Going 'Greene': Hiking the Catskills' High PeaksOct 21, 2013
This autumn, go green. Greene County in the Catskills that is. Just west of the Hudson River and south of Albany, the county boasts some of the Catskills’ highest peaks and a spectacular way to see New York’s fall foliage. By definition, a Catskill High Peak must crest 3,500 feet. Six mountains fit the bill: Slide (4,190 ft), Hunter (4,040 ft), Black Dome (3,980), Blackhead (3,940), Thomas Cole (3,940 ft) and West Kill (3,880); all but Slide Mountain fall within Greene County’s borders. For the faint of heart (or faint of height), trails abound at every level along the mountainside. Two of Greene County's superlative landmarks are easy to explore on your own: Hunter Mountain and Kaaterskill Falls. Best known as a popular skiing destination, Hunter Mountain in Catskill State Park bears the distinction of the second highest of the Catskills’ high peaks, and, thus, scaling Hunter offers one of the region’s best physical challenges. Guided hikes through the mountain’s good-to-beginner level Escarpment Trail are available, too. As you ascend, take in the unobstructed views of neighboring mountains — Plattekill, Kaaterskill and the Blackhead Range — as well as nearby states Vermont and New Hampshire which made the Catskills a landmark destination for vacationers decades ago. Don’t miss Kaaterskill Falls: a 260 foot drop, it is the state’s tallest two-tier waterfall. Explore the Falls on an easy mile-roundtrip trail, ascending about 300 feet, surrounded by the flora of Yellow Birch and Hemlock. For New York City-ites seeking long, challenging guided hikes, Discover Outdoors organizes transportation from NYC to the Catskills. Rates vary depending on the time of year and type of trip. For travelers converging on the Catskills from all areas, the region also offers plenty of outdoor sporting events, such as those recommended by Catskill High Peaks. For a chance to hike three high peaks in a single visit, try Thomas Cole Mountain, named after the Hudson River School painter. This westernmost peak in the Blackhead Range is made up of two other peaks, Black Dome and Blackhead. Because of the proximity between peaks, the hike for all three is usually done together (about 9.4 miles roundtrip) and considered moderate-to-difficult. The range gets its name from the view, as the mountaintops appear black from the concentration of Spruce and Balsam trees. To get there, take Country Road 40 and start out at Barnum Road. For more information and trail details, try Every Trail. For both beginners and pros, West Kill Mountain offers the best of both worlds. The manageable Diamond Notch Trail is a three-mile roundtrip hike that follows a 1930s skiing path. The ascent varies, depending on your point of origin: 1,300 feet from the south or 700 feet from the north. Sights to checkout along the way include the Diamond Notch Lean-to, Buttermilk Falls and Devil's Path Junction. For the experienced hiker, Devil’s Path Trail is considered by many to be the toughest hike in the Catskills. Vacillating between deep valleys and steep climbs, the trail extends for 25 miles. The expert hiker can reach the summit in one or two days. For details of what to expect and bring, visit CNY Hiking. The extensive list of trails offers opportunities at every skill level, but one group is decidedly not for first timers: the Catskill 3500 Club. Founded in 1962, the prerequisite for membership in this group of 1,700 highly seasoned hikers is that one must have “bagged” all 35 Catskill peaks. Furthermore, members are to have climbed four peaks in wintertime. The membership demographic ranges in age and geography, drawing members from nearby towns, Pennsylvania and beyond. Already on his sixth round of climbing all the peaks, Catskill 3500 Club President Tom Rankin explains “aspirants” — those interested in becoming club members — are invited to join Club hikes as they progress toward climbing all the peaks. Based mostly on an honor system, the group’s members hike often (two or three weekends a month) and are dedicated to the peaks they love to climb. Involved with the Catskill Forest Preserve, the group also advocates for environmental issues and wilderness preservation, helping raise money for land purchase and construction. As members of NY-NJ Trail Conference, they also volunteer their time and skills to maintain the state of lean-tos and fire towers. Mr. Rankin has been hiking for decades, as have most of the Club’s members, including his wife (originally from upstate, as is Rankin), whom he fittingly met on a hike. Mr. Rankin has seen an increased number of hikers during peak times that can cause concern for land preservation. Yet he understands the draw, asking, “How do you tell people not to climb a mountain?” When asked to name his favorite peak, Mr. Rankin admits it's “a tie" between Balsam Lake Mountain and Hunter Mountain Fire Tower. Balsam Lake Mountain offers a 360-degree view and is the highest point along the Fingers Lakes, while Hunter Mountain Fire Tower presents panoramic views of the Hudson Valley, Massachusetts and Connecticut from a flat summit. Get hiking this autumn and discover your own favorite Catskills peak. CORRECTION: This article has been updated to reflect the following changes: Tom Rankin's last name was incorrectly spelled "Rafkin." The Devil's Path Summits was incorrectly referred to as "Devil's Path Summit." The author referred to "bordering" states New Hampshire and Vermont, when the intention was "nearby states." To qualify for membership in the Catskill 3500 Club, hikers are required to climb four peaks during the winter, and not twice during the winter as previously stated.