Blackhead, Black Dome and Thomas Cole

After a total washout in 2016 due to double-torn and ruptured discs in my back, and atrophy in my left leg that will not recover (I know, whoa is me), and having a trip cut short due to HAPE, it was with great worry and anticipation that the 2017 hiking season got underway. Having spent many, many, many days of my young life in the Catskills, I was anxious to get back to the area to relive some old memories, and to hike many of the trails that I was only permitted to ogle at as a kid. The trails of the Catskills are, like the ADKS, famously rugged – but I figured they would be a little less wet and a little less rutted (and shorter) than the ADKs.

Since I only had one day to hike and a half day to settle in before it, and not being familiar with the area, I tried to locate in the Northeastern portion of the park, where I could have an easy camping experience instead of crashing in my car at a trailhead – that will come again soon. I had spent many days as a teenager driving to Kaaterskill Falls, and hiking some of the easy trails around North Lake and Haines Falls but had never stopped to stay at the campground or lakes, and given that this was still an off-season, I figured it was easy to snag a spot there. The weather was overcast, and I tossed the hiking gear in the car, and the kayak on the roof, and headed out. I managed to get an early start on Tuesday, which enabled me to make a noon appointment for a tour of the wonderful Olana – the home of Frederic Church, one of the foremost artists in the Hudson River School of painters. The home sits on the East side of the Hudson River, just south of the town of Hudson and looking West into the Northern Catskill range.

My taste and expertise in art is, to put it mildly, limited. But I love landscapes, and the way that the Hudson River painters have used light and shading to both show the wonder of nature but also the power and tenuous relationship man has with it has always mesmerized me. And learning more about the travels of the Hudson School painters through South America when I have learned more about the travels of Von Humboldt and Darwin and others really brings to life the paintings for me. I can’t recommend the tour of Olana enough. It sits atop a majestic hill on over 100 acres, the home was designed by Church after his travels to the Middle East, and its distinctive Persian flair surprisingly fits the scenery in a way that I did not expect. Many of the paintings from his collection are hung in Olana, and the guides are excellent storytellers and knowledgeable. It’s a great start to any trip to the Catskill Ranges.

After  the tour I headed into the town of Hudson to see the renaissance it has undergone in the 20 years since I was last there, and was both delighted and frazzled by the changes. I will only speak to the former here – good vibes necessary. An old bowling alley slab was turned into a bar inside a neat old bookstore called Spotty Dog Books and Ale where I enjoyed a fresh, local Suarez Family Brewing (run by former head brewer from Hill Farmstead) Kellerbier. It was bready, crisp and delightful in a just delightful setting.

After stopping at my favorite convenience store of all time, Stewarts, I headed over the Rip Van Winkle onto Route 23A and up the winding eastern slopes of the Catksills. When I got to the campground, there were still sites available right on the lake, and was given Site 150 – which in retrospect is probably the best single campsite in the park, and one of the best in the East Coast I have been able to stay at.

After quickly setting up camp, took the kayak out for a paddle, and how delightful it was. The entire lake was silent, with a brisk breeze whipping up 6-12 inch “waves” as I paddled toward several tiny areas of vegetation and beaver dens. There were pitcher plants in the vegetation! While I did not manage to spot any beavers, their presence was clearly there. As I paddled south toward the dam I noticed a strange looking hawk above me. Strange because it was bigger than most hawks I am used to seeing, and because it’s coloring was not like one I knew – it was black and speckled, and menacing looking. I first thought it was an osprey, but its belly was not very white and its wings laid flat out and not angled as it flew. I would have had it jiggle my brain for days if it were not for what came next. As I paddled slowly up along the shoreline, a huge bird with a noticeable heavy yellow bill, bright white head and tail, and dark underbelly appeared and dove hard to the water to try to pick out a fish. It sort of failed at it – but it was such a delight to see a Bald Eagle in this way. As I continued to paddle along the shore, there were plenty of Tree Sparrows along the edge of the woods, and there was a Spotted Sandpiper picking its way (it had a very speckled breast and noticeable black stripe through its eye) along the rocks. He never let me get too close, but I was able to get a good look through the binoculars. As I made my way up back to the shrubby areas, there were Marsh Sparrows cleaning themselves from atop reed-like plants. The neatest part of this was that there were hundreds and hundreds of gnats flying around. And every four or five seconds as the Sparrows cleaned themselves, they would quickly snag one of the tiny bugs for a meal, and keep on cleaning. I was able to get about 8 feet away from the birds without startling them, but tried to keep my distance nonetheless. When I returned to the campsite, there looked to be a Black and White warbler dancing around the low canopy nearby, but I could not get a great look at him.

