Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Burroughs Range...Deliverance In The Catskills!

"The works of man dwindle, and the original features of the huge globe come out. Every single object or point is dwarfed; the valley of the Hudson is only a wrinkle in the earth's surface. You discover with a feeling of surprise that the great thing is the earth itself, which stretches away on every hand so far beyond your ken." -John Burroughs

The Burroughs range can be summed up in a few words…The classic Catskill hike!!!!

I can and will go on about what makes it so great, but the fact is, I cannot think of a better introduction or finale to hiking the Catskills.

The Burroughs Range covers +/- 13 miles, and about 10,000 feet gained and lost. It summits three 3500 foot peaks including the Catskills highest, Slide Mountain at over 4000 feet, Cornell at 3870ft, and Wittenberg at 3790ft. The loop can be done as a long day hike that even a weeble-wobble, his string bean wife, and aging mutant dog can complete, or you can break it down into a backpack at a more leisurely pace.

Sometimes breaking hikes down into backpacks can be advantageous, but when you consider that you have to carry about 2x as much weight on a backpack as you do on a day hike, plus you have to set aside time find a suitable/legal camping spot, time to set up and break down camp, cook, etc, you don’t necessarily have any more time, or an easier time.

That said, the Burroughs can make for a great 2-4 day backpack. With the only issues being that there are several spots that require some difficult climbing up near vertical faces and even a spot where you must traverse an exposed ledge and then climb up either a face or a crack. In winter I believe there is a rope here, but in warm weather it must be free climbed.

I very rarely have to help Caney climb anything that is blazed as a trail, and on the Burroughs I needed to help him three times. When you consider that he only needed help a few more times on what I consider the roughest and most fun blazed trail in NH (and perhaps the Northeast), a trail that states it is not recommended for dogs, this should be some indication of the ruggedness of the Burroughs Range.

However, if you are like me, and you think you think that hiking is more fun when you get to use your hands, then the Burroughs Range offers just enough challenge and excitement to keep a smile on your face.

While the Catskills technically have no bald summits, the looping nature of the Burroughs Range traverse and its various exposed ledges and view points allow for nearly 360 degree views of the Catskills and beyond.

After getting chased out of NH on account of torrential rain, which can be best summed up by the NOAA weather radio reports, “we are experiencing a brief period of drier weather after 2 weeks of sustained precipitation, following this dry period continued and prolonged periods of precipitation will resume.”

Let me just say that in the days we were in NH, among what is colorfully called the “dry period”, it was anything but dry. Generally I don't run from rain, but when dry is an inch or two of rain over a few days, I'm thinking we should be building an arc rather than hiking.

When we got back home, I watched the radar for the Mount Washington region, and the radar wasn’t green or yellow, but largely orange and red, meaning severe thunderstorms. However, in the Catskills it was forecast to be cooler, drier and free of rain.

Normally I wouldn’t take a trip to the Catskills with so much time off, but the truth was I just wanted to escape the rain for a day while doing something challenging. We arrived at the trail head with no signs of rain at around 10:30am.

Aim was naively confusing us for fast hikers, and came up with a brilliant idea that if we finished our 15 mile endeavor by 6pm, we’d have plenty of time to drive down to New Paltz and get Poutine and nachos at P&G’s.

Long story short, we didn’t quite make it out by 6pm, or 8pm, or 10pm, or 12am. It was nearly 1am when we arrived at the car. Now, to be fair, we didn’t exclusively hike for 13 hours. And we did have a wrong turn that erased my shortcut.

We actually spent about 30 minutes on top of Wittenberg, and we also looked at all the campsites in the cols, for future planning of a backpacking trip.

All in all we probably ended up blowing 1-2 hours messing around, filtering water, taking some ground level macro shots, and other assorted stuff I cannot describe in a PG-13 rated blog (other than to say the flatness of a certain potential secluded campsite was well tested)!!.

I’m sure you are still wondering what makes the Burroughs Range so special. There really isn't any singular aspect, rather it's the ability to string together 3 Catskill 3500 footers (4 if you go for Giant Ledge and Panther), a bunch of impressive views, some rugged hiking, and a long hike into a non contrived day in the mountains. Moreover, the range is named after the great American naturalist, conservationist, and essayist, John Burroughs, who spent much of his life in this area.

