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Every footstep takes you higher on Blackhead Mountain’s southeastern flank. The narrow trail barrels through the hardwood forest, over twisted roots and jumbled rocks, and to a summit thick with spruce and fir. When the canopy thins, I scramble atop another shoulder and spin around to gauge my progress. The Escarpment Trail gets top billing in the Catskills, and this vista deserves the hype. The 1,600-foot shale wall towers above the pastoral Hudson Valley, the eastern fringe of a landscape that inspired 19th-century artists, novelists, and resort titans. It spurs me forward along the route’s northern half, where I climb peaks that top out above 3,500 feet, dip into cool hemlock groves, and duck beneath vibrant green maples. The superlatives remain as true as the panoramas, tumbling off to infinity.
Directions from the Scutt Road Parking Area
1) Pick up the blue-blazed Escarpment Trail, which snakes north past dozens of cliff-top overlooks with views across the Hudson River to Vermont and Massachusetts. Near mile 14, descend from 3,940-foot Blackhead Mountain, keeping an eye out for the junction for the Batavia Kill Lean-to.
2) Follow the spur .2 mile west to camp.
3) Back on the main trail, continue 4.8 miles north along a jagged ridge to 3,524-foot Windham High Peak.
4) Close the final 3.5 miles west to the NY 23 parking lot.
Campsite: Batavia Kill Lean-to (mile 14.2)
This tidy shelter, rebuilt in 2017, offers a reliable stream for water resupply, as well as a fire pit. Set in a forest clearing, it makes for a rare backcountry observatory for stargazing. (Or camp sooner off of Dutcher Notch; see Solitude.)
Prefer a private campsite? Scout one anywhere between North Mountain and Windham High Peak. Here, within the wilderness area boundaries (between miles 7 and 19 or so), dispersed camping is allowed below 3,500 feet. Good bet: At Dutcher Notch (mile 10.6), take a .3-mile detour west to find level ground and a reliable spring.
The Catskills boast 35 peaks taller than 3,500 feet. Tack on another day to double your haul: From Blackhead’s summit, a 2.1-mile spur runs west across 3,980-foot Black Dome and 3,940-foot Thomas Cole Mountain.
The same geology that serves up dramatic rock formations here allows groundwater to percolate rapidly. Carry plenty of H2O, and if you run dry on day one, take the spur from Dutcher Notch (see Solitude, above). The final resupply waits at Batavia Kill Lean-to (mile 14.2).
Stage bite-size hikes from North-South Lake Campground ($22/night for New York residents) at the Escarpment Trail’s southern terminus.
DO IT Shuttle car 42.3127, -74.1903; 12 miles west of Cairo on NY 23. Trailhead 42.2007, -74.0584; 30 minutes southeast of the shuttle car on N. Lake Rd. Season May to November Permit None Custom map ($15) Contact
Distance 22.7 miles
Time 2 days