Sunday, September 24, 2023

The Devil's Path

The Devil's Path comes with a reputation as one of the more challenging day hikes in the Northeast. Over its 24+ miles, the Devil's Path crosses the summits of five major mountains, one lesser summit, and climbs high on the shoulder of a sixth mountain. Along the way, the elevation gain over the course of the trail approaches 9,000 vertical feet. The Devil's Path's mileage, elevation gain, and rough terrain often  draws comparison to other big traverses in the Northeast such as New Hampshire's Presidential Traverse and the Great Range Traverse in the Adirondacks. 

The idea of a single day traverse of the Devil's Path intrigued me. I like to push myself from time to time and have completed both the Presidential Traverse and Great Range Traverse in a day. I wanted to tackle the Devil's Path before leaving New York next spring and see how it compared to the other two hikes.

Usually I tackle these hikes by myself. Since the Devil's Path is a linear trail, there is more logistics to the trip than just hiking the trail. The 25-30 mile trip between trailheads needed to be sorted out as well. I considered hitching and using a bike to get back to my car, but on this particular hike, these options were less than ideal for various reasons. Shuttles are available, but rather pricey for a solo traveler. 

I put out feelers on Facebook hiking groups looking for someone to join in the fun. A couple people made offers, but we couldn't make the days work together. Just days before I hoped to make the trip, I found a buried message from someone looking to do the same hike on a day that worked with me.

I found Josh Norfolk, another adventurer from Pennsylvania. He recently hiked a single day Presidential Traverse as well as other big mileage and elevation gain day trips and seemed up to task. He already had a shuttle reserved and his expected partner for the day backed out due to injury. September 7th was our day to tackle the Devil's Path.

Besides the obvious obstacles of hiking the Devil's Path, a few other details upped the challenge. I wanted to add an additional 3.4 miles and 500 vertical feet to the hike with a side trip to Hunter Mountain. Hunter Mountain stood as the final peak for me to finish the Northeast 115 hiking challenge and it was important for me to climb it. The weather added another element of difficulty. Even though it was now September, the area faced one of its hottest spells of the summer. The humidity was oppressive and I wasn't acclimated to the conditions living in the Adirondacks. Beyond the heat, as the day progressed, the chance of showers and thunderstorms increased. Finally the days were noticeably shorter. It would be difficult to complete the hike before dark, especially with the extra three miles.

Are shuttle arrived early and we were on the trail right around 6AM. It was dark enough that we needed our headlamps. Fortunately the trail starts out easy enough, which was helpful in the dark. The sky brightened fairly quickly and the filtered sunshine cast an interesting glow through the trees. Just as the sun started to peek through the trees, we began our first climb toward Indian Head Mountain on rockier terrain.

The morning sun peeking through the trees

Encountering the first rocky climb

Large rock formation along the trail

The climb up Indian Head gives you a good taste of what to expect for the rest of the day. The trail wastes no time climbing Indian Head with several short, rocky scrambles. It also began the dripping sweat that would continue for the day from the extremely humid air. A few nice view points break up the climb. The first vista provided a nice look at the sun still low in the sky.

The first view of the day towards
Kaaterskill High Peak 

The sun over the foggy valley

A good look at the hazy morning sky

A brief reprieve from the climbing and rocks

A challenging scramble on Indian Head

Just over three miles from the start, we reached our first summit. The 3,573' summit of Indian Head sits in a nice forest. There isn't much too see besides the trees. A handful of views along the way provide a nice look at the surrounding area as you traverse Indian Head. From the summit, the half-mile descent to Jimmy Dolan Notch drops only a few hundred feet. Although steep, it's one of the more mellow descents from a summit on the Devil's Path. 

