The Best Adirondack Peaks for a Winter Sunset

Encompassing six million acres and possessing a myriad of mountains ranging in size from mile-high Mount Marcy to short and wooded summits, the Adirondacks has a mountain for every schedule and ability. Few outdoor experiences are more memorable or enjoyable than watching the sunset in solitude from a mountain summit, and the experience is made even more memorable with the extra challenges and solitude present in the winter season. With that in mind, here is a collection of Adirondack peaks that are all excellent winter sunset destinations.

Credit: Joey Priola

Phelps Mountain

While not one of the tallest or the highest Adirondack High Peaks, Phelps Mountain is my personal favorite Adirondack peak for watching and photographing a winter sunset. Ringing in at a round-trip distance of 8.8 miles with almost 2,000 feet of elevation gain if departing from the Adirondack Loj (parking fee of $15/day, reduced to $7/day for Adirondack Mountain Club members), Phelps is in that sweet spot of providing enough of a challenge to make you feel like you’ve really accomplished something, while being short enough so that you won’t be hiking back in the dark for hours on end.

After a quick 2 mile jaunt to Marcy Dam and a little over a mile of gradual climbing along Phelps Brook, a classic steep and rugged Adirondack trail diverges from the Van Hoevenberg Trail to climb 1.2 miles to the summit of Phelps. Two characteristics of Phelps make this peak particularly amenable to winter sunsets. First, although the summit offers expansive views, it’s not completely exposed and hardy evergreens provide protection from the wind and make for interesting photo subjects when they’re caked with snow and ice. Second, Phelps offers wide-open views to the west, meaning that you’ll have a clear vantage point of the sun setting over the lofty summits of Mount Colden and Algonquin Peak, with Mount Marcy catching beautiful sidelight. While views from the summit proper are exceptional, ledges a couple hundred yards shy of the summit might provide an even better vantage point to watch the setting sun cast a warm glow on the snowy landscape.

Cascade Mountain

As one of the shortest and easiest of the 46 Adirondack High Peaks to climb, Cascade Mountain is a justly popular peak. While winter crowds are typically less than those found in summer and fall, the small parking lots on Rt. 73 can easily get overwhelmed on weekends. The late start that you’ll get to time it right to catch sunset from the summit typically makes this a moot point, but aim to do this one on a weekday if possible, just in case.

The vast majority of this hike is spent sheltered in the woods, and while the grade never gets too obnoxious, the climbing begins right from the parking lot and doesn’t let up much for the duration of the hike. A junction with the trail to Porter Mountain (another High Peak that’s often combined with a trek up Cascade) is reached at 2.1 miles, and then the final push to the exposed summit begins. Shortly after the trail junction is a good time to bundle up, as the wind is often much stronger on the exposed summit than the sheltered approach trail. Even though it only comes in as the 36th tallest peak in the High Peaks Region, Cascade offers a panoramic view that is likely a top 10 summit view in the Adirondacks.

Credit: Joey Priola

Coney Mountain

With a round-trip distance of only 2.2 miles and an elevation gain of about 550 feet, Coney Mountain is one of the best bang-for-your-buck mountains in all of New York. Located off of Route 30 between Long Lake and Tupper Lake, Coney is a great destination to enjoy your first mountaintop winter sunset. A sheltered trail climbs gradually from the small parking lot through a beautiful forest before reaching the mostly open summit. Part of Tupper Lake can be seen in the distance and nearby Goodman Mountain (which itself is another good sunset hike) adds visual interest to the view. If the sky is clear and weather calm, hanging around after sunset to watch the stars is an incredibly rewarding experience, and the short distance back to the trailhead makes the return hike in the dark a breeze.

Credit: Joey Priola

Mount Marcy

Standing as the highest mountain in New York at an elevation of 5,344 feet, Mount Marcy draws hikers from near and far. There’s just something about being at the highest point in a state that’s alluring, and from the icy winter summit of Marcy, all of the Adirondacks spreads out below your lofty perch. With a round-trip distance of nearly 15 miles coupled with over 3,000 feet of elevation gain, climbing Marcy makes for a long day, and catching the sunset from the summit means that you’ll have several hours of hiking in the dark back to the trailhead to look forward to. For those that have the requisite experience, fitness, and gear, though, it doesn’t get any better than this. After gradually ascending to treeline, the final half-mile push to the summit is on the wide-open and rocky summit block, with no protection from the elements. Once on the summit, a panoramic view of mountains and lakes spreads as far as the eye can see. As the sun sets over the distant horizon, take pride in the fact that no one in the state is higher than you, physically and maybe emotionally too, before readying for the long and dark sojourn home.

Credit: Joey Priola

Algonquin and Wright Peaks

Two of the more popular High Peaks to climb, Algonquin and Wright are neighbors that share the same route for the first 3.4 miles from the Adirondack Loj and are thus often climbed in tandem. Coming in at round-trip distances of 7.6 (with 2,400 feet of elevation gain) and 8.6 (with 2900 feet of elevation gain) miles respectively, Wright and Algonquin are both classic Adirondack climbs that make for excellent sunset destinations. Both of these summits are quite exposed, though, which means expansive views but also little to no protection from the elements. It’s thus best to get some safer sunset summits under your belt before aiming for Wright or Algonquin.

From the Wright-Algonquin trail junction reached 3.4 miles from the Adirondack Loj parking lot, a left turns leads 0.4 miles to the summit of Wright. Views abound in all directions, with Whiteface and the ski jumps of Lake Placid in the distance to the north. The best part of Wright’s vantage point, though, is its proximity to the summit block of Algonquin, which towers above you and the seemingly endless procession of snow-covered evergreens that fill the divide between Wright and Algonquin. If the wind is howling, descending a bit from the summit to treeline provides a more sheltered, and possibly more interesting vantage point from which to watch the sunset over the shoulder of Algonquin and light up the flanks of Wright in brilliantly glowing sunset hues.

