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Western Catskills Traverse

Trout Pond, Western Catskills
Trout Pond, Western Catskills

I spent most of my formative years as a backpacker in the Catskills, a 700,000 acre forest preserve, located less than 100 miles north of New York City. It’s a beautiful place full of rivers, streams, valleys and mountains that maintains a rural and wilderness feel despite being so close to one of the largest cities in the world.

The Catskills also have a wonderfully rich hiking trail network and wilderness lean-to system for those who want to get away for a few days and do more strenuous backpacking or peakbagging expeditions. While I’ve hiked extensively in the northern, central, eastern, and southern areas of the Catskills, I’d never been to the remote Western Catskills. That changed when I got a place on a two night backpacking trip being led by an old hiking friend and mentor of mine, who I’ve been on many trips with in the past.

Our route was a traverse of the Western Catskills, in the area just south of Pepacton Reservoir which feeds a series of picturesque ponds and backcountry streams. I was particularly interested in this trip because our itinerary called for a full day of hanging out at the Trout Pond lean-to, and I hoped to test out a new Tenkara fly fishing rod and the small mountain streams that it feeds. As it turns out, this area is renowned for its fly fishing, and I plan to come back soon with a buddy of mine who fishes with a western reel.

In addition to fishing and hanging out, we also had some backpacking planned, tramping up and down the local hills along a section of the Finger Lakes Trail that coincides with the Catskills trail network.

Autumn in the Catskills
Autumn in the Catskills

Unfortunately, the weather didn’t cooperate, and we were forced to detour around washed out roads, hike through unmaintained bramble-choked trails, ford rivers, bypass landslides and bushwhack back to our cars due to shockingly inaccurate maps. It was all good fun, but not quite the relaxing trip I had in mind.

Our original route was to start at Holiday and Berry Brook Road but it was washed out due to flooding by Hurricane Irene. Instead, we picked up the trail 4 miles further east and 2 and half hours later, starting our hike on the Mary Smith Trail. The added mileage and  heavy rain (that night) forced us to seek shelter early on a side path down in Pelnor Hollow.

Plenar Hollow Lean-to
Plenar Hollow Lean-to

The lean-to there is in very good condition but the 2 mile path down to it is choked with brambles and scratched us up terribly. Trail maintenance for it has been taken over by a snowmobile club, but their level of effort is not sufficient for hikers, sigh. If you camp at this shelter, which is more approachable from the south, be aware the the water source is very difficult to find. It’s downhill from the shelter, on the outside edge of the beaver meadow, just below a small stone foundation. It’s not signed and we only discovered it because on member of our party had been there some year ago and knew of its existence. If you arrive after dark, you will be SOL unto the next morning.

The next morning we climbed back uphill through the bramble trail and resumed out journey west following the Plenar Hollow Trail and the Little Spring Trail, which runs through a beautiful stand of towering red pine and spruce. There is good water here and plenty of excellent wild camping spots. There are also apple trees nearby that have gone wild but still produce excellent fruit.

From here, we followed the Campbell Mountain Trail to the CM Lean-to, quitting by about 4 pm, after hiking up and down lots of slippery, wet Catskill shale, all day. The ground here has been super-saturated by the summer’s rains so there many blow downs blocking the trails because their roots systems have let go in the soft soil.

The next morning we got up very early, before sunrise, breaking camp at 7:15 am. We finally made it to Trout Pond by 12 noon and expected an easy road walk out from there back to out cars a few miles south along Russell Brook Road.

Washed Out Bridge, Russell Brook Road
Washed Out Bridge, Russell Brook Road

Things took a little longer than expected though, because that road hasn’t existed for some time, despite being on several different maps, some quite current. What was expected to be an a easy bimble down an autumn road turned into a bushwhacking and river fording extravaganza! I wasn’t terribly worried because we just needed to follow the river and a southern compass bearing to get to where we wanted to go.

Despite bad weather and the unexpected route features, this was a nice little adventure and our party had a swell time together. In addition to hooking up with an old hiking buddy and making new friends, I got some moderately strenuous backpacking in and discovered an excellent fly fishing destination for future exploration. Time well spent.

8 comments

  1. Wow! That sounds like a lot more of an adventure than planned. Interesting to hear the trails and roads are so poorly mapped. I guess most of the popular hiking hotspots being in the Eastern side of the preserve means less maintenance in the west. And yet that lean-to looks to be in much better condition than any of those I remember from my hiking in the eastern side.

    I'll still have to get down there at some point in the near future. It's such a pretty area, especially in the fall.

  2. It really is exceptional hiking but don't let the rolling hills on the western side fool you, they add up to some serious elevation. The thing I really love about the Catskills is that you can bushwhack so easily. The woods are relatively thin when compared to the dacks or even the Whites, so you can go off trail without getting scratched to bits. The irony on this hike is that we probably would have been better bushwhacking rather than going down the Pelnor hollow trail but once we'd trampled it, climbing back up it wasn't nearly as bad. I guess the lean-tos here are in such good condition because they don't get a lot of use. The Catskills are worth deep exploration if you have the time.

  3. I haven't hiked in the Catskills yet, but this post lured me. My hike to the Adirondacks was a bust because of tropical storm Irene. I will get back there next year and will alert you in case you'd care to join me. Happy trails!

  4. Irene has wreaked havoc across the entire region – Vermont – the Dacks – the Whites – the Catskills. I feel your pain. It's still really difficult to get around these more rural areas with all of the road closings and washouts. If you go down to the Catskills next year give me a shout – I know some awesome places to go hiking and the peakbagging is also pretty good in the more mountainous areas.

  5. What is the travel time to this area from NYC? Now that my daughter lives in NYC (and sold her car) — this looks like a good way to combine a visit with some backpacking in a new area…

  6. The Catskills are about 2 hours north of NYC – look up Phoenicia New York on google maps to get into the prime hiking/peakbagging area. Most of the drive is straight up Interstate 87 (the thruway). The heart of the Western Catskills is Roscoe, NY. It is also 120 miles from the city and you drive up Rt 17 (which is being turned into Interstate 86). Enjoy – it really is a wonderful hiking and backpacking destination.

  7. I think of the book My Side of the Mountain whenever I think about the Catskills. I read that book until it fell apart. I have always wanted to go there and hike. Thanks for the summary and the pics, it makes me want to go even more.

  8. Susan,

    I found that book again recently, and I was completely surprised. It was a book. I had read it. I thought I had made it up myself. That's how deeply I absorbed the book as a kid.

    Earlylite,

    Despite some unexpected conditions it all still sounds like fun. There is a recent hire at the New York New Jersey Trail Conference that is the Catskill Region Program Coordinator. HIs name is Jeff Senterman. I've attached a post where he introduces himself on the ADK High Peaks Forum. I am sure that he would like to hear about some of the things you encountered. I know that the Trail Conference would love to hear about any map inaccuracies particularly if they were trail conference maps.
    http://forums.adkhighpeaks.com/showthread.php?t=1

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