Dawn Patrol: Why You Should Be Ice Climbing Before Work

It’s a little before 10:00 pm and I’m in the parking lot of my regular climbing gym, tucking away my rock shoes and racking screws, slings, and cordalettes onto my harness. I’ve just wrapped up a late evening session and, in about eight hours, will be doing some early-bird laps at a nearby ice climbing area. All before work begins at 9:00 am.

If this sounds obsessive, that’s because it probably is. See, it’s finally winter in Connecticut and the local ice is finally in a climbable way—after a January full of obscenely early mornings and ridiculously long drives north, the idea of climbing nearby is all too alluring to pass up. That, and the acknowledgement that Southern New England’s winters are a lot shorter than they used to be, means it’s time to strike while the iron’s hot. Tomorrow, that means getting up early and getting after it before clocking in.

To surfers and skiers, this ritual is a familiar one known as the “dawn patrol.” And the first thing to accept about the dawn patrol is that there won’t be a ton of daylight to work with—the winter sun is a late riser and the workday starts when it always does. Making the most out of pre-work laps means packing efficiently, picking the right spot, and being comfortable alone in the dark.

Leaving the harness, helmet, and crampons out of the pack will make for a quicker transition out of the lot. | Credit: John Lepak

And that’s exactly what I’m doing in a parking lot outside a closed climbing gym: packing efficiently. I’m working with the space in the recently-emptied trunk of my Subaru instead of the inside of my pack.

In the middle, my harness is racked and double-checked to make sure everything I need is on there. To the left, my crampons are laid out ready to go. Above, my helmet, with a headlamp already in place. To the right, my pack: tools fixed to the outside, rope coiled within, stacked atop the remaining essentials. The ride in the morning is going to be short, so I’ll throw the boots and the gaiters on before hitting the road and my hat and gloves are in the passenger seat, alongside a breakfast of a banana and a granola bar.

Everything is in its right place and this is going to make things fly come morning. The harness, helmet, and pack go right on in the lot—the crampons as soon as I cross the street and get onto the snow-packed trail. By the time I reach the ice, I’m already ready to go.

A familiar spot with easy top-out access and a concentration of routes can give you efficiency and variety in your pre-work laps. | Credit: John Lepak

It’s worth noting that dawn patrol ice climbing isn’t going to work just anywhere—selecting the right place is just as critical as preparing the gear ahead of time. I’ve picked my spot carefully: I scouted the ice the previous week and I know, without any certainty, that it’s going to be good to go. I’m also familiar with it, so there won’t be any guess work finding the climbers’ path or accessing the top of the routes in the dark. I’ve got my anchor trees in mind, and I know exactly how I’m going to set up so I can get as many laps in on as many routes as time will allow.

Most importantly, both the drive and the approach are short. Long drives and big hikes are for the weekends—I’ve done my due diligence to seek out areas that are neither far from home nor far from the road so I’m not spending all my time either behind the wheel or huffing my way up the trail.

Oftentimes the dawn patrol is a lonely—but rewarding—experience. | Credit: John Lepak

Partners are typically hard to come by on the dawn patrol—a lot of ice climbers are willing to get an early start for a full day of climbing but the numbers thin out when talking about an hour or two before heading into a full day of work. More often than not these missions are rope-solo missions.

Climbing alone is weird, but one with many worthy merits. Like hiking alone—a much more common experience—climbing by yourself comes with a very unique headspace. My safety is exclusively in my hands, and I know it: there’s no partner check, nor is there any belay save a self-belay—no one’s calling for rescue should something go wrong.  Every move I make needs to be cautious and deliberate. Though, with the silence of the forest, the brightening dawn, and the singular concentration required to move safely comes a meditative state—a centeredness all-to-uncommon for a weekday.


The Gear You Need to Ice Climb at Hillyer Ravine

The deep, dark recesses of Kaaterskill Clove, in the eastern Catskills, are home to some of the area’s best ice climbing. Noteworthy areas include the popular roadside destination of Moore’s Bridge, the looming pillars of Kaaterskill Falls and the long, tiered waterfalls known collectively as The Ravines. The Ravines—including Hillyer, Viola, Wildcat, and Buttermilk—offer some of the Cats’ best long, moderate routes: All weigh in at between four and six pitches in length with a difficulty in the WI3 to WI4 range. The relatively long, strenuous approaches make for a full day affair and lend a remote, backcountry vibe to each. Moreover, their northerly aspect makes for reliable ice throughout the season.

