"Whoever has made a voyage up the Hudson must remember the Kaatskill mountains. They are a dismembered branch of the great Appalachian family, and are seen away to the west of the river, swelling up to a noble height, and lording it over the surrounding country. Every change of season, every change of weather, indeed, every hour of the day, produces some change in the magical hues and shapes of these mountains . . .
Being too early in the season to hike the Adirondacks, the Catskill Mountains to the south severed as a great plan B. For the inaugural hike of the season, we decided to the Slide Mountain Loop, a rugged 15 mile trail starting at the Woodland Valley Campgrounds. The trail summits three peaks: Wittenberg, Cornell, and Slide Mountain, covering more than 2,400 feet of elevation. First come first serve backcountry sites are available between Cornell and Slide, this area is know as The Saddle, though the entire trail resides in a wilderness area and primitive camping is allowed below 3,500 feet of elevation.
The Catskill Mountains
With the amazing Adirondack Mountains in relatively close proximity to the Catskill Mountains, when deciding on a backpacking trip, the Catskills are almost always overlooked for the grander mountains to the north. This has been true for years, and I have almost always opted to hiked the Adirondacks over the Catskills. Interestingly, I have to drive through the Catskills to get to the High Peaks Range, and every single time I think to myself, "Wow, the Catskills are beautiful, I should check them out sometime." Finally, for the first trip of 2019, I decided to say hello to the elusive Catskills.
The range is smaller and lower in elevation than the Adirondacks to the north, but they are no less beautiful. The Catskills are a rugged, wild, dark patchwork of wildernesses covered in a spectacular display of eastern forests and greenery. The Big Indian Wilderness, Sundown Wild Forest, and Hunter-West Kill Wilderness, cover most the Catskills, within these wildernesses are a number of difficult, steep, and beautiful hikes.
We drove from Philadelphia to the small town of Pheonicia, New York, a quaint mountain village tucked away at the feet of the Catskills. Deciding only to spend one night in the mountains, due to work schedules, we loaded up on some supplies at the three aisle "supermarket" in town and immediately headed off to our destination. The trailhead was located just five miles away, near the Woodland Valley Campground.
Woodland Valley Campground to Cornell Mountain
A parking lot dedicated to hiking and backpacking can be found just outside of the campgrounds. The campground charges $6 to park, but the location is too convenient to pass, and I was told parking elsewhere can result in parking tickets - go figure. We parked and unpacked, and walked .2 miles up the road to the campground office, they'll gave us a permit to place in your windshield for the day, they work for overnights too. I've never had to pay a fee to park at a trailhead, but since the area is in a private campground, I can't blame them for providing a service for a charge.
Cross the dirt road and head left from the parking towards the start of the campground. There is a small turnaround, and some boulders near the river. Here you will see a small "trailhead " sign. This is the trail you want to take if you plan to hike Slide Mountain, Wittenberg, or Cornell, don't set off from the parking lot trailhead, that is for a different mountain. The trail crosses over a small river and then immediately heads out of the valley and into the hills, gaining steep elevation within the first few miles. Be sure to stop by the iron ranger and check in, it is a wilderness area and registering is required.
Following the red markers, the trail will continue well into the Catskill hills. Though the path is mostly easy to follow, it is rugged hiking, and the elevation was tough, especially since it was the first hike of the season. Make sure to stop and rest whenever necessary, and drink plenty of water. The trail splits a few times towards the peak of Wittenberg Mountain. Keep a keen eye out of the red trail markers, early in the season the trail can sometimes be lost.
Water is plentiful throughout the hike, but there were some sections where we didn't see a proper stream for some miles. Make sure to refill your bottles as often as you can, using filters of course. When you get to closer to the 3,500 elevation mark, the trail will require some non-technical scrambling to reach the summit of Wittenberg.
At the top of Wittenberg Mountain you'll find the greatest views of the entire 15 miles trail. Cornell and Slide regularly get overgrown, but Wittenberg has a cleared and slightly exposed lookout point that overlooks the some of the Catskill range and Ashokan Reservoir. Depending on the time of year, this part of the trail may get slightly crowded, but otherwise it was a pleasant peak and a nice reward for the steep elevation gain.
Continuing from Witterberg, Cornell Mountain is about a mile away and on a relatively flat path. Just before the summit, there is a little bit of scrambling needed to get over the Cornell Pass, a cliff in the trail blocking you from the summit - again, non technical, just take it slow or have someone help you get up. For this scramble consider taking your pack off.
