Spring on Halcott: A tale of two trails
- Peaks: Halcott
- Type: Loop
- Time: 3 h
- Distance: 4.4 mi
- Elevation Gain: 1795 ft
- Hikers: Dan
- 4:10 PM Start hiking
- 6:00 PM Summit Halcott
7:10 PM Back at car
- Tracks: AllTrails, eBird 1, eBird 2
- Conditions: 90° at the start, in the 60s at the summit, down to 72° in the parking lot by the end. Pretty dry, no snow. No bugs.
This was my second solo bushwhack. Hiking Rusk last week made me feel more confident and I expected the two climbs to be somewhat similar: a steep hike up a herd path to an easy traverse along a col. I was quite wrong!
As I mentioned in my planning post, Alex was attending a yoga retreat at Menla this weekend, right in the heart of the Catskills. We planned to stay at the Phoenicia Lodge and I hoped to bag a few more peaks while she was at the retreat: Halcott today, Sherrill, North Dome and Westkill tomorrow. I dropped Alex off a little before 4pm and made my way to the Halcott trailhead.
It was unseasonably warm today, over 90° when I arrived at the lot. I’d penciled this date in months ago and hoped that it would be spring, not winter. I hadn’t considered that it might be unpleasantly hot! I wondered if it might be a “flies at the bottom, snow at the top” kind of day. Since I’d seen 18 inches of snow on Rusk just ten days earlier, I still brought my spikes and gaiters with me.
There were two cars in the small lot when I arrived. There was a couple hanging out on top of the waterfall. I assume the other belonged to a hiker ahead of me, but I never saw anyone else on the trail. The guy on top of the waterfall asked me where the trail went. “All the way to the top!” I got vibes like he thought I was crazy, but also maybe a little jealous. That probably would have been me a few years ago!
After crossing the stream and stone wall, I saw a clear path going off to the right and started following it. Looking at my phone a few minutes later, it was clear that this had put me on the northern route which, unlike the southern one, wasn’t labeled as a herd path on the map. I was far enough in that I figured I’d just go with it.
No clear path here
The trail that was so clear at first disappeared quickly. It was usually clear which direction I needed to go (up!) but I was rarely on anything that I could identify as a path. That being said, there were some perks of taking the less popular route. I saw lots of birds: a Northern Flicker, a Yellow-Bellied Sap Sucker, a family of Hairy Woodpeckers and, most excitingly, I heard the flute-like song of the Hermit Thrush for the first time year. There were also countless wildflowers: Carolina Spring Beauty, Trilliums getting ready to open, Ramps, Partridgeberry.
These are what you think they are
The temperatures got more pleasant as I gained elevation and the sun dropped lower. Even on the ridge, the path went in and out of existence. There were many trees and shrubs knocked over the path. I can understand why blowdowns are such obstacles to hiking. Even one tree presented an impediment. I can only imagine having to go around hundreds.
As on Rusk, I was feeling nervous about running into a bear in the dense forest and sudden noises and movements put me on edge. So you can imagine how I felt when I got “groused”. If you aren’t familiar, this is when a Ruffed Grouse that’s been hiding on the forest floor gets startled. It beats its wings loudly and rapidly. It sounds almost like a helicopter and nearly gave me a heart attack before I realized what it was.
The navigation continued to be hard and, unlike the Rusk col, it was dense enough that there there weren’t many views or a sense of space. I found this part of the hike to be pretty demoralizing. As I got very close to summit, though, the trail became clear again. I saw my first patch of snow of the day here, all that remained of the 18” I’d seen ten days earlier! I saw some kinglets and even heard a Barred Owl (“Who Cooks for You?”).
I was relieved to get to the summit canister. There was a point of interest marked on the Avenza map nearby (a viewpoint?) but I didn’t want to waste any time exploring or relaxing. It was 6pm already and it had taken me nearly two hours to get to the summit. I had no idea how hard the other half of the loop would be and I wasn’t keen to have my first nighttime bushwhacking experience. I also needed to check into our hotel, get myself food and go pick up Alex by 8:30 pm.
As it turned out, the trail back down was almost comically easy. It was even clearer than the herd path on Rusk. There were so many flat stones collected along the path that it almost looked paved. Soon I heard water and crossed a small stream coming out of the mountainside. The trail followed this stream as it grew larger and larger all the way down.
There were more spring beauties and ramps on this trail. I also walked through a grove of enormous old Hemlock trees, some of the tallest I’ve ever seen.
As I made my way down, I could see the shadow of Halcott moving up the mountain across the way (Balsam?). Not usually a sight you want to see, but making fast progress on a clear trail with a beautiful river beside me, I started to feel much better about my situation and began to really enjoy the hike.
I got back to the car a bit before sunset, checked into the hotel and had pizza and a beer at Brio’s in Phoenicia. A nice way to end an eventful day!
This was one of the harder hikes I’ve done in the Catskills, but now I know that it doesn’t need to be that way. Next time I think I’ll just take the clear herd path. I’m curious what my experience would have been had I gone clockwise instead of counter-clockwise, i.e. taken the easy path up. My experience might have been better, but my fear is that I would have gotten overconfident, tried to bushwhack over to Sleeping Lion and then I really would have been in trouble.