Into The Neversink: An off-trail adventure in the wilds of the Catskill Mountains

Cornell & Wittenberg Mountains from descent off Friday
Cornell & Wittenberg Mountains from descent off Friday

It was a long time coming. Since the 1990’s. At that time I started my Catskill 3500 journey with my oldest son which we finished in 1999. This July I had the joy of completing my second 3500 adventure with my younger son finishing on a three-day trip up the Neversink and out over Slide Mountain.

In the southern Catskills, just south of Slide Mountain sits the Neversink Valley. Surrounded by mountains this valley is remote and wild. Hiking into this place is generally done by connecting with the Table – Peekamoose Trail and then turning east on an unmarked route called the “Fisherman’s Path”. The Fisherman’s Path is a herd path that follows the East Branch of the Neversink River. At times the path feels like a marked trail and at other times is hard to find. But following the river will usually bring you to a path that returns you to the main herd path. Even though this herd path is generally easy to follow a map and compass should always be carried as there are no maintained markers here.

Denning Trail-head to access the Table - Peekamoose Trail
Denning Trailhead for access to the Table – Peekamoose Trail and the Neversink

Denning Trailhead to Camp

Our trip began at the Denning trailhead. For the person who is new to Catskill hiking, this trailhead is a long way from any significant services. If you make the trip here do so on a full tank of gas and a car that’s in good condition.

One of the best things about our trip was having the support of my wife as she drove the distance to the trailhead to drop us off and would pick us up 3 days later at the Slide Mountain trailhead. It was great not having something as simple as car keys to worry about. We departed the trailhead around 2 pm and headed into the Neversink.

Hiking along the undulating yellow trail to the junction with the Table – Peekamoose Trail was pleasant but businesslike. At the junction turning south and dropping into the flood plain was quick and after crossing flows on two large bridges and one small log (didn’t really need it) we reached the junction of the Fisherman’s Herd-path. This point is fairly plain to see as its directly across from a designated campsite. It is also marked with a small cairn.

On the Fishermans Path you will come across a beaver lodge with an extensive area of cutting
On the Fishermans Path, you will come across a beaver lodge with an extensive area of cutting

The Fisherman’s Path starts out well-defined. Easy and pleasant. However, after heavy rains or in spring this can be a wet walk. About 20 minutes into your hike you’ll reach an open meadow. A good place to stop and take a quick break. In another 10 minutes, you will come across a beaver lodge with an extensive area of cutting. Beavers are only second to man in their ability to change the landscape. If you have the time, explore this area a bit and see how this industrious worker has changed this area. You’ll notice the lodge is close to land and in the shade of uncut trees.

Take some time to enjoy the river. There are many spots to stop and refresh yourself with some cold water on a hot day. At many points, you’ll be delighted with flowing cascades and swim spots. As you progress along the river, notice the amount of trees which have been carried downstream. A testimony to the power of the raging waters that frequent this place.

Campsite up in the Neversink Valley
Campsite up a few miles in the Neversink Valley

On this trip, our summit destinations were Balsam Cap, Friday, Dink, Cornell, and Slide. Our first night would be spent camping in the Neversink Valley. With some scouting around we found a nice level spot on the north side of the river about 1/3 of a mile downstream from the bushwhack point for Balsam Cap. We got to camp about 4:45 pm and traveled about 3.75 miles from the trailhead.

Camp to the Slide – Cornell Col

Leaving camp at about 8 am we set out for the bushwhack point. Crossing back over the river and picking up the strong herd-path we followed it to the traditional bushwhack point where two tributaries enter the river. They are easy to identify as they are only .05 miles apart. You will also find a fire ring between the streams. People have camped here, but it is not legal as it is too close to the water.

break at bushwhack point to balsam cap
Bushwhack point on Fisherman’s path. People have camped here, but it is not legal as it is too close to the water.

We chose to climb along the west stream picking our way up the steep slopes. At one point we reached an area of blow-down which was fairly easy to get through. Take some time and explore this area of devastation. It’s part of nature’s beauty.  At about 3000′ elevation, the stream fell deeper into the valley and we stayed above it on a line to the summit of Balsam Cap. High above the valley we found some small streams, some beds were dry, but with a bit of searching, we found 2 that had good flow. We refilled our water here which turned out to be a good thing later in the day due to recently dry conditions. Grades varied but generally got steeper as we got higher on the mountain with rock ledge scrambles.

