Panther Group Hike to Complete My 3500 List
- Peaks: Panther
- Type: Through
- Time: 7 h
- Distance: 8.7 mi
- Elevation Gain: 2910 ft
- Hikers: Dan, Alex, Ken, John, Sam, Kenny, Rosa, Stuart, John, Genevieve
- 9:45 AM Arrive at Giant Ledge Lot
- 10:20 AM Start hiking from Fox Hollow trailhead
- 2:50 PM Summit Panther!
- 4:00 PM Enjoying the views from Giant Ledge
- 5:30 PM Back at the cars at Giant Ledge Lot
6:30 PM Pizza at Ollie’s
- Tracks: AllTrails, [eBird 1], [eBird 2], eBird 3
- Conditions: Perfect day. Sunny with occasional cool wind gusts. Dry, almost no mud or bugs.
After hiking Big Indian and Eagle with John last week, I’d summited all 33 of the Catskills high peaks on public land. But the Catskills 3500 Club requires a bit more than that to join: in addition to summitting the 33 peaks, you have to hike four specific peaks again in winter. This encourages aspirants to get out on the trails during the least popular season and experience the Catskills in a new way. So I hiked Panther and Balsam in January, Slide in February and Blackhead in March. But a key word in the requirements is “again.” I’d only hiked Panther in winter (I’d tried and failed to hike it last April), so I needed to do it one more time to complete my tally sheet.
As I was planning my last few hikes, I thought it would be fun to hold Panther for the finale and make it a celebratory group hike. I also wanted to hike from the Fox Hollow trailhead, since I’d already done the two other approaches (Giant Ledge and Woodland Valley) on my previous hikes.
We had a great turnout: ten hikers! There was a huge range of Catskills experiences. At least one hiker had never done a Catskills high peak before, whereas Ken told us this was his 560th!
There had been some thunderstorms in the forecast when I sent out the invitation for the hike, but they went away as the week went on. We had perfect weather on the day: sunny with some cool wind gusts. John and Sam came over for breakfast and we carpooled to the Giant Ledge trailhead together. I had some worries about logistics on the ride up: we’d need at least four cars at the trailhead to make shuttling work. When we arrived there were four cars, but one hiker was only getting dropped off. Fortunately his wife was willing to take half the group to the Fox Hollow trailhead. We finally had all our hikers in place by 10:20 and were on the trail.
Like many Catskills trails, the Fox Hollow trail was steep right from the start. Fortunately the cool weather and canopy cover made for pleasant hiking once we warmed up. Every once in a while there would be a welcome, chilly breeze and we took to calling this “the air conditioning.” We saw some cool birds at the start of the hike. The highlights were a Rose-Breasted Grosbeak carrying nesting material and a Veery on the forest floor.
The group mostly stayed together as we hiked. I was told I had “good dad energy” in encouraging everyone to keep going!
The conditions were starkly different than when John and I hiked last week: there’d been no rain since then, and so the trail was very dry and there were almost no bugs.
After about two hours of more or less steep hiking, we all stopped for a snack break and John and Genevieve peeled off to go take care of their dog. Soon after this the forest canopy started to get lower as we approached the ridge, and we started to see more and more flowers. There weren’t quite so many as last week, but they still put on a show. One highlight was the Painted Trillium, which I’d never encountered before:
I love hiking along the ridgelines, and the Fox Hollow/Panther ridge did not disappoint. Lots of views through the trees, lots of rock formations, lots of flowers and impressive old growth trees.
This approach certainly wasn’t short, though, and we decided to break for lunch as soon as we got to the first unobstructed viewpoint. It felt great to be in the sun here, but once we were stopped and you stepped into the shade, you could tell that it was actually a pretty cool day at elevation, probably somewhere in the low 50s. We enjoyed looking down on the Menla Resort directly below us, since we’d been there just a month before.
When we finally got to the summit, John surprised us all with a celebratory chilled beverage that he’d hauled up the mountain. Now that’s a hiking friend! He’d hinted that he might do this, but in the rush of getting ready this morning I assumed he’d forgotten about it and so it came as a true surprise. It felt great to complete this project with such a large, supportive group of friends.
Next stop: Giant Ledge. This was a path I’d done before, and some parts of it started to look familiar from January. The group started to spread out more in this section. At one point Alex called me back to look at a bird: a spectacular male Magnolia warbler singing at eye level. This is a great thing about seeing birds on mountains: the canopy is low enough that you usually get a great view!
When we got to Giant Ledge, we had it all to ourselves. This was a real mystery of the day: where was everyone? It was a perfect day on a weekend in spring and I’d expected there to be lots of other hikers. But we only ran into only six or seven other people over the course of a seven hour hike. Maybe it was the cool weather? Maybe it was that it was Mother’s Day? Maybe people don’t like spring as much as fall?
We all had pizza on the brain by this point, so we didn’t linger too long at Giant Ledge, just enough to take a few photos.
As we started the steep descent, there was lots of talk about sore knees and hiking poles. I was struck that Ken didn’t use them. He said part of it was that poles felt antithetical to the goals of barefoot hiking, to have a more minimal experience. He said that poles often wound up being crutches. His advice for avoiding knee pain was to activate your glutes more as you hiked down. One way to do that was to try and step heel-toe.
We saw some more exciting birds on the way down. The highlight was a pair of Blackburnian Warblers, possibly with a nest. We had most of the group with us when we saw them, and I passed my binoculars around so other hikers could see this beautiful bird. I was reminded that spotting fast-moving birds and then getting them in your binoculars was a skill that I’ve had to develop over the past few years. Getting a good view of a warbler isn’t easy! But it is rewarding and I hope some of the hikers caught the birding bug. Alex and I will have to check this spot again in the next month to see if there are any Blackburnian babies.
After some more steep descending, we arrived back at the final bridge to the parking lot, the same place where Alex and I had done our accidental bushwhack at the end of our first hike of the year. Four months later, the stream looked peaceful and not at all scary.
And with that, my 3500 list was complete!
We drove over to Ollie’s and had well-deserved pizza and wine in their outdoor seating area. I noticed that Ken never got up until we eventually left. It only occurred to me the next day why that was: the crushed stone surface must have been excruciating to walk on with bare feet!
Hiking all the Catskills high peaks over the past year has been great fun and a really wonderful, ambitious project for me. I’m happy to have completed my list, but I also have some mixed feelings about no longer having a big, shiny goal in front of me. I’ll write more about what my next goals might be in the next post!