Nov 2, 2010

Hiking the Burroughs Range & Phoenicia East Branch Trails.

What a journey. With sore legs and a great longing to go back, I'm writing about a ten hour adventure upon which my buddy Chris and I embarked at 5:00am this past Sunday morning. The trek consisted of a 15.1mile loop, exhausting accents & descents, blowing snow, summits on three of the Catskill’s High Peaks (Including the tallest peak; Slide Mountain), natural springs, a mountain top sunrise and peanut butter sandwiches. I hope you're warm and toasty for this entry.

Saturday night: The Colonial Inn - Pine Hill, NY.

After a two-hour drive up from the city, we arrived at The Colonial Inn around 4:00pm on Saturday. Having the cheapest rooms around, I had made a very casual reservation with Steve the day before, which went a little like this:
Me: "Hi, I'm looking for a room for Saturday night?"
Steve: "OK, that'll be $75.00. What's your name?"
Me: "Mike."
Steve: "I don't need any credit card information; we'll have a room for you. I'll see you Saturday."
Me: "Uh, OK, we'll be by around 5:00 will there be two beds in the room?"
Steve: "Oh there'll be two or three beds in the room. By that time the buffet will be running and I'll be in the kitchen, so just tell one of the girls to come back and get me."

We pulled up to the Colonial Inn, took one look, and just started laughing, when we finished, we pulled the car into the front lawn and parked it. This place had character, to say the least. The front porch was packed with all sorts of odds and ends. A gun case, pool table, cigarette vending machine, several pot-belly stoves, stuffed dear heads, cookware and other junk lined a path across the porch, to the front door. I opened the screen door (which had no screen) and peered in through the glass of the heavy wooden door; I saw no lights, heard no activity and felt a feeling of caution sweep over my body. Standing in the cold and quiet, we talked about what to do and looked up and down the desolate street. We felt like we were in Stephen King's The Langoliers. Chris and I navigated through the sea of junk to the other end of the porch and cupped our hands to a window. We made out a dimly lit bar and a plump lady standing behind it. Not having the gumption to enter first, I made Chris open the heavy door. Stepping inside we found another door which lead to a parlor and further to the bar. Stepping inside was like landing in Oz. Mounted animals, fish and dart boards lined the walls, along with several rifles and shotguns; a giant black bear stood mounted with a peculiar look on its face; at it's side sat an old Victrola. Shelves held things like snowshoes, an old cash register, several old oil lamps, a globe, and an ancient brass diver's helmet. Country music played from the dining room and looking around the corner, a waitress folded napkins and set places on the numerous tables; preparations were being made for the "Grand Buffet". She noticed us and came over with a big toothless smile, liken to a bowl of black bean soup. She lead us up a creaky set of stairs and let us pick which room we'd spend the night in. Just as Steve said, there were two or three beds in each room. Each, dark, cigarette stained, drafty, unsettling room. We picked the best one.

The next hour was spent mapping out a route through the mountains and throwing darts with monogrammed pot leaves on the fins. Chris has an uncanny knack for throwing darts; do not ever play him. When the buffet opened we filed in with a few other locals. Slices of every pie you could think of sat on small styrofoam plates next to a giant bowl of pudding that jiggled with each approaching footstep on the old wooden floor. We ate our fill. It was delicious! Afterword we made a dash to the closest grocery store, a mere ten miles down the road and picked up our fuel for the next day's adventure. We would be hiking the Burroughs Range Trail (7 mi)from east to west and then the Phoenicia East Branch trail (8 mi) from west to east, covering three of the Catskill's high peaks.

Sunday Morning: Woodland Valley Parking Area, 1,250ft.

