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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