Hunter fire tower view

Great Hikes: Hunter Mountain Spruceton Trail

The Spruceton Trail is a very popular approach to Hunter’s summit and with a return on Devil’s Path makes a great circuit hike. The Spruceton Trail follows the old jeep road that serviced the fire tower. This is a well-graded trail and has a few moderately steep sections.

The trailhead is at the 6.7-mile point of Spruceton Road off Route 42 in Westkill.

The trail starts at the northeast corner of the parking area marked with blue trail markers and walks at a level grade past the trail register (please sign it).

At about 0.4-miles the trail swings left (northwest) to cross a wooden bridge.

Bridge crossing Hunter Brook on the Spruceton Trail
Bridge crossing Hunter Brook on the Spruceton Trail

This bridge crosses the beautiful Hunters Brook, a great place to stop and splash around after a hot summer hike. It’s excellent to gaze at almost anytime of year.

Hunters Creek from the bridge on the Spruceton Trail
The beautiful Hunters Brook from the bridge on the Spruceton Trail

Crossing the bridge the trail climbs a pitch up to a hair pin turn and swings back up the road (east). At the hair pin turn is the usual bushwhack point for Rusk Mountain. The road initially climbs gradually using switch backs then it slabs a ridge connect to East Rusk. When the trees are bare you can get nice views of Hunter’s west ridge and Westkill Mountain rising way above you.

A view of Hunter's west ridge and Westkill Mountain from the lower part of the Spruceton Trail
A view of Westkill Mountain from the lower part of the Spruceton Trail

The trail reaches a high pass between Hunter and East Rusk at 1.7-miles called Jones Gap. An unmarked path comes in from the north the trail to Hunters summit turns right (east south east). The thoroughfare from the north was part of an old wagon road used in the 1800’s to provide a connection from Hunter to the Westkill Valley through Jones Gap.

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

After departing Jones Gap, the trail will be level for a bit and then the trail will become steeper and rougher. The trail climbs to a good underground spring (2.2-miles) on the right and then on to the John Robb lean-to spur-trail at 2.3-miles (leads right off trail).

Except in an emergency or between December 21st and March 21st, camping is prohibited above an elevation of 3,500 feet in the Catskills.As you crest the hill on this part of the climb look back at the Westkill Valley and see Rusk and East Rusk Mountains and more. You are now at the 3500-foot mark.

If you detour to the John Robb lean-to you’ll descend through the Cats Elbow (rock formation) and find a nice place to stop and rest and get some good views. The views include part of the Spruceton Valley, Rusk and Westkill Mountains.

Hunter Mountain Fire Tower from the John Robb Lean-to
Hunter Mountain Fire Tower from the John Robb Lean-to

You’ll also get a glimpse of the fire tower. This lean-to is newer and replaces the original which was directly off the trail. It burnt some years ago and was relocated to its current spot.

Looking down toward the Colonel’s Chair from the fire tower when the cab is closed
Looking down toward the Colonel’s Chair from the fire tower when the cab is closed

At 2.4-miles you reach the Colonel’s Chair Trail which leads left (north) toward the top of the Hunter Mountain chair lift and a seasonally operated snack bar. However, if you go there you will descend several hundred feet. Hunter is the most developed of the 3500′ high peaks in the Catskills.

Near the "top" of the Colonel’s Chair on Hunter Mountain in Winter
Near the “top” of the Colonel’s Chair on Hunter Mountain in Winter

Continuing on the Spruceton Trail with an occasional glimpse of the fire tower the hiker makes the last mile to the summit. This section of the trail is very pleasant. With gentle grades on the summit ridge the trail moves through a spruce-fir forest. The trees close in on the trail.

Look down and see animal tracks at all times during the year. One hike during winter we saw rabbit and bobcat tracks that headed into the trees. We wondered who won? We have also seen deer and bear tracks on this high elevation trail.

Upon reaching the summit at 3.4-miles one is greeted with a attractive clearing surrounded by balsam fir. The fire tower stands proud and tall after its long overdue make-over. A summit observers cabin also sits on this place. The cabin served as home to the summit observers when the tower was still being used for fire observation is now a respite for climbers as they sit on its front porch at the wooden table.

However the best place to sit is in the towers observation deck. The DEC puts a six person limit on how many people can be in the deck at once. On busy days you will need to wait your turn. The summit also has a privy on its eastern side in the trees. It is in better condition now since the tower has been reopened, so please use this instead of littering the summit with waste. The Spruceton Trail ends at 3.7-miles the Becker Hollow Trail junction.

The view from the Hunter Mt fire tower is among the best on any mountain in New York.

