Camping The High Peaks
The Catskill Mountains are actually a plateau that has been highly eroded into sharp relief to appear mountainous. It is called a dissected plateau. You don’t always know exactly when you arrive at a Catskill summit because they’re wide and flat.
Thirty-five Catskill peaks are above 3,500 feet in elevation. These tallest peaks have become known as the Catskill High Peaks.
Catskill 3500 Club
If you are one for physical challenges, here is one for you: summit all 35 High Peaks—even the ones without trails. Not enough for you? Then try climbing four of the High Peaks again in the winter (Slide, Blackhead, Balsam, and Panther mountains). Sound rewarding? It is. Completion of this challenge will earn you a membership in the privileged Catskill 3500 Club. Good for your health, good for your soul. Before you lace up your hiking boots and strap on your CamelBak, note that some of these hikes are physically demanding and require backcountry navigation skills and experience hiking, navigating with maps and compass, and camping in the backcountry woods. Backcountry camping is an art best learned by going with experienced campers, initially. (The Catskills also have a variety of camping facilities with tent pads, parking, and showers, including the popular North-South Lake Campground.) The Catskill Mountains offer fresh air, wildlife habitats, abundant trails, backcountry lean-tos, and truly breathtaking vistas. Whether you are looking for a short, easy hike to a spectacular waterfall or a several day thru-hike with lean-tos for camping, the Catskills are the perfect destination.
Let’s look further into a few of these peaks and find out about what’s in store for the hiker and camper.
Kaaterskill High Peak
In the Town of Hunter in Greene County rests Kaaterskill High Peak with a summit of 3,655 feet in elevation. In the past it was believed to be the highest peak, partly due to its position as the easternmost High Peak in the range, making it appear closer to the people in the valley, but it’s really only the 23rd in height. Kaaterskill High Peak does boast the earliest recorded ascent of any Catskill peak, in 1794. Hudson River School artists, such as Thomas Cole, frequently painted Kaaterskill High Peak (often referred to as just High Peak). Its distinctive ridgeline became a signature image of the Catskills. The Kaaterskill High Peak inspired artworks that helped promote the Catskills and establish a special vacation region with hotels such as the Catskill Mountain House and resorts around North- South Lake. Though the mountain was popular visually, it was not well trodden. Even today it seems somewhat neglected. A footpath leads to the summit, a step down from a well-maintained official trail. Kaaterskill High Peak is very popular with serious hikers in the area, perhaps because of the light use and the unique challenges that it holds, but more likely due to the views of the valley from several overlooks on three sides of the mountain, and the ultimate picnic spot—Hurricane Ledge, on the south side of the summit. Check out the VISITvortex video of the Huckleberry Point hike, a side trip from the High Peak summit it offers a beautiful lookout with deep swimming pools on the Kaaterskill River. Kaaterskill High Peak also boasts many waterfalls and two old plane wrecks—a plethora to explore beyond the beautiful shadowy trails and lush terrain.
The most famous and aptly named, Slide Mountain is the highest of the High Peaks at 4,180 feet. The name was given due to a landslide in 1819 on its north face near the summit. The scar from that day can still be seen today, and in fact was reemphasized by another slide in 1982.
You can access the Slide Mountain trailhead just minutes from Frost Valley. A strenuous 6.7-mile loop can take you from the base of the mountain to the summit and back to your car. From the summit of Slide Mountain you can see 33 of the 34 other High Peaks. The trees at the summit include red spruce, balsam fir, mountain ash, and yellow birch. While under their canopy, enjoy a panorama of at least 70 other peaks throughout the Hudson Valley and the distant Berkshires. Similar to Kaaterskill High Peak, Slide Mountain had a large role in Catskill history. Renowned naturalist John Burroughs wrote fondly of his many hikes up Slide. His writings helped to get the mountains added to New York’s Forest Preserve, which requires that these properties be kept “forever wild” by Article 14 of the state constitution. Like the Adirondacks, the Catskills now enjoy the highest degree of protection of wild lands in any state. Today, this is seen as a conservation measure, however when the mountains were added to the Forest Preserve, it was mostly due to the recreation and tourism value that they added to the region. Those of us who live and recreate in the Hudson Valley can really appreciate the foresight of the naturalists who worked with politicians to keep the Catskills forever wild.
