Slide Mountain Catskills – The Tallest One of All

Slide Mountain
Average read time 10 min

Slide Mountain is an icon among Catskill mountain peaks. It greets tens of thousands of hikers each year. During the “in season” hiking months (mid-spring to mid-fall), it is not uncommon to share this peak with 40-50 people on average. This wonderful peak holds the lofty status of being the highest in the Catskills.

Place among the 35: 1st

Elevation: 4190 feet above sea level.

Summit Coordinates: 41° 59.92’N, 74° 23.18’W

Interesting Features: Conglomerate Rock on Summit, Virgin Hemlock Stands (3,300’ on S.W. Flank between Deer Shanty Brook and East Branch Neversink River & at 2,920’ on the old Steps Trail, bushwhack required), Virgin Spruce Stand 3,000’ on S.W. Flank between Deer Shanty Brook and East Branch Neversink River, bushwhack required), The Slide (overgrown but can make it out from Cornell), Curtis Memorial (at the Curtis – Ormsbee trailhead), Burroughs Commemorative inscription on summit rock, Dutcher step trail (if you can find it).

Holding Its Own

Indeed, it is the 31st highest peak in New York. This puts it above eighteen of the Adirondacks’ 46 highest summits. It is loftier than 16 of the 48 high peaks in New Hampshire. Slide is senior to all peaks in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. It would rank the third-highest in Vermont and fourth in Maine and would be placed 65th in the northeast 110 peaks above 4,000 feet. Slide is simply a mountain with stature.

Not Always Celebrated

However, people did not always recognize this status. In 1741, one of Slide’s early “owners,” Robert Livingston, was unaware that he held the Catskill’s highest peak in his land control or even cared. According to an article by Alf Evers in the 1961 July issue of the New York State Conservationist, the mountain mattered not to the sale of the land encompassing Slide as witnessed in the agreement in which Livingston entered with the seller, “all Woods, Under-woods, Trees, Timber, Fordings, Pastures, Meadows, Marshes, Swamps, Ponds, Pools, Waters, Water Coursings, Rivers, Rivelettes, Runs and Streams of Water, Fishing, Fowling, Hawking, Hunting, Mines, and Minerals standing, growing, lying and being.”

The then-unnamed high mountain was not mentioned and continued to be kept an enigma for many years to come. Throughout the mid to later 1800s, Slide has remained a scarcely known peak. Surrounded by a jumble of high peaks, Slide was difficult, if not impossible, to see. To affront Slide further, even after Guyot scientifically proved that it was the highest in these mountains, the hotel proprietors to the north refused to recognize it as the king of the Catskills as it would hurt their business.

In the publication America Cyclopaedia (1879), the denial of Slide’s dominance is clear.

“the highest summits are Round Top, High Peak, and Overlook…” 

In fact, the mountains of the southern part of the Catskills were called the Shandaken Mountains and were not thought of as part of the Catskills. In schools, these mountains were described as part of the Blue Hills extending from Pennsylvania into New York. The hotel owners were happy with this as it kept the distant mountains from being identified as Catskill.

Finally Found

Arnold Henry Guyot
Arnold Henry Guyot

Its early scientific exploration was done by Arnold Henry Guyot (1807-1884) in 1879; forty-two years after Ebenezer Emmons (1799 – 1863) made his calculations on Mt. Marcy (1837) in the Adirondacks! Guyot, a geomorphologist from Sweden, was a professor of geology at Princeton University and founder of the National Weather Service and surveyed many of the peaks of the Appalachian chain, including the Catskills.

In Guyot’s day, there were few trails to the summits, and it was a vast undertaking to explore the mostly nameless mountains. Guyot used a simple barometer to find elevations of the summits he explored. Using this instrument required Guyot to be on the summit to read its elevation. In every sense of the word, Guyot was an explorer, and he did New York a great service by investigating and charting the Catskills each summer from 1862 to 1879. At age 60, Guyot ascended Slide and measured its height at 4,205 feet.

He wrote in his scientific paper of 1880 in the American Journal of Science:

“The Slide Mountain, the culminating point of the southern, and the highest of all the Catskills, is in many respects is quite remarkable.”

Unfortunately, Guyot does not receive to a great extent the credit in which he fittingly deserves for giving the Catskills its first comprehensive scientific exploration. No peak is given his name as was such with Emmons, who was head of the team to map the Adirondacks. This would have seemed an appropriate honor for a man of his stature and one who contributed to the knowledge of this brilliant region we love so much.