In any case, I grilled some hot dogs and peppers and onions over the campfire, and enjoyed that with an awesome Santilli from Nightshift – it had a mix of new and old school flavors to me, wasn’t a booze bomb, and maintained the bitterness that an IPA should have while at the same time being able to deliver the fruity notes of the new crops of hops that are so popular today. Since I was near my car, I slept in camping luxury, bringing two ground mats, a fleece blanket to lie on, and my pillow. I slept as well as one can and was awoken by the sun (on what was supposed to be an ugly day) on hike day.

The site had a shower, so I decided to indulge and try to feel as good as possible before embarking. So, after the shower and a great breakfast of ham, eggs, red onion, cheese and coffee, was on my way to the trailhead, about a half-hour from the site. The trailhead is east from Maplecrest near the end of Big Hollow Road. There was one other car (from Northampton) in the parking lot when I arrived, and aside from a pleasant older gentlemen I saw on the last 1/2 mile of the hike, I did not see another human being all day long.

Signed in at the trail register at 8:25am, and the trail was much dryer than I anticipated, it was well marked, and easy to make good time on, at least until you run into the approach to Black Dome. I tried to make as good a time as I could on the lower sections from the trailhead to the Batavia Kill lean-to, and I was able to. As you leave the lean-to and make your way onto the Escarpment Trail, the trail climbs fairly steeply, as regular an ascent as you’d see in the ADKs, it is just not as sustained, or as rooty or muddy, so while my weakened back and leg made it a little bit of a bigger challenge, and it being the first hike made for a solid huff-and-puff up, keep the mantra of “keep moving” going and it was not a bad hike at all. I managed to hit the summit of Blackhead at 9:30am. The summit itself is a rounded rock with no views to speak of. But if you walk a quarter mile beyond the summit along the Escarpment toward Dutcher Notch (and away from the trail to Black Dome) you are treated to two lovely views looking East out over the Hudson Valley. From here you are looking back out toward Olana, from whence you started yesterday, and would be in the far right of the view that Church and his friends would have had looking back at us. Don’t not take this short side trip. The views from the outcropping are great, with the Hudson River in foreground, the Taconics, Berkshires, Graylock, and Greens in the immediate view, it is a place you can linger. Plus, the trail over there is one of those prized pristine pine needle walking paths that look like it came out of a New Zealand fantasy movie. The only bad part is that the pretty trail doesn’t last too long. You descend a little, but it’s worth it.

The summit also did not have markers, I suspect because people steal them, and one of the trail signs at the summit has this really weird wired webbing all over it.

I should have noted the time off the peak – the trail signs indicated 1.1 miles total over to Black Dome. I think the walk down to the Col between Blackhead and Black Dome was the highlight of the trip. The trail was scraggly on way down, and since I was staring at views the entire time I almost took a few diggers. And the rocks and soil begin to take on a reddish hue that is reminiscent of places in the American Southwest. After a quick water break in the col, the remaining 0.5  miles up to the peak were not at all bad to keep a steady pace on, I believed it was an easier walk up than the walk up to Blackhead. In any case, I managed to get to the spectacular (south facing) summit of Black Dome at 10:32 with views south to Colgate Lake and Lake Capra, and a great expanse of almost the entire Catskills. I wanted to stay and linger, but Thomas Cole is an out and back, and I had planned to spend a lot of time here on my return, and have my snack and drink.

The walk over to Cole was 0.7 miles, with only a few hundred feet descent and ascent, and was over on the peak there at 10:53. I am sure it is no small irony that not only is there absolutely no view in any direction from the peak of Thomas Cole (and nowhere all day were we able to see North into range with the Windam High Peak on it), since Cole is tucked dead West of both Black Dome and Blackhead, I am almost positive that there is absolutely no way to see the summit or prominence of Cole from anywhere in or across the Hudson Valley. In other words, the mountain that bears the founder of the Hudson River School’s name has no view and could not be seen by him. There was no indication in the writings I came across that Cole himself ever hiked to that peak, it is a hefty walk of around 12 miles from the site of the Catskill Mountain House down further South on the Escarpment that he clearly had visited.