New England has Thoreau and Walden Pond, and New York has John Burroughs and his Slabsides. The summit of Slide Mountain makes special note of John Burroughs importance to both this range, and of course to the American conservation movement in general with a plaque that reads:

In Memoriam

John Burroughs

Who in his early writings introduced Slide Mountain to the world. He made many visits to this peak, and slept several nights beneath this rock. This region is the scene of many of his essays.

“Here the works of man dwindle.” In the hearts of the Southern Catskills.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Burroughs Range is the fact that it surrounds the epicenter of a meteor strike As you look at a terrain map of the range you will see that Esopus and Woodland Creeks form a circle around the range, dead center of this impact site is Panther Mountain. It’s hypothesized that Panther Mountain rose from gas being forced up. Yes, rather than a crater, the impact site of this meteor actually formed an inverted relief crater.

Burroughs Meteor by you.

During the middle part of the 20th century the mountain actually had a gas pipeline that produced considerable gas output, but in that time energy was not nearly as profitable as it is today. NY is a huge gas producing state, and has many reserves that are on state owned land and not currently tapped. These reserves are currently the source of worry and debate among environmentalist, since it is well known that drilling and removal of gas and oil is not without impact. As such the government of New York has been noted to be preparing a plan to deal with the inevitable demand to access these reserves, while balancing the environmental impact.

The gas pipeline of the 1940s, however, served a greater role than energy alone. The drill cuttings, which were saved by the NY State geological survey, were tested for ore found only in meteorites. The test, along with other data, confirmed that a meteor about 1Km (1/2 mile) hit the site.

While on the summit of Wittenberg, a summit we had all to ourselves for most of the 30 minutes we spent up there, we found blueberries to supplement our lunch. I was shocked there were still berries left on this popular summit this late in the summer. I suppose all the city folk are too shy to pick some berries while hiking, too busy breaking glass bottles, and writing their names on the summit stone.

One thing we noticed almost immediately was the view down to the reservoirs was a bit strange. After all the rain we have had the reservoirs seemed to be low. Not long after this hike I read that NYC expects the reservoirs to not meet demand of city water consumption in the next few decades (or sooner) and desalination plants will be required for the first time in NYC history.

While this doesn't fully surprise me, the cost of these plants is staggering, and no doubt will put another strain on the City of New York financially after a few hundred years of essentially free water, and perhaps the best pure water supply of any major US city. The flip side of course, is NYC has been a terrible steward of the land surrounding the reservoirs, and ultimately is getting what it deserves. It's appalling to me that a city who's very existence depends on the clean water from upstate reservoirs has been so indifferent to protecting these water sources.

From the time we left Wittenberg the views were intermittent, but never quite as broadly spectacular as the broad 245* vista seen from Wittenberg's east summit. Of course often the smaller view points that followed offered a more intimate look at some of the more wild areas of the Slide Mountain Wilderness.

We were in the mid afternoon when we were descending into the long col between Cornell and Slide and about halfway through the 13 mile hike.

Cornell is a typical Catskill summit in that it is essentially a plateau with possible views from ledges off to the sides of the trail. There was no true summit viewpoint, but several spots close to the summit offered nice views into the Slide Mountain Wilderness, both towards Slide and back at Wittenberg.

The col between Cornell and Slide is a rarity in that it's long but generally flat (in terms of mountains, not plains). It straddles the 3500ft mark, which for the Catskills is a zone of protection. For 9 months per year there is no camping above 3500ft to protect the much more fragile plants and soil higher up on the mountains. In winter, camping is allowed at all elevations, however, the col often legally dips just enough below 3500ft to offer camping in all seasons and a few of the best campsites in the col seem to be right at the 3400 foot mark.

Better than legal and somewhat decent camping, is the fact there are several water sources. The Catskills are somewhat rare in the fact that springs are often found high on the mountains, and the Burroughs Range does offer several spots to fill up, even in summer. One thing I noted though was that while the trail maps show several springs, we only found one reliable spring. This is a bit concerning since most guides note the springs are reliable, and this was a wet summer. It's possible we missed a spring, but since our goal was to mark these points on a map for future reference I'd be even more skeptical a less observant group would do a better job finding the springs.

One thing I'd like to address is something that appears to be becoming more and more of a problem. People seem to believe that since they do one or two backpacking trips a year, most likely not to the same spot, that leaving a pile of non degradable trash is acceptable practice. I guess they assume in a year or two when they return it will be gone and no harm done. The problem is those that follow you in the near future are going to a location like this col, to get away from the world, to escape things like trash and litter, and as they hike into what they assume is a wilderness campsite miles from a road after hiking thousands of vertical feet, they are greeted by a pile of MREs. Worse, this trash is a nightmare to carry out, and not many people have the desire to carry out a few smelly MRE packages over a few miles.

