If you buy the notion that every trail has a distinct personality, then the Devil’s Path in New York’s Catskill Mountains is like a bad-tempered barroom bouncer with a 24-karat heart. One minute this 24-mile bruiser has you on all fours begging for mercy, then a short while later you’re brushing yourself off and being escorted to a show-stopping vista, where a pat on the back and a warm, "Here, you earned this," await.
Challenge and reward, pain and payoff-these opposing forces make the Devil’s Path and the rest of our down- and-dirty-dozen trails both alluring and unique. Some are steep, and others will test you with altitude, wind, sun, scree, lack of water, or too much water (see "Grunt Factor," which rates each on a scale of 1, for easiest, to 5, most difficult). But in the end, for all your sweat and effort, you’ll stand in a special place few hikers will ever reach, and have the immense satisfaction that comes from being able to say, "I did it!"
-Jim Gorman, Senior Editor
Local legend has it that the Devil’s Path derived its name from the first Dutch and German settlers to the Catskill region. Supposedly, they took one look at the high, deeply notched mountains marching west from the Hudson River and figured that only the cloven-footed Devil could walk such steep, treacherous ground.
I have an alternate theory on the origin of the name: Ol’ Beelzebub dabbled in trail design before finding other ways to try men’s souls. How else to explain a route that regards the fall line as suitable trail bed, or demonically follows rocky ledges you scale using both hands as well as feet? The net result is a pint-size trail with an elevation gain and loss of Rocky Mountain proportions: over 14,000 feet. That’s quite a wallop.
Ah, but the Devil is a wise trail builder and knows that it’s pleasure, not pain, that seduces the unsuspecting hiker. Spill-away views into four states, quiet woods, plenty of wildlife, and more miles spent above the magical 3,200-foot line (where the landscape instantly transforms from ho-hum mid-Atlantic to Far North) than any other Catskill trail, are just a few of his temptations. Resist, if you can.
Where: The eastern trailhead is located at the end of Prediger Road, just off NY 16 (Platte Cove Mountain Road),
7 miles west of West Saugerties. The western trailhead is on Sprucetown Road (NY 6), 6 miles east of West Kill and NY 42.
Route: The 23.6-mile Devil’s Path ascends seven peaks, six of them above 3,500 feet. Plan on devoting three days to hiking the entire trail and arrange for a car shuttle. Pack plenty of water so you can camp high in the mountains, away from the crowds and bugs that congregate near streams and springs.
Grunt factor: 5. Elevation gain/loss is severe, and scarce water means you’ll carry at least 8 pounds (a gallon) of water more than usual.
The payoff: The pleasurable 2-mile stroll across spruce- and fern-covered Plateau Mountain is like a visit to the wilds of northern Maine. Other heights yield terrific overlooks for rest and lunch breaks. A single road crossing means you get a sustained backwoods experience.
More information: Catskill Trails, a five-map set, is available from the New York/New Jersey Trail Conference (P.O. Box 2250, New York, NY 10016; 212-685-9699; www.nynjtc.org; $9.95). -J. Gorman
Slickrock Creek Trail
Early afternoon and already our legs quiver. Lungs wheeze like we’ve got a four-pack-a-day habit. For all our effort, though, we’re only partway up the infamous Slickrock Creek Trail in Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness. Two more miles of unrelentingly steeps lie ahead. We’d been warned about this trail, but that’s like telling a kid to stay away from the cookie jar.
The upper section of the Slickrock Creek Trail is widely considered the hardest hike in the southern Appalachians. Its nickname among local hikers is "The Ballbuster." As we found out, all kinds of body parts get worked over on this hike. The fun begins where Slickrock Creek Trail leaves the creek and rockets skyward through dense rhododendron. Successfully completing this climb takes stamina and willpower. You’ll know you passed the test when you burst into the bright sunlight on Stratton Bald and delight in the jaw-dropping vistas of untrammeled wilderness.
Where: Slickrock Creek Trail begins on US 129 near Cheoah Dam and Robbinsville, North Carolina.
Route: Hike a 21.7-mile loop by climbing up the Slickrock Creek Trail and descending the Haoe Lead, Hangover Lead, and Ike Branch Trails. A side trip to Bob Bald adds 2.8 miles.
Grunt factor: 5. The climb from the trailhead to Stratton Bald is 4,181 feet. Then, of course, you have to go down.
The payoff: Camping amid the lush meadows on Stratton Bald, where the delicious combination of cool breezes and wide-open views is unparalleled.
More information: Hiking Trails of the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock and Citico Creek Wildernesses, by Tim Homan (1998; Peachtree Publishers; 800-241-0113; $14.95) and The Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness and Citico Creek Wilderness Map (Cheoah Ranger District, Rt. 1, Box 16A, Robbinsville, NC 28771; 828-479-6431; $4.75).
-Jean Gauger and Hiram Rogers