If at the aforementioned trail junction you’re feeling up for some added distance and elevation, rather than taking the side trail up to Wright continue on 0.9 miles to the exposed alpine summit of Algonquin. Views from the rocky tundra are unfettered and include Colden with its many slides and Trap Dike. Due to its entirely exposed nature, Algonquin is a peak best saved for a calm day. Spend some time exploring the summit before sunset (while being careful not to trample the rare and delicate alpine plants that make the summit home) and marvel at how the raking winds have sculpted the snow into fanciful shapes. As the second highest peak in the Adirondacks, Algonquin has a “top of the world” feel to it, and lingering on the summit and watching the sunset sky transition from orange to magenta to the deepest blue-black imaginable is an experience that could never be forgotten.

Credit: Joey Priola

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!


Escape the Leaf-Peeping Crowds by Boat and Boot at Indian Lake

Autumn is upon us, and the vast hardwood forests of the Northeast are putting on their annual show that rivals any natural spectacle in the world. While the fall season has always been a popular time for hikers and roadside tourists alike to get out and explore, larger crowds than usual are expected this fall due to COVID-19 and the fact that being outside is one of the safest ways to get away from home during these tough times. The Adirondack Mountains have long been a haven for stressed and overworked city dwellers to get back to nature, and unsurprisingly the ever-popular High Peaks region has been experiencing record visitation throughout the summer and early fall. Hoping to avoid the maddening crowds while simultaneously exploring a part of the Adirondacks that we had yet to properly experience, my wife, dog and I recently went on a canoe camping trip to Indian Lake that quickly became our all-time favorite camping trip.

Credit: Joey Priola

The Island Campground

Located in the Southern Adirondacks, approximately a 70-mile or 90-minute drive southwest from Lake Placid, Indian Lake is a 12-mile-long reservoir that runs southwest from the tiny town of Indian Lake. While not quite as wild (the west shore has some development) as some of the more remote ponds and lakes of the Adirondacks, Indian Lake still has a relatively remote feel to it, especially on the eastern shore which is largely Forest Preserve land. The lake is peppered with several rocky islands, ranging in size from nothing more than a few boulders to over 1,000 feet in length. The best thing about Indian Lake is that it possesses the Indian Lake Islands Campground, which consists of 55 campsites (each with a picnic table, an outhouse, and firepit) spread along the lakeshore and islands that can only be accessed via boat. Sites can be booked up to 9 months in advance, and while they’re incredibly popular during the summer, as the temperature begins to drop in the fall, so does the visitation.

Note: Due to COVID-19, the DEC and New York State Parks has temporarily lifted the 9-month reservation window restriction for camping at New York State Parks, including Indian Lake Islands, and bookings for 2021 are currently being accepted.

Credit: Joey Priola

Exploring Kirpens Island

While all of the campsites offer privacy and outstanding views, nothing can beat the experience of camping on your very own private island. Of the 55 campsites at Indian Lake, five of them are on an island with no other campsites. Of this handful of select sites, the most outstanding site might be campsite 2 on Kirpens Island, which offers several advantages compared to the other sites.

Situated due east from Indian Lake Marina, the campsite on Kirpens Island can be quickly accessed via a 20 to 30 minute, mile-long paddle if launching from the marina, as compared to the 8-mile-long paddle if starting from the access point and campground check-in center on the south end of the lake. Kirpens Island is also one of the largest islands on Indian Lake, with countless nooks and crannies along the shore to explore, as well as some informal trails that lead to the far reaches of the island from the camping area on the north side of the island. A number of smaller islands surround Kirpens and make interesting photography subjects, especially in the fall when the berry bushes, maples, and birches that are prevalent on the islands show off their fall colors.

The view from Baldface Mountain’s summit. | Credit: Joey Priola

Multi-Sport Adventure

What really sets Kirpens Island apart from the other sites at Indian Lake, though, is its proximity to the Baldface Mountain Trailhead. The trailhead is a quick five-minute paddle east from camp into a quiet bay and is only accessible by boat. This difficulty of access greatly minimizes the crowds, and on a beautiful Saturday with near-peak foliage conditions, we had the trail and summit all to ourselves. After beaching your boat on the shore near a large boulder marked with white paint, an easy 0.8-mile-long trail with red trail markers and 550 feet of elevation gain weaves through the forest before breaking out on a rocky ledge perched just above the treetops, with the long blue swath of Indian Lake and its islands spreading out in the distance. Fall views don’t get any better than this, as the predominantly hardwood forest that surrounds Indian Lake bursts with a vibrant array of red, orange, yellow, and purple in late September to early October. After enjoying the view from Baldface, head back down to the lake and explore the islands near Kirpens, marveling at the banded metamorphic bedrock that the islands consist of, which makes for fantastic photo opportunities.

Once back at camp, cap off a spectacular day of autumn exploration in complete solitude by watching the sun set over Indian Lake and Snowy Mountain from an open ledge high above the lake on the west side of the island, and perhaps raise a glass of your favorite beverage to toast your own private piece of autumn heaven.

Credit: Joey Priola

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.


Level-Up Your Fall Photography at the Adirondacks' Heart Lake

With all due respect to the other seasons, there isn’t a more exciting time of year for wilderness exploration and photography than fall, and there’s no better place to be this time of year than the Eastern United States. Blessed with a variety of hardwood species like sugar maple and birch that turn practically every shade of color imaginable during the autumn season, there’s no shortage of fantastic foliage destinations in this part of the country. That said, there are some locations that stand out from the rest, such as the Heart Lake area in New York’s Adirondack Mountains.