A good look at the hazy conditions

One last view from Indian Head

Climbing from Jimmy Dolan Notch, the trail quickly gains any elevation that it lost as it works its way up Twin Mountain. As its name implies, Twin Mountain consists of two peaks. The lesser southern summit offers a nice vista before making the fairly gentle traverse to the 3,640' high point of Twin. Numerous rocky sections with interesting formations provide neat scenery as you cross Twin. A few vistas give spot for a break on the traverse. The descent into Pecoy Notch loses over 700' of elevation on rocky switchbacks through several rocky clefts.

Jimmy Dolan Notch

Interesting rock stack

First view from Twin

Another view from Twin

Descending through a rocky chute

One last partial view from Twin

The climbing begins almost immediately leaving Pecoy Notch. Numerous rocky clefts and chutes need to be negotiated as you make the 1.2 mile climb toward Sugarloaf Mountain. The climb of Sugarloaf requires more scrambling than the first two summits. The 3,800' summit of Sugarloaf offers little payoff for the work with the least amount views of the three peaks climbed to this point. Much like the climb, more rocky terrain sets the tone on the descent into Mink Hollow. At one point near Mink Hollow, we both commented on a musty smell. Was this the reason for the mink moniker?

Pecoy Notch

Negotiation rocks

Climbing a rocky slab

More rocky terrain on Sugarloaf

The Devil's Path wastes little time regaining the elevation it lost dropping into Mink Hollow. As expected, more rocky clefts with small scrambles slow progress. At least a couple of views give you a good spot to take a breather. By this point the overwhelming humidity began to take its toll on the climbs. Slight breezes at the viewpoints were welcome.

Mink Hollow

Plateau is just as rocky as
the first three mountains

Looking back toward Sugarloaf

Look back at Sugarloaf and Kaaterskill High Peak

Now on our 4th mountain, the elevations have increased with each summit. The 3,840' summit of Plateau doesn't offer any views, however it's one of nicest sections of the Devil's Path. As its name implies, Plateau features a long flat ridge. For more than two miles, the trail runs quite flat at high elevation through a beautiful and fragrant coniferous forest. Unlike the rocky climbs, the trail features a soft bed of tree needles. We took advantage of the soft footing and flat terrain and ran parts of this section.

The pleasant summit ridge of Plateau

a lack of rocks across the plateau of Plateau

The flat stretch of Plateau culminates with two impressive viewpoints, Danny's Lookout and Orchard Point. These two vista offer the best views on the entire Devil's Path in my opinion. After enjoying the views and taking a few photos, we began the steep descent to Stony Clove Notch. The descent felt rough as it lost about 1,400' into the notch.

Danny's Lookout

Blackhead Range

Kaaterskill High Peak


Orchard Point

Roughly 14 miles into the Devil's Path, Stony Clove Notch divides the trail into the eastern and western sections. It acts as a psychological halfway point. We just finished the eastern half. With its four summits featuring steep climbs and descents on rough terrain, the longer eastern section is the much more challenging section of the trail.

Stony Clove Notch is a bit of an oasis on the Devil's Path, especially on a hot day. A road, NY 214, passes through the notch with a picnic area offering water spigots and picnic tables. Pay campsites are just down the road as well. The picnic area sits next to Notch Lake and a nice view between the gunsight-like notch. We took advantage of the water spigots and a picnic table while enjoying an extended lunch break, before resuming a long climb toward Hunter Mountain. I especially appreciated the spigot. While I drank steadily through the day, I dripped sweat continuously from the high humidity and felt like it was difficult to stay fully hydrated. The spigot allowed me to camel up and refill my water. 

Stony Clove Notch and Notch Lake

Back on the move, the trail began to climb immediately out of the notch as it worked its way past large rock outcroppings. The trail definitely seemed less steep with frequent switchbacks that picked the way mostly around outcroppings. Once past the rockiest sections, the trail climbed much more gradually on fairly nice trail.

The rocky terrain starts soon after leaving the notch

Passing under cliffs

Gentler trail

The worst of the rocky terrain is behind you
as head toward Devil's Acre

Two miles from Stony Clove Notch the trail reaches an area called the Devil's Acre. This is the saddle between Hunter and Southwest Hunter Mountains. From the Devil's Acre, a side trail leads a.1.7 miles and about 500 vertical feet to the summit of Hunter Mountain. While not part of the Devil's Path, Hunter Mountain was the last peak I needed to climb to finish the Northeast 115.

