Best Hikes: The Catskill’s Escarpment Trail from Colgate Lake

Blackhead Mountain Catskills From Colgate Lake Trail
Average read time 13 min
Hike Summary

Backing the Escarpment from Colgate Lake is Awesome

The Escarpment Trail is one of the Catskill’s longest and most scenic paths. Following the Catskill escarpment above the Hudson Valley is exhilarating. Backpacking the entire 23.9 miles from Scutt Road to the trailhead at Rt 23 or the reverse makes for an outstanding 3-day outing.

If you only have two days, there are other options. As we did on this trip, one choice is to enter the Escarpment Trail from Colgate Lake. The Colgate Lake Wild Forest sits just south of the Blackhead Range in the East Kill Valley. It is a beautiful hike that is surprisingly easy 4.3-miles to Dutcher Notch, which is nestled between Arizona Mountain and Stopple Point.

Once on the Escarpment Trail, head 12.3-miles north over the beautiful peaks of Blackhead, Acra Point, Burnt Knob, and Windham High Peak and out to Route 23. Camp at the Batavia Kill.

View of Thomas Cole Black Dome Blackhead Arizona Mountains and Stopple Point from the Colgate Lake Trail in the Catskills
Scott | copyright Challenged Hiking View of Thomas Cole, Black Dome, Blackhead, Arizona Mountains and Stopple Point from the Colgate Lake Trail in the Catskills (click to enlarge)
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Colgate Lake to Dutcher Notch

The footpath starting at Colgate Lake to Dutcher notch is about four miles; there is much to see along the way. This is a wet trail for much of its length. As soon as you leave the trailhead, you’ll be greeted with views of what’s to come.

You’ll see Arizona and the Blackhead Mountains. Also, Stopple Point and West Stopple. Behind you will be Onteora Mountain. You’ll get variations of these views at different points along the way in open beaver impacted and boggy spaces.

At times, the 4.3-mile trek will be on an old turnpike that connected the East Kill Valley with the Hudson Valley. The old highway will become very apparent as you reach Dutcher Notch. You’ll find the trail twists and turns as it makes its way, so make sure you know where the next marker is.

Trail signs and markers along the Colgate Lake Trail
Scott | copyright Challenged Hiking Trail signs and markers along the Colgate Lake Trail

The least perceptive hiker will see the impact of days of old in this once inhabited place.

Remnant of an old car off the Colgate Lake Trail
Scott | copyright Challenged Hiking A remnant of an old car off the Colgate Lake Trail

The trail will cross great stands of conifers that hug the trail a feeling very reminiscent of Adirondack lowlands.

Yellow trail marker with Chris Backpacking in the conifers on the Colgate Lake Trail in the Catskills
Scott | copyright Challenged Hiking Yellow trail marker with Chris Backpacking in the conifers on the Colgate Lake Trail in the Catskills

It is also packed with wildlife. Stay alert and you’re sure to get a “treat”.

Sign warning not to feed bears or deer at the trail-head
Scott | copyright Challenged Hiking Sign warning not to feed bears or deer at the trail-head

As you reach the notch, the trail’s grade will increase, and you’ll notice high rock walls on both sides of the pass. At the gap, you’ll be at the junction with the Escarpment Trail. Like many Catskill passes, it is only a few hundred feet wide.

Colgate Lake Trail Climbing to Dutcher Notch
Scott | copyright Challenged Hiking Colgate Lake Trail Climbing to Dutcher Notch. Notice the gradual grades. Steep cliffs line this section.

Dutcher Notch to the Batavia Kill

On this trip from the notch, we took the Escarpment Trail 12.3 miles north to RT 23. If you plan your trip as we did, you’ll be camping 3.6 miles away at the Batavia Kill Lean-to site, which has designated campsites and lots of water. As you depart the notch, you’ll notice you are now also on the Long Path.

Trail markers at Dutcher Notch for the Escarpment Trail and Long Path
Scott | copyright Challenged Hiking Trail markers at Dutcher Notch for the Escarpment Trail and Long Path

Your hike to the camp will be over Arizona and Blackhead Mountains.