We crawled out of bed at 4:15am and set off driving through the dark and twisty roads towards the trailhead at the Wooldland Valley Parking Area. Scanning the FM band in the car, I stopped when I heard ACDC’s “It’s a long way to the top if you wanna’ rock & roll!”. We both laughed and ended up using this phrase several times throughout the rest of the day. By 5:00 we had entered the woods at an obvious entrance but could only find yellow trail markers where we should have found red. Research from a couple of days prior, told me that a common mistake was entering on the Phoenicia East Branch Trail and so we walked across the road and found the correct trailhead behind some campsites. Moments later, we had signed in and were on our way, hiking through the dark forest following red trail markers towards Wittenberg Mountain. About a half-mile later we had lost the trail. The fresh leave-fall had covered the well-trodden path and hiking by the light of flashlight and headlamp made it difficult to spot the markers. After twenty minutes of wandering about the woods through rough terrain, we decided to head back to our last known trail marker and take a really good look around. On the way, Chris picked up our trail and we were back on track. After a while the sound of rushing water caught our attention and we had our first drink of natural spring water, which poured out of the mountainside.

7:15am: Junction with Terrace Mountain Trail, 2,556ft.

Two hours and 1200 feet later dawn was breaking as we hiked in a mostly eastern direction. Hints of the rising sun began to outline the cloud layers giving slight definition and contrast against the dark sky. During the next few minutes, peaks and ridge lines gradually emerged in the distance. It was as if the curtain to a spectacular show was slowly being lifted. Mother nature was showing her legs. We continued on without our lights, as we were able to find the trail markers and follow the path. At this point, the trail got a whole lot more technical. Vertical climbing came into play. Climbing gear was not necessary but some basic bouldering skills came in quite handy. It was a welcomed challenge. All of those trips to the bouldering gym and Rat Rock in Central Park made these climbs a piece of cake. Another 1.3 miles would put us at the summit of Wittenberg.

8:15am: Wittenberg Mountain Summit, 3,790ft.

Wittenberg’s summit was the most impressive of the three peaks we would climb. The eastern view was showcased by rays of sun beaming down from above, reflecting off of the Ashokan Reservoir and casting shadows and sunny spots on the nearby mountains. The wind whipped our faces but we could not look away. We sat there for a good 15 minutes before continuing on to Cornell, which was only .8 miles away. On the way down the western side of Wittenberg, snow began to blow down on us. Very light wisps which was enough to excite and energize us. The snow just made the whole experience better; more intense.

9:04am: Cornell Mountain Summit, 3,860ft.

Cornell’s summit gave a great view of Wittenberg, which seemed so much further away than the mere .8 miles and also gave us a humbling look at the climb that Slide had in store for us. As we hiked down Cornell, Slide loomed higher and higher above us. Looking west, we could see dark clouds dropping snow as they swept to the east. We were definitely in for a lot more of the white stuff. Not lingering too long; we pressed on to Slide.

10:25am: Water Source on Slide Mountain.

We hiked across the col between Cornell and Slide where the trees, no matter how old they were, all topped out at about 30’ in height. The wind had regulated them to a uniform height, which was both odd and spectacular at the same time. We had read about the technical challenges that the east side of Slide would offer us: several scrambles and old ladders and looked forward to them. They were supposedly more difficult than the ones we had cleared on the approach to Cornell and we found that to be true. They were also more fun. The ladders were more of a luxury than anything. They provided steady surfaces and made for an easy gain in elevation. We wondered how long they had been in place as they were rotting apart. After the first ladder, we found a water source that was marked on our map. A beautiful spring babbled up ice cold water and we drank a bit and refilled our bottles. Drinking mountain water seems to put years on your life. It also seems to chill your guts!

10:40am: Slide Mountain Summit, 4,180ft.

The summit of Slide was freezing cold. Temperatures were well below 30 degrees and the wind was something else. The snow had stopped but the wind froze our hands as we sat and made peanut butter and apple sandwiches on flax seed bread. They were the best sandwiches I’ve ever had. We took a minute to read the plaque dedicated to John Burroughs for whom the range was named after, before moving on. John Burroughs was a naturalist and writer who spent a lot of time on the range we were hiking and you can read more about him here. We broke out a couple of hand warmers and let me just tell you: those things are pure delight! I braved the cold for a couple of minutes to change into a new set of liners and wool socks before continuing down the west side of Slide and my feet felt as good as new.