In the Town of Hunter stands Hunter Mountain at approximately 4,040 feet in elevation. It is the second-highest peak in the Catskill Mountains and highest peak in Greene County.
There are an amazing amount of recreational activities on Hunter Mountain. The winter is bustling with skiers and snowboarders at the popular Hunter Ski Resort, built around Colonel’s Chair ridge in the mountain’s northwest corner. In the summer you can ride the Summer Skyride lift to the incredible ski park summit (not the actual peak). On a clear day, the views from this summit stretch to the Berkshire Mountains in Massachusett s and to Vermont’s Green Mountains. As if that’s not already a ton of fun, New York Zipline Adventure Tours offers four seasons of zipline adventure at Hunter Mountain. Imagine letting gravity pull you down the mountain with amazing scenes surrounding you. And, this zipline, here in the Hudson Valley, is the longest, highest zipline in North America (offering both high-adventure zips and family friendly tours). On the backside of all of this highaction recreational activity are leantos, Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) trails, and the actual Hunter Mountain sum mit. Aside from the obvious Hunter village, Phoenicia is also a great place to launch your exploration of Hunter Mountain. The summit is remote but within hiking distance from the ski area (a detour frequently taken by Catskill 3500 peakbaggers). The summit can be reached by four different marked trails. The hikes to the summit range from a steep, relentless 2-mile uphill hike to a gently sloping 3.5-mile hike. This trail goes past the Devils Acre Lean-To for those camping. At the summit, hikers are rewarded with the highest fire tower in New York, with panoramic views of Connecticut, Massachusetts, and southwest Vermont. Climbing the fire tower offers a remarkable sensation of expansiveness as you stand above the trees and neighboring mountains.
Preparing to camp
The Catskills certainly have a lot of wild to explore, and seemingly endless green vistas. To fully enjoy your experience, and for safety’s sake, you should plan and be prepared before heading toward any summit. Get the latest New York-New Jersey Trail Conference maps and study them before you leave (of course, bring them with you, too). Note the topography, roads, highways, structures, and waterways. Look for lean-tos to stay in off of the main trails. These offer three-sided shelter, designated fire pits, and a privy (primitive bathroom). Lean-to s also often have other perks, like extra wood, tools, grates, or a hiker’s journal.
Make sure you leave adequate time for your excursion and check the weather before you head out. Leave word with someone as to where you are traveling, and make sure you are tackling a trip within your physical capabilities. Carry a large pack containing dried foods (for lighter weight), a water filter and some fresh water, mess kit for cooking, camp stove, matches in a plastic bag, headlamp, warm clothes (not cotton), lightweight tent and sleeping bag/mat, a high energy snack, folding saw, lighter, rain gear, first aid kit, and pocket knife. Make sure to sign in at all DEC trail register boxes that you pass. If you do become lost, it is recommended that you remain in one spot. However, if you think you are close to civilization, follow a rushing body of water downstream and you will usually emerge from the woods.
It is also extremely important that we work together to respect our natural parks and to make an effort to have minimal impact on the plant life and animals as we hike, eat, camp, and recreate. In popular areas focus on using trodden paths and campsites, but in pristine areas signs of use should be dispersed to prevent the formation of trails and campsites. Always pack out what you pack in and leave plants, rocks, and other natural objects in the forest. And for safety, and for the animals’ sake, never follow, approach, or feed wildlife—only observe wildlife from a distance.
The Hudson Valley is truly graced by the natural beauty of the Catskill Mountains. We are fortunate to get to divert time from our busy lives to connect with our surroundings, to feel the earth beneath our feet, and smell the forest and warm breeze. The Catskills can renew your soul, rouse your creativity, and provide a shift in perspective. Get out there and explore; there is so much to see and discover. From phenomenal campsites that you want to call home to rolling waterfalls that land in pristine pools of water, you’ll find yourself bringing friends to share the experiences. You never know, you may just be inspired to join the Catskill 3500 Club.
by Alysse Robin