Hunter Mountain Loop Run, Catskills

So I gave myself a late Fathers’ Day present and drove to the Catskills for a solo run.  Originally, I’d intended to run a section of the Escarpment Trail in anticipation of the race at the end of July.  But I got to thinking, and ended up running a loop I’ve had my eye on, one that chewed me up and spat me out some years ago.

The Adirondack Mountain Club’s guidebook to the Catskills describes a Hunter Mountain loop that summits starting from Becker Hollow, wending over to the Devil’s Acre lean-to and descending to the Devil’s Tombstone campground.

“A second vehicle is needed for return to the Becker Hollow trail head.”

They reckoned this to be a six-mile trip.  Does it count as a loop if you’re spotting a car at two different places?

My route was really a lollipop shape:  I wanted to go up Hunter Mountain, the second highest peak in the Catskills, via the Becker Hollow trail.  Then I planned to run down to Spruceton and return to Hunter via the Devil’s Path.  I’d descend Becker Hollow back to my car.

Fifteen years ago, on a misty October day, I set out from the Devil’s Tombstone campground.  Then, I’d planned a hike in the opposite direction: via the Devil’s Path to Spruceton Road before going to Hunter.  But mist turned into a chilling, steady rain.  After three hard miles, the weather chased me out of the woods, soaking wet and hypothermic.

On Sunday, the weather was on my side when I parked on Route 214.  On this cool and partly sunny day, I planned a lollipop-shaped route.  The first half mile of the Becker Hollow trail, leading to an old dam, was easy going over a moderate grade.  Then the trail started going up.  And up.  With 2200 feet of elevation gain in just two miles, it was as steep as anything you could ask for.

After an hour, I summited.  Hunter’s summit is flat, with a fire tower and caretaker’s cabin in a big, open area.  There’s no view unless you climb the tower.  Although the guidebook says that the summit fire tower is no longer manned, this morning a man was puttering around in the cabin, making breakfast prior to climbing the tower.  We exchanged pleasantries, and I was off.

Unlike my first foray, I opted to descend via the Spruceton trail, and this was a great choice.  This is a jeep road that’s used to haul supplies to the fire tower.  Here and there it was steep; however it was generally a reasonable grade with good footing.  I made great time descending to the Spruceton Road trail head.

A short road section brought me to a dead end, where I picked up the Diamond Notch Trail.  This moderately graded trail follows the West Kill Brook.  (Unlike other sections of the Catskills, this loop features plenty of water.  I needn’t have worried about maxing out my hydration pack.)

At a grassy clearing, Diamond Notch intersects with the Devil’s Path, and that’s where the going got serious again.  The footing changed from easy to technical on a long, steady climb.  Halfway up, I met a couple who’d spent two nights camping at the Devil’s Acres lean-to – with their two preschool-aged kids.  Kudos to them, and most especially their kids, for getting up that climb.

In addition to this family, there were several other groups out today.  Plenty of people came up from Spruceton, and the proximity of the Devil’s Tombstone campground makes this summit attractive to car campers.

Having forgotten to take pictures in the morning, I returned to the summit before descending.

The descent of Becker Hollow took almost as long as the climb.  I’m getting more circumspect each year on steep, technical descents, and this one is as nasty as anything in the Catskills or Adirondacks.  There were no giant rock steps as in other parts of the Catskills.  But there was plenty of loose rock that slipped treacherously when you put weight on it.  It was slow going on hammered quads, and I was glad the last half mile was relatively flat.  Five and a half hours; approximately 15 miles with 4200 feet of vertical gain.  What a great day!