Why in God's name anyone thinks taking MREs on a backpacking trip is a good idea is beyond me. Sure they are easy to prepare, but then so are Ramen Noodles, or a freeze dried dinner. Yet, MREs are heavy, bulky, and when you are done there is a large pile of waste that needs to be packed out.

After crossing the col we began the ascent up Slide Mountain. Slide is the highest mountain in New York State not in the Adirondack Forest Preserve, and it's one of only two 4000 foot mountains not located in the Adirondacks. While Slide is the highest mountain in the Catskills it's still not above tree-line. And the summit itself has very limited views. Like many highest peaks, it's by far one of the least impressive, although, the hike up to it's summit from the Cornell-Slide col offers some nice views and an amazingly cool and clean spring! This was in my opinion the best spring on the whole hike, and much appreciated after 8 miles!

Before we reached the summit of Slide the weather looked to be changing for the worse, a cool wind, and stormy skies appeared. The weather radios were silent but the sky definitely looked as though a severe thunderstorm could roll through at any moment. Of course this severe weather is often leads to the most impressive views as it rolls over the mountains. As we climbed the stairs and ladders up the final few hundred feet to the summit of Slide, Aim commented on the rainbow out in the distance. Finally, I got to a spot with enough line of sight to pull out my 3lb carbon tripod, and mount the 55-300 and shoot the distance landscape. Unfortunately the rainbow never really became more visible, and after 15 minutes of waiting, it was clear to me that I'd run out of light long before I got a good shot. I packed up, and caught back up with Aim and Caney just below the summit.

On the summit of slide we took the usual summit photos, and made some Carnation Instant Breakfast which I've found is a great way to both hydrate and get some quick nutrition on a long hike. I put as much of my gear into my pack as I could fit, still expecting the storm to pound us. Oddly though, despite the ominous skies, and thunder rumbling we never had more than a drop or two of rain on this long day.

The hike down the west side of slide offers a few off trail view points which we caught the setting sun out to the west. The trail is essentially a wide old road bed (or seems like one), I always refer to this path up the highest peak in the Catskills as the ladies route. It's generally well graded, and not too rough. Although while the trail is not steep, the footing is awful in the warm weather because of the typical Catskill slate and scree, which begs you to take a mistep and roll an ankle. Sure enough, after a full day of hiking, I found myself on my ass more times than I cared to count. In the winter this route is incredibly easy and it's no surprise that it's one of the most heavily hiked trails in the winter months. With snow cover, all that ankle breaker slate becomes a non issue, and if the trail is already broken, you can often make better time ascending Slide Mountain in winter than summer.

When we reached the Slide Mountain parking area it was well past dark, and well past our hoped for exit time, P&G's in New Paltz was now not in the plans, but since this part of the hike was new to me, we had other problems.

I'd read a few trip reports were people accessed a DEC right of way to cut some of the road walking off and also reduce some of the descent and re-ascent. Finding this was easy as pie, since it was just north of Winnisook Lake, although it was so easy that we naturally thought we were in the wrong spot. So after pulling the map and altimeter out, we proceeded up the forest road bed.

About 45 minutes later, including a 15 minute stop to change my socks (which is a real treat after a long day of hiking), we arrived at the intersection of the actual trail we would have been on if we'd continued down the paved highway, and regained the trail. We cut 500 feet of the hike and about ½ mile. Unfortunately we would give that 500ft, and perhaps a full mile back in short order.

Aim, who can actually read a map just fine, decided that the non green shaded area and old woods road that passed through it was a viable shortcut for us. After all it was now 10pm at night, 12 hours of hiking in the books, and nothing more to see. We were tired, hungry, and ready to finish this up. For whatever reason, just like the time we did Crane Mountain in April, without snowshoes and post holed 2.5 miles back to the car, I blindly followed her at the ~12 mile point of this trip.

This is one of those stories that will live in infamy. We timed the road intersection brilliantly using my altimeter, and we started down the road as happy as can be to be knocking off about a mile of the hike. As we walked down the road it became evident that one of two things was the case. 1) the whole road was private 2) one side of the road was private but the other was state land.

