Catskills Backpacking

Fox Hollow to Lane St. via Woodland Valley

Living on Long Island has placed me within a few hours drive of the Catskills, and I’ve made good use of it this summer with 3 separate backpacking trips to the region. On my Labor Day weekend trip, I ended up drinking whiskey around the camp fire with a group of newly-made friends that raved about how beautiful and desolate the newest section of the Long Path is. After getting home and reading the blog post about the trail at myharriman.com, I decided I had to work it into my next trip.

The Route

My weekend backpacking trips usually follow the same rough outline:

  • Drive up on Friday night and get started with a short night hike to the first campsite
  • Squeeze most of the hiking into Saturday
  • Get out early enough on Sunday to drive home and still have a couple of hours to shower and relax

With this trip I also wanted to stay in lean-tos so that I could travel light and cover a decent number of miles.

I decided to start the adventure at Fox Hollow on the Panther Mountain trail so that I could take advantage of the nearby lean-to on Friday night. Starting here also had the added advantage of my ending and starting trailheads being relatively close together. After crossing Giant Ledge there is a possibility of both a southern route over Cornell, Slide, and Wittenberg Mountains or a more northern route through Woodland Valley to reach the Terrace mountain lean-to on Saturday night. Finally a beautiful 10 mile hike out on the Phoenicia East Branch trail on Sunday to close out the trip. I had originally planned on doing the trip alone, but my ex-girlfriend (yeah, we still hang out, what about it?) ended up joining me.

Fox Hollow to Woodland Valley

The 0.5 mile hike from the trailhead to the Fox Hollow lean-to was mostly uphill but went very quickly since our legs were fresh. The lean-to has a spring next to it, but the flow was so low that it really just looked like a muddy spot on the ground. I’ve found this to be the case with a lot of the springs this summer due to the dry conditions, so be careful scheduling water stops if you’re planning an excursion in the Catskills.

Fox Hollow lean-to with its adjacent spring on the right.

On Saturday morning we were on the trail at 7:30 after a breakfast of oatmeal and instant coffee. The Panther Mountain trail starts out steep and steady as it climbs toward the peak. One aspect of the Catskills that never ceases to amaze me is the large variety of fungi and lichen, and the climb towards Panther Mountain is a great place to spot some.

Fungi and lichen in the Catskills

Right before the Panther Mountain summit a great view to the northeast opens up showcasing the Catskills in all its natural beauty. We were visiting in late September, right as the leaves were starting to turn into the beautiful colors that northeastern falls are known for. The morning sun filtering down through the colorful leaves of the early fall foliage was truly awesome.

View from Panther Mountain

After summiting Panther and checking off another peak on the 3500’s club tally sheet, the hike levels out and heads downhill slightly on the way to Giant Ledge. Georgous views to the east start to become so frequent that they seem routine as you climb to and traverse the cliffs of Giant Ledge. This part of the trail after the Panther summit was packed with day hikers by the time we arrived. The traffic level was a bit surreal because we hadn’t encountered a single person before the Panther summit.

The primitive campsite at the top of Giant Ledge looked like an amazing place to spend a night or two, and I added it to my mental list of favorite campsites in the Catskills. It is made all the better by an abundant water supply at the nearby spring just south of Gaint Ledge. This spring, unlike the one at Fox Hollow, flows out of the side of a rock into which someone had kindly inserted a plastic spigot of sorts. The water was delicious and, since I had been intentionally conserving water during the early part of the day, I took my fill.

The spring just south of Giant Ledge

The hike down into Woodland Valley along the Phoenicia East Branch trail was pleasant but felt a bit mundane after the spectacular views from Giant Ledge. This trail also had long sections of the kind of downhill that is too steep to keep a normal walking stride but not steep enough to feel like going down stairs. It’s the type of downhill that always leaves my knees aching by the time I’ve hit the bottom.

The trail did have one remarkable feature that I was honestly surprised to find unmarked on the NYNJTC maps; an extraordinary staircase climbing at least 100 feet up the south face of Fork Ridge. The Phoenicia East Branch trail has a feature known as the ‘Grand Staircase’ on the way to Cross Mountain, but this staircase is equally as grand in my opinion.

A grand staircase on the south side of Fork Ridge. The picture only shows the lowest portion.

Fox Hollow to Terrace Mountain

We hit Fox Hollow Campground around 2 in the afternoon and took a long relaxing break on the banks of the Woodland Creek. The water was cool and clean, and we used the down-time to soak our feet in the cold water, wash dishes from the evening before, and refill our water supply. It was a good thing that we refilled our water here, because we didn’t see a single viable water source until the spring at the north end of the Phoenicia East Branch trail near Lane Street.