After wandering around the summit of Cole for a bit, and trudging around for a place to get a view, I gave up and headed back over to Black Dome – where I made myself sit still for an hour. To get an hour of summit time anywhere is almost unheard of due to weather and time concerns. But the day was clearing up, the walk was going by very fast, and I want to learn how to slow things down from time to time. It was the best.

While clearing, the weather still was overcast and cool and breezy – perhaps my favorite hiking weather ever … and the left leg was very weak but still felt energized after 4 peaks

My dear wife has reminded me to live in the moment and enjoy life. As I was reflecting on that, and the silence, the neatest little insect with really bright red wings flew by … I wished I could have identified it.

I lingered for more time than usual, it’s so hard to get the angst out of system about “having to get back” … but I’ve no place to go, the weather is holding out, the trail is easy out, and I have experienced true quiet and solitude … just the very faintest of car sounds from down in valley, but that is overtaken by flies, the little mosquitos and Black flies are present but not annoying, the fresh breeze makes the valley sound like it is slowly taking off, and the usual mountain birds go about their business oh quietly so …

It’s first time in nearly 2 years that I have had peace and quiet… there was one girl from Northampton signed at trail register but I did not see her or anyone else all day until the end.  On the peak there was nary a bird sound aside from the quick chips of a gray and white warbler with black line through eye but he had yellow underflanks when he flew. I could not tell in my guidebooks what this little feller might have been.

I regrettably left summit at 1215 as sun came out. The walk down was without to much terror, unlike many walks out in the ADKs. Once down into the col between Blackhead and Black Dome, we take a different trail out than we came up in. Until that point, we had one wonderful view sweeping Northeast to South from a shoulder off the eastern slopes of Black Dome. I could have stayed here, too, for days. Once down from here and onto the switchback-ish approach trail, the footing turned more to scree, but wasn’t something to psych you out. I had two pleasant encounters on way down from here. The first, about halfway down, was seeing a trail marker for a “Spring” that someone had scribbled “Poland” on, and made some snarky reference to it being expensive. But the best part of this is that the spring was there, but so too was a pipe with fresh water running out of it – presumably put there to take some run-off and erosion pressure off the trail. The trip down was full of efforts to divert water off the trail, so this is my best guess. Finally, near the end of the trail, I ran across a gentleman clearly in his 70s, who had hiked his was to Blackhead and back and who has been hiking these Catskill mountains for longer than I have been alive. We exchanged  some observations about the (lack of) wildlife, the condition of the trails, and of course how wonderful a day in the woods is.

By 1:13PM I was back at the car, shoes changed, and on my way to explore Tannersville area and the region around North and South Lake. So, all in, with about 1 hour 15 minutes of time stopped, the trail loop took about 4:45, so if it was your intention to cruise through this, I think it can be done in 3.5 without too much trouble, Of course, trail runners would do it in half that. I think there was a total of about 7.5 miles of hiking, which is shorter than just about any single High Peaks trek, and my guess for the total vertical rise with the backtrekking was close to 3,500 feet.

So, if we are counting, and I do not think I am, these are 3 of the 35 (but need 39 it seems) peaks toward completing the Catksill 3500. The hike was beautiful and I recommend it if you want a stress free way of hanging in the mountains without too many people. The footing was excellent, not too many times tripping in witches fingers, getting whacked by brambles, or anything like that.  There were plenty of views, they are not as spectacular as some in the ADKs, but they are varied and come upon you regularly.  This is a lovely way to start a hiking season, and one or two more of these and I think we’d be in great shape to try something a bit more adventurous.

The lovely part of this day was that even with some exploring Tannersville and the valley after the hike, and heading down into Catskill to grab a few things, I was back on the water paddling by 430 (but did see a frightened, yet poisonous, water snake scurry away when I was back at the site) and made a yummy cilantro lime chicken with black beans, corn, red onions and red peppers corn tortilla dinner. Yum. And a nice campfire, a late night walk over to the Mountain House site, and a great night of sleep. Up before the sun the next day and was home in Rochester before lunch time.