Backpacking the Windham – Blackhead Mountain Range Loop

Long Path and Blue DEC Markers on Escarpment Trail
Average read time 11 min
Summary

Rugged terrain with spectacular views, there is magnificent backpacking in these hills

Backpacking the Windham High Peak – Blackhead Mountain Range loop makes a beautiful 2 to 3-day outing. Passing over 6-peaks and 3-subpeaks makes for a bumpy ride. There are great views on the entire route, and you can find spots to camp that are not at a lean-to or designated campsite (aka primitive campsite). Sections of the trail can be arid, especially during summer, so plan accordingly. If you make an actual loop, it will require a road walk, but in some ways, it is beautiful too. If you choose, this backpacking trip can be hiked as a point-to-point.

The Dirt

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) administered the lands in the Windham-Blackhead Mountain Range Wilderness. The DEC works with numerous organizations to maintain the trails, lean-tos, and campsites. In the Catskills, the maintenance is done by a volunteer force.

You climb four major Catskill peaks on the loop backpacking trip, including Thomas Cole, Black Dome, Blackhead, and Windham High Peak. Lesser peaks include Camel’s Hump, Acra Point, and Burnt Knob. Additionally, several other “bumps” on the ridges, such as Bookahs Bump on Acra Point or Caudal climbing up to Camel’s Hump.

There are two distinct areas of first growth forest on the loop: the largest being in the Blackhead Range and another small spot on Windham High Peak’s summit. Please be practice leave-no-trace while on your outing, but be especially careful in these high elevation first growth zones.

There are a few sections of trail that require care with a full backpack. A section coming off the north face of Blackhead to the Batavia Kill Trail junction can be incredibly challenging and may take longer than you think. There are no major cliff scrambles (unlike Devil’s Path); maybe bring a short rope to lower a backpack if you are uncomfortable down climbing through rock ledges.

Water is generally scarce on the high ridges. Expect to carry enough to make it from campsite to campsite. Additionally, once past Burnt Knob, there is no trail bailout point until Elm Ridge. In case of a problem and you need to get off the ridge, you’ll need to hike out to Elm Ridge or backtrack over Burnt Knob. Always have the emergency number for Rangers, which can be found listed at the trailheads. Finally, even though we have not had significant cell phone service problems in the area, it can be spotty. Bring a good first aid kit and know how to use it!

Using the following maps and guides are critical to planning your trip.

Quick look overview for the loop starting & finishing at Barnum Rd.
Distance:17-milesRoute type:Loop
Total climb:5000+Hike type:Multiple Trails
How hard?DifficultTrailheads:Barnum Rd
Peck Rd
Barnum Road and Peck Road Trailheads
Barnum Road Trailhead as a starting point.
info

Private Property

The first 0.40-miles of the trail from the Barnum Road parking area is through private property by easement. The trail enters state land and swings hard left, heading NE. The trail follows the state land boundary closely with private land on your left for another 0.38-miles.

Trail Segment Breakdown

SegmentMileage/Elevation Change/TrailCamping
Barnum Rd to Camel’s Hump1.97-miles/+1551′ -110’/Black Dome Range Trail At-large (after entering state land)
Camel’s Hump to Thomas Cole0.77-miles/+522′ -138’/Black Dome Range TrailAt-large
Thomas Cole to Black Dome0.76-miles/+278′ -227’/Black Dome Range TrailNone (except winter at-large)
Black Dome to Lockwood Gap0.5-miles/+8′ -564’/Black Dome Range TrailPrimitive Site in Lockwood Gap (4-miles from TH) No water at site. Spring 0.5-miles down Black Dome Range Trail.
Lockwood Gap to Blackhead0.6-miles/+538 -20’/Blackhead Mountain TrailSee above
Blackhead to Acra Point2.44-miles/+440′ -1272’/Escarpment Trail Batavia Kill Lean-to and Primitive Sites 0.2-miles on Batavia Kill Trail from col between Blackhead and Acra Point. (5.6-miles from TH). Good water at site. 1.6-miles from last camping opportunity
Acra Point to Highest Trail point on Burnt Knob1.41-miles/+402′ -442’/Escarpment TrailAt-large
Highest Trail point on Burnt Knob to Windham High Peak1.76-miles/-813′ +359’/Escarpment TrailAt-large
Windham High Peak to Elm Ridge Lean-to2.25-miles/+42’ -1253’/Escarpment TrailElm Ridge Lean-to (11.32-miles from TH). Water .23-miles on the Elm Ridge Trail. 5.42-miles from last camping opportunity
Elm Ridge Lean-to to Peck Road Parking0.85-miles/+10′ -282’/Elm Ridge TrailSee above
Total from Barnum Road to Peck Road13.31-miles For 2-car point-to-point option
Peck Road to Barnum Road (Road walk)3.78-miles/+451′ -388’/RoadsNone
Total from Barnum Road and full loop17.09-miles as a full loop

