Sanford Robinson Gifford [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Hunter Mountain – Splintered, Burned, Battered but not Broken

Hunter Mountain is one of our favorite year-round go to hikes. At one time named Greenland Mountain, Hunter Mountain is a central part of the mountains of Devil’s Path and the Lexington Range. It was named for John Hunter a landlord from New York City. Hunter is the highest peak in this range and is the second loftiest summit in the Catskills and is one of two peaks of the 3500 footers with a fire tower. For a short period, Hunter enjoyed the noble status of being the highest peak in the Catskills in 1850 when Guyot measured it and found it higher than High Peak and Black Dome. However, this lofty status most likely did not remain intact for very long.

First Notice of Slide?

An owner of Hunter Mountain was out to prove that his peak was highest in the mountains. He used to carry out this task a carpenter’s level and a local clergyman for an honest witness. His hypothesis was simple that no other mountain would be visible above the end of the carpenter’s tool when set level and that his Hunter Mountain would be the soaring giant. All was going fine until his level happened upon a peak about 16 miles to the southwest. He stopped. At the end of his level was a landmass blocking his view! Was this an error? His impeccable and honest witness stood in keen observation of the level and the bubble was still at the center.

View of Slide and the southern hike peaks from ledge near Becker Hollow Trail on Hunter
View of Slide and the southern high peaks from ledge near Becker Hollow Trail on Hunter (SW Hunter in front)

The now astonished owner thinking that the level was off or broken asked that he make sure that the bubble was in the middle, it was. For the owner, it was a unfortunate day as he had proved that his dear Hunter was not the tallest one of all, but some unknown giant to the southwest loomed larger. However, for the real scientific data, the people of the Catskills would have to wait for a professor from Princeton to make his calculations on Slide Mountain in 1879.

A towering peak

1909 Hunter Mountain Fire Tower
1909 Hunter Mountain Fire Tower

The fire tower that crowns Hunter was built in 1917 which replaced a wooden structure erected in 1909. The old wooden tower was a fancy structure which boasted a second-floor privy with a one level drop! The original fire towers rested about one-third mile below the summit (4,000’) at the junction of the Becker Hollow Trail and the Hunter Mountain Trail.

The steel tower which replaced the wooden structure was relocated to its current place in 1953. At sixty feet it has the distinction of being the highest fire tower in New York. It had been manned to survey for forest fires, now a job which is done by aerial observation. During World War Two the towers in the Catskills doubled as observation points for enemy air attack. The fire tower and its observer’s cabin were closed in 1989 due to disrepair. Even though it was closed many brave (or crazy) hikers would still scramble up its steps to catch a glimpse of the grand view. You can now climb 5 restored fire towers in the Catskills!

Without this structure, the summit would be view-less. Now that the fire tower has been restored hikers can climb it safely and take pleasure in its 360-degree panorama. Just as a note some days the fire tower observation deck may be closed and the wise hiker may wish to contact the Catskill Center before climbing to find out if it will be open.

View looking north from the Hunter Mountain Fire Tower
View looking north from the Hunter Mountain Fire Tower

Burns and logging on Hunter Mountain

Hunter was extensively logged and its slopes burned over. In fact, in his book “The Catskill Forest: A History”, Dr. Michael Kudish, has called the area on and around Hunter the “Fire Capital of the Catskills”. According to Kudish, there have been at least six tracts burned at least once, some possibly twice in this vicinity. Fires on Hunter proper included the spur of the Colonel’s Chair and two adjacent spurs toward Becker Hollow (1854), in Stony Clove which burned a small part of Hunters eastern slope (1893), on the southwest spur which contains the Spruceton Trail in the area of Hunter Brook (1916), and from the Devils Acre area to almost the summit (1916).

Devil's Acres lean-to
Devil’s Acres lean-to along Devil’s Path in the Catskills

If you hike on Hunter near the Devil’s Acre lean-to you can find the remains of an old railroad bed which was used by the Fenwick Lumber Company which established a mill in the Myrtle Brook Valley. The operation lasted for eleven years and used a 1.7-mile cable tramway and Railroad from a summit camp on Hunter to deliver the virgin cuttings to a mill in Diamond Notch and out of the Spruceton Valley. This lumber helped build the Ashokan Reservoir and provided materials for construction in Stony Clove and the Ulster & Delaware railroads.

Amazingly, Hunter being the 2nd highest peak in the range and with its ruggedness, it seems bewildering that it has one of the smallest stands of first growth forest which remains in Becker Hollow on the east shoulder of the mountain and the second on the headwall of Shanty Hollow. The Becker Hollow Trail and the Colonel’s Chair Trail traverse these areas. The hiker on Devils Path will leave first growth forest at Danny’s lookout on Plateau Mountain and not see it again until the slopes of Westkill unless they detour to Becker Hollow!

Hunter is battered

From all sides, this peak was impacted by several glacial episodes. If the observant hiker knows what to look for, the impact of these huge ice rivers can be observed by reading the land. On all sides of Hunter glacial activity is clear. Looking down the Spruceton Valley from Hunter one can see the glacially plowed U-shaped valley. These U-shaped valleys are a hallmark of glaciers. Two glaciers affected the Spruceton Valley, the Grand Gorge and the Westkill in separate ice advances. Other small alpine glaciers made home to the draws on the both sides of the Colonial’s Chair, in Becker Hollow, and the southern slopes into Stony Clove. What a scene this must have been, the mountain now known as Hunter adorned in rivers of ice.

Hunter’s definitely not broken

Hunter is an active mountain with many hiking trails and a privately run ski slope on its northern peak. Hunter has five trails on its slopes to gain access to its top. Two leave from Spruceton Valley, two from Stony Clove and one from the top of the Hunter Mountain Ski Lift known as the Colonels Chair Trail. The trails from Stony Clove (The Devils Path and Becker Hollow Trail) are the most challenging with great vertical ascent with shorter distance.

Chris at Jones Gap on Hunter Mountain
Chris at Jones Gap on the Spruceton Trail on Hunter Mountain

Hunter in the winter provides an array of options for climbing and definite challenges. The Spruceton Trail can be skied for most of its length. Only an expert skier will be able to ski the steeper sections of this trail. Others would find it easier to remove skis and climb by foot or snowshoe until the trail moderates and then don their skis for the remaining journey to the summit. The Devil’s Path trail out of Stony Clove requires crampons and snowshoes, possibly the use of an ice axe. Becker Hollow and the Devil’s Path section out of Spruceton both require snowshoes. As one reaches the summit in winter the trees are glistening with ice. The wind blows and screeches smashing into the trees. But like a wall of iron the trees block most of the winds fury. Of course, until you mount the fire tower!

Featured Image: Sanford Robinson Gifford [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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