Over the last few years, I’ve spent a lot of time climbing the Catskill High Peaks, traditionally defined as summits of 3,500 feet in elevation or higher. Not only have I climbed each of these, I’ve done each in every month of the year, which is called the Grid.
The Catskills All Trails Challenge is a different kind of exercise. It requires you to complete every hiking trail in the region, which total 347 miles in length. I embarked on this challenge with curiosity, for it would take me out to places I’d never seen before.
Since I’d been hiking and running in the Catskills for many years, I already had close to half the trails complete. Over the last year, I’ve made several trips in pursuit of this new goal, which has pushed my completion level to 66%. It’s been slow progress. Many of the trails are remote. Sometimes the trails I need are quite short, but require a long walk to reach a junction I’d never taken before. While there are some loops, most often I have to go out-and-back, which means it takes twice the required distance to complete the trail.
Like any challenge, this exercise provides structure, a specific goal, camaraderie, and a sense of meaning. I’m looking forward to earning the certificate of completion, which I’ll add to my collection of finisher medals and other trinkets. But the real question is what I’ll experience by going out to new places. What I’m finding so far is that the All Trails Challenge is a different experience from peak-bagging. Instead of rocky summits with distant views, I’m discovering lovely forests and meadows and so much water — ponds, lakes, streams, bogs, and falls.
What follows are a handful of images and some observations from trips taken over the last year.
From Alder Lake to Balsam Lake Mountain – May 23, 2020
- In pursuit of new trails, I recruited my friend Kal Ghosh to join me on expedition to the western Catskills. We hiked around Alder Lake Loop and then took the Mill Brook Trail to Balsam Lake Mountain. Alder Lake is a popular camping spot (we saw a number of tents). It was quiet spring weather — cool and misty with heavy cloud layers, and the trees just starting to leaf out.
- The map shows a stream running through Beaver Meadow, but we found another lake, with a beaver dam on the western edge, a lean-to, and the sounds of spring peepers from the far shoreline. I recall thinking that this would be a lovely place to camp out and enjoy a mild evening with frog chorus — but with so many new trails to discover, it will be a long time, sadly, before I return here.
Belleayre Ridge – June 27-28, 2020
- This was an over-nighter, and now the weather was a little warmer, but it was a wet and misty weekend. I completed several trails going up and down Belleayre Mountain, including Lost Clove, Giggle Hollow, and Cathedral Glen. There were some very steep trails along ski runs, choked with ferns and nettles, and all sopping wet. From the ski-lift up top, views of mountains, fog in the valleys, and clouds in the skies.
Rochester Hollow – July 18, 2020
- This loop had long intrigued me because of the memorial to the Catskill nature-writer, John Burroughs. This trail is popular with mountain bikers, but there weren’t many people out — plenty of room for everyone.
Colgate Lake to Ducher Pass – July 25, 2020
- Together with friends Charlie Gadol and Steve Aaron, we followed the trail up and over the pass and down the other side. The trail passed through pretty meadows — which seems so uncharacteristic of the peak-bagging experience, where you’re typically following ridge-lines through northern hardwoods and boreal groves.
Echo Lake – September 20, 2020
- Steve Aaron loves viewpoints! We headed out first to Codfish Point and then Steve insisted on visiting Plattekill Mountain, which required a detour off trail. And then more bushwhacking to find a vantage point looking east, which was the destination he was after. And then more bushwhacking, some of which was steep, to rejoin the trail.
- After all that bushwhacking, it was on to our destination for the day — Echo Lake and the trail that circles around it. It was an early fall day, with a touch of color in some places, and plenty of sun, but the breezes were turning chilly.
- To earn credit for this trail, I had to circle around Echo Lake. The high point was finding a beaver dam, just a few steps from where I’d started, and the sky reflecting in the water. Were it not for the All Trails Challenge, I would not have bothered.
Huckleberry Point – October 10, 2020
- Speaking of not bothering, it’s been my preference historically to avoid some of the most popular trails. I’d passed the short yellow-blazed trail to Huckleberry Point a dozen times before (if not more) and never bothered to check out where it went. Now I know — it leads to a gorgeous vantage point overlooking the Kaaterskill Clove and the Hudson River. From the end of the trail I looked out at a beautiful scene — there was the Catskills’ dramatic eastern escarpment and a family quietly enjoying the spot.
Kaaterskill Falls Trail – November 22, 2020
- Another trail I’d always steered clear of. For one thing, you access it from a dangerous winding road. For another, it’s thronged with tourists, and every year it seems someone slips on an icy step and plunges to their death. However, the trail is part of the Catskill All Trails Challenge and thus it was on my list. Studying the map, I realized there was a corner of the Escarpment Trail I’d never seen, and once out there, I discovered that you could access the Kaaterskill Falls Trail from the top, without having to set foot on the road. Needless to say, there’s a reason so many tourists visit these falls — they are spectacular.
Russell Brook Fall, Mud Pond, and Trout Lake – November 28, 2020
- The Russell Brook Falls alone were worth the long drive to the Catskills’ far northwestern corner. It was an eerie scene at dusk, on a late fall afternoon. The water slices through layers of sandstone covered in moss, crusted over with white lichen, dotted with ferns, and farther uphill there are more sandstone strata. The snow came early this year and had already dusted the hemlocks.
- I passed by Trout Pond in a squall of snow flurries. Late fall was transitioning to early winter.
- The trail looping around Mud Pond was (appropriately) very muddy. It eventually dropped down into a valley and dead-ended with an abandoned forest road. The Challenge had taken me to the far northwestern corner of the Catskills and the farthest extent of the trail system in this direction.
Vernooy Kill Falls – November 27, 2020
- Another popular spot. The falls are not very high, but you can follow them back through the woods, and there are several pools that look quite inviting — maybe moreso in summer, unless you’re looking for a polar plunge.
Onteora Lake – December 5, 2020
- This is another series of trail popular with mountain bikers, although I never saw one. It was a gray wintry day, although not too cold. The lake is long and thin — indeed the terrain has narrow grooves running north-south, possibly the debris left behind by receding glaciers.
North South Lake – February 28, 2021
- I didn’t get out to the Catskills in January because of extreme cold and deep snow. While I have spikes and snowshoes and crampons, I prefer to hike barefoot, and these kind of conditions are not conducive to that practice. But a day in the upper 30s lured me out to North South Lake. I found the the snow hard-packed and crusty in certain places, and while my feet never complained from the cold, I ended up with some scratches. And here I am still wearing bandaids two weeks later. It was a high price to pay for 2.8 miles of trail. But it was also a unique scene — the lake iced over thick enough to drive a truck and ice fisherman drilling away under a gloomy arctic sky.