Junction for Hunter

The climb toward Hunter was surprisingly easy. Despite rocky footing at the beginning, the path climbed gradually on a soft trail packed with tree needles. At one point we thought we heard thunder, but only once in the distance- not enough to be concerned.

Gentle terrain enroute to Hunter

We reached the summit of Hunter pretty quickly. At 4,040', Hunter stands as the second highest mountain in the Catskills and on of only two that rise above 4,000'. A fire tower stands on its summit. We climbed the fire tower for 360 degree views, including much of the Devil's Path. Even though the cabin was locked, the upper reaches of the tower provided the best views of the day. With an unobstructed view, we could see a section of rain nearby, but nothing that looked scary. The clearing below the tower has the old warden's cabin as well as a picnic table. We took advantage of the picnic table to give our feet a rest and eat a snack before moving on shortly after 3PM.

Hunter's fire tower

My last 4,000' summit on the NE 115

The Escarpment and Kaaterskills High Peak

360 degree view from the tower

Hazy view to the south

The Escarpment and Kaaterskill High Peak
in the distance

Rain clouds moving in

Soon after departing Hunter, light rain began to fall. Rumbles of thunder soon followed. Since it was a tame descent back to the Devil's Path, I ran ahead to a lean-to just below the junction. I wanted to resituate my pack and put some things into bags to keep them dry. The rain mostly stopped by the time we departed the lean-to.

Mushroom below Hunter

Devil's Acre Lean-to in a light rain

With the rain, the temperature cooled and there was some relief. The vegetation, wet from the rain, cooled when we hiked through it. From the lean-to, the trail made its most gradual descent of the day as it dropped a little over two miles into Diamond Notch. Diamond Notch Falls, a beautiful waterfall drops 15-20' in the stream that flows through the notch. While enjoying falls an stream, we took the opportunity to top our water for the rest of the hike. A light drizzle began to fall before we left the notch.

Diamond Notch Falls

Another drop at Diamond Notch Falls

From Diamond Notch, the trail begins a 2.5 mile climb to Westkill Mountain. Although occasionally steep with a few minor scrambles, the climb out of Diamond Notch seemed relatively tame compared to the other climbs out of the previous notches on the day. Even after accumulating more than 20 miles and close to 7,000 vertical feet of elevation for the day, the climb seemed relatively tame. The cooler air and drizzle probably helped take some of the sting out of the climb as well.

Start of the final climb

Still some scrambles climbing Westkill

As we gained elevation, thunder started rumbling in the distance. The closer we came to Westkill's summit, the thunder became louder and closer. Occasionally we would see lightning. Fortunately the lightning appeared to be intra and inner cloud with no ground strikes. It became somewhat unnerving though as the thunders intensity increased as we climbed. The rain picked up a little bit as well, but was never too heavy. 

Large overhang covered in moss

The Devil's Path levels off on Westkill as it passes minor bumps on its ridge. The thunder motivated us to pick up our pace. After passing a lookout, we decided to pick up the pace further to a jog until we made it to the descent past the summit. We wanted to get to lower elevation with the thunder nearby. At 3,880' Westkill stands as the highest point on the Devil's Path. With the thunder and lightning, we didn't care to linger.

The last open view

Buck Ridge Lookout

The showers limited the visibility

In the rain on Westkill

After dropping off the summit, we lost elevation and the thunder moved further away until soon fading. Our final obstacle was a punchy 200' climb over the minor summit of St. Anne's Peak. At this point, with 9,000' of climbing on the day, I didn't even want aa small climb. Fortunately St. Anne's Peak wasn't much more than a bump on Westkill's long ridgeline. The light rain stopped. With the sun blocked by clouds and mountains to the west, combined with the dreary weather, the forest started to darken quite a bit. We ran when footing allowed, but needed to be careful since the rocks and roots were now slippery from the rain.