Located south of Lake Placid in the High Peaks Region, Heart Lake is a perfect fall hiking and photography destination. While the main sights can be seen in just a daytrip, to truly appreciate this special area, nothing beats spending a few nights in a classic Adirondack lean-to, several of which pepper the lakeshore and surrounding forest. Or if camping isn’t your style, the charming and cozy Adirondack Loj is also near the lake and offers the weary hiker heated rooms and home-cooked meals.

Another big advantage of staying at Heart Lake is that some of the best fall photography imaginable is right at your doorstep. The following tips will help you make the most of a fall trip to Heart Lake and to take your fall photos to the next level. While this article is focused on the Heart Lake area, most of the photography tips can be applied to any locale.

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

Time it Right

The first consideration when planning a fall photography trip to Heart Lake or elsewhere is timing. While difficult to predict and variable from year to year, peak fall foliage in this part of New York typically arrives in the last week of September and lasts through the first week of October. Peak fall color at Heart Lake the past two years has been right around October 5th. Once September arrives and preparation for fall kicks into high gear, the Adirondack Mountain Club posts a weekly Heart Lake foliage report on their social media pages that is an incredibly useful resource for monitoring the color progression remotely. If looking to explore other areas in the Adirondacks or New York State, I Love New York posts a weekly foliage report for the entire state on their website and social media pages.

Even if you miss peak color, there can be advantages to being a little on the early or late side. In the days leading up to peak color, the prominence of some trees with green leaves that have yet to change color can make the ones that have changed pop even more. Post-peak when the leaves begin to fall is a great opportunity to experiment with detailed macro shots of freshly fallen leaves and can provide the opportunity to catch the first snow of the season as autumn color hangs on before succumbing to the white of winter.

Scout It Out

One of the best ways to get to know an area and to take the best photos possible is to get out and explore and scout out different compositions upon arrival, especially if never having been to the location before. Spending at least a couple days in an area is also advantageous as it provides more time to study weather patterns and to get a better understanding of how the light interacts with the landscape at different times of the day. Scouting is rather easy to do in the Heart Lake vicinity, but there are a few classic spots where photography is worthwhile:

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

Heart Lake

The lake itself offers a bounty of photo opportunities, and a hiking trail leads around the eastern half of it and provides several access points to the lake. Even better, snag one of the lakefront lean-tos, which can be reserved up to a year in advance, and your own slice of private lakefront will be just steps away. A sandy beach on the north side of the lake is an excellent spot to photograph mountain reflections or a canoe beached on the sandy shore with a background of colorful foliage.

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

Mount Jo

Rising above the north shore of Heart Lake, 2,876-foot Mount Jo provides one of the most phenomenal fall views and is one of the best bang-for the-buck hikes in all the Adirondacks. A typical rugged and steep Adirondack trail leads from the campground to the rocky summit ledges. Partway up the Mount Jo trail, the trail forks into the 1.1-mile “Short” Trail and the 1.3-mile “Long” Trail, both of which ultimately meet below the summit after a 700-foot climb. It takes roughly 45 minutes to get to the top, where a glorious view of mountains and fall foliage spreads out below. The opportunities for landscape shots with a wide-angle lens are endless, and since the view looks to the south, great sidelight can be had at both sunrise and sunset. While views from the official summit are nice, some open ledges below the summit provide an even more panoramic view with a clear perspective of Heart Lake surrounded by colorful autumn foliage with Algonquin and other High Peaks rising from the valley further to the south.

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

Heart Lake Campground

Spending the night camping at Heart Lake opens up additional photo opportunities. Campers by a crackling fire and tents or lean-tos nestled in the forest are great additions to any fall photography portfolio and help to fully paint the picture of what fall in the mountains is all about. Lean-tos, tent campsites, and bunks in the Loj can be reserved onlineat the Adirondack Mountain Club’s. Lean-tos and tent sites cost $40 to $45 per night, and Loj rooms range from $70 to $160. For all Heart Lake accommodations, Adirondack Mountain Club members receive a 10% discount.

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

Mornings are Magic

As difficult as it can be to crawl out of a toasty sleeping bag to feel the cold slap of predawn air, there’s no better time of day for fall photography than early morning. Winds at Heart Lake are typically calmest at dawn, better facilitating the reflection of colorful foliage and clouds in the lake. Fog rising from the lake on crisp autumn mornings is a common occurrence and provides some of the most dreamy and mystical photography conditions imaginable, whether photographed from the shore of the lake itself or from a higher vantage point up on Mount Jo. On especially cold mornings, frost might even coat the flora, adding a special touch to an already extraordinary time of year.

Look Beyond the Grand Landscape

When color is at its peak, the most obvious way to capture the beauty is to use a wide-angle lens to capture grand landscape photos. To create a more diverse portfolio and to truly capture the full essence of fall, though, it’s important to look beyond the landscape and find the subtle beauty of fall. One of the best ways to do this is to use other lenses besides a wide-angle. Utilizing a telephoto lens is a great way to isolate smaller sections of a landscape, and it can be a fun exercise in creativity to start with photographing the landscape using a wide-angle lens and then switch over to a telephoto to pick out different compositions from within the wider shot. From the shore of Heart Lake, use a telephoto lens to create a frame-filling shot of the most colorful group of trees, or a lone red maple amid a group of evergreens. From the summit of Mount Jo, hone in on morning fog floating over the top of the forest canopy, or a canoe on Heart Lake dwarfed by the immense scale of the Adirondack wilderness.

