Catskills Backpacking: The Escarpment Trail

North Point, The Escarpment Trail, Catskills

The Catskill’s Escarpment Trail is notable for its open vistas and fine views of the Hudson River Valley. This 23.9 mile hike is moderately challenging and is best spread over a 3 day trip, including shuttles, so you can enjoy the views without feeling rushed.

The last time I hiked the Escarpment Trail was on a trip led by a good friend who leads backpacking trips for the New York Chapter of the Appalachian Mountain Club. The trip leaders for this AMC chapter are fantastic and I’ve backpacked with them in the Catskills, the Taconics, the Green Mountains, the Adirondacks, and the White Mountains (New York, Connecticut, Vermont, and New Hampshire.)

The trail starts on Schutt Road just outside of Haines Falls, NY off Rt 18. It circles around the North/South Lake Campground (see Maps 40 and 41 from the NY-NJ Trail Conference) and parallels the Hudson River past North Point, before veering northeast over Blackhead Mountain (3,940 ft) and ending at Rt 23 at the foot of Windham High Peak (3,524 ft).

Airplane Crash on the Escarpment Trail
Airplane Crash on the Escarpment Trail

The Escarpment Trail is so called because it overlooks the Hudson River Valley to the east. This area is a popular spot for hang gliding and fliers and I can remember a rest stop we took, where we sat in the sunshine at the top of a cliff overlooking the valley and watched hang gliders soaring in front of us against a blue blue sky.

Further evidence of the popularity of flying can be found near North Point in the form of an a crashed airplane which has been left in the woods. This is a morbidly fascinating artifact to stumble upon if you’re not expecting it!

The trail is unusually dry for the Catskills, so make sure that you fill up regularly and bring a good map in case you need to hike down the ridge in search of a stream. I remember this happening on our trip but we found an nice creek and a great stealth site in the process, where we made camp for the evening.

The Escarpment Trail
The Escarpment Trail

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Near the halfway point of the trail, you arrive at the foot of Blackhead Mountain, the 4th highest peak in the Catskills, and have to make a steep ascent. Blackhead is part of a spectacular group of three peaks (shown above) which warrant a separate day hike to summit and explore. The middle peak is called Black Dome Mountain (3,980 ft) and the one on the far right is called Thomas Cole Mountain (3,940 ft), named after a famous American Painter and member of the Hudson School.

After Blackhead you hike up and down several smaller 3,000 foot peaks before cresting Windham High Peak. Just below, Windham there is a dense hemlock forest that you pass through just above the Windham Lean-to. It’s spectacular and one of the best sights on the trail.

If you are traveling to the trail from a distance, the Windham Lean-to is a good place to camp the night before and while it’s close to the road, it’s not close enough to attract the wrong sort of company.

I can still vividly remember camping there myself. I pitched a tent behind the Lean-to in a stand a mature trees carpeted with pine needles and cooked myself a dinner of spicy Thai soup and noodles. I was completely alone. Then I remember sitting in my tent and writing in my journal about how good it felt to spend a few hours in the late afternoon just hanging out without having to be any place. Isn’t that a great feeliing?

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16 comments

  1. There's another crash site in NH on Mount Moosilauke from WWII. Supposed to be a good bushwhack.

  2. That's great. It reminds me of the similar wreckage on the North side of Mt Abraham in VT.

    As the story goes, two people crash landed there (about 100yd from the summit) during a storm in 1974 and were able to walk out on the AT.

  3. My girlfriend is flying from Australia this June to attend a festival with me in Tennessee, and we want to bring our camping gear up with us to New York afterwards to use in the Catskills before returning to New York City. We need help planning a trip that would eliminate two or three nights of lodging cost (i.e. camping), and I have some questions you might be able to answer.

    We are both strong hikers, though I am the only one with extended backpacking experience. I spent two and a half weeks out in the Sierra Nevadas with my rock climbing team in high school, so I feel confident in stamina and ability, but would rather plan something scenic and secluded than arduous or crowded.

    Do you know of any good trailheads we might access via train or bus from New York city? I imagine us arriving at a station from which we can quickly access a trailhead with our backpacks and hike for a half day before choosing a spot to pitch camp. Then we’d like to wake up and hike a full day through the wilderness with a second or third night camping, and finally return to New York City by the third or fourth night.

    Thank you for your suggestions! This is an important trip for the two of us, so I’m hoping to find some good solutions.

    • You best bet would be to take the train to Harriman State Park and hike onto the Appalachian Trail.I also think there’s a train to Bear Mountain, which is a more remote section. There’s also a train to the Appalachian Trail station near the RPH shelter. I’m not a local so I don’t have detailed information for you, but that should get you started.Get yourself a copy of David Miller’s AT Guide, which probably has all the details. It’s available on Amazon.

    • If you really want to make it all the way to the Catskills via public transit, there are a number of busses that go to Phoenicia, and you can on the Long Path from there pretty easily. In fact, most busses that travel Route 28 through the Catskills will stop about anywhere on Route 28 if you talk to the driver first, so you can hit a number of other trail heads from there. Loops hikes in the Catskills are difficult since most trails don’t loop around.

  4. The Escarpment Trail, which is notable for it’s open vistas and fine views of the Hudson River Valley.

    Seconded! The views are great. https://flic.kr/p/a1JBMU

  5. Hi there, great read, thank you for sharing. There is a primitive camping area off the escarpment trail, is there one before the Windham Lean-to? Closer to the Schutt Road Parking lot. Any help would be great, thanks!

  6. Phillip: Where was the stealth site you found around the halfway point and roughly how many tents could you pitch there? I am looking to lead a backpack with a small group and am in the planning phase of the hike for later this year. Knowing this will be very helpful as I map this out.

    • I can’t remember and I wouldn’t publish it online if I did. It was a long time ago.

    • The only restrictions on camping along this route is you can’t camp near the North-South lake campground (unless you’re staying IN the campground) and you can’t camp above 3,500 feet (except between December and March, or in an emergency). Other than that you’re fine camping anywhere.

  7. In early August 2020 I hiked this trail beginning at North/South Lake with the original intention of ending after the Windham ascent. However, a catastrophic boot failure ended my trek at Dutcher Notch. This was my first Catskills hike and it occurred just after the Isiah storm. As a result, the water along this reportedly dry trail was plentiful. We filtered in a number of places including the Notch (east side exit towards Stoke Nest’s road). I will say that the trail is more challenging than I expected, the frequent rock scrambles especially the last one as you approach North Point required taking off my pack in order to get up onto the table. Further, the storm took its toll on the trail with many areas heavily eroded. This was nowhere more evident than the east side descent from Dutcher Notch. Nevertheless, this is a magnificent trail with breathtaking views. I enjoyed it a great deal and now that I have purchased a new pair of boots, I will return to finish my hike.

  8. I have a question re. the mileage for his section, given as 23.9 from Mountain House to Elm Ridge Parking Area (start/finish per map in post). When I add the distances listed on the Catskill Mountain Trail Map, I get 0.2+1.4+0.6 (from inset)+3.7+2.4+0.8+2.3+2.4+2.1+1.1 = 17.0 I’m not worried about tenths, but what am I missing? Where is the 7 miles of difference?

  9. I figured it out. The trail starts at Schutt Rd and loops west, then south of South Mt. before climbing it with a switch back and continuing NE to Mountain House site. The blue line on the map in the post doesn’t show all that. Looking forward to hiking this trail in summer 2021.

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