Burroughs, A Conservationist, and Author

Chris at the Slide Mountain Trailhead
Chris near the Slide Mountain Trailhead

Another adventurer who must be mentioned regarding Slides history and which would not be complete without talking about is John Burroughs (1837-1921), the famed naturalist and author. He was born and spent his youth in what is now known as Roxbury, NY, at the base of Old Clump Mountain in his home called Woodchuck Lodge. His home is now a living museum, and his childhood rock, his final resting place, a great place to visit.

In an era of few or no “trails,” it took Burroughs several times to mount Slide as he and his fellow explorers had attempted the peak from Woodland Valley and got as far as Wittenberg and turned back but gave us this description of his attempt at the highest peak from The Wittenberg side:

“and after a long and desperate climb, contented ourselves with the Wittenberg, instead of Slide. Slide is southwest of you, six or seven miles distant, but is visible only when you climb a treetop. I climbed and saluted him, and promised to call next time.”

He loved the Catskills and spent much time hiking, fishing, and camping on its land. Burroughs, in his description of the mountain in his essay The Heart of the Southern Catskills, wrote:

“Slide Mountain, the highest of the Catskills by some two hundred feet; and probably the most inaccessible; certainly the hardest to get a view of, it is hedged about so completely by other peaks, the greatest mountain of them all, and apparently the least willing to be seen; only at a distance of thirty or forty miles is it seen to stand up above all other peaks.”

Additionally, he describes the summit view this way:

“To the east we looked over the nearby Wittenberg Range to the Hudson and beyond; to the south, Peak-o’-Moose, with its sharp crest, and Table Mountain, with its long, level top, were the two conspicuous objects; in the west, Graham and Double Top about three thousand eight hundred feet each, arrested the eye; while in our front to the north we looked at Panther Mountain to the multitudinous peak of the northern Catskills.”

Arguably Burroughs’s essay fixed Slides fame. Burroughs is tied to Slide in Catskills history. So much that the Winnisook Club affixed a memorial on the “summit” rock.

John Burroughs Memorial placed by the Winnisook Club on Slide Mountain, Catskills NY
John Burroughs Memorial placed by the Winnisook Club on Slide Mountain, Catskills NY

A Missing Feature

Conspicuously if you read Burroughs’s description of Slide’s view, a significant feature is missing that we see today, the Ashokan Reservoir. Today from Slide, a significant part of the view is this body of water. At 13 square miles and containing about 9,000 acres of water surface, it is the largest reservoir in the NYC water system. It was completed in 1912, clearly after Burroughs’s narrative of Slides panorama.

Construction of the reservoir displaced or destroyed a total of nine communities. These included Ashton, Boiceville, Brodhead, Brown’s Station, Glenford, Olive Bridge, Shokan, West Hurley, and West Shokan. A total of 1,952 people were uprooted from their homes. Entirety thirty-two cemeteries had been supplanted, with about 2,800 remains moved to another location. Three-quarters of the land needed for the reservoir was condemned land.

What’s In A Name?

Slide’s name was given due to a large landslide (1820) on its north-facing slope. It occurred on a day after torrential rains, which supersaturated the ground and left it ripe for the land to slide down the northern side of the mountain, and that it did.

The slide was massive, and it slashed the mountain ripping its forest from its side and leaving a spear-shaped gash pointing right at the summit as if to give notice to all of its supremacy over the entire mountain range.  Today the remnants of the scar cut in the mountain provide this massive landmass with an interesting but ever disappearing spectacle, especially coming from Cornell Mountain. In point of fact, what you are viewing is not the bare rock slide but the demarcation in vegetation between the slide reforestation zone and the older growth forest which surrounds it.

At one time, a rough trail led up this massive slide from the current Phoenicia – East Branch Trail somewhere between Woodland Valley and the Giant Ledge – Panther Mountain Trailhead as indicated in this description in a 1928 issue of Appalachia:

“…Another, rather poorly marked with bark blazes, turns south off the yellow trail and climbs the steep north front of Slide, part of that great landslip (now largely covered with trees) of a century ago for which the mountain is named.”

It’s A Weathered Peak

The climate on Slide is vastly different than the lowland valleys. The following data has been collected over a thirty-year period from the weather station on the flank of Slide. This does not represent the actual summit conditions which are far more extreme.

