From the Devil’s Tombstone to the Colonel’s Chair
I don’t have a fear of heights. At least, that is what I thought until I met the fire tower atop Hunter Mountain. Now, there is nothing dizzying about Hunter Mountain itself. At 4,050 feet, its summit is the second highest in the Catskills, but it is flat and cliffless, covered in dense spruce-fir forest. It is utterly undramatic and viewless—unless you climb the tower!
The tower stands in a half-acre clearing. A wooden hut—once the observer’s cabin—sits beside it. I arrived at the hut a little after 9 a.m. on the Friday before Labor Day. Even for 4,050 feet, it was surprisingly chilly—40 degrees according to the thermometer on the hut porch. A gusty wind blew through the firs too. I sat on the sunny porch to rest. Afterward, I told myself, I would climb the tower, high above the screening trees, and at its top drink in big views.
From the hut, the 60-foot tower appeared spindly but in good shape—a metal frame enclosing a zigzag staircase. But as I climbed the staircase I began to feel uncomfortably detached from terra firma, a precarious occupant of the tower’s fragile skeleton and airy spaces. Gusts pushed me and seemed to move the tower itself. Barely halfway up, I hurriedly took a few photographs and said to myself “Maybe another time”.
I had set out for Hunter Mountain from Devil’s Tombstone Campground 40 minutes after sunrise. The campground, named for a large boulder I did not visit, sits in the bottom of Stony Clove Notch, a deep cut in the Catskills. The notch stayed in shadow long after the sun rose. My hike began with a steep, 1,000-foot climb out of the notch. Here was hardwood forest and one stand of hemlock. The trail—the Devil’s Path by name—passed beneath a gray-white cliff, bright even in the mountains’ shade.
At 3,000 feet above sea level, the Devil’s Path became less steep and the sun finally rose above the mountains. There were still 1,000 feet to climb to make Hunter Mountain, but this ascent would be accomplished over several miles. Birch appeared in the forest, and by the time I reached the flat summit trail, spruce and fir had taken over.
For hikers, the Catskills is not a land of a thousand vistas. Even the highest summits are wooded, and ledges with big views are precious treats. On my trek to Hunter, it turns out I walked right past one of these treats—a consequence of reading my guide only after my outing. Don’t make the same mistake! At the place where the Hunter Mountain, Spruceton, and Becker Hollow trails meet 0.3 miles short of Hunter summit, there is a fourth, unmarked trail going west. I saw it and ignored it. This trail leads in 300 feet, says the Catskill Mountain Guide, to an “outstanding” lookout that “is not to be missed”.
Well, I missed it, and instead grabbed some hasty and unsatisfying views from a trembling fire tower.
My plan now was to hike down to the Colonel’s Chair, at the end of a northerly spur of Hunter. It sounded like a promising place—a rocky seat perhaps, where a retired military man had once admired valley and mountain. Oh, did it turn out to be otherwise! The trail on the north side of Hunter Mountain announced a change of mood. It was a vehicle track, presumably to service the fire tower and hut. But there were no vehicles today, and it offered a pleasant, easy descent. A chill wind made me wish I had packed gloves.
I turned onto the Colonel’s Chair Trail and was for a while on a narrow woods path again. But then, gradually, the wilderness vanished amid cross-country ski trails, vehicle-rutted tracks, antennas, and finally ski lifts and a bunker-like building. At first, Hunter Mountain Resort seemed deserted. But then I heard chatter coming from the bunker, and watched as a well kitted-out group emerged, rock climbers I thought. They trooped to the edge of a precipice and soon revealed their true purpose—“3-2-1, whee!”, and one by one they slipped down the zipline strung across Shanty Hollow.
Hunter Mountain rose on the far side of Shanty Hollow too. I could see the fire tower, tiny now, a mile and a half away. I began to plod back to it—no 3-2-1, whee! for me. At noon, back on the summit, I decided to tackle the tower again. Head down, grasping handrails, refusing to look at anything but the steps beneath my feet, I charged upward to the observation cab—and found it locked. But I held my nerve long enough to look a while at the distant humps of the Blackhead Range. Good enough.
|IF YOU GO …|
|PARKING||At Notch Lake, Hunter NY (GPS: 42.159530, -74.203234).|
|DURATION||I was out for 7½ hours.|
|MAP||AMC Catskill Mountains Trail Map|
|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.|
|WHAT TO TAKE||Lunch, snacks, and lots of water. As cooler weather approaches, take layers of clothing plus hat & gloves.|