The most accessible of the bunch is Hillyer. Hillyer Ravine climbs about 200 feet in four moderate pitches with each going at around WI3. Substantial ledges separate one pitch from the next and, though you won’t likely see the same number of people here as you would elsewhere in the Cats—the rigor of the approach and the dearth of parking thin the crowds out a bit—there is plenty of room for multiple parties to set up shop. The wide second and third pitches in particular offer a ton of climbable ice and an entire day could easily be spent doing laps on these two pitches alone.

All in all, a day in Hillyer Ravine is a day well spent. And, like any day out, proper preparation and equipment is key—here’s what you need to bring to climb Hillyer.

Credit: John Lepak

Beal Booster 9.7mm Dry Rope

No single tier of Hillyer Ravine stretches higher than 50 feet so a single 60 meter rope will be more than enough—but be sure it’s a dry one. Dry-treated ropes have a coating that prevents water absorption which, on ice, is critical. A frozen climbing rope can ruin your day real quick. The Beal Booster 9.7 mm Dry Rope is a good bet to keep things running smoothly and safely.

Black Diamond Momentum Harness

Whether you’re climbing ice, rock, or indoors, a harness is compulsory. For ice, get one with adjustable leg loops—to account for thick winter layers like the Black Diamond Momentum (men’s/women’s). A couple of Petzl Caritool Evo Holders are a good add for racking screws on the way up and tools on the way down.

Petzl Nomic Ice Tools

There are many types of ice axes, each with their own specific utility. For vertical ice like what you’ll find on Hillyer, a pair of technical ice tools—so defined by their bent shaft, curved pick, and offset grip—are the way to go. The Petzl Nomic is a balanced, workhorse of a tool that’s great for the variety of terrain you’ll find in the Ravines.

Black Diamond Cyborg Pro

Like ice axes, crampons also come in a wide range of shapes and sizes, each designed for a specific function. Crampons with vertical front points like the Black Diamond Cyborg Pro, clipped into a pair of stiff-soled mountaineering boots like the La Sportiva Nepal Evo GTX will get you up Hillyer—and most other routes in the Cats, for that matter—no problem.

Ice Rack

The overwhelming majority of routes in the Catskills are doable with a fistful of ice screws. A couple of Petzl Laserspeed Ice Screws in the 13 to 17cm range will have you covered in Hillyer Ravine. A good bit of cord is definitely handy for building belays between pitches too—20 feet of Sterling 7mm Accessory Cord, two Petzl Attaché Locking Carabiners, and a sturdy tree will make you a nice monopoint anchor.

Tip: The guidebook, An Ice Climber’s Guide to the Catskill Mountains, provides greater detail on what constitutes a typical Catskills ice rack—as well as everything else you need to know about the area.

Outdoor Research Vigor Midweight Sensor Gloves

Keeping your hands warm and dry is a constant challenge on any winter outing and this rings especially true for ice climbing when your arms are elevated and circulation is limited. A pair of gloves that split the difference between warmth and dexterity—like the Outdoor Research Vigor Midweight Sensor Gloves (men’s/women’s)—will help ward off the dreaded screaming barfies while allowing you to still place screws and clip ropes effectively. Bring two pairs so you can easily replace one if they get soaked.

EMS Feather Pack Hooded Jacket

Staying warm and dry is incredibly important in any winter activity, and layering properly is the best way to do it. The layers you’re going to want to use will largely depend on the conditions but, on a backcountry climb like Hillyer Ravine, it’s important to be prepared for everything with lightweight, packable options. In warmer weather, when things get wet, a light hardshell, like the Marmot Precip Eco Jacket (men’s/women’s) makes things a lot more comfortable. In colder weather, an insulated jacket like the EMS Feather Pack Hooded Jacket (men’s/women’s) keeps the heat in while gearing up, belaying, or having lunch.

Trail Spikes

Clocking in at one mile with 1000 feet of elevation gain from the parking area to the base of the climb, Hillyer Ravine’s approach is a stiff one. Conditions on the well-worn climbers’ trail vary but you can bet on the need for traction. Toss a pair of the new EMS Ice Talons in your pack and you’ll be ready for whatever.

Tip: Hillyer Ravine shares most of its approach with neighboring Viola Ravine and it’s not uncommon to tick both in the same trip by climbing one, rappelling the second, then reversing the order.


Alpha Guide: Hiking the Burroughs Range Traverse in Winter

alpha Guides | Better than beta.

Three high peaks and arguably the best view in the Catskills make a winter traverse of the Burroughs Range one of the finest day hikes in the Northeast.

