Best Hikes: Blackhead Mountain Day Hike in the Catskills

Summit ledge on Blackhead Mountain in Catskills
Summit ledge on Blackhead Mountain in Catskills

Blackhead Mountain is a massive peak. When viewing it from the lowlands in the Hudson Valley, simply put, it’s huge. There are several things you’ll need to keep in mind when you hike in the Blackhead Range and in particular Blackhead. All approaches have steep sections, some approaches are long, and you’ll need crampons in winter. Do not underestimate any Catskill high peak. Two experienced hikers got stranded on Blackhead several years ago in a snow storm and one tragically died. Be prepared and visit the DEC web page on safe hiking before heading out.

Place among the Catskill 35 High Peaks: 4th

Difficulty rating: Strenuous depending on route
Elevation: 3940 feet above sea level.
Interesting Features: First growth forest, lean-to, a remnant of old logging dam & spillway, views, boreal forest, “camp steel”, 2nd highest point on NY Long Path.
Best time to visit: Anytime (winter required for Catskill 3500)
Trailhead: Big Hollow Road (Co Rd 56) Maplecrest, NY 12454 –GPS 42°17’20.1″N 74°06’53.1″W
Blackhead Mountain Hike October 2014

Trail-head sign at Big Hollow Road
Trailhead sign at Big Hollow Road

We’ve hiked Blackhead about 15 times. We have done it from all directions on a trail, both day hiking, and backpacking. Blackhead has one of the steepest sections of trail in the Catskills (and NY). On the Escarpment Trail climbing south from the Batavia Kill junction the trail climbs 1,000+’ in less than a mile!

Getting to many Catskill trailheads can be a challenge as they are far from a town. Make sure your car is in good condition and has a full tank of gas! Blackhead’s trailhead is one of these.

The hike starts from the DEC trailhead at the end Big Hollow Road (CR 56). The last part of this road is only seasonally maintained and parking may be hard in the winter. The start of the hike to Blackhead follows the Batavia Kill at times next to it or above it.

Second Foot Bridge
Second Foot Bridge

After crossing a footbridge not far from the trailhead keep looking down hill you’ll notice the remains of a dam and spillway that was used by a sawmill in the late 1800’s. You’ll cross the second footbridge following the red markers to a junction at .6 miles with the Batavia Kill Trail.

Old Dam and Spillway for Logging Operations
Old Dam and Spillway for late 1800’s Logging Operations

At this point, you’ll have a choice of hiking south on the red trail (Black Dome Range Trail) to Lockwood Gap to the connector trail to Blackhead or to hike the Batavia Kill Trail to the Escarpment Trail which is what we did on this day.

Batavia Kill Lean-to
Batavia Kill Lean-to

The yellow marked Batavia Kill Trail continues to follow the Batavia Kill and will climb gently to the Batavia Kill lean-to. The old lean-to is directly off the trail and close to water. In our opinion, it should be moved off the trail and uphill. One night we camped at this lean-to and spent the night enjoying the many porcupines that inhabit this area.

First Designated Campsite Marker on Batavia Kill Trail
First Designated Campsite Marker on Batavia Kill Trail

As you continue on the trail you will pass two nice designated campsites. The first is on the left and second on the right both marked with “camp here” directional disks. Please make sure you find the camping markers off the trail and do not camp at other sites that are too close to the trail. After the second designated camp marker, the trail will Switchback uphill to the Escarpment Trail which it reaches at 1.5 miles from the trailhead.

Batavia Kill & Escarpment Trail Junction
Batavia Kill & Escarpment Trail Junction (path leads to at large campsite)

The junction with the Escarpment Trail is a good place to take a break before making the 1,000’+ climb to the summit. The hiker will notice a herd path leading east from the junction. This path doesn’t lead to a viewpoint but does lead to a legal primitive campsite (200’+ from the trail). If you are going to camp on the Escarpment Trail keep in mind you are on a high ridge where water is scarce.