Chris climbing out of Dutcher Notch toward Arizona Peak
Scott | copyright Challenged Hiking Chris climbing out of Dutcher Notch toward Arizona Peak
View from Arizona Mountain of Kaaterskill High Peak and Round Top with the east section of Devil's Path in the background
Scott | copyright Challenged Hiking View from Arizona Mountain of Kaaterskill High Peak and Round Top with the east section of Devil’s Path in the background

Arizona Mountain’s long ridge is generally level with short ups and downs. The upper sections of the mountain live up to its name, being very dry. The summit has burned over in the past. It is also airy as the trees are short, giving an open feeling. As you are about to leave Arizona, you’ll get views of the summit of Blackhead.

Chris on Escarpment Trail high on Arizona Mountain with the mass of Blackhead Mountain rising in the background
Scott | copyright Challenged Hiking Chris on Escarpment Trail high on Arizona Mountain with the mass of Blackhead Mountain rising in the background

Please keep in mind, some sections of the forest at the higher elevations between Blackhead Mountain and Windham High Peak are in first growth, be careful in this sensitive forest community.

On your climb up Blackhead, you’ll climb steeply up the south ridge. The south ridge is almost as steep as the north ridge of Blackhead. This section of trail should not be taken lightly, especially when backpacking.

Reaching the top of the ridge below Blackhead
Scott | copyright Challenged Hiking Reaching the top of the ridge below Blackhead

You will be rewarded with fine views of peaks and valleys below! Remember you’ll be climbing over Arizona Mountain before your final ascent to Blackhead.

As you make your way up Blackhead Mountain, please keep in mind that some forest sections at the higher elevations between Blackhead Mountain and Windham High Peak are in first growth. Be careful in this sensitive forest community.

Looking back from Blackhead Mountain toward what would seem as a puny Arizona peak.
Scott | copyright Challenged Hiking Looking back from Blackhead Mountain toward what would seem as a puny Arizona peak.

Once on the summit of Blackhead, you’ll be 1.2 miles from camp, but first, you need to make a .9 mile, 1,000′ descent to the junction with the Batavia Kill Trail. One of the steepest sections of trails in the Catskills. This descent can be dangerous in wet or winter conditions.

Chris making the very steep and rocky descent off the north face of Blackhead Mountain
Scott | copyright Challenged Hiking Chris making the very steep and rocky descent off the north face of Blackhead Mountain

The steep descent off Blackhead is exciting.

Chris on his way down off the north face of Blackhead
Scott | copyright Challenged Hiking Chris on his way down off the north face of Blackhead

You’ll get fine views from the trail and several ledges along the way. You will reach the col quickly and will be able to make the 0.2-mile trek to the campsite on the Batavia Kill Trail.

Our campsite on the Batavia Kill Trail in the Catskills, this is a few hundred feet from the lean-to
Scott | copyright Challenged Hiking Our campsite on the Batavia Kill Trail in the Catskills (current site of new lean-to)

There are many splendid spots to tent camp or stay at the Batavia Kill lean-to, newly built to replace the old one (2017). Remember, lean-tos are on a first-come basis and only hold about 7 – 8 people. During busy periods don’t count on space, be prepared for other options.

Batavia Kill Camp to RT 23 on the Escarpment Trail

On our second day, we make the short walk back to the Escarpment Trail. Our plan this day is to hike to route 23. Hiking to route 23 means climbing over Acra Point, Burnt Knob, and Windham High Peak. Even though the distance is only about 8.5 miles, walking the three peaks will make it a vigorous day.

Trail sign for Escarpment Trail at Batavia Kill Trail junction
Scott | copyright Challenged Hiking Trail sign for Escarpment Trail at Batavia Kill Trail junction

The path up Acra Point is steep and climbs through many rocky areas. With the leaves down, you can see the mass of the Blackhead Range to the south. Once reaching the higher elevations, the walking becomes more pleasant. You can see views through the tree of the Hudson Valley.

View of Hudson Valley from Acra Point
Scott | copyright Challenged Hiking View of Hudson Valley from Acra Point

When climbing along Acra Point, one feels that they are always on the top until the next small rise. The best views on Acra Point are at the North end just before the drop-off into the col leading to Burnt Knob. One vista will peer out over the Hudson Valley, and the second is an outstanding panorama of the Blackhead Range, Burnt Knob, and Windham High Peak. A great place to see where you can from and how far you have to go!

Panorama of the Blackhead Range, Burnt Knob and Windham High Peak from Acra Point
Scott | copyright Challenged Hiking Panorama of the Blackhead Range, Burnt Knob and Windham High Peak from Acra Point (click to enlarge)

Once you start to make the ascent to Burnt Knob you will enter a stretch of trail that has no connector paths until the Elm Ridge Trail 4.2 miles away leading to Peck Road. 