The trip down Slide was 4 miles of welcomed change in terrain. The trail was wide, fairly smooth, and enabled us to carry a steady brisk pace. More snow followed us down the mountain and we came across some icicles dangling from outcroppings. At this point, my camera battery died and I was forced to use my iPhone for the rest of the trip. We encountered a dozen or so, hikers on their way to the top. The trail went from wide and smooth at the top, to wide and very rocky at the bottom. Rocks would tip and topple every so many steps and gave cause for a slower more cautions descent. Rolling an ankle at this point of the journey was not an option.

12:25pm: Slide Mountain Parking Area.

When we reached the Slide Mountain Parking Area we took a brief break. The snow continued to blow down on us but was not accumulating. From here we had a 1.9 mile hike on a paved road to get to the trailhead for the Phoenicia East Branch Trail. We were thankful for flat, stable ground but were soon tiring from the pitch! Our legs were definitely tired at this point. We had hiked nearly ten miles over three peaks. The road took us past Lake Winnesook, which was beautiful albeit private.

1:44pm: Phoenicia East Branch Trailhead.

We reached the trailhead and sat on a guardrail for a few minutes. We were really feeling it now. The longer we sat, the better we felt and the harder it was to push on. A fist bump later we were up and at em’. Unfortunately, we were greeted with an intense climb. Up we went, 500 feet in a half-mile. This was brutal, but we took a break at the top where the trail to Giant Ledge met our trail. We split a delicious apple and took solace in the sign, which read “Woodland Valley Parking Area 2.75 miles”. These last few miles would be the toughest yet. The trail carried us down, down, down over loose rocks and gnarly tree roots hidden under the leaves. We were virtually baby stepping our way back to the car. It turns out that there is a reason why our destination is called Woodland VALLEY. We dropped 1,000 feet in the course of a mile and it was not an easy thing.

When we finally reached the bottom, we crossed a dry creak bed and were smacked in the face with the last thing we wanted to see. A giant staircase made from rocks. It stretched out prominently in front of us like a giant middle finger! We dropped our packs and had a seat before heading up the stairway to heaven (Heaven being the car). Step after step we climbed and when we reached the top the trail leveled off.

At this point, the trail gave a rewarding view of the three peaks we had conquered. Looking from right to left we saw the entire Burroughs Range: Slide, Cornell and Wittenberg. They seemed so far away. The idea of walking through the wilderness, over these mountains seemed almost hard to imagine and yet we’d done it and done it at a respectable pace I might add! A mile later we were signing out at the trailhead and sitting in the car. It was 3:00pm. We had hiked the entire 15 miles in exactly 10 hours.

I have hiked in New Mexico and the Adirondacks but I must say that this is the toughest hike I have ever done. Even though it was done with a small daypack; never have I hiked so far, over such terrain and in such harsh weather. The words and photos I have put in this blog entry simply do not do the trek justice. The beauty and wonder of the wilderness took and continue to take my breath away. I hope whoever reads this is at least inspired to get out there, wherever they are, and enjoy the outdoors in their own way. It’s waiting for you.


KZB said...

Fabulous description and photos. What an adventure.

Unknown said...

Thanks! You sure got here fast. I published this post less than 20 minutes ago.

Glad you enjoyed it!

recumbent conspiracy theorist said...

Great adventure Mike. You outdid yourself this time with the photography.

It's sad so many never get out to see and appreciate the rugged beauty that's right in our backyards here in the eastern U.S.

Interesting bit of Americana at the start too!

Unknown said...

Thanks Mike. I had a great time. I can't wait to go back. I've caught the hiking bug. Unfortunately it's getting pretty damn cold out!

John Dourneen said...

Thanks for a great read. The Photos are awesome as well. I'm amazed at how similar this hike looks to the ones I do in South Korea.

Unknown said...


Thanks, I hope to post a lot more hiking content on my blog. Though the winter months are upon us and it's cold here in NY, I plan to get some winter hiking/backpacking in.

I checked out your blog as well and really enjoy it. Especially your photo essay entry about hiking in Wolchulsan National Park: ( It looks amazing there. I'll be following your blog.

Take care,