text & photography by Eric Ortner
The Blackhead Range is home to three of the northernmost Catskill high peaks, Blackhead, Black Dome and Thomas Cole mountains. Many Catskill visitors also consider them to be some of the region’s most scenic. The Blackheads offer a few fairly challenging climbs along with some truly breathtaking views of the Devil’s Path to the south and the Hudson Valley to the east. If you are aspiring to join the Catskill 3500 Club, you are required to ascend Blackhead Mountain summit twice, at least once in the winter. So why not familiarize yourself with the trail this spring?
There are several access points to the Blackhead Range. However, the most direct approach is from the parking area on Black Dome Valley Road (County Route 56) in Maplecrest, NY. The trail starts out easily enough as you follow the relatively flat Red North Dome Trail along Batavia Kill Creek for just under one mile. At this point the trail meets with the yellow Batavia Kill Trail at a small stream crossing. From here you follow the yellow trail as it begins a steady moderate incline. Soon the trail passes a heavily used lean-to conveniently located near Batavia Kill Creek. Shortly after passing the lean-to the yellow trail begins to get much steeper.
This trail soon meets the Escarpment Trail, which is a popular thru hike on a section of the Long Path (teal marker). At this juncture you should turn right and head due south on the blue Escarpment Trail. This section of trail is extremely steep and demanding with some sections being moderately technical, meaning you might need to use your hands to climb up them. In early spring, the trail may be covered by sheets of ice requiring the use of MicroSpikes or crampons for ice traction. For this reason, it is advised that you ascend the eastern side of Blackhead Mountain, while descending its western side. After a long taxing climb of about one mile from the lean-to you will reach Blackhead’s summit.
There isn’t much of a view at the official summit of Blackhead Mountain because it is shrouded year round by a coniferous forest. Yet, if you head about 50 yards south on the Long Path past the juncture with the yellow trail, you will come to a nice view of the Hudson Valley. Here, scratched into the rocks and coated with white paint, are the characters “1936 CAMP STEEL.” It’s unclear what the meaning of this etching is; one can only guess at the activities that transpired here in a bygone era. After admiring the view it’s time to head back over to the yellow trail and head west towards Black Dome.
The hike now follows the yellow trail along the ridge for a while (under a 1/2 mile). This ridgeline can be a great spot for birding on the right day. If you’re lucky you might be able to spot a Purple Finch, which chooses a coniferous forest and mixed woodland for its breeding habitat in the spring. Incidentally, it is the dark color of this coniferous forest-covered ridge that gives the Blackheads their name.
The relative ease of the tree-covered ridgeline does not last long, though. You soon begin to descend into the col between Blackhead and Black Dome peaks, known as Lockwood Gap. On the way down be sure to pause and take in the magnificent views of Kaaterskill (High Peak) to the southeast along with the eastern portion of the Devil’s Path and Hunter Mountain. The next summit of the day, Black Dome Mountain, also comes into view at this point. It may seem like a menacing climb from this perspective, but it is only about a 500-foot ascent up to the summit of Black Dome from the Lockwood Gap col. At this point you have the opportunity to turn right and loop back to the car if you are getting too tired to continue. This is not recommended, though, because the view on Black Dome is one of the most rewarding in the Catskills. Instead, you should continue west (straight on the red Black Dome Range Trail to the summit of Black Dome).
The ascent up Black Dome is about .6 miles and is similar in pitch to the descent down Blackhead. There are a few steep ledges that you need to maneuver over, but there are also two rewarding scenic overlooks along the way. Don’t spend too much time at these spots though, because the scenery on the summit of Black Dome Mountain is much better and you will most likely be inclined to spend a good deal of time there. From this spot, the entire eastern half of the Devil’s Path is sprawled out before you along with Jewett Valley and Colgate Lake Wild Forest.
Once again, from this location you have a choice. If you are a serious peak bagger and still have the energy you may want to continue west along the red trail and head over to Thomas Cole Mountain to pick up your third 3500 peak of the day; or you can turn around and head back down to Lockwood Gap.
The .8-mile traverse from Black Dome Mountain to Thomas Cole is much easier than the journey from Blackhead to Black Dome. However, the summit on Thomas Cole is nowhere near as rewarding. There is no view on Thomas Cole, which seems sort of ironic since this peak is named after the founding Hudson River School painter. So if you decide that the trail is wearing on you, you won’t be missing much by skipping the Thomas Cole peak. However, at an elevation of 3,950 feet you will need it to join the 3500 Club.
From Thomas Cole you need to turn around and retrace your steps back down to Lockwood Gap (unless you have a second car waiting at the Elmer Barnum parking area). At the trail junction on Lockwood Gap you will follow the Black Dome Range Trail, which winds through numerous switchbacks, down to Batavia Kill. Eventually you will reach a great fresh water spring. This is the perfect place to refill your water bottles if they are running low as a result of the warm spring weather. Once you have rehydrated yourself with the cool pure water, continue your descent to Batavia Kill Creek—a distance of 1.4 miles from Lockwood Gap. At this location you have also completed the loop over Blackhead Mountain and will be on the homestretch back to your car.
All told, if you chose to bag all three peaks, your journey totaled about eight and a half miles and 2,800 feet of elevation gain. Now that’s a spring hike you can be proud of.
For more great SPRING HIKES try: