Fall Hikes on the Connecticut Shoreline

There’s something special about the Connecticut shoreline in the offseason. Boardwalks and beaches once teeming with beachgoers stand mostly empty and the memory of summer is palpable. To some, it can be a bit creepy—to others, peaceful. Either way, gone with the summer sun are the crowds, and just like any other ecosystem in fall and winter, the coast gets its opportunity to rest, to regenerate, and to become a refuge for those seeking quietude and connection with nature.

Caught between I-95 and the Long Island Sound, the Nutmeg State’s 332 miles of coastline is a mix of densely populated cities and towns, gradually dissipating as the distance from New York City increases. And though much of it has been urbanized or carved up into tidy lots for beach homes, the pockets of nature that remain—in the form of state parks and beaches—are pearls in a strand that runs from Greenwich all the way out to the Rhode Island border.

Short trails and easy terrain characterize the spots below so whether you’re looking to mix up the trail running routine or you just want a chill hike that can end in a lobster roll, heading down to the shore is the right move.

The wide beach path at Sherwood Island is ideal, easy terrain in a gorgeous setting. | Credit: John Lepak

Sherwood Island

With open lawns, sweeping ocean views, and sandy beaches, it’s no wonder why Sherwood Island State Park in Westport is Connecticut’s first state park. And while this little gem in the state’s densely populated “Gold Coast” is hardly a wilderness, getting a moment to yourself in such a setting is nothing to pass up.

Sherwood Island’s beach is split in two—East Beach and West Beach—each with a small loop trail at its end. The western loop runs through a stand of oak trees over roughly paved ground while the eastern loop navigates a grassy maze of paths flanked by a salt marsh to the north. In between, a gravel path just off the beach offers friendly ground over which to stroll or run. Combining the loop trails on the west and east ends of the island with a run along the beachside path and back weighs in at 3.3 miles.

Charles Island and its tombolo at low tide, as seen from Silver Sands State Park. | Credit: John Lepak

Silver Sands

Silver Sands State Park in Milford is a quintessential Connecticut beach: more pebbles and shells than sand, picturesque salt marshes, and an immaculately weathered wooden boardwalk, all framed by the calm, lapping water of Long Island Sound.

What makes Silver Sands unique though is that, at low tide, the Sound reveals a rocky land bridge—known as a tombolo—that reaches out into the water, connecting the beach with nearby Charles Island. Tricky currents on either side of the tombolo make crossing a foolhardy endeavour in even just a few inches of water, so correctly timing your trip is essential. Consult a tide chart, pick a day where the tides are at their most extreme—when the moon is either new or full— and leave the beach at least an hour before the low tide. A roundtrip hike across the tombolo, around the island and back will run 2.5 miles.

Please note that access to Charles Island—and use of the tombolo—is forbidden from May 1–August 31 as the area is closed for the protection of nesting birds.

View from the short—but lovely—trails at Meig’s Point, the southeasternmost point of Hammonasset Beach State Park. | Credit: John Lepak

Hammonasset Beach

Drawing an estimated one million visitors annually, Hammonasset Beach State Park in Madison is one of Connecticut’s most popular destinations. In a typical summer, its two miles of wide, sandy beach regularly fill to capacity, and its large campgrounds are abuzz with activity. And while Hammonasset still draws visitors in the off-season, a trip here in the fall can feel like a completely different place.

On the far southeastern edge of the state park, the beach fades away to rocky shores and coastal wetlands—this is Meig’s Point. A handful of short-but-lovely trails stretch out from the Nature Center in the center of Meig’s Point that, when combined with a tour of the beach, can make for a really enjoyable walk or run. An out-and-back starting from West Beach and ending at the terminus of the Moraine Trail will net you around 5.0 miles of beach, bluff, and beautiful views of Long Island Sound.

Salt marshes and coastal woodlands at Rocky Neck State Park. | Credit: John Lepak

Rocky Neck

Much like Hammonasset Beach, Rocky Neck State Park in East Lyme is an incredibly popular summertime destination for Connecticut residents seeking sun, sand, and surf. The beach itself, bounded by a busy passenger railroad, is a bit developed (and can be a little noisy), but the draw of Rocky Neck for hikers and trail runners are its coastal woodlands and its salt marshes, both of which are accessible via a network of well-marked and well-maintained trails.

A large stand of woods separates the park’s western boundary—the tidal Four Mile River—from the salt marshes at its interior. The trails within weave and wind through dense mountain laurel and coastal hardwood forest with occasional views to the river, the salt marsh, and Long Island Sound. It is, in some places, paved, but the majority of the trails here vary between wide, easy former woods roads and rocky, rooty singletrack. The densely packed trails at Rocky Neck make for a bit of a choose your own adventure in terms of distance, but the most pleasant of rambles will get you between 2.0 and 4.0 miles, easily.

A boulder on the edge of Fishers Island Sound at Bluff Point State Park. | Credit: John Lepak

Bluff Point

Undeveloped shoreline is exceedingly rare in Southern New England, and that’s what makes Bluff Point State Park and Coastal Reserve, a wooded peninsula in the city of Groton, such a special place. At over 800 acres, characterized by nearly untouched coastal forest and rocky shore, it’s the largest such tract of land remaining on the Connecticut coast.

The main artery through Bluff Point is a wide, graded gravel road. The ground is easy and flat and intermittent views of the Poquonnock River to the west open up to broader views of Fishers Island Sound as you head south. Despite its proximity to a densely-populated city, and the ease of the graded path, Bluff Point has a distinctly natural feel. Gradually, the woodlands give way to sweeping views and rocky shoreline where large boulders, fascinating rock formations, and the dramatic, eponymous Bluff Point take center stage.

A chill and peaceful loop on this gravel road takes it all in over an easy 3.6 miles.


Shoulder Season Running vs. the Northshield Jacket and Pants

The air is getting crisp, the leaves are starting to turn, and the sun is setting just a little bit earlier every evening. It’s finally fall, and just like every other year, fall is a time of transition—a time to pack up the summer gear and start training for those big time winter objectives.

Whether you’re skiing powder or climbing ice, “training” could mean a lot of different things—but one necessity across the board is cardio. For many of us, that means breaking out the running shoes and hitting the road. This, in turn, means braving whatever weather the Northeastern shoulder season may have in store. On any given day you may be cruising under clear skies, pushing through the rain, or slipping and sliding in the snow.

The EMS Northshield Jacket (men’s/women’s) and Pants (men’s/women’s) were made for just these conditions, and last spring, I had the chance to put them to the test in my own backyard.

A DWR coating will keep you dry on shorter runs in the elements | Credit: Katharina Lepak

“Shield” is in the name, after all

Were my aspirations not tied to the mountains, running into a cold, driving rain would be near the bottom of my list—but committing to lofty goals means bearing down and building a base of fitness on which to try that next climb. In that spirit, I ran the Northshield through its paces in the snow, the rain, and everything in-between. On shorter runs, around the neighborhood or on local trails, its DWR coating did the job and kept me warm and dry. On longer, colder runs in the elements, I still found it effective as a breathable insulating layer, but would definitely recommend adding a lightweight shell over the top to keep the precip out if you were running a marathon in the driving rain.

Thumb loops and reflective accents round out the features that make the Northshield work in the elements | Credit: Katharina Lepak

Cool morning make for the best training

Whether Spring or Fall, shoulder season in the Northeast can be chaotic, and the conditions can vary wildly from day to day. Just because it snowed in the morning doesn’t mean it won’t be 75º and sunny by the afternoon, and in many instances—like mountain running, for example—you can count on such a shift. Being prepared is incredibly important and such unpredictable circumstances underscore the importance of layering.

The Northshield makes an excellent addition to any layering system. It’s ability to block the wind made it useful even in milder temperatures and it’s a solid pre- and post-run layer—great for warming up and cooling down. On warmer runs, I found myself opting for one piece—either the jacket in combination with a pair of shorts, or the pants with a t-shirt—rather than both.

It was in the cold that the Northshield really excelled though. Whether I was doing a chilly pre-dawn tempo session or on a long run through that lovely precip grab bag known as “wintry mix,” the Northshield kept me toasty the whole way through. Both the jacket and the pants are adorned with heavier windproof panels on the front—sensible for running headlong into cold weather—while the back is lighter, more breathable, and lends itself to a less bulky feel.

Shorter days inevitably mean running by headlamp | Credit: Katharina Lepak

Stay seen

As winter approaches, the days get colder and darker, and more and more often, runs have to happen in the dark. Before my day job adopted a work-from-home policy back in March, my runs would always have to take place on the fringes of the day—either before or after a lengthy commute into the city. This would invariably mean running in the dark, with a headlamp. Even still, packed days at home wind up pushing workouts later and later, and running in the dark is a necessity.

I was initially skeptical of the Northshield’s colorway for this purpose—black is hardly ideal for running at night and in my neck of the woods, where the roads are dark, curvy, and hilly—not the safest combination. After giving it a go, however, it became clear that the reflective accents on both the jacket and the pants succeeded in affording a huge amount of visibility on the unlit backroads of my neighborhood. I would still strongly recommend including a headlamp, and a hi-vis vest or hat in your kit though, should running in the dark be on your agenda.

Overall, the Northshield jacket and pants are versatile layers, well-fitted to shoulder season running | Credit: Katharina Lepak

Verdict: The Northshield is a capable shoulder season training compabion

Overall, I found EMS’ Northshield jacket and pants to be an excellent fit for shoulder season running. They kept me warm when it was cool, and dry when it was snowing or raining. They’re versatile enough to be used in tandem or as separates—as conditions dictate—and have found their way into my regular running clothes rotation. Also worth noting, they’re wicked comfortable—great for those rest days spent chilling out around the house picking through guidebooks, poring over maps, and planning that next big objective.


Looking over The Clove and the Hudson River from the Butter Hill Trail.

Four Fall Hikes and Breweries in the Lower Hudson Valley

It’s hard to go wrong with a day trip to the Hudson Valley and that rings especially true in the fall. The little towns are all a bustle, and it seems like there’s a pumpkin patch or an apple orchard around every corner. In the hills, from the Hudson Highlands all the way up through the Catskills, the changing season is an undeniable presence—the air has grown crisp, cool, and fragrant, and the turning of the leaves has transformed the forest into a spectacle equal parts brilliant and humbling.

It’s in the fall that the region’s many excellent trail networks—some of the finest and most accessible in the Northeast—are at their peak. So, what better way to take in all the splendor of autumn in the Hudson Valley than with a hike? How about a hike that ends up at a brewery? The Hudson Valley has tons—and many of them are just a short road walk or drive away from the area’s finest trails.

Ward Pound Ridge
A view of the Cross River Reservoir from a lookout point above Leatherman’s Cave in Ward Pound Ridge Reservation. | Credit: John Lepak

Ward Pound Ridge/Captain Lawrence Brewing Company

Located in the hilly northeastern limits of Westchester County is Ward Pound Ridge Reservation, a 4,300-acre park that boasts 45 miles of trails that meander through pleasant woodlands, over rocky escarpments, and pass several interesting natural features.

One such feature is Leatherman’s Cave, a large cave in a rocky hillside that is known to have been a frequent dwelling of the Civil War-era wanderer—who’s storied 360-mile circuit through southeastern New York and western Connecticut is the stuff of local legend. At 4.0 miles, linking up Ward Pound Ridge’s Leatherman’s Loop Trail with its Green-and-Red and Yellow Trails is a far easier undertaking than its namesakes’ storied route—and, with its wide woods roads and gentle grades, it makes for a great day hiking option.

Captain Lawrence Brewing Company in nearby Elmsford—a half hour drive from Ward Pound Ridge—is a great place to spend a post-hike afternoon. The brewery has ample room both inside and out and, in addition to an ever-changing selection of beer on tap, has an outstanding food menu to boot. The Powder Dreams New England IPA is a definite favorite.

Bridge from the Timp-Torne Trail.
A misty morning view of the Hudson River and the Bear Mountain Bridge from the Timp-Torne Trail. | Credit: John Lepak

Popolopen Torne/Peekskill Brewery

The panoramic view from the bald, rocky summit of Popolopen Torne is an iconic one: the rolling, wooded hills of the Hudson Highlands frame the Bear Mountain Bridge where it spans the river. To the south, Bear Mountain looms; across the Hudson, just past the bridge is Anthony’s Nose; on the Torne itself, beyond the summit to the North is a solemn, humbling memorial to fallen soldiers. It’s a breathtaking place that’s emblematic of the region and popular as a result. That it’s accessed by a fun, rocky scramble only makes it that much more of a must-do.

A short loop on the Timp–Torne Spur Trail will take you up and down in a neat and tidy mile but starting at the Fort Montgomery hikers’ parking area—and linking together the Popolopen Gorge, 1777W/1779, and Timp–Torne Trails—is the higher value way to go, logging 4.3 miles all told.

A short six mile drive across the Bear Mountain Bridge and down US-202 will land you at Peekskill Brewery in the heart of downtown Peekskill. An outstanding range of beers is complimented by a food menu full of top-notch pub fare. Give the Eastern Standard IPA—a classic, reliable single IPA—a try.

Looking over The Clove and the Hudson River from the Butter Hill Trail.
Looking over The Clove and the Hudson River from the Butter Hill Trail. | Credit: John Lepak

Storm King and North Point/Industrial Arts Brewing Company

From across the river, the glowering bulk of Storm King Mountain cuts an impressive and intimidating silhouette. From its primary trailhead on the other side of the mountain, the orange-blazed Butter Hill Trail’s steep and rocky ascent is perhaps equally intimidating. Most hikers visit Storm King for the panoramic views that a 2.5 mile loop hike linking this trail with the yellow-and-blue-blazed Stillman and white-blazed Bypass Trails deliver.

At 6.5 miles though, a figure-eight hike linking up the Butter Hill, Stillman, Bypass, Howell, and Stillman Spring Trails is a great way to way to work up a thirst and get just about everything Storm King State Park has to offer, including the rocky twin summits of Butter Hill and Storm King Mountain, the deep, quiet woods of The Clove, and the grassy, bald summit of North Point.

With locations in Garnerville and Beacon, Industrial Arts Brewing Company is a convenient stopping point for any hike in the Lower Hudson Valley. It’s in their diverse range of incredibly drinkable pale ales where Industrial Arts shines, from light and easy New England Pale Ales to hoppy and flavorful DIPAs. Get started with Wrench, their hazy, citrusy, and delicious flagship New England IPA.