Alongside the Devil’s Path and the Escarpment Trail, the Burroughs Range Trail (also known as the Wittenberg–Cornell–Slide Trail) is one of the most enjoyable—and justifiably popular—routes in the Catskills. Over its 9.8 miles, it traces the highest ridgeline in the 47,500-acre Slide Mountain Wilderness—the Catskills’ largest wilderness area—traversing three distinct high peaks in the process: the Wittenberg (locally known known as the Wittenberg, with no “Mount” or “Mountain” required) with it’s steep upper reaches and sweeping summit views; Cornell Mountain, a viewless summit accessed by a fun, semi-technical rock formation known as the Cornell Crack, and; Slide Mountain, the highest peak—and one of only two 4,000-footers—in the region.

While each mountain has its own, individual charm, the trail is invariably, characteristically Catskills—rugged terrain, steep ascents, and a wilderness feel beyond what you’d expect for somewhere so close to New York City.

Quick Facts

Distance: 9.8 miles, one-way
Time to Complete: Full day for most.
Difficulty: ★★★★
Scenery:★★★★★


Season: December through March (as a winter hike)
Fees/Permits: None*
Contact: https://www.dec.ny.gov/lands/9150.html

*While there are no fees or permits in winter, day-use fees are applicable from mid-May to Mid October, when the campground is open.

 


Turn-By-Turn

This is a one-way ticket, so the first thing you’ll need to do is post a shuttle car at the Slide Mountain parking area on CR-47. From the Thruway, take exit 19 for Kingston/Rhinecliff Bridge. Follow the exit ramp to a rotary and bear right onto NY–28 west. After 30.7 miles, take a left onto CR-47 and continue for 15 miles. The Slide Mountain parking area (42.00889, -74.42756) will be on the left, just 2.0 miles after the hairpin turn.

From here, getting to the start of the trail is as simple as backtracking to NY-28, taking a right, and heading east for 7.7 miles. Take a right at Woodland Valley Road, and continue for 5.0 miles to the Woodland Valley trailhead parking area, just before the Woodland Valley State Campground’s main entrance. Find the trailhead by crossing the road and heading back east, following the red blazes to where the trail departs the campground (42.03600, -74.35665) between sites 45 and 46.

The expansive view from Wittenberg’s open summit. | Credit: John Lepak

The Wittenberg

As it exits the campground, the red-blazed Burroughs Range Trail—also known as the Slide–Cornell–Wittenberg Trail—crosses a brook on a wooden footbridge and immediately begins climbing at a moderate grade, passing a trail register. This is a popular route, so unless there’s been a recent snowfall of significance, you’ll likely have a well-established snowshoe trail to follow. After 1.3 miles of moderately steep climbing through mixed hardwood forest, the grade eases a bit and the trail starts to bear left (southeast), skirting the rim of a deep ravine to the north. Giant Ledge and Panther Mountain are visible through the leafless trees.

At mile 2.6, the yellow-blazed Terrace Mountain Trail breaks off to the left (42.01869, -74.34056) as the Burroughs Range Trail takes a right. Just 0.2 miles later, the recently-constructed, blue-blazed leg of the Phoenicia–East Branch splits off the left as well.

From here, the ascent becomes steep, and the trail winds its way up and over three, successively steeper ledges, steadily gaining the Wittenberg’s upper reaches. Eventually, the grade eases slightly, and the mountain runs out of ledges to throw at you as the trees change over from mixed hardwood to densely packed pine.

At mile 3.9, the trees give way to an open ledge (42.00839, -74.34692) and the summit of Wittenberg (3,780 feet). An extraordinary easterly view, including the mountains of the Devil’s Path and the Blackhead Range to the north, the high peaks of Friday, Balsam Cap, Peekamoose, and Table Mountains to the south, and the distinct figure of the Ashokan Reservoir front-and-center.

With a good chunk of elevation gain behind you, the open summit area is a great spot to grab a breather. Get in the lee of the wind and enjoy one of the best views in the Catskills.

The Cornell Crack, an ice-filled cleft in the rock just shy of Cornell’s summit. | Credit: John Lepak

Cornell

Head west across the open summit to continue on the red-blazed Burroughs Range Trail. Very quickly, the trail descends over a few icy ledges before flattening—This short but pleasant little col is commonly referred to as Bruin Causeway. At mile 4.5 the trail starts to climb again, steeply in places, until it reaches a formidable cleft in the rock known as the Cornell Crack (42.00256, -74.35564). This obstacle is tricky in the summer, but even more so in winter, when it fills with snow and ice. If you’re willing to carry them, a pair of front-point crampons and an ice axe make this a breeze.

