Blackhead Mountain – A “Peak” at History

Summit ledge on Blackhead Mountain in Catskills
Average read time 4 min

Standing about 3,900 feet above the town of Catskill along the Hudson, Blackhead Mountain is an icon among peaks in the Catskills. It is seen from almost every sizable mountain in the area and towers over the valleys below. It is the highest mountain in full view from the Hudson Valley. It also commands endless views from different points on its slopes. Sadly, it bestows no vista from its summit.

The Town of Catskill & the Mountain House

For many years in the 1800’s the community of Catskill was a bustling site. It is the county seat and more importantly at that time the gateway for the grand hotels that existed on top of The Great Wall of Manitou at today’s North Lake Area. Vacationers would arrive at Catskill Landing by steamboat from Albany or New York and be taken up by stage-coach to the Hotel. The coach ride completing the twelve miles to the Mountain House would take about four hours over rough terrain.

The decaying Mountain House in 1953, during an ill-fated attempt to renovate the hotel
The decaying Mountain House in 1953, during an ill-fated attempt to renovate the hotel: Image courtesy of; From an original 35mm slide in my collection., Public Domain,

In his text, Historical collections of the State of New York (1851), John Warner Barber describes the jaunt in this way:

“The road from the village to the foot of the mountain, 9 miles, has little interest. The ascent of the mountain is by a good through circuitous road of 3 miles, but which, often running upon the brink of a deep ravine, or beneath frowning precipices, excites an unwelcome degree of terror.”

The present day traveler can experience the same feeling by driving the Platte Clove Mountain Road from the terminus of county route 16 in Greene County to the town of West Saugerties. Even though this route is about 4 to 5 miles south in Platte Clove, it is just as wild a route as the one taken by the stage coaches going up Kaaterskill Clove over one hundred years ago. Be aware that this route is not open during the winter.

In the later years of the Mountain House operations, the stage coaches were made obsolete by the Otis Elevated Railroad which ascended the shoulder of North Mountain. This journey would take only forty-five minutes and had inspiring views.

Otis Elevating Railway
Otis Elevating Railway: See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
When arriving at Catskill Landing it must have been a brilliant panorama for the weary travelers. The view was described by Henry H. Brown in 1872,

“Yonder round one to the right is Blackhead; then, in succession North Mountain, South Mountain and Round Top, with High Peak towering over all”.

This description shows nonetheless that twenty-two years after Hunter was measured and even longer for Blackhead the perception was that High Peak remained the king of the mountains.

Reflections on becoming the tallest

As one stands upon Blackhead’s summit limestone they may only imagine the invigorating feeling that Guyot must have experienced when he measured this peak and confirmed it to be the first discovered summit higher than Kaaterskill High Peak, what news!

The mass of Blackhead Mountain from Black Dome
The mass of Blackhead Mountain from Black Dome

The publication Continental Monthly – Devoted to Literacy and National Policy, in its column Sketches of American Life and Scenery, by Lucia D. Pychowski, featured the essay The Catskill Mountains (March 1864) and wrote;

“The mountain to the north of the Plattekill Clove has two crests, known as High Peak and Round Top. It was long thought to be the loftiest summit of the Catskills, but must now yield to the Windham High Peak or Black Head, 3,926 feet high and perhaps to other elevations in the same range.”

Pychowski is obviously writing about Blackhead Mountain and the Blackhead Range which Guyot measured. Pychowski could not give definite or exact names as mountain titles were confusing or not confirmed in many cases in the 1800’s.

Possible routes to Blackhead’s summit

The hiker has many options when climbing Blackhead. First one may traverse the entire Blackhead Range over Thomas Cole and Black Dome from Barnum Road which either requires two cars or a long out and back, it will be a hike you remember.

Arizona Mountain View Blackhead on Escarpment Trail
On the level on Arizona Mountain with view of Blackhead on Escarpment Trail

The second option is to hike a point to point from the north lake area, but again this requires two cars or is a very long out and back, beyond many hikers ability. Another way and quite beautiful is from Colgate Lake and north along the Escarpment Trail. The most popular and a spectacular loop is to hike the Batavia Kill Trail and ascend on the Escarpment Trail with a descent to Lockwood Gap and return to the trailhead.

Steep Rock Section on Escarpment Trail on Blackhead
Steep Rock Section on Escarpment Trail on Blackhead

Any way you pick to hike Blackhead you’ll be rewarded with a great hike. Distance is deceiving. Although Blackhead can be relatively short, this does not mean easy. In the winter you’ll need full winter climbing gear including snowshoes and probably crampons.