Chris at the summit canister for Balsam Cap Mountain
Chris at the summit canister for Balsam Cap Mountain

Not too far from the summit we met thick and at times impenetrable spruce. Forcing us to pick our way up, under and around both live and dead vegetation slowing our progress. This is a place of mangled trees, places where the sun struggles to reach the dirt and where the ground can give way to holes with any step.

The unforgiving nature of this forest is not for the trail-side hiker, but one who is willing to do battle with nature and earn every single step taken. If you travel in this place take your time and enjoy this dramatic landscape. At about 11:30 am we reached the summit on Balsam Cap. My son was happy to sign the log for his 34th peak (38 climbs)! We descend the ridge toward Friday and stop at the viewpoint looking east.

View of the Ashokan from the descent off Balsam Cap
View of the Ashokan from the descent off Balsam Cap

Balsam Cap to Friday

Even though I’ve been on both Friday and Balsam Cap before this was my first time crossing the col between the two. I’ve read stories of a thick and horrible forest that makes the going so hard that even a Navy Seal would call for an evac. Well maybe not a Seal, but you get the point.

However, as we dropped into the col we found a fairly well-defined herd-path which at times “ran-out” but was picked up again. Even without the herd-path, it was fairly easy to navigate and cross the col.

View from top of major cliff on Friday Mountain looking at Balsam Cap
View from top of major cliff on Friday Mountain looking at Balsam Cap

The crux of Friday from Balsam Cap is the large cliff that is encountered as you reach the Friday side of the col. It is an awesome sight and take some time to explore this area. Even here, it’s easy to navigate. Simply head east around the cliff and look for the first major opening which will give a very steep, but doable ascent to the top of this rock wall. When you get to the top poke around to get a view back at what you just crossed, it is inspiring.

View from Friday Mountain at the canister of Devil's Path
View from Friday Mountain at the canister of Devil’s Path

From this point, it is an easy climb to the summit. You will find many herd paths crisscrossing the summit. To find the 3500 canister work toward the eastern side of the summit cone. Stay away from the “true” summit as you will not find the canister there. At the canister, you will be greeted with a great view looking NE.

I think my son took in the view in for about 1 second and then headed for the canister to make his last sign-in for his 3500 quest. He finished on Friday on a Friday. I sat and watched as he wrote in the notebook and then simply rested on his backpack with his eyes closed and a gentle smile on his face as if to say “life’s good” and a job well-done.

Chris resting and signing the summit register on Friday Mountain.
Chris resting and signing the summit register on Friday Mountain. #35!

For me, it was the wonderful experience of having walked the Catskills with him. Memories came flooding back of the boy who was young and unsure on the trail and seeing a man who hikes with such strength, confidence and wisdom. Our 3500 adventure had come to its finish. But our adventure on this day had not ended we still needed to cross to Cornell and get to our second night camp at our favorite Catskill camping spot.

Friday to Cornell Mountain

Not all Catskill peaks have names. Some are considered sub-peaks of others, bumps on ridges or simply have not been named. Some names seem to multiply as I have found it interesting how many peaks have the name Balsam in it. I also wonder why no mountain in the Catskills is named after Arnold Henry Guyot who mapped and measured most of this region? Just north of Friday is one of these “bumps”. It sits between you and Cornell’s ridge. In his book, “Catskill Trails – A Ranger’s Guide to the High Peaks”, author Edward Henry refers to this bump as “Dink” Mountain. I’d like to think of it as Guyot as it remains mostly unvisited by man.

Cornell & Wittenberg Mountains from descent off Friday
Your next destination, Cornell Mountain (left) as seen from descent off Friday.

The trip between Friday and Dink is unlike Balsam Cap and Friday. The way is without any aid of a strong herd-path. You’ll fight for your ground. This place is covered with thick undergrowth, tightly growing trees competing for sunlight and you’ll encounter rock ledges on the descent and ascent to the next destination, the ridge and Burrough’s Range Trail on Cornell Mountain.

Any thoughts of the trail-side walk coming are quickly diminished as we reach the col to find another section of spruce so dense it forces us below the col making it a bit easier to travel through, but also adding more elevation gain. As one hikes in this place, keep in mind this section of the Catskills holds one of the largest Red Spruce populations. Unlike the Balsam Fir, which caresses the skin, Red Spruce will take its pound of flesh. The going between Dink and Cornell is the hardest part of our journey. Summiting both of Dink’s bumps are without fanfare. But the feeling of reaching the summit is rewarding to know our next destination is a trail.