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Panorama of Yellow Jacket Lookout

From here you’ll follow the Escarpment Trail south (right) and at first climb moderately with brief level spots. In about .25 miles a limited view opens on the left. It’s best when the leaves are down. As the trail continues to climb at times steeply you’ll reach Yellow Jacket Lookout with great views. On clear days you can see Albany NY. From Yellow Jacket Lookout the trail will make its climb to the summit. The climbing will be more continuously steep as it winds its way up the north ridge. You’ll ascend through, around and over rock ledges. Some nice views will present looking back.

Steep Rock Section on Escarpment Trail on Blackhead
Steep Rock Section on Escarpment Trail with Wind Battered Trees on Blackhead

At one point not too far below the summit, you’ll encounter an extremely steep section of rock. Some steps have been added. This entire section can be packed with ice during the winter months into spring. Care should be taken here. As you approach the summit the trail will begin to moderate to a gentle climb and will be closed in by a fragrant boreal forest. You’ll reach the viewless summit rock at 2.4 miles from the trailhead. This place is well protected from the wind and is a good place to rest.

Camp Steel on Escarpment Trail just south of Blackhead Summit
1936 Camp Steel on Escarpment Trail just south of Blackhead Summit

If you have some time, taking a short trip south on the Escarpment Trail from the summit will lead to “Camp Steel” and after that some nice views.

Southern views from top of slide on Blackhead Mountain
Southern views from top of slide on Blackhead Mountain

Leaving the summit heading back to the trailhead you’ll go west on the yellow marked Blackhead Mountain Trail. This will start as a level walk for a bit then drop gently to a commanding view toward Black Dome Mountain, Devils Path to the south, and some peaks north and west. This spot can be windy but in the warmer weather a good place to linger. From the view, the trail will make a .6 mile over 500’ drop to the wind-swept Lockwood Gap and 3.1 miles from the trailhead.

Shoulder of Black Dome Mountain from Black Head
Shoulder of Black Dome Mountain from Black Head

Once in Lockwood Gap, you’ll reach the junction with the red marked Black Dome Range Trail. Going straight (west) on this trail will take you to Black Dome, Thomas Cole and Camel’s Hump all great destinations. If you have two cars, you could park one at the Barnum trailhead and hike the three above named peaks to the Black Dome Trail parking area at Elmer Barnum Road.

We’ll hike down the Black Dome Range Trail back to the Big Hollow Road trailhead from here. The trail out of Lockwood Gap follows a contour and descends gently. Shortly the trail starts to switchback the steeper sections of the headwall of the valley between Black Dome and Blackhead. After leaving the switchbacks the trail descends more directly into the valley and becomes filled with loose rock which makes footing hard. As you descend this section of trail you will find a pipe fed spring off the right of the trail.

Chris crossing new bridge near trail-head
Christian crossing new bridge (replaced after Irene) near trailhead

The trail will drop toward the bottom of the valley with several stream crossings and reach the junction with the Batavia Kill Trail 1.4 miles from Lockwood Gap and 4.5 miles from the trailhead. From this point, you’ll walk the Black Dome Range Trail the .6 mile back to the trailhead. Your trip total will have been a loop of about 5.1 miles.

Because of its length Blackhead’s day hike is popular. It is not uncommon to be on the trail with many other people, especially on weekends and holidays. On these days get an early start as parking is limited. Most of all, be ready for any kind of weather and be in good physical condition as this hike is harder than the distance would make you think!

Map of Blackhead Mountain Loop

Windham-Blackhead Range Wilderness
Contact Information:DEC Region 4 Stamford
Office hours: M-F 8:30AM - 4:30PM
Phone: (607) 652-7365;
Email: r4.ump@dec.ny.gov
Backcountry Emergency: (Search, Rescue & Forest Fire): 518-408-5850 or dial 911
Location: Towns of Cairo, Hunter, Jewett, Windham and Durham in Greene County
Map: View Windham-Blackhead Range Wilderness Map - PDF (2.82 MB)
Amenities:Dining opportunities, as well as gas, food and other supplies can be found in the nearby communities of Cairo, Windham and Palenville.

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