On the opposite end of the spectrum from an expansive landscape photo, macro photography can reveal an intimate and abstract side of fall that often goes unnoticed. With macro photography, a small section of a single leaf can be as beautiful and profound as a grand vista filled with millions of leaves.

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

Pack a Tripod and Polarizer

Two of the most useful accessories for fall photography not only at Heart Lake but in general are a tripod and polarizing filter. Unless intentionally blurring some or all of a photo for creative reasons, it’s typically desirable for a photo to be in sharp focus from front to back. A tripod is often necessary to stabilize the camera and facilitate a sharp photo, especially at dawn and dusk when there’s less light and longer exposure times are required. A polarizer comes in handy throughout the year but is especially useful in fall. Much like the polarized sunglasses that you might own, putting a polarizing filter on a camera lens helps to decrease glare and haze. Using one helps to make fall colors really pop, especially when the leaves are wet. A polarizer also helps to deepen the color of a blue sky, although care should be taken not to overdo it and end up with an unnatural polarization gradient in the sky. To avoid this, twist the polarizer back and forth until the most pleasing effect is achieved, especially when photographing at a 90-degree angle to the sun, at which the polarization effect is most prominent.

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

Get Out and Explore

While there are enough interesting photography subjects at Heart Lake to keep a photographer entertained for days on end, there are also several other nearby locations that can all be reached on foot that are worth investigating if on an extended stay in the area. About a mile up the road from the Heart Lake Campground, a trail to Mount Van Hoevenberg begins off South Meadows Road and leads to another short mountain with an open, rocky summit that provides a different perspective than Mount Jo. En-route to the summit, pass a beaver pond that provides an excellent view of Mount Van Hoevenberg to the north. For a less strenuous diversion from Heart Lake, continue to the end of South Meadows Road by foot or car to photograph pretty meadows complete with a babbling brook.

Heart Lake also provides easy access to hiking some of the most popular High Peaks, such as Algonquin, Marcy, and Phelps. It should be noted though that while the tundra of these peaks can sport pretty autumn alpine grasses, the best fall colors will be well below these lofty summits.

For a more secluded leg-stretcher than hitting a High Peak, loop around the north side of Heart Lake to connect with the Indian Pass Trail. Reach beautiful Rocky Falls in a little over two miles, with the option to continue on approximately three more miles to rugged and seldom-visited Indian Pass.

On the drive to and from Heart Lake on Adirondack Loj Road, several open meadows are passed that make for perfect photography or picnic spots, just be sure not to encroach on any private land.

 

Whether spending just an afternoon or an entire week, Heart Lake is a perfect destination for fall photography. With the tips outlined in this article and an open, creative mind, you’ll be sure to come away from your visit with the best fall photos possible.

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

5 Best Fall Paddling Day Trips on the Hudson River Greenway Trail

From Constitution Marsh, where the launch is just steps away from a Metro North station, to the more rural Esopus Meadows Lighthouse, the Hudson River is a must-do for paddlers this autumn. Steep bluffs, forested islands, and otherworldly sunsets are the main attraction, but the historic sites dotting the river add a layer of intrigue to every trip. Think island-bound Bannerman’s Castle (which is said to be haunted) and the Clearwater, an 18th-century replica sloop that sails from port to port educating people about the environment.

Stretching from the Adirondacks to the tip of Manhattan, the Hudson River is fed by freshwater from the north and salt water from the Atlantic Ocean. Though you might feel far away from the ocean when you’re paddling, the River is subject to rising and falling tides and shifting currents. Checking tide charts before hitting the water is recommended to avoid working harder than necessary.

To ensure physical distancing during the pandemic, seek out launch points that are off of the beaten path. The Hudson River Greenway Water Trail runs the length of the river and is the ultimate guide to launches, take-outs, and overnight accommodations on 256-miles of the River. Use the trip ideas below for inspiration and use the Water Trail map to alter itineraries to suit your energy and skill level.

The author's husband at Constitution Marsh. | Credit: Carla Francis
The author’s husband at Constitution Marsh. | Credit: Carla Francis

Constitution Marsh

Accessed via a short jaunt on the main channel of the Hudson River, once you glide under the low-slung railroad trestle that separates the main channel from Foundry Cove you’ll have entered a different, quieter world. Officially known as the Constitution Marsh Audubon Center and Sanctuary, when you leave behind the river channel you encounter a tidal marsh that is home to countless species of birds, fish, amphibians and other creatures. “Paddle through the marsh slowly and quietly to increase your chances of seeing wildlife,” recommends the Audubon Center.

Paddlers might notice channels interlacing the marsh — remnants of an 1800’s-era wild rice farm. While the channels make travel easier, be aware of the tide which limits paddlers to 2-hours within the preserve. High tide blocks the passageway under the railroad trestle and low tide will leave you stuck in the mud. Enjoy fall colors and migratory birds as they pass through on their way south, and as you exit, take a moment to gaze north up the river at Storm King Mountain, one of the highest points in the area. To extend your trip, head south where you’ll quickly pass West Point, the revered United States Military Academy to the west.

Launch your boat for free at Scenic Hudson’s Foundry Dock Park in Cold Spring, steps away from the Metro North Station, where paid parking is available.

The Esopus Lighthouse from Espopus Meadows Preserve. | Credit: Carla Francis
The Esopus Lighthouse from Espopus Meadows Preserve. | Credit: Carla Francis

Esopus Lighthouse

Perched on the edge of an underwater meadow, the Esopus Meadows Lighthouse is one of the last remaining wooden lighthouses on the Hudson River. Visiting by kayak will allow you to pass over the same meadows that the lighthouse warned countless vessels to avoid. Mostly choked by invasive water chestnut now, the meadow was historically visited by cattle which grazed on the thick grass at low tide.