A foggy day in late fall, looking back over the Breakneck Ridge Trail.
A foggy day in late fall, looking back over the Breakneck Ridge Trail. | Credit: John Lepak

Breakneck Ridge and Mount Beacon/Hudson Valley Brewery

Breakneck Ridge is no secret and that shouldn’t come as a surprise. It’s a steep and thrilling hike, with crazy views of the Hudson Highlands, that’s close to the city and accessible by public transportation. Even in the height of summer, with all the crowds, it’s worth the trip—but in the off-season, with the promise of beer at the other end, it’s on another level.

Instead of the loop hike you’ve already read about, try this 7.0 mile one-way route that follows the white-blazed Breakneck Ridge Trail up and over its famous opening scramble—some 1,250 feet of gain in 0.75 miles—and traces the rough ridgeline as it gains and loses elevation on its way to South Beacon Mountain’s open summit and fire tower.  Descend via the red-blazed Casino Trail, which will ultimately deliver you to the city of Beacon.

A mile of road walking later, and you’re at Hudson Valley Brewery. Located in a refurbished factory adjacent Fishkill Creek, Hudson Valley Brewery is known for its unique selection of “sour IPAs,” a tarter version of the ubiquitous New England IPA. It’s hard to go wrong here, but if the Apotheosis Sour IPA is on tap, give it a go.

Once all is said and done, another brief road walk (1.5 miles) will bring you to the Beacon Train Station, where a short ride on the Metro-North will bring you back to the start of the hike at Breakneck Ridge.


Staying "Low and Local" During Coronavirus

For all the unpredictability of nature, and the chaos that can be the wilderness, the folks that love it tend to be planners at heart. Meticulous planners even: the kind who take expedition logistics to the point of obsession; zealots, who pour over maps and read guidebooks cover to cover; lovers of order, who chart their itineraries to the minute, and wrestle with every gram that goes into their packs. That’s why when COVID-19 established itself in the Northeast, and all of that came to a screeching halt, many of us felt the whiplash.

As cities and states shut down so too did the crags and trailheads. Travel was heavily restricted, people were asked to stay home, and our priorities shifted from reviewing the weather reports of far away mountain ranges to the very immediate matter of trying to contain an outbreak.

And so, our lofty goals got a lot further away—but as the higher, more distant summits receded, the outdoors didn’t actually go anywhere—and as we were encouraged to stay “low and local,” it seemed that the outdoors actually got a whole lot closer.

A new perspective on a familiar trail. | Credit: John Lepak
A new perspective on a familiar trail. | Credit: John Lepak

Rolling with it

With the rest of the world suddenly off-limits, we had to turn our attention to our own backyards. We all have our go-tos in the neighborhood, and in the first few weeks we covered a lot of familiar ground. It was refreshing to hike the local preserves and neighborhood parks before or after work, or even on a lunch break. They were different than they are on the weekends, and it was rewarding to see winter transition to spring in real time—something that isn’t immediately apparent from a desk in an office from nine to five.

As time passed, and spring progressed, we gradually expanded our definition of local. A ten minute drive to a trailhead became twenty and opened up that many more opportunities to get outside. With the changing weather though came the people. Folks cooped up with nowhere else to go turned their attention to the outdoors, and with this surge in usage came crowds, trash, and—as popular state parks became overwhelmed—closures. Once-quiet trails more resembled Fifth Avenue at rush hour than peaceful woodland singletrack and the only thing that exceeded the annoyance was the hazard presented by large, maskless groups that can’t socially distance because of the terrain.

We began looking beyond the ‘usual’ spots, taking to the internet and to apps like AllTrails and The Hiking Project, trying to find somewhere new. We went early, or late, or watched the forecast, seeking clouds rather than clear skies knowing that our favorite spots would be more safely passed in rain. Sometimes it was about improvisation—stopping at a trailhead we’d never heard of after turning away from a full parking area. Other times, having a plan B—and even a plan C—was the way to go. Flexibility is always a requirement in the outdoors and rolling with it felt natural—and stoked a small bit of a sense of adventure along the way.

Old neighborhoods, new trails, and a lovely little run by the river. | Credit: John Lepak
Old neighborhoods, new trails, and a lovely little run by the river. | Credit: John Lepak

Mix it Up

Not being able to climb at the height of the pandemic in the northeast was rough. It took what felt like forever before local organizations like the Ragged Mountain Foundation lifted their no-climbing advisory—and longer still before the Gunks reopened—and not being able to climb, even locally, had us bouncing off the walls. Staying low and local—and exploring new places close to home by doing so—opened up a ton of new territory. And that got us thinking about how else can we expand that newness in our own backyards?

Some of us mixed it up a bit. If we typically hiked a loop clockwise, we’d try hiking it counter-clockwise. We started to trail run our hiking trails and to hike our running trails. We may have dusted off an old family canoe and took to the water for the first time in a while. We may have picked up a used mountain bike and taken to the trails, both new and familiar, in a fresh way. Within the restrictions the pandemic assigned us, we persisted in getting out and doing things.

When redlining the local trails yields a solid local crag find. | Credit: John Lepak
When redlining the local trails yields a solid local crag find. | Credit: John Lepak

New Goals

A ton of us had high expectations for 2020. We’d trained for this season, seeking a summit or a thru-hike or a trail race. We’d sustained injuries, healed, trained up again. It’s hard to talk about things like climbing, hiking, or running in the context of a surging global pandemic but, simply put, seeing these sought-after objectives grow more distant, after years of preparation, really sucked.

We had to put those objectives on hold—so we found new ones. We redlined the hiking trails in our town. Or county. Or state. Or we sought and completed ridiculous virtual ultra-running challenges. Or we built our own hangboards and trained like crazy. There’s no replacing a Rainier summit or going end-to-end on the Long Trail but we found new challenges, we kept busy, and we made it work.

Fall’s starting to set in, and with it comes a whole new vibe to the local trails. | Credit: John Lepak
Fall’s starting to set in, and with it comes a whole new vibe to the local trails. | Credit: John Lepak

What Now?

Eventually, in the Northeast, we flattened the curve. Climbing started up again and trailheads reopened. Limited travel became a thing and we could get to the Whites and the ’Daks and Acadia safely. It’s still weird—we’re still masked up, taking separate cars, and sanitizing our hands until the skin falls off—but we’re still here and we’re still getting out. And while it’s hard to believe it’s been six months of this, and we seem to be staring down six more, it’s reassuring to know that staying low and local can still be rad. Now, as fall approaches, we’re going to keep on seeing what other cool, new stuff we can find in our own backyards. Winter’s just around the corner, and with any luck, it’ll be cold, long, and full of frozen waterfalls, deep powder, and bluebird days.


Explore Connecticut's Litchfield Hills This Fall

Nestled in Connecticut’s rugged Litchfield Hills, the town of Kent is the postcard-perfect image of rural Southern New England. From its charming center at the intersection of US-7 and CT-341, bucolic farmland gives way to dense second-growth forests, rocky hillsides, and pristine waterways—all a study in contrast to the densely populated suburban tableau that the Nutmeg State typically evokes.

What local hikers, trail runners, climbers, and paddlers already know though, is that Kent is more than just a pretty face. Miles of trails, awesome climbing, and plenty of water—both technical and flat—make Kent a full-value day trip. Throw in some excellent restaurants and a destination-worthy brewery, and you’ve got yourself a fine spot for a long weekend.