As the hiker climbs the tower, the trip up is uneventful until the steps carry one above the trees. The wind starts to increase. With each step it seems to intensify exponentially. The tower begins to shudder as the wind blows on the steel skeleton. The wary hiker will grasp the hand rails and move cautiously upward. As the wind forces increase some legs may become weak but finally, with mercy, there is refuge in the observation deck out of the wind.

Keep in mind, these towers stood tall even when in disrepair. Go see what you came here for, the view! The view from the tower is expansive. Just east of north anchoring the scene is the rugged Black Dome Range of Caudal, Camel’s Hump, Thomas Cole, Black Dome and Black Head Mountains. To the left and behind Caudal and Camel’s Hump is Windham High Peak. To the right of Black Head is what is known as Arizona Peak and to its right is Stopple Point. Moving farther east is North and South Mountain and the sandy beaches of North Lake. If you have binoculars and the sun is high, you might see Kaaterskill Falls!

View from Hunter Mtn fire tower looking toward Blackhead Range, Windham High Peak
View from Hunter Mtn fire tower looking toward Blackhead Range, Windham High Peak

Continuing east the view provides a good look at Cauterskill (Kaaterskill) High Peak and its lower companion Round Top. In front of the Black Dome Range is Onteora Mountain at a stumpy 3220 feet. To the southeast are the mountains of Eastern Devil’s Path, Plateau in the foreground with Sugarloaf, Twin and Indian Head behind.

Hunter fire tower view
Hunter fire tower view

Looking south the jumble of the southern high peaks crowd together, the Burroughs Range, Giant Ledge and Panther. To the southwest are the mountains Spruce, Fir, Big Indian, Eagle, Haynes, Balsam, and Belleayre. Behind them is Doubletop, Graham, Balsam Lake. To the south going west in the foreground is SW Hunter, Westkill, North Dome and Sherrill.  Looking west is Rusk and the rest of the Lexington Range. Far off to the west Bearpen and Vly can be seen.

From this point there are hundreds of lower peaks, too numerous to name. On cold days when the sky is crystal clear one can see the Green Mountains of Vermont, Berkshires in Massachusetts, the lower hills of Connecticut, the Shawangunks near New Paltz, and finally seen in the distance the faint mountains of northern New Jersey.

Spruceton or Devil’s Path Trail for your return?

From the summit the hiker has two options for descent back to the Spruceton Valley. The return trip can be made following the same route up or by making a nice loop down the Hunter Mountain Trail to connect with Devil’s Path and the Diamond Notch Trail  returning to the Spruceton Valley with a short road walk back to your car.

Return via Devil’s Path

If you decide to return via the Devil’s Path route you will be rewarded with an open rock ledge 0.1-miles west of the Becker Hollow Trail junction where the Spruceton trail ends. This is arguably the best ledge view on the mountain.

Westkill Mountain from the ledge near the Becker Hollow Trail
Westkill Mountain from the ledge near the Becker Hollow Trail

The view encompasses most of the southern peaks and a close up view of SW Hunter, Westkill, and Rusk. The Spruceton Valley is far below.

View of Slide and the southern hike peaks from ledge near Becker Hollow Trail on Hunter
View of Slide and the southern hike peaks from ledge near Becker Hollow Trail on Hunter

Descending on Devils Path 0.2 miles past the Devils Acres lean-to is an old railroad bed. This 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 was used to help build the Ashokan Reservoir and provide materials for construction in Stony Clove and the Ulster & Delaware railroads. This is also the point you’ll find a herd-path to SW Hunter Mountain.

Continuing on the footpath to a nice view from Geiger Point (left) looking over the steep headwall of the Spruceton Valley is found, the Diamond Notch Falls and a walk beside a lively mountain steam will finish your return if you take the loop.

Area resources:

DEC Region 4 Stamford Office

Hours: M-F 8:30AM – 4:30PM

Phone: (607) 652-7365

Email: r4.ump@dec.ny.gov

Law Enforcement, Emergency & Rangers: 518-408-5850 or dial 911

Maps: NYNJTC Map # 141 (Buy Here)

DEC Hunter – Westkill Wilderness Recreation Map (pdf)

On-line resources:

NYSDEC Rusk Mountain Wild Forest

NYSDEC Hunter Westkill Wilderness

Hunter Mountain Weather

Trails referenced: 

Spruceton Trail – Blue Marked
Hunter Mountain Trail – Yellow Marked
Devil’s Path Trail – Red Marked
Becker Hollow Trail – Yellow Marked
Diamond Notch Trail – Yellow Marked

Spruceton Trailhead

Trail System on Hunter Mountain

Trail system on Hunter Mountain
Trail system on Hunter Mountain

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