There are several ways to access the lighthouse, with the shortest paddle being a .5-mile trip (one way) from Scenic Hudson’s Esopus Meadows Preserve, about 5 miles south of Kingston. Launch your boat for free and head to the lighthouse where you can admire the meticulous preservation of the building, which was built in the late 1800’s. The lighthouse is operated by volunteers and only open during sporadic tours so plan to enjoy this landmark from your kayak. Gaze across the river to another historic site, Mills Mansion, a Gilded Age home now owned and operated for visitors by the State of New York.

To extend your trip, consider heading south towards Esopus Island near the Norrie Point Environmental Center. Hug the shore to avoid turbulence and the main shipping channel while enjoying the open water feel of the River and the changing colors of autumn. The island is a nice place to stop for a picnic and is located about 3 miles from the Esopus Meadows Preserve.

Courtesy: John Morzen
Courtesy: John Morzen

Bannerman Castle

What’s a castle doing in the middle of the Hudson River? Built in the early 1900’s as a weapons arsenal, the decaying castle sits on uninhabited Pollepel Island south of Beacon. While the castle itself is accessible only through tours with the Bannerman Castle Trust, views from the water are, of course, free.

Launch for free from Scenic Hudson’s Long Dock Park in Beacon and paddle about 3.5 miles south through a gorgeous stretch of river called the Hudson Highlands, so named for the mountains on both shores. To the east you’ll see Hudson River Highlands State Park and Breakneck Ridge and to the west you’ll see Butter Hill (the eastern summit of Storm King mentioned under the “Constitution Marsh” paddle). The river is wide at this point, about 1.5 miles across, offering a more open water experience. Circle the island to get the full view of the imposing castle.

On your way back to Beacon, stretch your legs by walking the Denning Point Trail at Hudson Highlands State Park. At just over a mile, this loop takes you near an abandoned brick works, evidence of which you’ll see long before the buildings come into view.

Credit: New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation
Credit: New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation

Hudson River Islands State Park

Scenic year-round but most spectacular during fall foliage, Hudson River Islands State Park is a secluded set of islands accessible only by boat. If you launch north of the islands, consider visiting Stockport Middle Ground island to stretch your legs then continuing your paddle into Stockport Creek on the eastern bank for a more peaceful stretch of waterway. The islands are typically quiet, especially during the off-season, and chances are you’ll have your landing to yourself. Landings are plentiful along the shore of the islands, but beware of poison ivy before stepping out of your boat.

To extend your trip, bring your gear for an overnight stay. Camping is free and both sunrise and sunset offer some of the best views available on the Hudson River. Couple that with fall foliage, and you’ll have a trip for the ages.

A handful of kayak launches are available to suit different trip lengths, but the Coxsackie NYS Boat Launch and the Athens Boat Launch are good places to start. This map can help you determine the distance you’ll be paddling no matter where you decide to launch.

Courtesy: Hudson River Maratime Museum
Courtesy: Hudson River Maratime Museum

Rondout Lighthouse and Creek

A slightly more urban paddle than others on the list, the shipping vessels and pleasure craft that travel the Hudson and Rondout Creek are sights to see.

On river east, launch your boat at Rhinecliff’s Slate dock or from river west launch your boat at Scenic Hudson’s Sleightsburgh Park. Either way, steer your boat towards the mouth of Rondout Creek, where the Rondout Lighthouse is the star attraction. Operated by the Hudson River Maritime Museum (HRRM), you’ll have to enjoy it from the water because tours are temporarily closed due to COVID-19. According to HRRM, it is “still fully operational as a navigational light and one of only seven remaining on the Hudson River.”

After appreciating this historic landmark and the size of the Hudson River, head west into Rondout Creek. You’ll travel past Kingston’s historic waterfront, which experienced its heyday as a boatyard and manufacturing hub when the Delaware and Hudson Canal opened with its terminus at Rondout Creek. Nowadays, the waterfront has been revitalized as a commercial district. Urban trappings give way to forest as you head inland. In Eddyville, you’ll come across a dam which can be used as a turnaround point or portaged. If you turn around here, you’ll have traveled about 4-miles one way if you launched at Sleightsburgh Park or about 5 miles if you launched from Rhinecliff.


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.


4 Winter Hikes for Aspiring Catskill 3500ers

Rough terrain, remote locations, and harsh weather make tackling any of the Northeast’s peak-bagging lists a difficult achievement. Whether it’s the high peaks of the Adirondack 46’ers, the 4,000-footers of New England, or the summits of the Catskill 3500 Club, membership is hard-earned.

Unlike the stewards of New England and the Adirondacks, however, the Catskill Club challenges its aspirants in a different way, by requiring that four of its 35 listed peaks be gained twice—once in winter—for a total of 39 climbs. It’s a wrinkle that ups the ante and affords hikers two unique experiences on some of the region’s finest summits.

As with any winter outing, be prepared for frigid temperatures, shorter days, and potentially nasty weather. Always be sure to check the forecast and trail conditions before heading out. If you’re new to winter hiking, start here.

So which are the must-do winter climbs in New York’s southern range?

A view along the Wittenberg–Cornell–Slide Trail, just shy of the Slide’s broad, flat summit. | Credit: John Lepak
A view along the Wittenberg–Cornell–Slide Trail, just shy of the Slide’s broad, flat summit. | Credit: John Lepak

Slide Mountain

At 4,190 feet, Slide Mountain is the tallest peak in the Catskills and, together with Hunter Mountain, complete the region’s contribution to the NE115 list. It’s Slide’s superlative status that makes it a mega-popular place to be at any time of year, so be prepared to negotiate the crowds on the weekend.