The views from the Macedonia Ridge Trail will have you forgetting you’re in the fourth most densely populated state in the country. | Credit: John Lepak
The views from the Macedonia Ridge Trail will have you forgetting you’re in the fourth most densely populated state in the country. | Credit: John Lepak

Hiking and Trail Running

From hilltop to hollow, Kent’s state parks, forests, and private land trusts provide access to miles and miles of high-quality trail fit for hikers and runners of all abilities.

The centerpiece, of course, is the venerable Appalachian Trail. 51 of the AT’s 2,190 miles run through Connecticut’s Litchfield Hills offering some of the loveliest low-elevation day hiking and backpacking options in the northeast. If you’re looking for an easy and scenic stroll, head south from Bull’s Bridge to Ten Mile Hill (4.5 miles, out-and-back), taking in a 19th-century covered bridge and a beautiful section of the Housatonic River along the way. For something a bit more challenging, head south from the Saint John’s Ledges trailhead on River Road, traversing Fuller Mountain, Caleb Peak, and Saint John’s Ledges while you catch views on your way to the AT’s junction with CT-341 (4.3 miles, one-way). Looking to fill your weekend? Just north of Kent, in Sharon, the AT–Mohawk Loop (39.4 miles, loop), is an excellent backpacking route that connects the Appalachian trails of the past and present—today’s Mohawk Trail actually traces the original path of the AT before it was rerouted in the 1970’s.

The AT isn’t the only game in town though. Just around the corner, Macedonia Brook State Park boasts an impressive network of trails that offer a not-so subtle reminder that “low-elevation” doesn’t always mean “easy.” Varied terrain, outstanding views, and a climactic rock scramble characterize the Macedonia Ridge Trail—a part of Connecticut’s Blue-blazed Trail Network and one of the state’s finest—as it works its way up and over Cobble Mountain (6.4 miles, loop).

A few miles northeast, Kent Falls State Park and its dramatic, stepped, eponymous cascade drops over 250 feet as it flows into the Housatonic River. Linking the Park Path up with the Red and Yellow Trails makes for a lovely, easy hike up and around the falls (1.5 miles, loop).

Trail Magic (5.9-) at Saint John’s Ledges in Kent is one of the most enjoyable single pitches of climbing in the state. | Credit: John Lepak

Climbing

Connecticut climbing has a reputation for short routes, steep traprock ridges, and incredible sandbags, but Saint John’s Ledges, rising above the Housatonic River in Kent, offers climbers a bit of a diversion: slab. Right along the Appalachian Trail, a quarter mile in from the trailhead parking area on River Road, are the Upper Ledges, a long stretch of friction slab reaching well over 100 feet high in some places.

There’s a good range of difficulty but the majority of lines register as solid, enjoyable moderates with a mix of heady slab moves and jammable cracks—and though some are leadable, protection can be sparse (or non-existent), and top-rope is generally the order of the day. A 60-meter rope alone won’t do it on some routes so be sure to bring a 70 or plenty of static line to build anchors with. Everything is east-facing, and the top half of the Upper Ledges are sunny and warm in the morning, so climbing here can comfortably extend late into the season. Must-do’s include Half Bling (5.8+), Falling Bodies (5.6), and the excellent Trail Magic (5.9-).

There are a handful of areas, and a good amount of climbable terrain, at Saint John’s in addition to the Upper Ledges, including the Lower Ledges, a short, beginner-friendly cliff just off the trailhead parking area. With a pair of super-easy routes like Wilderness Crack (5.3) and Try (5.2), this is an excellent spot for first-time climbers—and if its popularity with groups and classes is any indication, the Lower Ledges may well be the best such area in the state. There is a little bit of something for everyone here though, and more experienced climbers headed for the Upper Ledges will enjoy a change of pace (and some shade) on stout face climbs like The Graduate (5.10-).

The Housatonic River, known for its quality fly fishing and kayaking, as seen from Bull’s Bridge. | Credit: John Lepak
The Housatonic River, known for its quality fly fishing and kayaking, as seen from Bull’s Bridge. | Credit: John Lepak

Paddling

From its headwaters in Massachusetts’ Berkshire Mountains, the Housatonic River travels 149 miles on its course to Long Island Sound, effectively halving the town of Kent from northeast to southwest in the process. Like the surrounding hills, the Housatonic is emblematic of Connecticut’s Northwest Corner—it’s also one of the finest destinations in the east to fisherman and kayakers alike. The river moves quickly and can be technical at several points, the most noteworthy of which is the Staircase, an obstacle just south of Bull’s Bridge, that heralds rapids up to Class V when the water’s high.

Those seeking gentler waters need look no further than Lake Waramaug State Park. Situated on the border of Kent, Warren, and New Preston, Lake Waramaug is a gorgeous lake in a stunning setting—absolutely perfect for an early morning paddle. The state park also has an adjoining campground, a great spot if you’re in for more than a daytrip.

Kent Falls Brewing Company, located on a working farm in Kent Hollow, makes some of the best beer in the state. | Credit: John Lepak
Kent Falls Brewing Company, located on a working farm in Kent Hollow, makes some of the best beer in the state. | Credit: John Lepak

Eating and Drinking

For a small town, Kent does really well on the food and drink. Get started in the heart of town at Swyft, a cool little joint in a restored 18th-century home that serves up modern, seasonal fare alongside a robust tap list. A local draft and one of their wood-fired, Neapolitan-style pizzas tend to hit the spot after a big day on the trail or at the crag.

No trip to Kent is complete without grabbing a beer at Kent Falls Brewing Company. Located in Kent Hollow, just a hop, skip, and a jump from Lake Waramaug, Kent Falls Brewing Company is a brewery on a working farm specializing in locally sourced ingredients. Their beer menu is wide-ranging, ever changing, and always excellent and the setting is as bucolic rural Connecticut as it gets.


Alpha Guide: Hiking Acadia's Precipice Trail

alpha Guides | Better than beta.

Challenging and exposed with views for days, Acadia National Park’s Precipice Trail is mile-for-mile one of the best hikes in New England.

If there’s one trail in Acadia National Park you’ve heard about, it’s likely the Precipice Trail. It’s as “Acadian” an experience as viewing the sunrise from the summit of Cadillac Mountain, getting popovers at the Jordan Pond House, or consuming an unreasonable quantity of lobster rolls. At only 0.9 miles long it’s a short trail, but its renown—or notoriety, or even infamy—is about three things: the challenge, the exposure, and the views.

The challenge is clear: in those 0.9 miles, the Precipice Trail gains over 1,000 feet in elevation. As for exposure, the upper reaches of the trail ascend an open, airy, nearly-vertical cliff face. And, finally, for the views Champlain Mountain’s bare east face affords hikers a sweeping view of Frenchman Bay, Schoodic Peninsula, and the Atlantic Ocean. It’s also a ladder trail, using a strategically-placed—and extremely fun—combination of iron rungs, railings, and ladders to aid hikers to the top, making it a challenge for even the most experienced hikers.

Quick Facts

Distance: 2.5 miles, loop
Time to Complete: Half day for most.
Difficulty: ★★★★
Scenery:★★★★★


Season: Mid-August through mid-October
Fees/Permits: $30/vehicle park entry
Contact: https://www.nps.gov/acad/

Download file: Precipice_Trail.gpx

Turn-By-Turn

From Bangor, head east on I-395. Take exit 6A for US-1A, following the signs for Ellsworth, Bar Harbor. After 24 miles, continue straight onto ME-3 east. Keep on ME-3 for another 18.5 miles. From here, continue straight into Kebo Street until you reach the Park Loop Road in another mile. Turn left onto the Park Loop Road—the Precipice Trailhead’s parking area (44.34949, -68.18811) will be on your right in 2.7 miles.