The hike out of Woodland Valley starts with crossing the Woodland Creek and a rapid steady ascent out of the valley. After about a mile the slope becomes a little less steep and views of the ravine between the trail and Terrace Mountain start to open up to the east.

The bridge across Woodland Creek at the beginning of the hike from Woodland Valley to Terrace Mountain along the Phoenicia East Branch trail

About 0.1 miles prior to the offshoot trail to Terrace Mountain we ran into a ranger who was very friendly and stopped to chat for a bit. He told us that the Terrace Mountain lean-to (i.e. where we planned on sleeping for the night) is known for bear activity and warned us to take the standard precautions: cook away from the lean-to, bear bag the food, etc. We arrived at the lean-to around 5:30 pm, and I immediately set to collecting firewood before it got too dark to wander around off-trail. This lean-to site also has two nice clearings for campsites nearby though their legality is a bit dubious since they are within 150 feet of the trail.

The Terrace Mountain lean-to

An hour before nightfall another pair of hikers showed up with their dog, whose name was Buddy, and told us that they had seen two bears while hiking the last mile to the lean-to. After cooking dinner, I hung our bear bag while our lean-to companions placed their bear bin on the ground nearby. In the middle of the night we were all awakened by Buddy barking at something off in the woods near the food, and found in the morning that the bear bin had been dragged off into the woods and now had deep claw and teeth marks in it. Fortunately, our bear bag had been left alone.

Terrace Mountain to Lane St.

This portion of the trail covering the newest portion of the Long Path is what I planned the trip around, and, I must say, it did not disappoint. Shortly after the turn-off from the Wittenburg Mountain trail we came around a corner and saw a black bear at the top of a 30–40 foot tree! We clearly unnerved it because he came tearing down the tree, making it to the bottom in less than 10 seconds, and took off running at full speed away from us. Now, I’ve seen bears numerous times in my travels, and I know that bears are supposed to be good climbers, but this is the first time that I witnessed it first person. It left both of us with a sense of awe and a major adrenaline rush because we weren’t sure if he would run towards or away from us as he was racing down the tree.

About 1.2 miles past the split with the trail to Wittenberg mountain, the trail breaks out onto a granite bald spot which offers georgous views to the north, east, and south. If you’re out on the trail early in the morning, I highly recommend making this your breakfast spot, which is exactly what we did.

Panoramic views from the bald on the Phoenicia East Branch trail. Wittenberg mountain is seen near the left of the image.

From this point on, the trail starts to slowly descend along the ridgeline to Mt. Pleasant. This is the part of the trail which everyone raves about; it rewards you with a ton of unique features and constantly changing microclimes. One of the best known features, ‘The Grand Staircase’, comes immediately after the bald as you start to plunge down into the forest below over winding natural and man-made staircases punctuated by ledges. It is a really awesome trail feature, and, I imagine, feels even more spectacular when approached from the bottom.

The base of ‘The Grand Staircase’

The views to the northwest and southeast come fast and plenty on the ridgeline heading toward Mount Pleasant. The views to the southeast give glimpses of the Ashokan reservoir while those to the Northwest show Woodland Valley backdropped by Wittenberg Mountain.

A view of the Ashokan Reservior and a natural sidewalk.

The final view to the northeast before Mount Pleasant provided us with an excellent overview of the trip. Panther mountain is just out of sight behind the tree, but the cliffs of Gaint Ledge are clearly visible on the right. The Terrace Mountain lean-to is just across the ravine, and Wittenberg and Slide mountains backdrop the view on the left. Standing at this viewpoint with tired legs, eating an apple, and staring at the terrain we had covered left us with a real sense of accomplishment.

More than half of our journey was visible from this viewpoint on the Phoenicia East Branch trail.

After Romer Mountain, the trail starts to descend the ridgeline toward Phoenicia passing from dry spruce forest to lush spring-fed elephant ear groves. All the while, the sun was at our backs filtering in through the canopy of leaves that had just begun to turn for Fall. This hike truly lived up to its hype and is now one of my favorite trails in the Catskills. We saw people twice on the entire 10 mile hike from Terrace Mountain lean-to: one trail runner headed in the same direction as us (who was terrified by our bear story) and a loud group of 5 headed in the opposite direction.

If you are looking for a great through-hike in the Catskills, I highly recommend this route. The more southern version which crosses Wittenberg, Cornell, and Slide mountains could even be added for a three-day trip, and would add a few of the most famous Catskills peaks to the journey. If a long day hike is all you have time for, then you can hike the Phoenicia East Branch trail to the bald spot just above the Grand Staircase before turning back. The trail will reward you with beautiful terrain, drastically varying microclimes, stunning views, and the peacefulness of a nearly empty trail.