On a bluebird winter weekday though, it’s about as good as it gets. The Curtis–Ormsbee Trail, though neither the most direct nor the easiest route to the top—but decidedly less crowded than the alternative—is an outstanding bit of hiking. Those willing to take on the extra effort though are rewarded with two stellar, sweeping viewpoints, from which several of the Catskills’ higher peaks are visible.

The allure of ticking another 4,000 footer—and a winter one to boot—is also hard to deny. There are a good lot of harder hikes in the Catskills, but Slide definitely has that 4,000 footer-vibe about it.

A 6.6-mile loop hike linking the Curtis–Ormsbee and Wittenberg–Cornell–Slide Trails is one of the best short hikes in the Catskills. For the more ambitious, a full traverse of the Burroughs Range—one of the region’s premier hikes—is an awesome longer (9.8 miles as a shuttle, 14.5 miles as a loop) option.

Black Dome Mountain is front-and-center while descending from Blackhead’s viewless summit. | Credit: John Lepak
Black Dome Mountain is front-and-center while descending from Blackhead’s viewless summit. | Credit: John Lepak

Blackhead Mountain

High and rugged, the peaks of the Blackhead Range loom large over the northeastern Catskills. From west to east, Thomas Cole, Black Dome, and the eponymous Blackhead account for the fourth-, third-, and fifth-highest mountains in the region, respectively, and are traversed by a network of well-signed, well-maintained trails.

It’s easy to see why the architects of the Catskill 3500 Club’s bylaws chose this place—and specifically Blackhead Mountain (3,940 feet)—for one of their four required winter hikes: the ice.

As winter lays siege to Blackhead’s upper reaches, the steep eastern ledges grow dense with thick, accumulated ice, making an approach from this direction substantially more challenging. In fact, the hardness of the ice and the steepness of the terrain often demand that hikers ditch the light traction for real-deal crampons—a pretty unique requirement for a day hike in the Northeast.

The most popular way to bag Blackhead is by way of a 4.3-mile loop from the parking area at the end of Big Hollow Road on the Batavia Kill, Escarpment, Blackhead Mountain and Black Dome Range Trails. Doing it clockwise will have you ascending the heavy ice and descending on gentler ground with prolific views of Black Dome, the best on the hike.

The viewpoint just north of Panther’s summit, a little bit obscured by low clouds and flurries. | Credit: John Lepak
The viewpoint just north of Panther’s summit, a little bit obscured by low clouds and flurries. | Credit: John Lepak

Panther Mountain

Panther Mountain (3,730 feet) and its north–south running ridgeline are best known for offering some of the best views in the Catskills. For better or worse, this is a widely known fact, and a nice weekend day can draw a crowd, particularly at Giant Ledge, a bit south of Panther’s summit.

The snow and ice of winter will thin the crowds a bit, especially past Giant Ledge where the higher-precip years, snow can really pile up enough in the col that even the most intrepid post-holer will turn back (hint: bring snowshoes). Beyond, the moderate ascent is made easier with a good snowpack. Some ledge work will still need to be negotiated and switching between spikes and snowshoes will add some time to the trip, but that’s winter hiking for you.

The terrain is generally moderate and enjoyable, but this hike is all about the views—views that are magnified with winter’s absence of leaves. Unlike in leaf-out season you can really feel the scale of the place the whole time—not just at the viewpoints.

The most direct route up Panther—a 6.4 mile out-and-back on the Phoenicia–East Branch and Giant Ledge–Panther–Fox Hollow Trails—can be made from the south, starting at the hairpin turn on CR-47. A northern approach from Fox Hollow, with a substantial view just before the summit offers a longer (8.8-mile), far-less-traveled option for those looking to avoid the crowds.

The view from the Pine Hill–West Branch Trail, just north of the summit of Balsam Mountain. | Credit: John Lepak
The view from the Pine Hill–West Branch Trail, just north of the summit of Balsam Mountain. | Credit: John Lepak

Balsam Mountain

Balsam Mountain (3,600 feet), in the Catskills’ Big Indian Wilderness Area is the shortest and most westerly of the required winter 35’ers. Though the summit itself is viewless, a little ledge just to the north offers an outstanding easterly view, and the broad, flat character of the ridge makes for a pleasant, relaxing stroll—all the better with a good snowpack.

The main attraction of Balsam, however, is its location. Proximity to easily accessible trailheads, shelters, and other high peaks make it a great mountain to revisit: alone, as a day hike, or as a longer, overnight trip by linking up with the semi-trailed Eagle and Big Indian Mountains to the south.

Despite its generally moderate grades, winter on Balsam presents would-be summiteers with yet another unique seasonal challenge: water crossings. Climate change certainly hasn’t made mountain weather any more predictable and unseasonable thaws can cause high water, making even the simplest of brook crossings a challenge. Be adequately prepared and know when to turn around.

Beginning at the Rider Hollow Road trailhead and linking the Mine Hollow, Pine Hill–West Branch, and Olivrea–Mapledale Trails makes for an excellent 4.9-mile loop up and down Balsam’s western flank.


Northeast Mountaineering Climbs for All Abilities

Each year, the onset of winter transforms the mountains of the northeast. With the shorter days and plummeting temperatures comes a brand new world of icy, wind-scoured summits and long, snowy approaches. The hiking trails and climbing routes of New York and New England, easily accessed in summer, become entirely different challenges, rife with logistical considerations and objective hazards. Meanwhile, terrain that is beyond reach in the summer opens up—the gullies fill with snow, the waterfalls freeze, and beautiful, blue ribbons of ice adorn the cracks and corners of cliff faces from the Catskills to Québec. Come wintertime, the mountains of the Northeast are a playground for those bold enough to brave the cold.