Iron rungs mark the route on the upper reaches of the Precipice Trail. | Credit: John Lepak
Iron rungs mark the route on the upper reaches of the Precipice Trail. | Credit: John Lepak

Precipice Trail

The Precipice Trail wastes no time getting down to business. Begin following the blue blazes up a concrete staircase and a moderately steep stone slab to an unmissable collection of NPS signage right on the trail. They’re warning would-be hikers of the challenge that awaits them, and they’re not kidding—the Precipice Trail is steep, exposed and absolutely not for folks who can’t handle heights or who aren’t prepared for a workout. Don’t let the short mileage fool you, this hike will get your blood pumping.

At 0.1 miles, the Precipice Trail presents its first iron aids: two rungs, mounted directly into the rock, on opposite sides of a left-facing corner. The rock is about six feet tall, and flat atop, with a third piece of iron—a handrail—just within reach. This is one of the more awkward moves on the trail, and its position a tenth of a mile in can’t be a coincidence—this is a test. A taste of what’s to come, and a final opportunity for hikers to reassess their decision. Take your time, trust your feet, and pull yourself up—it’ll be worth it later.

From here, the route comes out of the shade and enters a boulder field. Continue heading up, following the blue blazes and negotiating the boulders all along the way. At one point in this section, the trail actually ducks under two huge boulders before continuing on up over a wood bridge and some stone steps before it’s junction with the Orange and Black Path at 0.4 miles (44.35151, -68.18972).

Here’s where the Precipice Trail really kicks into high gear. The route follows an obvious system of cracks, corners, and ledges up a nearly vertical face—made passable by the placement of several iron rungs, railings, and ladders. Continue southeast, using the rungs and railings to take on short (but tricky) scrambles. As you get higher, these sections become more frequent until at mile 0.6 they blend together into one long mountainside jungle gym.

The going will likely be slow—this is a popular hike and it can be difficult (if not impossible) to pass slower parties. Take in the view, catch your breath, and enjoy it.

Eventually, the mountain will run out of curveballs to throw at you and at 0.8 miles, the trail levels out and opens up with panoramic easterly views. Keep following the blue blazes to one final ladder–scramble combo and gain the summit of Champlain Mountain at mile 0.9 (44.35083, -68.19401).

A view of Frenchman Bay and the Porcupine Islands while descending Champlain’s North Ridge. | Credit: John Lepak
A view of Frenchman Bay and the Porcupine Islands while descending Champlain’s North Ridge. | Credit: John Lepak

Champlain North Ridge Trail

In addition to marking the high point of the mountain, Champlain’s summit marker also marks the confluence of four trails: the Precipice Trail to the east, the Champlain South Ridge Trail to the south, the Beachcroft Path to the northwest, and the Champlain North Ridge Trail to the north. Each trail terminates at a different trailhead on opposite sides of the mountain, so find the Champlain North Ridge Trail and proceed carefully.

Descending this trail is incredibly pleasant: wide open views, massive granite slabs, and the occasional stand of pitch pines—a characteristically Acadian summit scene. Bar Harbor, Frenchman Bay, and the Porcupine Islands set the scene as you follow the cairns down, and the trees close in again. After the Precipice Trail, the Champlain North Ridge is downright leisurely. Enjoy it while it lasts—at 1.5 miles, when the trail meets up with the Orange and Black Path (44.35779, -68.19184), the work resumes.

Narrow stone steps and some scrambling are a reminder that you’re not out of the woods yet on the Orange and Black Path. | Credit: John Lepak
Narrow stone steps and some scrambling are a reminder that you’re not out of the woods yet on the Orange and Black Path. | Credit: John Lepak

Orange and Black Path

From its junction with the Champlain North Ridge Trail, the Orange and Black Path reverses course and heads south along Champlain’s steep eastern slopes. Though not as aesthetic as the Precipice Trail, the Orange and Black Path also packs a lot of value into a short distance, with plenty of elevation left to gain.

At 1.7 miles (44.35662, -68.19098) the trail splits: to the left (east), it descends to the Park Loop Road; to the right, it continues south, around the mountain, to its junction with the Precipice Trail. Should you not feel up to taking the first half of the Precipice Trail back down, here’s your bailout point. Head left for 0.1 miles to the Park Loop Road, turn right, and walk 0.6 miles back to the Precipice Trail parking area.

Proceeding to the right, though a bit more of a challenge, will avoid the roadwalk and will take you down a lovely bit of trail, replete with tricky scrambles and cool stone staircases, some cut into the rock, just wide enough to squeeze through. There’s what feels like a whole lot of up and down, but you’re essentially following a contour line back to the Precipice Trail, which you’ll hit at 2.1 miles.

The boulder field marks the beginning (and the end) of the Precipice Trail’s more challenging terrain. | Credit: John Lepak
The boulder field marks the beginning (and the end) of the Precipice Trail’s more challenging terrain. | Credit: John Lepak

Precipice Trail (Reprise)

Head left from the trail junction and retrace your steps back to the parking area. The terrain is familiar, but you’ll be hiking against the tide, so be prepared to wait for uphill traffic where the trail bottlenecks. Take the time to enjoy the views and catch your breath because, at 2.5 miles, it’s over before you know it and you’re back in the parking area.


Credit: John Lepak
Credit: John Lepak

The Kit

  • The Precipice Trail is not officially listed as a hiking trail, but rather as a “non-technical climbing route,” and while trail runners or hiking boots will do the trick, a good pair of approach shoes, like the Scarpa Crux (men/women) will have you stepping with confidence on iron rung and granite slab alike.
  • This hike is a bit like a European via ferrata route and, like a via ferrata, it’s not a bad idea to use a pair of gloves. Try the Petzl Cordex Belay Gloves—they’re comfortable, dextrous, and will keep your hands from getting shredded.
  • At 2.5 miles, this isn’t the longest hike, but it is on an easterly face and can get hot on a sunny day. Make sure you have water—if it comes in the form of a hands-free hydration pack like the Salomon Agile 6 Set Hydration Pack, even better.
  • There are narrow ledges and scrambles on this trail where social distancing is simply not possible, so bring a face covering, like the Buff Original Neck Gaiter, the EMS Heritage Bandana, or the Hanes Face Mask.
  • Acadia has miles and miles of trails, and even though the Precipice is a shorty, getting lost is still possible and would be a real bummer. Bring the National Geographic Acadia National Park Map and make sure you’re going where you want to be going.

Credit: John Lepak
Credit: John Lepak

Keys to the Trip

  • The National Park Service regularly closes the Precipice Trail to protect resident peregrine falcons, a Maine endangered species, during their mating and nesting seasons. This typically lasts from March to mid-August and the fines—and incredibly bad karma—for violating the closure are steep. Be sure to check the NPS website for up-to-date information.
  • Acadia is regularly one of the most visited parks in the National Park system and the Precipice Trail is one of its main attractions—it draws a crowd. Go early, go late, or go prepared for company.
  • Bar Harbor is just a hop, skip, and a jump away and the Lompoc Café is a fine place to kick back for a post hike beer and banh mi in the shade.