From Dink to Cornell we attempt to pick our way on a contour line to minimize elevation change. Mother nature once again has other ideas. Red Spruce pushes us around like a bully on a playground. However, we only lose a bit of elevation and find that we can move around and over ledges that guard Cornell with relative ease. At about 4 pm we see a strip of light, upon reaching it’s source, we find a trail marker. We drop packs and sit resting knowing we have no more forest to push through.

Designated campsite in the Slide - Cornell Col.
Designated campsite in the Slide – Cornell Col. where we camped on the 2nd night.

As we sat on the trail a lone hiker walks by us and give a friendly nod and hello. We return the gesture. I wonder if he noticed the scratches and blood marking our legs? Maybe. After sipping some water and eating some food we start our descent into the col between Cornell and Slide.

As we cross the col we search a bit for water but the springs are running low. Muddy pools.

We hike to camp and find the hiker who passed us on the trail “lost” on a side path. He sees us and asks, “do you know where the trail to Slide is?” We point to the trail marker which is now about 3′ from him and tell him that way up the hill. He looks relieved and says “these trails can be hard to follow, so many paths”. We tell him to take his time and always know where his next marker is. We wish him luck and he starts up hill and us to our campsite just below the 3500 mark below Slide. I would like to say that I’ve never “lost” the trail, but I too have for whatever reason followed a path that looked like the trail only to have had to backtrack a bit to find it again.

For the first time in 2 days, we are back with people. At the designated site we have two solo backpackers camping at other tent sites. One guy drove from Philly to climb Slide and was going home the next day. We ask if he had plans to hike Cornell and Wittenberg which he did not. We recommend this to him before he heads home. With a little over a bottle of water left, we make dinner and settle in for the night. At the end of this day we had 1 cup of water left and about a 350′ climb to the next reliable spring, re-filling one of our water bottles at the stream high on Balsam Cap pays off. We decided to wait and refill our water the next day and have breakfast on the summit of Slide.

Campsite to Slide Mountain Trailhead

 

Devil's Path from Burroughs Range Trail on the North Face of Slide
Devil’s Path from Burroughs Range Trail on the North Face of Slide

Slide Mountain is the highest peak in the Catskills at 4,180′, but some data indicates it is topping out at 4,200′. Not big by many standards, but not small either. Slide is the highest point between the Green Mountains of Vermont and the Mountains of West Virginia. It is taller than 17 of the Adirondack 46 high peaks. Slide would rank 3rd among the peaks of the Green Mountains in Vermont, 5th in Maine, and 32nd among the White Mountain Four Thousand Footers. Even though Slide is not a giant, it is also not insignificant.

What is significant about Slide is it’s north face and the climb to the summit. The 900+ foot climb in less than a mile will not disappoint! Views, steep trail, ledge climbing, stairs, and one of the best springs in the Catskills will provide a strenuous but delightful journey to the Catskills highest point.

As we climbed we meet hikers enjoying views. We reached the spring, resupplied water and headed for the view ledge on Slide.

Getting breakfast ready on the "summit" viewing ledge on Slide Mountain
Getting breakfast ready on the “summit” viewing ledge on Slide Mountain

Here we had a great breakfast and sat in a warm sun. When on top of Slide you can be sharing this place with 20 – 30 other people but for us, on this day it was one other hiker. After lingering on the “summit” ledge we descended passing several final views over Wittenberg, Cornell, Giant Ledge and many peaks to the north. Just in time as we walk by dozens of hikers heading to the Catskills highest peak. Having had our 3 days in the Catskill wilderness we were sad to leave but at the same time happy to have completed our journey in “America’s first wilderness”. Something that we will treasure and remember as father and son.

One last view as we descend to the Slide Mountain trail-head. Wittenberg & Cornell in view
One last view as we descend to the Slide Mountain trailhead. Wittenberg & Cornell in view

What’s next? The Adirondacks, The Whites, Vermont, or Maine. So many trails to explore. But also revisiting many of our Catskill peaks but now from new directions, maybe all off-trail climbing rarely visited places. Most importantly, treasuring our time together step by step.

If you like you can view the entire photo gallery of this trip here.

Map of this trip

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