Cornell summit is slightly off of the main path, take the fork left and walk a few hundred yards to stand on the top of the mountain. With no views the summit is underwhelming, however, just past the summit, hiking towards Slide Mountain, there are a few fantastic views that crack from the tree line and expose Slide Mountain and the Saddle below. You have to dip between the mountains, unfortunately losing your preciously gained elevation, and then hike back up the side of Slide.
Two miles of heavy elevation lays between Cornell and Slide Mountain, the pass is known as the Saddle. This is a perfect place to break your trip up if you plan to do an overnight like we did. Since we left so late in the afternoon, it would have been too hard to finish the loop in one day. Luckily, there are plenty of options for camping in the Catskills. In the Saddle, there are six designated, first come first serve, backcountry sites. Two were already claimed before we found an empty an empty spot.
If there are no available spots, don't fret. The entire area is in a wilderness zone. You can primitive camp anywhere that is 150 feet off of the trail, and away from water. Make sure to be careful setting up, the area is hilly, rocky, and rooty. Try to find a solid spot before pitching your tent. Hammocks are perfect for this area due to the abundance of strong and dense trees. There are no springs or streams in the Saddle, so make sure your water bottles are full before heading in. You'll find multiple streams along the path leading up to Cornell.
The Saddle to Slide and on
Hiking from the Saddle to Slide is another few hundred feet of elevation. Similar to Cornell and Wittenberg, the trail is tough, and since the views are far less fantastic from Slide, the trail can become overgrown from lack of travelers. Watch your step and enjoy the challenge.
Unfortunately, the views for Slide Mountain are mostly blocked by the intense foliage. But hey, you've hiked the tallest mountain in the range, and that should be reward enough. From Slide, continue down the backside and head toward the Slide Mountain parking lot. This is another option to start the hike if Woodland Valley parking is full. Walk along the road for about two miles around Winnisook Lake. Here, turn right and follow the East Branch Trail. This trail is marked with yellow-blazed trail for 3.4 miles back to the parking area in Woodland Valley.
Once back in Phoenicia, we stopped to get some lunch before heading home to Philly. There, a waitress told us about the Kaaterskills falls about thirty minutes away and said that they were worth the trip. Always taking advice from locals, we set off to see the falls as soon as we finished our meals.
The Kaaterskill falls have slipped past me. I thought I knew about every mountain, hill, and special place in all of New York and Pennsylvanian, but once again I was proven wrong. From the Laurel House trailhead, the path was about half a mile of easy walking on well paved trails to an overlook above the falls. A spectacular torrent of white water met us, misting us from hundreds of feet away. Because of the accessibility, ease of the hiking, and spectacular destination, this area fills up fast. Consider going in the morning, before the afternoon rush comes to see the falls.
Tucked away in a personal cove, the Kaaterskill Falls are easy to miss, but once you find them, they dominate the landscape. New York State is filled with some of grandest and pretties waterfalls in the country, with the Genesee Falls, Watkins Glen Falls, the Taughannock Falls, and of course Niagra, but of all the falls, the Katterskill is the handsomest. Though Niagra may be mightier in sheer volume, the 260 foot Kaaterskill falls dwarfs Niagara in height, being a full three stories taller.
A short, but steep walk to the base of the falls give another perspective of the power of water falling some nearly 300 feet. Watch yourself as you go down, the path is vertical and can be wet. At the bottom, enjoy a grand view of the falls with your feet in the stream.
Getting to know the Catskills region has unearthed a whole new region of mountains containing hundreds of miles of hikes and summits. From Slide Mountain to the Kaaterskills, there are hundreds of secrets tucked away in the forests. From abandoned mansions, to mighty waterfalls, the Catskills has it all.
"Why, there's a fall in the hills where the water of two little ponds, that lie near each other, breaks out of their bounds and runs over the rocks into the valley. The stream is, maybe, such a one as would turn a mill, if so useless a thing was wasted in the wilderness. But the hand that made that 'Leap' never made a mill. There the water comes crooking and winding among the rocks; first so slow that a trout could swim in it, and then starting and running like a crater that wanted to make a far spring, till it gets to where the mountain divides, like a cleft hoof of a deer, leaving a deep hollow for the brook to tumble into.
The first pitch is night two hundered feet, and the water looks like flakes of a driven snow afore it touches the bottom; and there the stream gathers itself together again for a new start, and maybe flutters over fifty feet of flat rock before it falls another hundered, when it jumps about from shelf to shelf, first turning this-way and then turning that-away, striving to get out of the hollow, till it finally comes to the plain . . .
To my judgment, lad, it's the best piece of work that I've met with in the woods; and none know how often the hand of God is seen in the wilderness, but them that rover it for a man's life."
– The Pioneers, James Fenimore Cooper on the Kaaterskill Falls