For the vertically-inclined, it’s winter that makes the Northeast an excellent, low-elevation training ground—what the high peaks of the Adirondacks and the Whites may lack in height, they more than make up for in heinous weather, high-quality routes, and a long history of daring ascents. This is the place to be for mountaineers of all abilities—from those who are just starting out, to more experienced alpinists seeking grander objectives, to the west or overseas.

Should you be among those looking to test their mettle in the east, the following five mountains—and these all-time classic routes—will most certainly oblige.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Easy Snow: Franconia Ridge

High and exposed, the Franconia Ridge—including two summits above 5,000 feet—stands at an important place in the heart of New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Its western slopes plummet into Franconia Notch, a hub of hiking and climbing in all seasons, while to the east, its flanks drop into the Pemigewasset Wilderness accounting for a sizable chunk of the Pemigewasset Loop, a top-notch classic backpacking trip. By many accounts, Franconia Ridge is the finest high route in the Whites.

While it doesn’t have as many noteworthy technical routes as, say, Cannon Cliff, its neighbor across the notch, it does have a few worthwhile moderate endeavours like Lincoln’s Throat (WI3) and Shining Rock (WI2). It’s Franconia Ridge’s merits as a winter hiking destination, however, that make it an ideal introduction to traveling the mountains of the Northeast in winter. A hike linking the Falling Waters, Franconia Ridge, and Old Bridle Path trails makes for a long, fun day in the mountains. As the trail breaks the treeline and gains the ridge, the exposure and weather combine to create an excellent, non-technical environment to try out some of the tools and techniques required of a true mountaineering objective.

Credit: Ryan Wichelns
Credit: Ryan Wichelns

WI2/Easy Snow: Mount Colden’s Trap Dike 

At 4,714 feet, Mount Colden is the eleventh highest peak in the Adirondacks, a bonafide 46’er, and may appear as a somewhat diminutive selection for a catalogue of classic, Northeastern mountaineering routes. But for one striking feature, however, does Colden draw attention year round: the Trap Dike, a heavy cleft in its northwestern face.

In summer, the Trap Dike is one of the Adirondacks’ main attractions, bringing hikers from far and wide to its base at Avalanche Lake. The lengthy approach is made worth it by the steep, class 4 climbing, and the thrilling exposure of the upper slabs. At times, even in the best conditions, climbing Colden via the Trap Dike can feel like splitting the difference between a hike and a climb.

In winter, the combination of weather, shorter days, and frigid temperatures take hold, and the water that flows in the dike freezes, introducing in turn a new feature to negotiate: waterfall ice. The Trap Dike (WI2, Easy Snow) opens with two pitches of ice climbing, interspersed with some easy snow, before the route opens onto the exposed upper slabs. While not steep, the slabs are extremely exposed, and be downright terrifying in thin conditions. Easier options for descent abound, though none are short—a frozen Mount Colden is a day-long affair, at least, and a stout challenge for newer mountaineers.

WI2/Easy Snow: The North Face of Gothics

The Great Range, in the heart of the Adirondacks, is one of the most spectacular places in the Northeast. Rugged, remote, and wild, a full traverse covering its eight high peaks—over 20-plus miles—is an all-timer, and arguably one of the hardest hiking objectives in New York State.

At its midpoint, miles from the nearest road, rises Gothics, a steep, dramatic mountain recognizable from afar by its steep, bare north face. Though it’s summit only measures 4,734 feet above sea level, Gothics punches above its weight—even the normal hiking routes are aided by fixed cables on the slabby upper reaches. From any direction, at any time of year, Gothics is a tall task.

Come winter, the North Face (WI2, East Snow) route up Gothics is one of the Adirondack’s premier mountaineering challenges—when it’s in. More often than not though, the season conspires to create sub-optimal conditions, ranging from verglass to bare rock, that can seriously have you questioning the validity of its WI2 grade.

When it’s right though the North Face is a thrilling, exposed climb up a sheer 1200-foot wall. The wide flow offers numerous lines of ascent, with varied difficulty and opportunity to place protection, so experience reading ice and snow is critical. Between that, the scenery, and the approach—a true haul—Gothics’ North Face is a legitimate, must-do objective.

Courtesy: Ryan Wichelns
Courtesy: Ryan Wichelns

WI3: Pinnacle Gully

Simply put, Mount Washington is the centerpiece of mountaineering in the Northeast, a hulking mass around which all other objectives in the region orbit. At 6,288 feet, it rises, literally, above everything around it for a thousand miles, and its remarkable features—from the deep ravines and soaring buttresses of its eastern slopes to its rugged summit cone—are host to some of the most spectacular hiking, climbing, and skiing to be found anywhere.

However, it’s Mount Washington’s “character and hostility,” as legendary climber and author Fred Beckey once put it, for which the mountain is probably best known. The unique topography of the White Mountains, and Mount Washington’s location at the confluence of two, ever-churning weather patterns can result in some famously horrendous conditions. Dangerously cold temperatures, heavy snow and high wind—with gusts reaching hurricane-force—are a regular occurrence in winter. As a direct impact, Mount Washington and the rest of the Presidential Range have a very low treeline (around 4,500 feet) and a ton of exposed, alpine terrain, over which many outstanding winter climbs can be found. One line up “the rockpile” stands out, however, making “best-of” lists left and right: it’s the über-classic ice climb, Pinnacle Gully (WI3).

Ice begins to form early in the north-facing gap between Pinnacle and Central Buttresses in Huntington Ravine. The flow it creates—three pitches of incredible, aesthetic, ice climbing over 600 feet—is about as good as it gets. At WI3 the grade is relatively moderate, making Pinnacle Gully an accessible and popular route in an alpine environment that is unique in this part of the country.