CreditL John Lepak
CreditL John Lepak

Current Conditions

Have you hiked the Precipice Trail recently? Post your experience and the trail conditions (with the date of your hike) in the comments for others!


Get Ready For Fall Climbing With This DIY Hangboard

Aside from climbing itself, adopting a regular hangboarding routine is the best way to build finger strength and, in turn, improve your climbing. If you have a hangboard at home, then you’re already familiar with its many virtues. If you don’t, then today is the day to get one—and what better way to come by a hangboard than to break out the power tools and build one yourself? It’s neither complicated nor expensive and, since you’re the one doing the building, it can be made entirely to your specifications.

The following is just one example, so feel free to mix it up based on the materials and tools you have on-hand, as well as based on your personal preferences. Anything goes when you’re doing it yourself—build the hangboard that you want to train on.

Credit: John Lepak
Credit: John Lepak

Materials and Tools

Here’s what you’ll need to get going:

Materials

  • ¾” plywood cut to 24” x 9.5”
  • 2” x 4” cut to 24”
  • 2 8” x 6” x 1” panels
  • Trim of various sizes for edge holds
  • 14 1½” Screws
  • 6 smaller screws for edge holds
  • Wood glue

Tools

  • Power drill with a 1” Forstner bit
  • Circular saw
  • Wood chisel
  • Hammer
  • Sandpaper
  • Clamps
  • Square
  • Pencil

Credit: John Lepak
Credit: John Lepak

Measure Twice

Get started by laying out your holds. Using a tape measure, a square, and a pencil, draw your plan directly onto the pieces of wood you’ll be using. A compass is handy for drawing the rounded corners of the pocket holds.

Credit: John Lepak
Credit: John Lepak

Cut Once

Using a circular saw or a miter saw, cut your wood to size. If you’d like to include slopers on your board, now’s the time to add them. Set your circular saw to the desired angle and cut along the long edge of the 2” x 4” piece.

Credit: John Lepak
Credit: John Lepak

Drill Away

Using a drill with a Forstner bit, bore your pockets out of the 8” x 6” x 1” panels. Pay extra attention to the depth that you’re drilling so that it’s consistent from hold to hold. Putting a piece of tape on the drill bit itself, measured from the tip to your desired depth, is a good way to keep track and make sure you’re not going too deep.

Credit: John Lepak
Credit: John Lepak

Take the Edge Off

Once you’ve made all your cuts and have bored all your holes, the next step is to smooth the edges so you’re not destroying your fingers with splinters.

For the pockets, start with a wood chisel, taking a little bit of the edge off at a time. Finish with sandpaper. For the slopers and the edge holds, give them a good work over with sandpaper until they’re smooth to the touch.

Credit: John Lepak
Credit: John Lepak

Assemble the Pieces

Once everything is cut, bored, and smoothed to your specifications, it’s time to put it together. Attach each piece to the plywood backing with wood glue. Clamp and allow the glue time to dry.

When the glue has had sufficient time to dry, drill pilot holes at regular intervals around each piece and fix them to the plywood backing with decking screws.

Hang it Up

How you choose to mount your hangboard will be largely dependent on your set-up at home. You can drill a couple of holes and run some cord through it—cool and portable—or you can use a stud finder and some decking screws to mount it permanently to a wall. However you ultimately decide to mount it, be sure it’s securely fixed to a solid structure before you even dream of weighting it.


How to Restock Your First Aid Kit

Venturing out into the backcountry, in any form, is a serious undertaking. Whether you’re ski touring deep in the mountains in the middle of January or doing laps at your local crag on the hottest day in July, our collective pursuit of happiness in the outdoors carries with it some inherent risk—and locales remote enough to require a degree of self-reliance should things go sideways. This is why a first aid kit is absolutely essential on a wilderness sojourn of any scale. Should you really need it—and that occasion may never come—it’ll be the ounce-for-ounce most valuable thing you packed in that day.

A likely—and far less grave—scenario is that your first aid kit is used in increments, for small concerns. A bandage here for a nagging blister, an ibuprofen there for a morning after too many camp beers—that kind of thing. Not a big deal, but over the course of a season or two, you may find that these benign applications have slowly eroded the contents of your first aid kit since you first purchased, adding up to a severely depleted stock.

Fortunately, reupping a first aid kit is a simple task that’ll have you thinking about what you’re carrying while affording you the option to customize your kit based on the activity you’re after, and spring training season is the perfect time to give your kit a look-over and make sure its ready for a summer of adventuring.

The severely depleted contents of an AMK Ultralight/Watertight .5 Medical Kit after a few seasons of light use. | Credit: John Lepak
The severely depleted contents of an AMK Ultralight/Watertight .5 Medical Kit after a few seasons of light use. | Credit: John Lepak

Where to Begin

Odds are your starting point for a first aid kit is of one of the pre-packaged variety. These come in all shapes and sizes and are designed for myriad uses. Adventure Medical Kits makes it easy on us though by specifying how many days and how many people each of their kits can service. Products like the .7 Ultralight/Watertight Medical Kit, for example, are designed specifically for up to two users on trips up to four days while heavier duty options, like the Mountain Explorer First Aid Kit, are stocked for four people for up to a week.

Generally speaking, the lightest of these kits include:

  • Bandage materials, such as gauze, sterile dressings, adhesive bandages, and medical tape;
  • Antibacterial wipes, ointments and other topical applications to clean and treat wounds;
  • Medication, including ibuprofen, aspirin, and antihistamines;
  • Moleskin for blister care, and;
  • Tweezers, which are wicked handy for splinters and ticks.

Your first step is to take an inventory. What do you have? Next, take a look at what the kit’s manufacturer lists on their site for the kit’s contents, note what’s missing, and make a list. If you’re empty in any specific area it may be worth doubling up on those items for the future.

Buying larger quantities cuts down on nasty excess packaging. | Credit: John Lepak
Buying larger quantities cuts down on nasty excess packaging. | Credit: John Lepak

The Resupply

Actually restocking these items is as simple as raiding the medicine cabinet or popping by the drug store, but there are some things to consider while you do so. Medical products are very heavily packaged, for good reason—maintaining sterile dressings and uncontaminated medication is incredibly important. It does, however, result in a substantial amount of single-use plastics, foils, and other non-recyclable materials that amount to tons and tons of waste. Buying items in larger quantities and divvying them up between reusable containers reduces the impact significantly. It also ensures the home medicine cabinet will survive the resupplying of your backcountry first aid kit. Larger bottles of commonly-used medication—like pain relievers or antihistamines—are the way to go. As for bandages, products that have a variety of types, all in the same box, are a good bet.

Consider supplementing your kit based on where you’re planning to go and what you’re planning to do. | Credit: John Lepak
Consider supplementing your kit based on where you’re planning to go and what you’re planning to do. | Credit: John Lepak

Addition by Addition

Following a manufacturer’s template is a great starting point but how we get outdoors isn’t one-size-fits all. Personal experience, knowledge of the terrain, and the nuances of the activity will also dictate just what you need when you go out. Here are some additional things to consider adding to your kit while you’re at it.

