- Peaks: Wittenberg, Cornell
- Type: Out & Back
- Time: 7 h
- Distance: 9.8 mi
- Elevation Gain: 1780 ft
- Hikers: Dan, Alex
- 10:30 AM Start hiking from Woodland Valley
- 1:10 PM Summit Wittenberg
- 1:40 PM Leave for Cornell
- 2:15 PM Summit Cornell
- 3:00 PM Back at Wittenberg
- 5:40 PM Back at Woodland Valley
It’s been a while since my last hike in the Catskills—almost four months! This break wasn’t exactly planned or expected, but I’ve found myself spending more time climbing, swimming and working on a new edition of my book. There’s also been the weather. I’d planned to do a seven peak overnight adventure (Rusk/Hunter Loop + Devils Path East) with two friends at the end of September, but a tropical storm rained us out. The colors are starting to change, though, and that got me thinking about the Catskills. Alex marked a few days on her calendar as “Possible Catskills Hike” and I took her up on it today.
Which hike to do? With various goals, this feels a bit like playing Tetris. The ideal hike would help Alex towards her 3500, help me tick all the peaks in 2023 and also help me with my fall list. Of the 33 high peaks, the only one that checks all those boxes is… Sugarloaf! But Sugarloaf on its own is a very short hike and with a full day I wanted to do something a bit longer. So I decided on Wittenberg and Cornell. Alex hadn’t done either, and I hadn’t done them this year. I had done both in the Fall last year, though. We’d definitely do Wittenberg and then have an option to add Cornell if we had the time and energy.
It was a beautiful, sunny morning, and we saw lots of fall colors on the drive up. We usually listen to podcasts on long car rides. This morning’s was an episode of Slate’s One Year podcast. Each season reports fun or interesting niche stories that took place in a single calendar year. Today we listened to an episode about 1995 and the Macarena. That song has a crazier backstory than I ever could have imagined, and it put us in a good mood as we arrived in the Catskills.
There was just one other car in the Woodland Valley parking lot when we arrived. I felt some satisfaction in coming here intentionally after having done so accidentally 18 months ago. After a stream crossing we started a steep ascent, and I was quickly down to my t-shirt. There were a few spectacular trees here and there on the trail, but the leaf litter was most colorful of all. I think this means that the maple trees up at elevation have mostly lost their leaves by now.
Around noon, after hiking for 90 minutes, we started to feel a few raindrops. This soon turned into a full-on drizzle. I’d seen a low chance of rain in the forecast, but this often doesn’t materialize and it was sunny at the start of the hike. But I guess weather changes fast in the mountains! Fortunately we were still under a thick tree canopy, so the rain was more of a sound than a drenching. Even as it was raining we could see blue skies on the horizon. This on-and-off rain would continue for the rest of the hike.
After about three miles we took the turn towards Wittenberg and started ascending some steep rocks. These looked intimidating from below, but there was always a clear path up them that only occasionally required using hands to pull yourself up.
We’d heard the other pair of hikers from the parking lot behind us most of the hike up, but they’d never caught up with us until the summit. One of them said she’d grown up in the Adirondacks and completed the 46ers as a teenager. She finished on Allen, a minimum 18 mile hike that she did solo. She said she’d been so bored and tired on the hike back that she’d been in tears. Some way to finish your high peaks!
She took a few photos of us and strongly encouraged Alex to continue on to Cornell. It wasn’t far (maybe 3/4 of a mile) and it would be crazy not to if she had any inkling of joining the 3500 club since there weren’t any more convenient ways to do it. Alex had declared that she was a “one peak” kind of gal on the hike up, and I’d been mentally preparing my argument. I wasn’t sure I could have convinced Alex to keep going, so I appreciated that another hiker was making the case! Alex seemed game, so we set off before she could change her mind.
The ridge narrowed on the hike over to Cornell and at points we could see views off in either direction. There were more rocky scrambles, but the most exciting part was a brief hailstorm! We waited a few minutes for it to subside before continuing on.
I hadn’t mentioned the infamous “Cornell Crack” to Alex since I’d thought it would be discouraging. I’d first experienced it going down last year. Unlike the other rock scrambles, this one is harder than it looks. Going up was much easier than coming down and Alex had no trouble. Soon we were at the summit. Two peaks! I’d remembered a viewpoint from the hike last year, but we didn’t see one near the summit. In retrospect, I think it was a few hundred feet farther towards Slide. Oh well! There were no shortage of great views on this hike, so we were fine heading back.
We briefly paused at Wittenberg again on the way back where we saw rain over the Devil’s Path and even a tiny rainbow.
The hike down was relatively uneventful. There were a few raindrops. We saw lots of Blue Jays, Dark-eyed Juncos, Black-capped Chickadees and even heard a Pileated Woodpecker drumming.
Overall a beautiful hike with some more exciting than expected weather. Alex has ten peaks left for her 3500 list and I have nine left for 2023.