Taking a Hike: A winter climb in the Catskills

Winter does not arrive neatly with the solstice. I took this hike in the northeast Catskills on Dec. 11. If the air had been soft and the forest carpeted in copper leaves, I would have been happy to call it — as astronomically I should — a late-fall hike. But the air stung and the Catskills were covered in powdery snow, and the hike was my first winter outing of the season.

I hadn’t intended it to be so. I planned my outing long before our first snowfall appeared in the forecast. What I wanted was to climb a mountain, and copper leaves underfoot would have suited just fine. What mattered was the mountain, and that simplest kind of hike that a mountain offers — up, admire the view, down. I chose the Catskills because they are our nearest big, wild mountains.

Catskills trailheads are a two- three-hours’ drive from our area. That makes for an early rise if you want to begin walking soon after daybreak. With the days growing ever shorter, that’s what I wanted to do, leaving spare daylight for eventualities or just to hike for longer if I wished. So, to delay the alarm clock, I booked myself a motel room on the edge of the Catskills and slept in until all of 5:30 a.m.

At the trailhead — already 2,100 feet above sea level — my car thermometer read 23 degrees. I set out wearing four layers, a fifth in my pack, planning to strip down as I warmed up. I wore a balaclava too so that the cold air would not set me wheezing. I carried microspikes, and water in bottles instead of my usual reservoir, whose tube I knew would freeze.     

Climbing up

Up didn’t prove too tough. It began with a gentle climb on the Diamond Notch Trail, which met Devil’s Path short of the Notch. The first mile of Devil’s Path was steep but not diabolical. Although my heart pumped and the snow stole a little traction, it was a steady climb, which someone had made easier for me. Footprints told me that one human had preceded me up this path since the snowfall. We had a similar stride and boot size, and his journey helped me find my route when the best way forward was uncertain. There is a metaphor for life there.

Somewhere on the steep mile, I took off a layer — a quilted vest, which I strapped to the side of my pack. Soon after, the path leveled out, entering firs hanging low and heavy with snow. I remember, too, a scramble on my knees to overcome an awkward ledge, and a clean cave in the middle of the trail — the roof was a slab of angled rock.

Admiring the view

The sky — clouded — began to feel close and there seemed to be little mountain above me now. Even so, Buck Ridge Lookout came suddenly, as breaks in the woods must. It was a narrow southeast-facing rock, occupied by a hiker. He had earned his view, and I moved back from the edge to let him enjoy it. Anyway, I needed to layer up. It was calm here, but probably under 20 degrees. My fingers grew numb in gloves wet from snow and sweat, and I discovered that the firs had dumped their loads on my quilted vest, leaving it damp and warmth-less. Lessons learned: Bring spare gloves; stow vest inside pack.

The hiker began to set off down the mountain. I thanked him for making my ascent easier, and moved into his footprints on the lookout. The mountain fell away ahead, two thousand feet into the valleys below, into which sunbeams pointed. I had a 180-degree Catskills panorama: 10 miles to the northeast, the triple humps of the Blackhead Mountains; east, much closer, the flat summits of Hunter and Plateau beneath gray cloud; south, those sunbeams shining into Stony Clove.

It was hard to turn away from these grand views, but the cold suggested getting moving again and I struck out for the summit. It wasn’t far, and there was little to see when I reached it; just dim, snow-hushed fir forest and a rough sign: Westkill Mt. Summit. For the record, the point is 3,890 feet above sea level, the sixth highest in the Catskills.

I was soon back at Buck Ridge, where the views were unaltered — until, that is, a break in the clouds brought sunshine and turned merely fine views into fabulous ones. The snow-clumps in the firs below now shone, as did the whole forest along the east ridge of the mountain. The distant summits were sharp and bright.

Heading down

Down was tougher than up, hard on the concentration and the knees. I wore microspikes most of the way. They were invaluable here and there, but awkward whenever I hit bare rock beneath the powder. The sun had proved fleeting, but the cold endured. Never mind, I’d had my reward. And, near the end, there was a bonus where a brook ran over a ledge to form delicate, half-frozen falls.

PARKING East end of Spruceton Rd, West Kill, NY (GPS: 42.177585, -74.261632).
DISTANCE 6 miles.
DURATION I was out for 5 hours.
MAP AMC Catskill Mountains Trail Map
ROUTE Diamond Notch Trail to Devil’s Path to West Kill Mtn summit, returning by same route.
WHAT TO TAKE In winter conditions: spikes; layers of clothing; spare pair of gloves or liners; water bottles instead of a reservoir.


Rob McWilliams is a local resident. Taking a Hike appears eight times a year. Contact Rob at “McWilliams Takes a Hike” blog and Facebook. He’d love to hear from you.