December 31, 2005
Blackhead Mountain

New Year's Eve, for most people, is a time of celebration and excitement, partying with lots of friends. Every once in a while though, we would rather slip away from the crowds and bring in the new year in a different way - winter camping out in the dark forest. We had plans to do just that this year, but unfortunately a variety of circumstances led us to have to postpone the camping - but we did still get out for a great New Year's Eve hike.

Our hiking buddies Justin and Katy met up with us on Saturday for a hike to Blackhead Mountain, outside of Windham in the northern Catskills. Fortunately the rain from previous days had stopped, but it was rather gray and cloudy with a small snowstorm forecast for this evening; we wouldn't have any views, but hopefully we'd still have a fun hike. As we approached the trailhead parking lot at the end of Black Dome Valley Road (Greene County Rt. 56) we first faced our major challenge of the day - ice. The first car we were in did little slide on the road, just barely keeping form going off the road, and the car behind did a little sliding of its own while reacting to the first car. The parking area itself was a sheet of thick ice, and it took some maneuvering to get both cars parked and then be able to walk around getting our gear ready for the hike. Some of us had crampons, which immediately solved the problem, and some didn't, which made for a bit of a struggle.

For those without crampons, the trail turned out to be somewhat easier to navigate than the parking area. Conditions were a mix of thin, hard, crusty snow and ice, intermixed with a lot of bare rock. Feet with crampons could find lots of ice and snow to walk on, and feet without them could find crusty snow and rocks to walk on. From the parking area (elevation 2,200') the red-blazed Blackhead Range Trail heads southeast through mixed hardwood-conifer forest, in the headwaters of Batavia Kill Creek. Numerous streams pour of the mountain and converge to form the creek here, and we crossed a couple of well-built footbridges. The first junction is reached in 0.5 mile, and we headed to the right, staying on the Blackhead Range Trail. We would do a loop counterclockwise over Blackhead Mountain, coming back down on the trail leading off to our left at this junction.

Gaining elevation was our next task. We huffed and puffed as the trail climbed the mountain through mature hardwood forest. A major spring is located along the trail, 0.6 mile from the trail junction. As the terrain steepened, we were glad to follow a series of switchbacks that made the climb much easier. Finally we reached Lawrence Col between Black Dome and Blackhead Mountains (elevation 3,420'), 1.4 miles from the trailhead. Here we turned left on the yellow-blazed Blackhead Trail, and climbed the last 0.6 mile into the spruce-fir forest and to the summit of Blackhead Mountain (elevation 3,940'). The top of the mountain was shrouded in clouds, and it had begun to snow. Nearing the top we had to navigate a couple of icy spots in the rocks. As usual, the summit was a great place to eat our lunch and change into dry, warm layers.

Descending the north side of Blackhead Mountain on the blue-blazed Escarpment Trail was much more challenging than the route up from the west, especially for those without crampons. There were several steep and icy chutes that we had to take our time getting down through without incident. We gradually made our way though, sometimes stepping off trail to avoid ice and also having to help the dog in a couple of places. A rock ledge vista point about 0.4 mile down from the summit did not afford us much in the way of views, but it was kind of pretty the way the clouds were lapping at the foot of the mountain. Just below this point we entered a beautiful stand of large white birch trees, probably remnants of a fire long ago. Then just below that, we entered an equally beautiful hemlock-fir forest, where we reached the junction with the yellow-blazed Batavia Kill Trail (1 mile below the summit). Turning northeast here, we continued descending, and passed the lean-to where we would have camped. This last 1.5-mile stretch was relatively gradual, with lots of small streams coming together here again. It was still snowing as the dimness of both dusk and the heavy cloud cover descended into the forest. We made it back out to the cars around 4:30pm (having started at 11:30am), and were satisfied with our hike. Now we just had to deal with the icy parking lot and entrance road again...

- Aaron and Chris



Catskill Mountain Club

PO Box 558, Pine Hill, NY 12465