A day on Mount Washington should never be taken lightly, though—the weather is always a factor and even on a bluebird day, high traffic can mean a shower of falling ice. Bring a helmet and enjoy the best of what the northeast has to offer.

WI4: The Cilley-Barber Route on Katahdin

Rising some 4,288 feet from the forest floor, unchallenged, the Katahdin massif dominates the landscape of Baxter State Park, its bulk of rock and ice without rival against the backdrop of Maine’s Great North Woods. Katahdin is wild, remote, and unforgiving at any time of year but it is doubly so in winter, when an ascent by any means is a serious challenge—one that is perhaps unequaled in New England, including Mount Washington.

Already removed from the population hubs of the Northeast, Katahdin becomes significantly more remote come winter, when the seasonal closures of Baxter State Park’s access roads makes for a rigorous, committing, 16-mile approach. Further complicating matters—and adding to that expedition-like vibe—access to Baxter State Park is subject to strict regulations, and winter climbers must apply for permits. Factor in the extreme cold and harsh weather that you’re bound to encounter at some point on a trip to Katahdin, and you have a real-deal, multi-day, winter adventure. It’s fitting then, that its name comes from the Penobscot word for “the greatest mountain.”

The steep headwall of Katahdin’s South Basin, scarred over with dramatic, icy gullies, is the frozen jewel in the crown of New England mountaineering. Classic, technical climbs, have been put up here in all seasons since the early twentieth century. The routes are long and committing and objective hazards—like avalanches and icefall—are very real dangers, and moving fast is absolutely critical. This is as alpine as it gets in the Northeast.

Among these coveted lines is the Cilley–Barber (WI4), a dramatic, ice-and-snow-packed cleft in headwall that soars some 2,000 feet from the bottom of the cirque to the top of the Knife Edge arête. It is a long, sustained, and difficult ice climb—one that is often recognized as one of the best of its kind in the east. The approach, permitting, and weather may lend themselves to the feeling of an expedition, but they also thin the crowds out a bit, and cultivate a wild feel—one unique to the Northeast, that should have a place on everyone’s tick list.


Winter Off-Trail Hiking in the Adirondacks

Overuse on Adirondack trails—especially in places like the High Peaks—is a big problem. One solution to reduce your impact? Get off trail. As winter sets in and snow and ice blanket the park, the solitude of these beautiful and remote places gets even more intense. For those hearty and adventurous explorers who seek a challenge beyond the trail, and are well prepared, winter bushwhacking in the Adirondacks can be both challenging and rewarding. 

Credit: Lucas LaBarre
Credit: Lucas LaBarre

How to Prepare to Go Off-Trail

Preparing to venture off trail in the rugged terrain of the Adirondacks, especially in winter, requires some vital skills, proper gear, and careful risk management. 

One of the most obvious requirements is developing navigational skills. While modern GPS technology can be tremendously useful, it is important to have adequate map and compass skills before leaving the safety of marked trails. Start by taking an introductory course or practicing in an area like a local park or small trail network where the consequences of becoming “lost” are minimalized. 

Prepare as always for winter hiking with proper gear and clothing, snowshoes, and crampons or microspikes. Learn to read snow conditions and think about if you will be using crampons on an icy hardpack or breaking unconsolidated powder; when in doubt preparing for all possibilities. Realize that moving through tight snow filled woods results in you being constantly wet and snow covered, so often some extra layers, gloves, and even another shell are crucial. 

Trip planning and risk management also become even more vital when bushwhacking in winter months when an unexpected night or two in the woods can have dire consequences. Use traditional maps, online tools like CalTopo, and trip reports from others to carefully plan your route and consider timing of off trail hikes. 

Understand that winter bushwacking often involves breaking trail through deep snow, pushing through thick forests, and bypassing unexpected obstacles like blow down and icy cliff bands. This results in a much slower pace and greater energy use than trail hiking; consider this when planning for both timing and food and water supplies. 

Seeking assistance for an injury or other serious issues is typically a much harder task than on trails or in summer so be sure to prepare at all times for an evening in the cold, let others know a detailed itinerary, and consider use of a personal locator beacon. 

Credit: Lucas LaBarre
Credit: Lucas LaBarre

Our Favorite Hikes

There’s a way to get away from the trail for every hiking ability level, in the Adirondacks. 

Beginner 

Morgan Mountain: This Wilmington hike is a short hop off an easy trail with a nearby pond, lean-to, and slide to explore if interested. Views are limited but the area is still beautiful.

Number 8 Mountain: Number 8 is one of many open summits with nice views of Brant Lake from ledges accessed by the relatively easy bushwacking of the Pharaoh Lake Wilderness area.

Advanced 

Elizabethtown #4: Herd paths approach this Keene subpeak, there are loads of open rock for views, and Spotted Mountain is a nearby add-on. Use caution near the beautiful but frigid waters of the South Fork of the Boquet River.

Wallface Mountain: An ADK 100 highest list peak and home to one of the largest cliffs in the Northeast, it’s a great hike on its own. A recent search and rescue left a massive clearing on the summit allowing for unique views. 

Credit: Neil Luckhurst
Credit: Neil Luckhurst

Expert

MacNaughton Mountain: Some hikers call MacNaughton the 47th high peak. There are many different approaches to this one and some are becoming faint herd paths, but it’s still a challenging and long day in winter. This summit has a sign and a pleasant summit ridge. 

Sawtooth #2: The entire Sawtooth Range (not to be confused with Sawteeth Mountain) includes some of the most remote and wild land in the park. None of the peaks in this range come easily, especially in winter. The approach from the Averyville side is preferred. Viewpoints feature Lake Placid, the Sewards, MacNaughton, and beyond.