At the station, its average maximum temperature is 50 degrees for the year with its warmest month in July at 72. The coldest month is January, with an average maximum high of 26 degrees. The average year-round temperature is 40 degrees when averaged out over a 12 month period, with July holding the highest average at 62 and January being the coldest at 16.7 degrees. Average minimum temperatures are low for any time of the year, with July at a cool 52 degrees and January chilling you at 7.5 degrees. The average rainfall is 60.2 inches per year, much not all of it falls as snow or frozen precipitation during winter months.

Trail on Slide Mountain at about 3,950'
Trail on Slide Mountain at about 3,950′

Summit conditions are different. Slides summit sits in the high peaks “wet belt” and receives about 70+ inches of total precipitation a year. Since most will fall as snow, the summit will receive about 50 – 100 inches additional snow than its own base. Generally speaking, as one ascends, the mountain temperature drops. According to records, this ascent cooling, scientifically known as adiabatic lapse rate, is about 3-4 degrees for every 1,000 feet ascended above the base level.

By and large, the summit temperatures can be 10 – 15 degrees cooler. However, this only tells part of the story. Slide being jutted up into the sky is open to all the might of the wind to which the summits provide the hiker with diminutive safeguard. To this, then wind chill becomes a factor and cannot and should not be taken frivolously.  Slides summit can be a forbidding place, and in hostile weather, the hiker should be prepared to meet its challenge; any time of year.

Customarily, however, climbing Slide is a pleasure.

A Guide And Story Teller

The first trail was cut in the 1870s by a local woodsman, guide, and first promoters, James Dutcher. Dutcher’s trail, a work of beauty and continual change, ascended the mountain from the current Winnisook Lake Club Property. Due to Slide’s remoteness, many individuals opted to secure the services of a guide, and James Dutcher was the exclusive guide then.

Dutcher had a home and boarding house on the slopes of Panther Mountain in the Big Indian Valley in what is now Oliveria. He would customarily pick his clients up at the Big Indian Rail Station and board his clients at his “Panther Mountain House” and guide them up Slide dressed in white shirt and tie. Once on Slide, he would show his clients the view from his personally constructed summit tower and may have a small orchestra for entertainment and dancing pleasure.

Wood Tower on Slide Mountain
Originally from [ en.wikipedia] Tim Mallery, Image is of a postcard from his collection.
They would then return to his boarding house for an evening meal and his stories of the wild. Dutcher’s trail was elaborate, and he needed to build rock steps (the trail’s name became the Dutcher Step Trail) to escort his well-dressed clients up to Slides summit. He built it to pass interesting rock formations, waterfalls, and views with wooden or rock benches for rest. Today the trail is abandoned and cannot be used as it crosses private property.

Dutcher was such a predominant figure for climbing Slide he was highlighted in the very popular Van Loan’s Catskill Mountain Guide in 1879:

“Conveyances can be left at Dutcher’s, five miles from the peak, and a guide obtained there to pilot the way. Small parties sometimes remain overnight at Dutcher’s, thus gaining more time to spend on the summit.”

A Botched Trail

In 1892, the New York State legislature approved $250 to construct the “official state” first footpath in the state forest preserve (both Catskill and Adirondack), which was cut up Slide Mountain. However, the trail was designed and cut before any formal surveys being done to confirm the state land boundaries. When the survey was finally done, it was found that a large part of the path was, in fact, crossing private land! The state would not acquire the land needed to cut a trail that was entirely on public land until 1980.

Slide Mountain Trailhead on Oliverea Road, (aka Slide Mountain Road)
Slide Mountain Trailhead sign on Oliverea Road, (aka Slide Mountain Road)

Nowadays, the hiker can ascend the mountain on three trails, ranging from moderate to difficult, thankfully all entirely on public lands. The hiker can access Slide from the state-run Woodland Valley Campground on the rugged Burroughs Range Trail with a total of 3,620 feet of elevation gain or from Slide Mountain Trailhead on Oliveira Road, (aka Slide Mountain Road) Route 47 in Ulster County. The trail from the Rt 47 side of the mountain is the easier and most direct trail but can be made more challenging if the hiker uses the Curtis – Ormsbee Trail.

Routes Up The Mountain

Burroughs Range Trail from Slide Mountain Road

Phoenicia East Branch / Curtis – Ormsbee Trail from Slide Mountain Road

Phoenicia East Branch / Curtis – Ormsbee Trail from Denning

Burroughs Range Trail from Woodland Valley