Negotiating one last scramble as the forest
grew darker

We plugged along at a good pace. By the final mile, it was just barely light enough to travel with no headlamp. Within the final half-mile distant thunder and lightning started up again, but we weren't too concerned with the end near. Finally for the last 1/4 mile we donned a light as it became too dark to make out the trail. The thunder and lightning grew more intense and the wind picked up. Knowing we were minutes from the trailhead, I half-jokingly said "bring it on," in regards to the approaching storm.

We made it to the trailhead just as they rain started shortly after 730PM. We got into our respective vehicles as quickly as possible. I got a little wet as I fumbled in my pack in the dark looking for my keys. No sooner than I found my keys, all hell broke loose. Before heading home, I changed out of sweat-drenched clothes and prepared a sweet drink for the drive. Buckets of rain with gusty winds swept through the area. Parked on the edge of the lot, my van was pelted by several falling branches.

About ten minutes later, I hit the road. Immediately I faced a road full of debris with sticks and branches of various sizes strewn about the road. I worried that I might get stuck on the dead end road, but fortunately nothing too large blocked the road. The first 45 minutes of back roads I traveled were full of debris. This made for a fun drive in the pouring rain and dark. At least I saw plenty of brilliant lightning across the sky. With the rapid onset of the storm and early nightfall, I'm certainly glad I didn't opt to self shuttle with a bike.

The New York DEC manages the Catskills and lists the mileage of the Devil's Path at 25.2 miles on their website and 24.6 miles on the sign at the west trailhead. Although numbers vary, the vertical elevation gained over the course of the trail runs between 8,500'-9000'. Adding Hunter Mountain to the day. We clocked in at roughly 28 miles for the day with at least 9,000' of vertical. With some running on the more manageable stretches, this trek took just over 13.5 hours. By any measure, it's a long and grueling day hike. Throw in oppressive humidity for majority of the day, the Devil's Path is surely a beast.

Despite the obvious challenges, I enjoyed the Devil's Path. While it's certainly type 2 fun at times, I enjoyed challenging myself and have no regrets tackling the Devil in a day. Perhaps a cooler day would be the only thing I would change. I rarely hike with somebody else, and enjoyed hiking with Josh for the day. He kept a good pace most of the day. It was nice to have conversation on the trail. I think it takes some of the sting out of the hike when you have someone in the same boat as you with the same goal, especially when hiking through thunder and as fatigue sets in later in the hike.

While quite a few people enjoy the challenge of hiking the Devil's Path in a day, several lean-tos on and near the trail allow for a more relaxing, multiday experience if desired. The trail would make a worthy multiday trip. Numerous side trails lead off the Devil's Path, providing the opportunity to break the trail up in smaller chunks as well. 

As I mentioned early, people often compare the the Devil's Path with the Great Range Traverse in the Adirondacks and the Presidential Traverse in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. All three hikes cover similar distance and elevation gains. Now having hiked all three in a day, I'll offer my opinion. 
The Devil's Path seems to have bigger elevation changes between the peaks compared to the Great Range and Presidentials. The rewards, in the way of views are not nearly as impressive on the Devil's Path. I did enjoy the sections of pleasant trail on the Devil's Path with soft footing for extended periods such as Plateau's ridge and much of the western section. In general the Great Range and Presidential Traverses are more consistently rougher.

Even though its slightly shorter, the Presidential Traverse is probably the hardest of the three hikes. The Presidential Traverse offers the most impressive scenery with long stretches above treeline. The Great Range Traverse would probably be second scenery with several alpine peaks and open summits. The Great Range probably edges out the Devil's Path in difficulty with numerous ladders and longer scrambles. All three are worthwhile hikes as multiday trips or as single day challenges.

To compare the hikes, below are links to my Presidential and Great Range Traverses.

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