Camping and mileage from Barnum Rd on the loop

Mile mark from trailheadCampsiteNotes:
4-milesPrimitive Site in Lockwood GapHigh elevation, no water at site, 0.5-miles to spring
5.6-milesBatavia Kill Lean-to and Primitive Sites0.2-miles off the Escarpment Trail, tough descent from Blackhead to campsite, great water supply, Privy, Popular
11.32-milesElm Ridge Lean-to and CampingOff the Escarpment Trail, water supply 0.2-mile on the Elm Ridge Trail, Privy, Popular

3-day backpacking option. Recommended two campsites, with the first at the Batavia Kill being at the 5.6-mile mark from Barnum Road. The second is at 11.32-miles from the trailhead (5.42-miles from the Batavia Kill Lean-to). Starting at Barnum Road and camping in this order has you hiking an average of 5.5 miles a day between campsites. If you have spotted a second car at Peck Rd, your last day would include a 0.85-miles walkout. If you only had one car, your hike back to Barnum Road would be about 4.63-miles from the Elm Ridge Lean-to.

Rules for Lean-to Camping

  • Tents are not allowed inside lean-tos and must be at least 150 feet from the lean-to.
  • Lean-tos are available on a first-come, first-served basis and cannot be reserved.
  • Lean-tos should be shared by multiple parties until filled to capacity (normally 8 people).
  • Fires should be built in existing fire pits or fireplaces if provided.
  • Campfires must be less than 3 feet in height and 4 feet in diameter.
  • Cutting standing trees is prohibited. Use only dead and down wood for fires.
  • Extinguish all fires with water and stir ashes until they are cold to the touch.
  • Get your firewood from a local vendor (within 50 miles of your destination) and ask for a receipt or label that lists the firewood’s local source.
  • 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
  • Carry out what you carry in.
  • Camping for more than three nights or with 10 or more people requires a permit from a Forest Ranger.

Rules for Primitive or Designated Camping

Campers are encouraged to use designated tent sites. They are often close to trails and provide views of ponds, lakes, streams, or rivers. These can be a source of water when properly treated.

All designated primitive tent sites have yellow and black “Camp Here” markers. Many sites on lakes and ponds are identified by a yellow number against a dark brown wooden plaque typically attached to a tree near the water’s edge.

See the above guidelines under lean-tos for fires and waste.

At-large camping

If not using a designated primitive tent site, your tent must be at least 150 feet from a water body, road, or trail. Do not camp in areas posted with “Camping Prohibited.” In the Catskills, camping is prohibited above an elevation of 3,500 feet between March 22 and December 20 (except in an emergency). Fires are forbidden year-round above 3,500 feet in the Catskills (except in an emergency).

Recommended video: Finding five-star backpacking campsites

Safety and Wellness

Please sign in at all trail registers, here’s why.

Bears

There are an estimated 1,800 to 2,000 black bears in the Catskills. The following are the recommendations from the DEC on bear management:

Recommended video: How to Hang a Bear Bag and Secure Food

  • Use bear-resistant food canisters. These are a highly effective means for preventing bears from getting your food, toiletries, and garbage. Use of bear-resistant canisters is encouraged throughout the Adirondack and Catskill backcountry, and are required in Eastern High Peaks Wilderness of the Adirondack Park.
  • Pack a minimal amount of food. The less food to store the better. Use lightweight and dehydrated foods.
  • Cook and eat before dark. Bears become more active after sunset.
  • Cook away from your campsite. Choose an area at least 100 feet away from your sleeping area.
  • Be neat and clean while cooking. Avoid spills and drippings. Do not pour grease into your fire pit.
  • Keep food in storage containers. Only take out the food you plan to cook. Keep containers nearby and store food immediately if a bear approaches your cooking area.
  • Avoid leftovers. Carefully plan your meals and eat all that you cook.
  • Never leave food unattended. Bears may watch from a distance waiting for opportunities to steal food.

DEC Fact Sheet on Bear Encounters (PDF)

If You Encounter a Bear at Your Campsite

Do:

  • Use noise to scare bears away: Yell, clap, or bang pots immediately upon sighting a bear near your campsite.
  • Stay calm: Walk slowly and speak in a loud and calm voice.
  • Leave slowly: Cautiously back away from the bear and leave the area.

Don’t:

  • Approach, surround, or corner a bear: Bears aggressively defend themselves when they feel threatened. Be especially cautious around cubs as mother bears are very protective.
  • Run from a bear: They may chase.
  • Throw your backpack or food bag at an approaching bear: This will only encourage bears to approach and “bully” people to get food. By teaching a bear to approach humans for food, you are endangering yourself, other campers/residents, and the bears.

A note on water

Drinking and cooking water should be boiled for 5 minutes, treated with purifying tablets, or filtered through a filtration device to prevent giardia infection instances.

Contact and Map of Loop

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.

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

Backpacking the Windham – Blackhead Mountain Range Loop
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