Past the crack, at mile 4.7 the wooded summit of Cornell (3,860 feet) waits, indicated by a short spur trail to the left (42.00146, -74.35666) that offers limited views. Just beyond though, before the trail starts to descend, an open, west-facing ledge offers a preview of what’s up next: Slide.

Slide’s broad, open—but viewless—summit. | Credit: John Lepak

Slide

Begin descending Cornell’s slope by continuing west, passing several excellent viewpoints. At mile 5.5 the grade eases, marking the low point of the saddle. The trail is relatively flat in this area and several designated campsites make it a great place to set-up camp for anyone looking to spend the night. The trail begins climbing again past the campsite to another good view to the northeast, gained via a short spur trail that diverges to the left. The grade increases, climbing over snow-covered wooden stairways and stone steps until the summit ledge is finally reached at mile 7.0.

A bronze plaque celebrating the memory of the naturalist John Burroughs, for whom the range is named, marks the occasion. The summit of Slide (4,180 feet) is broad and open but with limited views (42.99892, -74.38578). Crossing the summit of Slide, the Burroughs Range Trail begins to descend very gently until another extensive view opens up to the north. Several more Catskill High Peaks are visible, including Hunter (the region’s only other 4000-footer), the Devil’s Path, the Blackhead Range, and Kaaterskill High Peak, which was at one point thought to be the highest in the region (until Slide was properly surveyed, of course).

The grade is easy and the trail is wide here, following the track of an old woods road built to service an erstwhile fire tower. At 7.7 miles, the Curtis-Ormsbee Trail—a beautiful way to climb Slide from the west—splits to the left (42.00117, -74.39668). Keep on following the red blazes of the Burroughs Range Trail until, at mile 9.1, it reaches its confluence with the yellow-blazed Phoenicia–East Branch Trail. Head right, following the Phoenicia–East Branch trail as it continues to descend another 0.7 miles  in before reaching a water crossing—easy if iced-over, a bit of rock hopping if not—and the Slide Mountain parking area on CR-47 (42.00889, -74.42756).


A vignette from Cornell’s summit proper, accessed by a short spur trail. | Credit: John Lepak

The Kit

  • The Catskills can get very cold in the winter and traversing the Burroughs Range makes for a long day in freezing temperatures. The EMS Feather Pack Hooded Jacket (men’s|women’s) is an ideal insulating layer for a trip like this—warm enough to keep the body heat up when you’re resting, packable enough to stash in the bag when you’re not.
  • Some hot coffee, tea, or water in insulated thermos—like the Camelbak 20oz Hot Cap Water Bottle—won’t take up a ton of room in your pack and will make a big difference on a frigid day in the Cats.
  • The upper reaches of Wittenberg and the Cornell Crack require some handwork, so bring a good pair of gloves like the Black Diamond Arc. If it’s really cold or really wet, throw some hand warmers in an extra pair of liners and toss them in your pack for later.
  • Heavy annual snowfall, steep terrain, and local trail etiquette make a pair of snowshoes with climbing bars, like the MSR Lightning Ascent Snowshoes, a necessity.
  • Cell service is sketchy in the Catskills at best, so a compass and a paper map are essential. The Catskill Mountains Trail Map from the Appalachian Mountain Club is waterproof and covers the whole region in detail.

Early morning on the way up the Wittenberg. | Credit: John Lepak

Keys to the Trip

  • The Slide Mountain Wilderness Area is incredibly popular with both day hikers and backpackers year-round. The crowds are a little less of an issue in winter, but—with the exception of the remote col between Cornell and Slide—it’s unlikely you’ll be on your own all that much. Please help mitigate the human impact on this area by hiking responsibly, signing in at the trail registers, and following Leave No Trace principles.
  • Provided you’re comfortable starting and finishing a hike by headlamp, the Burroughs Range in winter is totally doable as a long, single day hike. Some folks do, however, opt to split this into a two-day affair, which is not a bad idea since backcountry camping above 3,500 feet is only permitted in the Catskills in winter (December 21–March 21). Be prepared to set up camp in the snow and always adhere to New York State DEC rules and guidelines.
  • The range and trail are named for John Burroughs, a naturalist and advocate for the region. His 1910 essay In the Heart of the Southern Catskills details his first experiences exploring the area now known as the Slide Mountain Wilderness. It’s an interesting historical perspective and a great read to build the pre-hike excitement or to reflect maintain the buzz long after the aprés.
  • Warm up after a long day in the cold with a post-hike bite at the perpetually hopping Phoenicia Diner. Think classic diner meets modern weekender. Breakfast served all day.

Current Conditions

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


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.