The .7 mile drop to the col between Acra Point and Burnt Knob is easy. When you reach the col, beware this is your last chance to bail out on a trail.

Once you start to make the ascent to Burnt Knob, you will enter a stretch of trail that has no connector paths until the Elm Ridge Trail 4.2 miles away, leading to Peck Road. Your only way out is to return to the col, bushwhack off the ridge, or walk the Escarpment Trail out.

The climb up Burnt Knob is steep, but with some switchbacks, the trek is made easier. As you reach the mountain’s upper ridge, the grades will easy, and a lookout will present on your left. This is a great place to break and take another look at the Blackhead Range and back to Acra Point.

View from Burnt Knob looking at Blackhead Mountain, Arizona Mountain peeking up behind it and the shoulder of Acra Point to the left
Scott | copyright Challenged Hiking View from Burnt Knob looking at Blackhead Mountain, Arizona Mountain peeking up behind it and the shoulder of Acra Point to the left

The walk across Burnt Knob is generally level. You’ll never cross the summit as it is off to the east of the trail. If you wish, you can make an easy bushwhack up and walk the level summit. With leaves down, you’ll have some lovely views.

As you drop from Burnt Knob, the trail will start its long trek toward Windham High Peak. The path after Burnt Knob is an excellent section of trail as it is not used much and feels very isolated. Through varied terrain, the route will wind its way along the Escarpment. You will reach a knob that the trail will skirt to the left and then swing back to the col before your ascent up Windham High Peak. You’ll get a view of this before you reach the knob.

Windham High Peak from the Escarpment Trail.
Scott | copyright Challenged Hiking Windham High Peak from the Escarpment Trail you can see the shoulder of the knob to the left.

As you start the ascent up Windham High Peak, you will find an open viewing ledge off to your left. It will give you a view of the mass of High Peak and the trek you will make. On the day we were there, we were chilled by a north wind battering this ledge.

Windham High Peak from Windy Ledge
Scott | copyright Challenged Hiking Windham High Peak from “Windy Ledge” as we named it.

Your ascent from here will seem longer than it is. Once you reach the 3500-foot sign, it’s only a few more feet climbing as Windham High Peak is only 3524 feet elevation! On the summit of Windham High Peak, you have your pick of several viewing ledges. Enjoy each one!

Blackhead Range from Windham High Peak
Scott | copyright Challenged Hiking Blackhead Range from Windham High Peak

Leaving High Peak, you’ll have a 3.2-mile hike to your final destination on Rt 23. The trail drops steeply at first, and then as typical Catskill paths go, you’ll have level walks with sections of descent. The route will pass by and through several stands of magnificent conifers.

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Walking through these almost has a “fairy tale” feel to it. You will reach the junction with the Elm Ridge Trail and see signs for a network of mountain biking trails that run along Elm Ridge down to Rt 23.

Escarpment Trail and Mountain Biking Signs
Scott | copyright Challenged Hiking Escarpment Trail and Mountain Biking Signs on Elm Ridge

Your final walk to Rt 23 will be about 1.2 miles as the trail switchbacks down the ridge before leveling out down in the valley below. You will soon reach the trailhead on Rt 23. From Colgate Lake, you will have traveled about 16.3 miles, having climbed five summits.

DEC Contact and other information

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.
Weather:Blackhead Mountain weather
Cell Service:Never count on your cell phone for rescue. Cell service in the Windham-Blackhead Wilderness is okay and one may have problems in ravines. We have not had problems with service.

Colgate Lake Wild Forest
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 Hunter and Jewett, Greene County
Map: View Windham-Blackhead Range Wilderness Map - PDF (2.82 MB)
Amenities:Lodging and dining opportunities as well as gas, food and other supplies may be found in the communities of Windham and Palenville.

Backpacking map Colgate Lake and Escarpment Trail

Click the map or here for an interactive version of the map.

Colgate Lake - Escarpment Backpacking
Scott | copyright Challenged Hiking Colgate Lake – Escarpment Backpacking

Trailhead map for Colgate Lake

Colgate Lake Trailhead (click for map)
Scott | copyright Challenged Hiking Colgate Lake Trailhead (click for map)