Me being the optimist/realist was hoping for the later, so despite the signs becoming increasingly more aggressive and less and less open to interpretation in their meaning we kept going (as if “Take Another Step And You Will Die Maggot” requires a 800 verbal SAT to figure out). All the signs seemed to be in the middle of the road, or on the right hand side of the road. But about 10 minutes down the road, the first signs on the left appeared, and they weren't friendly. So at this point it was evident we were trespassing, and evident that these people watched the movie Deliverance at least a few dozen times.

So, not wanting to walk back up the road, which was UP and curved away from where we ultimately were en route to, I decided that if we could spot the road, that we should go for it. You know, like when people would try to jump the Berlin Wall and get to the west. Of course the Beware of Dog sign was intimidating, as were the barking dogs. But more intimidating was the frequent “Beware of Large Trained Attack Dog” or “Beware of Pack of Large Attack Dogs” signs that seemed to be more frequent and with larger lettering, and I should mention, those were the signs that I can speak kindly of, there were a few others that said things I refuse to write about!

So after some time, certain I was either going to die, or go to jail as they fed Caney to a pack of wild dogs, I ran like hell back to the road, and we hauled up the road like we were on mile number 1 of this adventure. Quite frankly I didn't know Aim could run that fast, because certain she was dead I just kept running, but when I got back to precious state land, she was right behind me.

So rather than take a shortcut, we were now 45 minutes behind where we should have been, at least 500 vertical feet and 1 mile over the actual hike distance, and still about 1.5 miles from the trail head.

One thing I never see mentioned in the Burroughs Range trip reports is the final “Stairway To Heaven” it is an exercise in futility as you come close to the end of the trail. It’s probably 30 steps spaced at about a few feet apart, and each one goes up about 2 feet. At the end of 14 miles of hiking, where the trail map shows a fairly flat stretch to the car, this is demoralizing.

As we hiked down to the base and finally up this “Stairway To Heaven” I realized I was actually out of food. I almost never run out of food on a hike, but this time I was out, water was almost gone too, and I was tired. We sat on the rock steps, cursing the trail crew for what was actually incredible work, but surely this little incline should have been visible on the map. Surely someone should have mentioned it. It wasn't that it was all that hard, no, not even after 15 miles, but the fact that no one ever mentioned it was a bit shocking.

The whole trip took us about 15 hours to cover about 16 miles and around 11,000 feet gained and lost. It was by far the longest day hike Aim and I had done in some time, perhaps since the Butterfield Trail in Arkansas back in 1998, although while the Butterfield was about as long, it perhaps gained and lost no more than 1/3 the elevation of the Burroughs Range.

burroughs hike

Definitely the classic Catskill hike, complete with the usual Serpico mishap and added adventure to make it a classic day in the mountains!

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  1. Sounds like it was a great trip...It's been a while since I've been in that part of the Catskills...usually stick to the northeast portion.

  2. Great write-up, I've done the 14 mile loop 3 times, once with a side trip to Panther, and have summitted Wittenberg 8 times. Never gets old, is also a nice warmup for a Devils Path, Great Range or Presidential Traverse thru-hike.

  3. Jon says--I see that this post is well over a year old but it's worth a try....I am thinking about hiking this trail come early July and I was wondering if anybody had information about the current availability of water. Are the springs running? If so, approximately how many springs are there and are they conveniently located near the trail or does one need to search them out a little bit? Any other current and/or relevant information for a first-timer on the Burroughs Loop is much appreciated. Thanks to whoever gets this! Feel free to reply to

  4. The spring below Slide runs all year, I was there this winter and it was flowing under the ice.

    There is year round water to be found on the range, I'd bring a filter and a way to collect the water, even if it's from puddles you will find water up there. However, in August of 2008 it was scarce on the plateau between Cornell and Slide. We did find a very nice spring slightly off trail which didn't require any crazy antics to get nice clean water from.

    Springs in August I remember 1) going up Whittenburgh as you cross the trail (definitely recommend filling up here even though it is early) 2) in the col between Cornell and Slide there are several springs. 3) the spring on the ascent of Slide about 1/3 of the way up which has ice cold water flowing from the rock face. 4) the river (neversink??) that flows at the trail head to slide from the road. Beyond that there was some water on the cutoff/short cut road, but you should be fine if you fill up your water at the spring on slide to finish the hike. It's only about 6 miles more after that. Drink at the spring, and top off your bottles!