Splint

It’ll add a bit of bulk and a minor amount of weight to your pack, but consider adding a splint like the AMK C-Splint to your kit. A broken bone is a serious issue if you’re really out in the backcountry, and immobilizing any such injury shouldn’t need to be a MacGuyver-esque exercise in bushcraft—besides, would you rather be limping down the trail with a well-dressed splint or a twig affixed to your leg with a length of prusik cord and some climbers’ tape?

Emergency Blanket

A severe enough injury may pin your party down in a single location for awhile so ensuring the patient is warm is critical, especially in winter, when hypothermia is a real concern. An emergency blanket like the Karrimor Survival Blanket is a handy addition to any first aid kit. They’re lightweight and useful beyond an injury situation.

Snake Bite Kit

It’s not so much an issue up north, but venomous snakes are a real thing while hiking and climbing in southern New England and New York. There is a reasonably healthy timber rattlesnake population in both the Catskills and the Taconics and Copperheads are extremely common on the traprock ridges of Connecticut. Though sightings still are rare—and incidents even rarer—all it takes is bumping into one on the trail before you’re carrying a kit like this when venturing into these areas.

Packing smart ensures that you can get to what you need quickly. | Credit: John Lepak
Packing smart ensures that you can get to what you need quickly. | Credit: John Lepak

Put it Together

Stuffing everything back into your first aid kit can be a pain, especially with the super-compact prepackaged ones that are designed to prioritize efficiency of weight and space. Try to keep the different items separated from one another—group bandaged with an elastic band or sort pills with reusable plastic baggies. Keep in mind how quickly you may need to access something and organize accordingly.

A first aid kit should go into your pack as a single unit, stowed away somewhere that’s easy to get to. It doesn’t need to be at the top—you shouldn’t be digging past it to get to your water or an extra layer or anything—but it should be accessible. Keeping it in the same place every time you go out is a good practice too, so that you’re always going to know where it is.


How to Choose an Ice Axe

Whether you’re a rock climber thinking about giving ice a try, a winter hiker looking to greater heights, or a skier with eyes on deeper backcountry, you’re going to need an ice axe to take it to that next level. They are a critical tool for safety and stability in steep winter terrain and open the floodgates to bigger mountain objectives. While the options out there may seem overwhelming, a little bit of background on the anatomy of an ice axe is all you need to find the right one for your objectives.

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Types of Ice Axes

Broadly speaking, there are three types of ice axes: mountaineering axes, technical ice tools, and a spectrum of semi-technical axes covering everything in-between.

Mountaineering Axe

When most folks think of an ice axe, what they picture is a traditional mountaineering axe: an asymmetric head, with a curved pick on one end and an adze on the other, mounted atop a long, straight shaft that ends with a sharp point. These days, the shafts have gotten shorter and some deploy a bit of a curve, but the intent of their design is the same: During non-technical travel on glaciers and high alpine snowfields, they are incredibly useful as a third point-of-contact, for building anchors, and for self-arresting after a fall. If you’re looking to tackle Mount Washington’s Lion Head Winter Route, a mountaineering axe is what you’re after.

Ice Tools

Ice tools main function is climbing steep, technical ice. Aside from being used in pairs, the principal difference between ice tools and other types of ice axes is the aggressive pick and a curved shaft—both designed with steep terrain in mind and more overhead swinging into hard ice than plunging the staff into snow. The head of an ice tool is asymmetrical, and may or may not have an adze or a hammer opposite the pick. The most common set-ups you’ll see in a pair of ice tools are adze/hammer or just picks. For steep ice from Crawford Notch to Stony Clove, a pair of technical ice tools is the way to go.

Everything in Between

The spectrum of options that exists between mountaineering axes and ice tools is difficult to define, but they are invariably designed for utility and efficiency. To that end they will usually take on the qualities of both mountaineering axes and ice tools in incremental degrees. These “hybrid” or “alpine” axes are excellent for long jaunts into the high backcountry where one may encounter anything from snowfields to steep ice.

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Parts of an Ice Axe

The anatomy of an ice axe can be broken down into four main parts: the head, the shaft, the grip, and the spike. The characteristics of these parts, designed with specific use cases in mind, are what differentiate one axe from the next.

Head

The head of an ice axe can be further broken down into three parts: a pick, an adze or a hammer, and a carabiner hole. It’s common for the heads of mountaineering axes to be cast from a single piece of metal, where as ice tools are modular, allowing for a greater degree of customization. All of these, however, are subject to a “B” or a “T” rating. The ratings are given based on tests performed on ice axes assessing their durability against the forces commonly found in mountaineering. Simplified, a “T” rating is stronger, and more reliable when subjected to the punishment of steep ice climbing or dry-tooling on rock. A “B” rating is more than sufficient for most general mountaineering purposes and may be lighter.

Pick

Picks come in two basic styles: classic or reverse curved. Classic curved picks are ubiquitous on the traditional mountaineering axe and are superior for self-arresting after a fall and for plunging into steep snow with the hand on the head of the axe. Reverse curved picks, on the other hand, are far more effective biting into ice when swinging a tool on steep terrain.

Adze/Hammer

Opposite the pick of an ice axe you can expect to find an adze, a hammer, or nothing at all. More often than not, mountaineering axes are adorned with an adze, a sharp, horizontal piece not unlike a spade. This is a very useful tool for digging an anchor, or cutting a platform for a bivy or a tent on an uneven surface. Back before the advent of modern crampons, these were used to cut steps up steep slopes.

Adzes are also found on ice tools—typically on one of the pair—and can be used in the same way, which is handy on longer alpine objectives that may include a mix of low-angle terrain and steep, technical ice.

In those circumstances, the tool opposite the adze will have a hammer. Hammers are great for banging protection into rock, clearing out ice from around fixed gear, and setting snow pickets on steep, snowy routes.

Ice tools intended for shorter outings on single- or multi-pitch waterfall ice often have neither an adze nor a hammer.

Carabiner Hole

Directly above the shaft of an ice axe is a hole cast into the head. This hole can be used to tether a mountaineering axe to its user or to rack an ice tool on a harness. It’s pretty common on the former, and ubiquitous on the latter.

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Shaft

After the head, the shaft of an ice axe is the most important determining factor of the intended use of an ice axe. Shafts are similarly rated as “B” or “T” and can be subcategorized based on two characteristics: their shape and their length.

Curve

The silhouette of an ice axe’s shaft is likely it’s most nuanced and varied characteristic, defined not by an either/or but rather a spectrum of curves and bends dependent on the needs of the user. At one end, the traditional mountaineering axe maintains its straight profile—excellent for use as a cane–while at the other end the shaft of an ice tool has an aggressive curve—which makes penetrating hard ice easier and relieves fatigue while weighting a tool on steep terrain. In between, several mountaineering axes have adopted a curved shaft to keep the user’s hands out of the snow on steeper snow slopes—where gripping the axe mid-shaft and plunging the pick into the snow makes for efficient travel. Similar variety can be found in some ice tools which have a gentler curve, which allows for more utility in more varied terrain.

Length

While ice tools are a bit of a one-size-fits-all thing, the length of a mountaineering axe is largely dependent on the height of a user. When sizing a mountaineering axe, let your arm hang by your side and measure from the base of your thumb to your ankle. That measurement will directly correspond to the size mountaineering axe that you need. Most mountaineering axes come in varying sizes.

