I lucked out, grabbing a parking spot when a group of overnight backpackers left. By the time I was ten minutes up the trail, climbing the long spur of Peekamoose Mountain that separates the Bear Hole and Buttermilk Falls brooks, all the shouts, honks, and revving of the road had faded to nothing.
It takes the Peekamoose-Table Trail 2.4 miles to climb to the ridge that holds both Peekamoose and Table summits. These miles are the serious slog of the hike, but even so not an unrelenting one. There are flatter stretches, and good places to catch your breath and listen to the wind swelling in the trees. By Reconnoiter Rock – a big, finely balanced boulder – you are almost there. And when, finally, you are there, the ridge rewards you amply. Here is the first open ledge of the day, the first big Catskills view. My compass told me that this view was to the northwest, out over Big Indian Wilderness. I would not have known otherwise. For me, trying to pick out Catskills peaks is like trying to distinguish waves in an ocean, so abundant and uniform are they. (Photos from this hike are on Facebook – “McWilliams Takes A Hike”, Albums, “Peekamoose and Table Mountains”.)
The trail winds next through birch, spruce, and fir, following the ridge. There are flat stretches, and only a few steep climbs. Peekamoose Mountain comes first, then Table. The summits themselves – divided by a saddle – are undramatic. Peekamoose (the lower at 3,843 feet) is marked by a car-sized boulder hemmed in by trees. I did not stop. The peak of Table, 0.8 miles farther on and all of four feet taller, is lost amid the mountain’s flatness. Just where it seemed that I would go off the far edge of the plateau (and so too far for this outing), a side trail ran down to a break in the trees, and another vista of unending rolling forest and cloud-crowded sky. Even though I had seen many other hikers today, I had this ledge all to myself, first for lunch, then to stretch out on sun-warmed rock to watch the clouds dance, listen to the wee birds gossip in the firs, and daydream of a Catskills cottage.
The chatter of approaching hikers woke me from my dreams. But my energy was restored, and the hike back to Peekamoose Mountain was accomplished easily. This time, on its summit, I followed a side trail to an east-facing view that, for once, contained discernible features; over there was Ashokan Reservoir and, far in the northeast, that hazy line of more angular peaks was surely Hunter Mountain and Indian Head Wilderness. I was connected to it by 35 miles of the “Long Path”. Yep, plenty of the Catskills still to explore.
|If you go …|
|PARKING||Peekamoose-Table trailhead, Ulster County Rte 42, 10 mi west of West Shokan NY (arrive early on the weekend).|
|DISTANCE||9 miles, total.|
|DURATION||5-6 hours with ample rest time.|
|MAP AND ROUTE||AMC Catskill Mountains Trail Map. Peekamoose-Table trail to Table Mountain and back.|
|WHAT TO TAKE||In summer conditions; sturdy footwear, plenty of water, snacks and lunch, bug spray.|