Curtis – Ormsbee Trail in the Catskills

View from Paul's Lookout on the Curtis - Ormsbee Trail
Average read time 6 min

The blue-blazed Curtis – Ormsbee Trail is a short connector trail in the Slide Mountain Wilderness of the Catskill Mountains. It provides the hiker with a beautiful alternative to the “dog route” from the Slide Mountain Trail Head or as part of Denning’s main approach.

In its 1.65-mile length, the hiker will find fine views, first growth forest, and interesting trail-side scenery.

History behind the Curtis – Ormsbee Trail

Curtis - Ormsbee Monument
Scott | copyright Challenged Hiking Curtis – Ormsbee Monument (Daniel Case at the English language Wikipedia – via Wikimedia Commons)

The Curtis-Ormsbee Trail named after William Curtis, who was known as the father of athletics in America and was the founder of the Fresh Air Club and the New York Athletic Club, and Alan Ormsbee, an athlete and member of the Crescent Athletic Club, two intrepid climbers who were subjected to the extreme savageness of Mount Washington in New Hampshire.

During the spring of 1900, the Appalachian Mountain Club had scheduled a field meeting which was to be held on the summit of Mount Washington. The two well-known climbers set out for the peak via the Crawford Path; the oldest continually maintained footpath in America. The path is noted for its extreme exposure to the weather, of which Mount Washington can boast the worst conditions for any “small mountain” in the world. They were to enjoy a meeting with many dignitaries and other famed mountaineers of the day.

Most of the attendees ascended the mountain on the road by carriage or the cog railway due to a severe storm. Curtis and Ormsbee, however, decided to walk up the mountain. This would be a tragic choice. As the two climbers ascended Mt. Washington, they may have been ill-prepared. It is estimated that they departed the Rosebrook Inn between 10 am and 12 pm, then made the ascent to Mount Clinton and signed in at the register. Upon descending from Clinton, two trail workers from the Crawford House observed the pair heading to Mount Pleasant’s base. One of the two workers tried to reach the climbers to warn them of the deteriorating conditions ahead; the time was about 1:30 pm.

By 3:00 pm, the two men from the Crawford House were required to retreat to safety due to severe conditions. Curtis and Ormsbee ascended to the summit of Pleasant and signed the register with name, date, and this comment “Rain clouds and wind sixty miles – Cold.” By 2:00 pm, Curtis and Ormsbee were met by two guides taking care of a party camping in the woods south of Mount Washington. The exchange is reported in this account reported by one of the Crawford House trail workers who met with the guides as they descended. “Guide: How are you?” “Curtis or Ormsbee: Hullo!” “Guide: It’s awfully rough; you’d better go back; it was all we could do to get down; I don’t believe you can ever get there (Mount Washington).” No response from Curtis or Ormsbee. The team of two Guides reported they observed the pair ascending and noticed the light clothing they were sporting and advised them to retreat to the trail workers not long after 2:00 pm. Most likely, by this time, both may have been in the grips of hypothermia as they did not acknowledge the warning. This decision would seal their fate.

The pair made it over the southern peaks and the summit of Mount Monroe to the current Lake of the Clouds Hut, where Curtis perished. His body was found near the current lake of the clouds hut, and he appeared to have fallen and struck his head on a rock and was never to arise again. Ormsbee continued and expired high on the summit cone of Washington. Ormsbee’s body was found battered as indicated in the Appalachian Mountain Club report “Fully fifty heavy bruises were found on his body, but there were no broken bones.” These deaths shocked the climbing community and confirmed how unforgiving nature could be.

The Trail

As already stated, this is a connector trail that is marked with blue DEC markers. It is usually mentioned in conjunction with other hikes/trails. Because of its unique background, we wanted to highlight it alone.


Trail Alert

The trail section on the Phoenicia East Branch Trail between the Wittenberg-Cornell-Slide Trail and Curtis Ormsbee Trail has reported washout and is rougher than expected. Please be aware of these conditions as you plan your trip.

Why use this trail?

  • This trail can be used as an attractive alternative to the beginning of the Burroughs Range Trail from the Slide Mountain Trailhead.
  • The trail can be used as a beautiful descent route from Slide Mountain
  • It is used as part of the direct ascent/descent of Slide from Denning or Peekamoose/Table
  • It’s part of the Long Path (unless one is camping at the designated site on the lower part of the Burroughs Range Trail)
  • It will provide more solitude than the “dog route” up Slide.
Phoenicia East Branch Trail junction
Scott | copyright Challenged Hiking Phoenicia East Branch Trail junction

The trail at its lower end begins 1.65-miles from the Slide Mountain Trailhead or 3.0-miles from the Denning Trailhead. At its upper reaches, its “terminus” is 0.70-miles from the Slide Mountain Summit.

Woods road coming from Denning to the Curtis - Ormsbee Trail
Scott | copyright Challenged Hiking Woods road coming from Denning to the Curtis – Ormsbee Trail
Primitive Campsite at the lower junction of the Curtis-Ormsbee Trail
Scott | copyright Challenged Hiking Primitive Campsite at the lower junction of the Curtis-Ormsbee Trail

At its upper reaches, it is NO marking for the Curtis – Ormsbee Trail. The trail sign descending from the summit is on your left and says, “Phoenicia East Branch Trail JCT. 1.6” “Denning P.A. 4.5”.

Trail sign at upper part of the Curtis - Ormsbee Trail
Scott | copyright Challenged Hiking Trail sign at upper part of the Curtis – Ormsbee Trail

The trail leaving the junction with the Phonicecia – East Branch Trail will start on the gradual slope and then quickly climbs through interesting rock outcrops at 0.1-mile. Stop and take a moment to look down; the rock formation is like a maze. After this, you will ascend via various grades and up ledges. At one point, you’ll be able to look west and see Doubletop Mountain.

Except in an emergency or between December 21st and March 21st, camping is prohibited above an elevation of 3,500 feet in the Catskills.
3500 foot mark

At 0.5-mile you will pass the 3500-foot sign and scramble up some rocky terrain to Paul’s Lookout at 0.65-mile.

You can get fine views of Table and Lone Mountains. This is a great place to sit and enjoy the great Catskill wilderness.

Lone and Table Mountains from Paul's Lookout
Scott | copyright Challenged Hiking Lone and Table Mountains from Paul’s Lookout

From Paul’s Lookout, you have another mile to the junction with the Burrough’s Range Trail. You will hike on the level then more moderate grades. The trail traverses some wet spots on logs and enters a nice hemlock shaded section which is particularly beautiful in winter.

You reach some log steps at a steep point at 1.50-miles and the trail levels for a bit. It then descends to the Burrough’s Range Trail junction at 1.65-miles.

No matter what time of the year, the Curtis – Ormsbee Trail comes highly recommended. If starting from the Slide Mountain Trailhead, it only adds a bit more hiking but a lot more pleasure. If you don’t do it both ways (up and down), we recommend on the return trip, so you can catch all the great scenery which will be in front of you on your hike down.

Curtis – Ormsbee Trail Map