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Grip

For technical ice tools, the design of the grip is another important consideration to take. All ice tools have ergonomic rests at the base of the grip, but many also have one at the top: this is there for matching or switching hands on a traverse, or to help pull up and over steep bulges. The big difference in the grips of ice tools though, is whether or not it’s offset. Offset tools are designed for efficient movement on steep terrain, easing fatigue and keeping the user’s hands from bashing the ice. Regular tools are totally usable on steep terrain, but are excellent on long, moderate alpine climbs, where an offset grip may be more hindrance than help, and utility is key.

Spike

Finally, at the very end of it all, is the spike. All mountaineering axes—and many ice tools—are outfitted with a spike at the bottom of the shaft, meant for plunging into snow and for stability while using the axe as a cane. It’s handy even on ice tools, for both the lengthy backcountry expeditions as and the short, steep approaches you may encounter at the local flow.

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Accessories

Your specific objectives as a climber will dictate the axe you ultimately choose. Those objectives will also determine any extras that you may need to effectively and safely use that axe in the field.

Leashes

To use or not use a leash while wielding an ice axe boils down to a simple question: “Am I likely to drop a tool doing this?” If you’re a first-timer climbing steep ice, then it may be a good confidence booster to tether your tools. Even the most hardened of alpinists may leash-up—especially if they’re headed deep into the backcountry, where losing a tool could lead to a dire situation. For vertical ice, a leash that connects to your belay loop rather than your wrist won’t prevent you from switching tools on a traverse. For non-vertical terrain, a wrist leash—which comes stock on many mountaineering axes—will do the trick.

Ice Clippers

Ice clippers are rad little plastic carabiners that, when attached to a compatible harness, are used to rack ice screws. They’re also handy for racking ice tools so your hands are free while rappelling or being lowered down a pitch of steep ice.

Protectors

Protecting your sharps—and everything they may come in contact with, for that matter—is critical, so covering them up should be a no-brainer when your tools aren’t in use.


Catskill Ice: Climbing at Stony Clove

Just a stone’s throw from the big city, the Catskill Mountains have long been a favorite wilderness retreat for the respite-seeking New Yorker. Its densely forested summits, deep, dark cloves, and dramatic overlooks have stoked the imagination of local and visitor alike for centuries.

It’s with a blanket of snow and a healthy cold snap that the Catskills extend their allure to area ice climbers. When the conditions are right, the region is dotted with hero ice—from long multi-pitch moderates like Buttermilk Falls, to playgrounds like the Devil’s Kitchen, to the terrifying and ephemeral jewel that is Kaaterskill Falls, there is a little bit of something for everyone.

If you’re new to ice climbing in the area, Stony Clove, in the very heart of the Catskills, is probably the best place to start. It’s very popular, and it’s no surprise why: there are dozens of routes, all of varying length, style, and difficulty—and they’re all easily accessible via a short approach. For both the total novice and the hardened old-timer, there’s more than enough in Stony Clove to spend a weekend picking away lap after lap.

The height of land at Stony Clove as viewed from Notch Lake. The approach for the West Side, and the northern areas of the East Side, traces the road back to a historic marker commemorating a forest fire, just out of view. | Credit: John Lepak
The height of land at Stony Clove as viewed from Notch Lake. The approach for the West Side, and the northern areas of the East Side, traces the road back to a historic marker commemorating a forest fire, just out of view. | Credit: John Lepak

How to Get There

The climbing at Stony Clove is centered around Notch Lake, on NY-214, at the unofficial halfway point of the Devil’s Path. From the Thruway (I-87), take Exit 20 for Saugerties. At the end of the exit, turn onto NY-32 North and continue for 6.0 miles before bearing left onto NY-32A. Keep going for another 1.9 miles into the town of Palenville. At the traffic light, turn left onto NY-23A. Continue on NY-23A, up through Kaaterskill Clove, for another 9.2 miles, before taking a left onto NY-214. Notch Lake and its parking area are just 2.8 more miles down the road, just past the height of land.

Parking is extremely limited and the lot can be a zoo on a weekend when the conditions are good. Do everyone a favor and carpool. There are commuter park-and-ride lots with more-than-enough room just off the Thruway at New Paltz (exit 18), Kingston (19), Saugerties, and Catskill (21).

The Dungeon (WI4) and Escape Hatch (WI3+), two of the fun routes at Castle Grayskull, hiding in the shade from the late afternoon sun. | Credit: John Lepak
The Dungeon (WI4) and Escape Hatch (WI3+), two of the fun routes at Castle Grayskull, hiding in the shade from the late afternoon sun. | Credit: John Lepak

Lay of the Land

The word clove, adapted from the region’s early Dutch settlers, can be roughly translated to notch, ravine, valley, or gorge. In Stony Clove, the soaring flanks of Plateau Mountain to the east and Hunter Mountain to the west certainly fit the bill—in places, the cleft is barely wide enough for the road. All this lends itself to a feeling of isolation and remoteness prevalent despite the area’s popularity.

As such, the climbing in Stony Clove is neatly divided into east and west, between Plateau and Hunter, by NY-214. Because of the aspect and the prominence of the mountains, climbing on either side is a very different experience in the afternoon than it is in the morning. The east side stays out of the sun most of the day and thus stays colder and dryer—until the afternoon when the sun hits and things can get wet. The west side gets the sun early, and can generally be a bit wetter when afternoon rolls around.

One thing you can count on when climbing either side is a strenuous—but short—approach. Getting to and from the climbing requires a very steep ascent over unfriendly terrain. Moreover, in low snow conditions, the exposed rocks and roots can make it a bit spicy—using one tool in cane position isn’t the worst idea. Once at the base of the climb, it’s advisable to fix a line to a tree to clip in any wayward packs—It’s a long way down should anything get dropped.

Generally speaking, all of the routes in Stony Clove are leadable, but it’s not a requirement. Many of the east side areas are accessible for a top rope set-up via a short scramble.

Looking up at the long, right-facing corner of Little Black Dike (WI4-), the area’s classic route. | Credit; John Lepak
Looking up at the long, right-facing corner of Little Black Dike (WI4-), the area’s classic route. | Credit; John Lepak

The Tick List

Both sides of Stony Clove have a few prime beginners’ routes, but the east side has a greater concentration of easy areas with ample room for multiple top rope set-ups. The Playground, is a wide, heavily trafficked flow that offers a handful of lines ranging from WI2 to WI4—for the true first timer, this is your best bet. It’s popular with the guides though, so it’s likely to be crowded. Castle Grayskull, also on the east side, is a good alternative with four short (but fun) routes in the more moderate WI3 to WI4 range. Across the way, on the west side, Climax (WI2+) is a great, beginner-friendly option for those seeking something a little longer.

The west side also hosts a couple of great, longer, more moderate climbs. The Curtain (WI4) is fun, straightforward, two-pitch route that can oftentimes be a bit thin towards the end. A little ways to the north, tucked away from the sun in a tight, right-facing corner, is Little Black Dike (WI4-), the area classic. Fun moves and reliable ice—it tends to be one of the earliest Stony Clove climbs to come in—make it a must do. Back on the east side, to the right of The Playground, the steep Twin Columns (WI4) offer some fun, vertical lines.

The Mixed-up Amphitheater area, on the east side (just left of The Playground), offers a half-dozen or so mixed routes of varying difficulty. Head Over Heels (M4) climbs an obvious and inviting crack to the far right of the area. If mixed is your game or the ice conditions elsewhere in the clove aren’t cooperating, this is a good place to be.