Indian Head Mountain via the Devil’s Path

Elizabeth and I set out to climb Indian Head Mountain in the Catskill Mountains of New York today. I used to visit the Catskills often when I lived in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, but I haven’t been able to do that since moving away and I’ve grown to sorely miss their dramatic forms covered in vast forests.

This was my first chance to come back here in years, so I planned to take advantage of it by climbing a new Catskill High Peak. There was a chance of an afternoon thunderstorm, but after living in the stormless Bay Area, I considered the possibility an attraction rather than a threat.

Elizabeth and I drove to the end of Prediger Road, where we parked at the eastern terminus of the Devil’s Path and got ready for our hike. We walked out into a forest of hardwoods and dark green hemlocks, greeted by the song of a wood thrush. It was 68 degrees and everything was still wet from yesterday’s rain, but for now the forest alternated between sun and shade under partly cloudy skies.

Twin Mountain and Sugarloaf Mountain from Platte Clove Road in Catskill Mountains

Walking along the Devil’s Path, we went through a fine forest of mature hemlocks and northern hardwoods, with trees of all ages as well as fallen logs rotting on the forest floor. Here were sugar maples with their shaggy gray bark and yellow birches with their peeling gold bark, serious beech trees next to tall black cherries and white ashes, and hemlocks creating gloomy shade beneath their boughs [1].

We felt as though we were out in the wilderness, but the Devil’s Path paralleled a road for a while and we were reminded of this by the sound of a riding lawnmower.

We made it to the intersection for the trail to Indian Head Mountain in good time, but I tried not to be too optimistic, since my previous experience in the Catskills suggested that the path to the summit would be much more difficult than the one we’d taken so far.

Higher now, and farther from the road, the sound of the lawnmower was replaced by rustling leaves and bird songs. In the distance we heard something like a siren. But when we stopped to listen, other sirens joined in and we realized we were actually listening to the wild yelps of coyotes.

As we walked on, the trail got rockier, and the unusually rainy weather of the last few weeks had turned the path into a small stream. A few of the steeper sections had us climbing little waterfalls, and Elizabeth and I were having more and more fun as our hands and feet got muddier.

View from Devil's Path east of Indian Head Mountain in Catskill Mountains 3

We stopped for a break where the trees and shrubs were low enough for some views of the forested mountains extending to the horizon, and Elizabeth had a snack while I inventoried the plants around us.

We were high enough for red spruce, a conifer found on ridge tops throughout the Appalachian Mountains, to join the eastern hemlock. There were also some broadleaf trees: yellow birch and red maple in the canopy and striped maple in the understory. Closer to the ground were hobblebush with its white flowers, blue-bead lily next to a rotting log, and hay-scented fern [2].

Shortly after our break, we reached our first challenge, a nearly vertical 20-foot cliff. I looked left and right for a footpath but found none. Did we really have to go straight up? Elizabeth spotted a trail marker on a tree root growing out of the cliff about 10 feet up, giving us our answer.

Elizabeth climbed first while I stayed behind to take photos. Thankfully, she had no trouble getting to the top. I followed, and the climbing was in fact easy, with big ledges for our feet and tree roots in all the right places for our hands.

Elizabeth scrambling on Devil's Path east of Indian Head Mountain in Catskill Mountains

After some more steep trail above the cliff, we followed a short path off-trail to an overlook from the top of the cliff we’d just climbed. It was a fine reward for our climbing: endless green mountains below puffy white clouds, an entirely unexpected view this close to New York City.

But we could also see that the clouds had thickened since we’d started. We heard a faint rumble that we thought was a plane, but as it grew louder we realized it was thunder. We still had some climbing to do and neither of us wanted to be on a ridge during a storm, so we hurried back onto the trail. A moment later we heard a louder, more insistent roll of thunder.

We were high enough now to be in the boreal forest common to Catskill ridges: red spruce, balsam fir, and yellow birch. The forest around us had never been logged, but the trees were still no taller than 20 feet, a consequence of the harsh growing conditions [3]. The trail went through soft, dark mud covered with fallen needles, and the air was filled with the sounds of flying insects and smelled of balsam.

We reached a second climb, a crack between two big boulders that was shorter than the first, but steeper. A worn log had fallen into the crack and I wedged my feet between it and the rock and reached up and grabbed another part of it to pull myself up. The climbing was wet and slippery, and when looking for handholds I nearly crushed a slug.

After that climb, we walked along the ridge through a coniferous forest filled with the Christmas-tree smell of balsam. Elizabeth and I rambled along the ridge, having a great time hiking through the woods and scrambling up and down easy rock ledges.

I wondered when we’d reach the summit and I looked for a sign, a summit register, or just a lookout. But I didn’t notice any location that was particularly summit-like. We began gradually descending, and by the time we scrambled down a small cliff, I decided that we had simply walked past the summit without noticing it.

View from Devil's Path east of Indian Head Mountain in Catskill Mountains

We kept descending until we reached the intersection with the Jimmy Dolan Notch Trail, where we stopped for a break on a pleasant grassy patch surrounded by an unwelcoming tangle of vegetation. The forest looked like an abandoned orchard that had been taken over by the wilderness, where 15-foot-high black birches with peeling gray bark and twisting branches grew amid spruce trees.

By the time we continued hiking, the sky had darkened and the trails branching off from the intersection disappeared into a nearly black forest. Thunder began rolling slowly over the mountains, but it was unthreatening. A little later, we saw big white drops of rain streaking into the forest on nearby Twin Mountain, coming toward us.

A moment later, we heard rain drops clapping against the leaves above us. I put on my rain jacket and Elizabeth got out her umbrella. Anything in our packs that was threatened by rain went into plastic bags.

As we walked, I imagined the rain falling on the spruces and fir on the ridge and on the hardwoods and hemlocks in the valley, falling on the rocks and cliffs, and falling on the coyotes and on the frogs and salamanders and newts we saw on the trail.

The rain and thunder lasted until we returned to the car, but the forest canopy held much of it off, and the rocks didn’t get much wetter than they already were. We were happy to have reached a new summit, and happy to have experienced a perfect summer day in the mountains with good views, fun scrambling, sun, and storms.

[1] The checklists by the Catskill Flora Project were extremely helpful in identifying the plants I saw.
[2] Thanks again, Catskill Flora Project.
[3] The Catskill Forest: A History by Michael Kudish covers the old-growth forests of the Catskill Mountains.

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