The Catskill’s Escarpment Trail has been a favorite for hikers for generations. Its ruggedness and wilderness feel will appeal to almost any outdoor enthusiast. Along its 23-mile length, the trail winds over seven mountains with a high point of 3,940′ at the summit of Blackhead Mountain – vistas are many and are awe-inspiring. With steep uphills, some precipitous drops, and relatively few water sources, it is one of New York’s most challenging trails. Plan well and study up on NYS camping regulations! Referring to your map while reading this post will help if you do not have trail maps for the Catskills; get them here before heading out. Also, the ADK Catskills Trails guide book is invaluable.
The trail is renowned for its backpacking opportunities. Whether it be three or four-day outings or quick overnights, you’ll find a trip to meet your desires. There are many places to pitch a tent or stay in a shelter.
NYS backcountry camping rules
Before we talk about camping spots on the Escarpment Trail, we need to introduce the basic dos and don’t of camping in the Catskills.
At-large camping: You can camp anywhere as long as you are at least 150 feet from a water body, road, or trail unless the area is posted as “Camping Prohibited.”
Designated campsites: All designated primitive campsites have yellow and black “Camp Here” markers. Many by lakes and ponds are often identified by number – a yellow number on a dark brown wooden plaque typically attached to a tree near the water’s edge.
Lean-to: Lean-tos are available in many areas on a first-come-first-served basis. Lean-tos cannot be used exclusively and must be shared with other campers. Tents are not allowed inside lean-tos. Around lean-tos, camp at least 150 feet from the lean-to unless there is a “Camp Here” marker.
A Length of stay: Camping for more than 3 nights at one spot or with 10 or more people requires a permit from a forest ranger.
Above 3500 feet: Camping is also prohibited above 3,500 feet in elevation from March 22 until December 20 each year to protect the fragile summit environment.
Human waste: Use pit privies provided near popular camping areas and trailheads. If none are available, dispose of human waste by digging a hole 6″-8″ deep at least 150 feet from water or campsites. Cover with leaves and soil.
Fires: Fires should be built in existing fire pits or fireplaces if provided. Do not build fires in areas marked by a “No Fires” disk. At all times, only emergency fires are permitted above 3,500 feet in the Catskills.
LNT: Carry out what you carry in. Practice “leave no trace” camping and hiking.
Illegal camping: As you hike along the Escarpment Trail you are sure to come across fire rings near the trail. Do not camp at these unless it is a designated campsite. These are common at overlooks, flats on ridges, cols, and summits.
I’ll be describing the spots as if we were hiking from south going north.
North-South Lake Campground Area
About .75 miles from the southern trailhead, there is a primitive campsite, but this is NOT on the Escarpment Trail. However, it is close enough that making the short side trip is easy. It would make a good campsite for people arriving late or campers who want to make a quick overnight in the North-South Lake area without staying in the campground. Setting up a base camp here and day hiking the area would be an option. It may also benefit any thru-hikers on the Long Path, but with showers and other amenities at the campground, I would make the extra push.
At North-South Lake, New York State operates a large 200+ site campground. The trail starting on Schutt Road outside the park winds through gorgeous terrain and eventually makes its way into the campground and day-use area. You’ll need to book two nights as per the park’s requirement, but so what, stay one. With the relatively low rates, it may be worth it.
Remember, the campground is about 4.5 – 5 miles from the trailhead, and with all the views, it may take longer than you think to hike this section of trail. If you don’t stay at the campground, certainly fill your water bottles as the path is often dry until Dutcher Notch, the next place that makes sense to camp. Having said that, after the campground, you may camp at-large after Badman’s Cave.
Dutcher Notch Area
After one leaves the North-South Lake area and descends from Stoppel Point, you reach the 4-way junction named Dutcher Notch. You can find camping on both sides of the notch but camping in the notch is not legal as it is too close to the trail. If you make the easy descent west into the East Kill Valley, it will level out, and you can find many good at-large camping spots. Water is usually present about .3 miles down the trail via a small steam. The East Kill Valley is known for a large bear presence.
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There is a shallow spring about .3 miles on the notch’s east side, but the terrain is steep, and no good camping options are found.
Once one departs the Dutcher Notch Area, water will become scarce as you will ascend the ridge to Arizona Mountain. Much of the time, it lives up to its name (Arizona meaning “place of the small spring” 1).
Having said this, Arizona’s upper reaches are quite level, and one could find a spot to pitch a tent. Please remember that the vegetation at the higher elevations is sensitive. If you do camp here, keep in mind the sensitive nature of this high elevation environment and always practice leave-no-trace.
Some of the high elevations between Blackhead and Windham High Peak goes through first growth forest. Careless camping in these environments can do great harm. Be very selective and seriously consider staying only at designated sites.
Batavia Kill Area
Your next spot to camp after Dutcher Notch will be the Batavia Kill Area. This is one of the best spots along the Escarpment to camp. You have a few options. When you descend off the extremely steep north face of Blackhead Mountain, you will reach the Batavia Kill Trail’s junction. You can’t camp in the col. It’s too close to the trail.
The best camping spots are heading west for about a quarter-mile on the Batavia Kill Trail. The descent is not hard. There is usually ample water in the area. You will have the pick of two designated campsites (both can accommodate multiple tents) and the Batavia Kill Lean-to. The lean-to is very popular given its proximity to the trailhead in Big Hollow.
Recommended reading: 10 Things to Think About Before Using a Lean-To
If you wish, you will see a herd path leading east and downhill back at the col. The herd path will take you to an at-large campsite. It has room for one tent and has a small fire ring. I would camp in the valley where there is ample water. You’ll need it for your next section of trail.
Acra Point – Burnt Knob Col
There are no designated campsites here. However, if you are inclined to, you can drop off the Escarpment Trail, and about 0.65-miles or so will find some nice spots to camp in a coniferous forest.
There is generally a good water supply as you will be lower in the valley. After this spot will be your last camping opportunity with dependable water for several miles. It will also be the last place you can bail-out on a trail until Elm Ridge, about 4-miles away.
Between Burnt Knob and Windham High Peak
The only camping opportunities between these two peaks are at-large. You will notice several fire rings as you hike this section of trail. Do not camp here as they are too close to the trail. If you are camping at-large, you must be at least 150′ from a trail, water source, and/or road. If you are thinking of camping in this section of the trail, keep in mind that you should have ample water for all your needs.
Windham High Peak to Elm Ridge
As you descend Windham High Peak, you will eventually reach a drainage. There is usually water here. With some looking around, you can find a spot to set up camp. But remember the 150′ rule.
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Along this section of trail, the most logical place to camp is at the Elm Ridge lean-to, where there are also spaces for tents behind the shelter. Keep in mind that this lean-to is close to a road and is very popular, like the Batavia Kill Lean-to. There is also a privy here; please use it. Either fill your water containers at the drainage as mentioned earlier or walk to the spring about .2 miles from the lean-to. Check your map.
Hiking the Escarpment Trail is a fantastic experience, but the hiker should not take it lightly. Plan your trip well. If you plan to camp at spots other than designated campsites, lean-tos, or campgrounds, please remember the 150′ rule and be able to implement leave-no-trace at all times. Our philosophy is not to burn fires except at designated sites or lean-tos.
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Backwoods wanderer with a passion for backpacking, hiking, kayaking, and exploring the wilds of the Catskills and Adirondacks in New York. A Catskill 3500 Club Member and Adirondack Forty-Sixer. Climbed Mount Rainier. Professionally an Exercise Physiologist.