The Catskills have long been a summer haven for New Yorkers trying to beat the heat. For more than one hundred years, families have been traveling to the area and finding relief from the stress of everyday life by immersing themselves in nature. The tradition continues today with Catskill camping at Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) facilities.
Devil’s Tombstone is one of the oldest campgrounds in New York. The 24-site facility is nestled in Stony Clove on Route 214 in Hunter. Stony Clove is an extremely scenic and unusual geographic location. The Clove is a deep pass, slicing through two Catskill peaks—Plateau and Hunter Mountain. As a result of the deep notch, great hiking abounds in the area. In fact, Devil’s Tombstone Campground is the approximate halfway mark on the notorious Devil’s Path. This trail is considered to be one of the three most difficult trails in the Northeast. Therefore, Devil’s Tombstone Campground is well-utilized by the hiking community. As a result of this recreational area’s popularity, it is advised that you make reservations prior to your stay. Also, due to fiscal issues, Devil’s Tombstone Campground will close for the season early this year on August 31, so be sure to call soon.
Devil’s Tombstone receives its namesake from a large seven-by-five-foot boulder bordering the campground. Fortunately, the campground offers visitors more than just large rocks. Amenities also include grills and fireplaces, two picnic areas, and access to scenic Notch Lake. Kids will enjoy the playground, as well as volleyball net and horseshoes. There is also a Junior Naturalist Program for children ages 5-13 in which kids can earn an embroidered patch. Unfortunately, the campground doesn’t offer showers. However, another DEC campground at North-South Lake located just eight miles away does.
Relaxing at camp in the Catskills can be a wonderful way to spend a summer’s day. Sitting around a campfire; reading a good book next to a small lake glistening in the sun; or just stretching out and soaking up the rays can be great stress relievers. Eventually, though, you might start to go a little stir crazy at camp and decide it's time to explore the steep slopes that surround you. Luckily, there are a few great Catskill trails in close proximity. It is even possible to stitch some of them together into a nice loop over Hunter Mountain.
At 4,040 feet high, the summit of Hunter Mountain is the second highest peak in the Catskills. It boasts a fire tower with spectacular 360-degree views of all the Catskill high peaks. If you are an experienced hiker and feeling ambitious, you can even bag a second peak on Southwest Hunter in the same trip. Both of these summits are required for admission into the Catskill 3500 Club.
The first trail on this loop is the Becker Hollow trail. It is about 1.8 miles north of the campground on Route 214. This is actually a very scenic stretch of road winding its way through Stony Clove. You can easily walk to the trailhead from Devil’s Tombstone; however, if you’re a friendly, outgoing sort, you might be able to team up with your neighbors around camp and score a ride over to the trailhead. After all, walking down the road on a hot summer day can sometimes be an unpleasant experience.
Once you arrive at the blue-blazed Becker Hollow Trail, your Catskill Camping adventure truly begins. You start off passing through two old stone columns. The trail then winds along a meandering stream passing the remains of an old dam. As you make your way up the moderate grade, you will think to yourself, this isn’t a bad climb at all. However, this will be a short-lived sentiment.
The trail becomes much steeper after crossing a small tributary stream at about .5 miles from the trailhead. Becker Hollow is actually considered to be one of the steepest trails in the Catskills. At about 1.7 miles, this fact becomes extremely evident. It is here that you begin to wonder why you ever left the side of that wonderful cooler filled with beer. You may also become delusional in the summer heat and decide that you really need to start finding new hobbies besides hiking. These delusions are further fueled because the trail doesn’t stop its steep assent until after you pass 3,800 feet in elevation. It is here that you meet a yellow-blazed trail. Take a moment to catch your breath, and then turn right on the yellow-blazed trail, following it .3 miles up a more moderate grade to the summit of Hunter Mountain and its wonderful fire tower. The higher platforms on the tower offer some amazing views of the beautiful earth on which we live. To the north far below, you will notice the ski runs on Hunter Mountain. To the south, you can see the peak of Southwest Hunter also below you. The other Catskill high peaks lie before you in every direction, beckoning you to climb them. It is here that your delusions end regarding your early retirement from hiking. The summit of Hunter Mountain also offers a nice picnic table, which is a very convenient place for a lunch break.
After lunch, pack up your things and head towards the caretakers cabin until you reach the blue Spruceton trail. Turn left on the blue Spruceton trail, and follow it as it stays level, trekking along the ridgeline of Hunter Mountain through a wonderful large grove of balsam. After about .3 miles from the fire tower, you will come to the yellow Hunter Mountain Trail. Take the yellow trail southeast towards the lean-to as you begin to gradually descend from the summit. You will continue on the trail 1.35 miles to the junction with the Red Devil’s path.
It is here that you make the decision whether it is a two-peak day or whether you are contented with bagging just one summit. You have already walked over 4.5 miles from the Becker Hollow trailhead. If you weren’t lucky enough to find a ride from the campground, you have already walked 6.3 miles. From this point to the Canister on South West Hunter, it is an additional 1.1 miles both ways, and you still need to get down the extremely steep Devil’s Path back to your campsite. If you are in top physical condition and experienced on backcountry terrain, then you might want to try for the summit of Southwest Hunter.
The trail to Southwest Hunter is unmarked and not an official trail but considered a 3500 Club bushwhack. Therefore, it is imperative that you bring a good map and compass or a GPS device for this portion of the hike. However, several years ago someone decided to “improve” the access to the Southwest Hunter summit canister and cleared a path with a machete. This sort of activity is illegal on state land and against the principals of Leave No Trace. If you decide to try and find the Southwest Hunter Summit Canister, please don’t make any further improvements to the herd path.
To find the unmarked trail to Southwest Hunter, turn right on the red-blazed Devil’s Path, heading west toward the Hunter Mountain lean-to. As you continue to hike another .2 miles over rolling terrain, look for a small stone cairn on your left. It is easy to miss, so you really have to pay attention to find it. If you are using a GPS device, the coordinates to this junction are N42 10.018 W74 14.029. If you reach a scenic view on your left, you have gotten to Geiger Point and have gone too far. You’ll need to turn around and double back. Once you find the unmarked trail, follow it for .6 miles as it heads in a southwesterly direction. The trail will then become somewhat indistinct, and you will need to follow the rule of up. The law of up on a Catskill bushwhack states that as long as you are continuing to ascend, you will eventually reach the summit canister. This section of the bushwhack is fairly steep, but not quite as bad as the Becker Hollow trail. It is located at the coordinates N42 09.742 W74 14.620. Sign your name in the summit canister notebook, and retrace your steps back to the junction with the yellow-blazed Hunter Mountain trail.
From here on, you follow the red-blazed Devil’s Path heading east back down to your campsite at Devil’s Tombstone Campground. For the first half a mile, the trail will remain relatively flat, hugging the edge of Hunter Mountain. Then the trail begins to plunge down incredibly steeply as you drop down approximately 1,500 feet in about a mile and a half. Towards the end of the trail, you will need to use your hands to navigate through a few steep rock scrambles. Shortly thereafter, you will find yourself once again next to Notch Lake. Turn right on 214 and follow the road approximately a quarter mile back to Devil’s Tombstone campground.
You have finally returned to your temporary home in the Catskills. The BBQ grill is a welcome sight! After this great hike, you’ve certainly worked up an immense appetite, and it’s time to get the charcoal blazing. First, you might want to crack open that cooler and grab a nice cold beer. You’ve earned it! After all, if you hiked the full loop, including Southwest Hunter, you just hiked 10.6 miles with close to 2,800 feet of elevation gain.