Backpacking the Pine Hill – West Branch Trail in the Catskills

Chris that the 3500-foot sign on the Pine Hill - West Branch Trail
Average read time 11 min

Summary

The Pine Hill – West Branch Trail cuts through the heart of the Big Indian Wilderness. Practically passing over or near the summits of five major high peaks is a rugged point-to-point backpacking trip. Almost entirely through a first-growth forest, it will surely please with its deep wilderness feel. There are great lean-tos and many opportunities for at-large camping. If you’re looking for long vistas, this is not your trail, as you will find only one year-round on Balsam Mountain. Hiking the route from the south may be best as you will be ascending gradual grades rather than the steeper terrain heading from the north.

We recommend using the Lost Clove trailhead as your terminus as the parking for the Pine Hill terminus is very limited.

The dirt

Backpacking the Pine Hill – West Branch Trail Specs (south to north)

Distance: 14.1-miles (13.22 to Lost Clove trailhead)

Duration: 2-3 days

Elevation change: +3680′ -4223′

Difficulty: Moderately – Hard

Trail Blazing in this post:

  • Pine Hill West Branch Trail: Blue marked
  • Seager – Big Indian Trail: Yellow marked
  • Oliverea – Mapledale Trail (McKenely Hollow): Red Marked
  • Oliverea – Mapledale Trail (Rider Hollow): Red Marked
  • Mine Hollow Trail: Yellow Marked
  • Belleayre Ridge Trail: Red Marked
  • Lost Clove Trail: Red marked

Cell service: Spotty

Bus service: There are bus stops in the Villages of Pine Hill and Big Indian. One could arrange a ride from the bus stop to the Biscuit Brook Parking Area then hike back.

Trailheads (using Lost Clove):

Biscuit Brook Parking Area is located on Frost Valley Road, 2.7 miles west of its intersection with Oilverea Road. Provides southern access to the Pine Hill West Branch Trail. (41.990833°N, 74.484557°W) Google Maps 

Lost Clove Parking Area is located on Lost Clove Road, 1.3 miles northwest of its intersection with Oilverea Road. Provides access to the Lost Clove Trail. (42.105437°N, 74.470084°W) Google Maps

Photos

Featured Image on top of the page: Chris at the 3500′ sign on Balsam Mountain. Above from top left clockwise: View from Balsam Mountain Lookout; Chris at the McKenely Hollow Lean-to; Chris at the Biscuit Brook Lean-to; Tenting near Biscuit Brook Lean-to; Biscuit Brook in the Fall; Pine Hill West Branch Trailhead sign; Biscuit Brook parking area sign; Signs at the intersection between Haynes and Balsam Mountains; Stream on the Seager-Big Indian Trail; Washout on the Pine Hill West Branch Trail near the Biscuit Brook Lean-to; Chris on the Rider Hollow Trail; The Rider Hollow Lean-to; The summit marker on Balsam Mountain.

Sections

Biscuit Brook trailhead to Biscuit Brook lean-to

Distance: 1.9-miles

Elevation change: +494′ -232′

Difficulty: Moderate

Camping: Biscuit Brook lean-to; Designated campsite

Water: Several streams hiking in and at the lean-to.

Bailout: Back to trailhead

Overview:

From the trailhead, walk the road and enter the woods. The trail will climb steeply 494 feet across a ridge from Peak 3209 and then gradually descend to the Biscuit Brook Lean-to. At the top of the ridge, a path leading left goes to the YMCA private property. This section of trail can be wet at times, and you’ll cross several bridges before you reach the lean-to. The lean-to is about 200’ to the left of the trail. The stream crossing near the lean-to is a traditional departure point for bushwhacking Fir Mountain.

Biscuit Brook trailhead to Biscuit Brook lean-to
Scott | copyright Challenged Hiking Biscuit Brook trailhead to Biscuit Brook lean-to

Biscuit Brook lean-to to Seager Trail Junction

Distance: 3.61-miles

Elevation change: +1387′ -594′

Difficulty: Moderate-hard

Camping: Shandaken Brook lean-to (0.86-miles off the Pine Hill trail west on the Seager – Big Indian Trail; 680’ decent)

Water: Possible seasonal tributary on the Pine Hill West Branch Trail at about 1.34-miles from lean-to; At the Seager Lean-to

Bailout: Back to the trailhead or the Seager Trailhead on the Seager – Big Indian Trail. Very rural, but it gets you to a road.

Overview:

You are leaving the Biscuit Brook Lean-to heading north on the Pine Hill – West Branch Trail. You are now entering the first growth forest. You’ll cross an area that is frequently washed out by the strong flow of the Biscuit Brook. This area may be tricky during periods of high water. Once beyond, the trail will begin its climb toward Big Indian Mountain. For part of the way, you’ll hike next to a West Branch (Seager) of the Biscuit Brook. The route will slowly climb above it, and at 1.34-miles from the lean-to, you MAY encounter a seasonal tributary.

After continued steep climbing, then leveling for a bit, you reach the 3500’ sign at 1.96-miles from the lean-to. The grades staying level to gradual; you’ll get to the herd path to Big Indian Mountain at 2.22-miles from the lean-to. It is about 0.2-miles to the summit of Big Indian from the trail with 120’ of climbing on the herd path, don’t forget to sign the summit log. After the herd path continuing on the Pine Hill – West Branch Trail, some minor climbing takes you to a height of land at 2.6-miles from the lean-to; you’ll now have ascended 1300 feet. From the height of land in the next 0.9-miles, you’ll drop 528’ to a low spot and then climb to the junction with the Seager – Big Indian Trail. You can drop down to the Shandaken Brook Lean-to to camp.

Biscuit Brook lean-to to Seager Trail Junction
Scott | copyright Challenged Hiking Biscuit Brook lean-to to Seager Trail Junction

Seager Trail Junction to Oliverea – Mapledale Trail Junction

Distance: 3.01-miles

Elevation change: +674′ -781”

Difficulty: Moderate

Camping: Primitive site at the junction with the Oliverea-Mapledale Trail (east side of col); Rider Hollow Lean-to (1.23-miles off the Pine Hill trail west on the Rider Hollow Trail; 962’ decent); Designated campsites near Rider Hollow Lean-to; McKenely Hollow Lean-to (1.1-miles off the Pine Hill trail east on the McKenely Hollow Trail; 1198’ decent)

Water: Spring at the junction with the Oliverea-Mapledale Trail; At the Lean-tos.

Bailout: Oliverea-Mapledale Trail to the Rider Hollow Or McKenley Hollow Trailheads, both rural but gets you to a road.

Overview

From the junction with the Big Indian-Sager Trail, you’ll travel on easy terrain for about 0.3-miles, after which you’ll begin climbing to Eagle Mountain. In his field notes, Dr. Micheal Kudish indicates the remains of an old plane wreck at about 3200’ to the right of the trail (Kudish et al., 1972), but we have not seen this. After some steeper climbing, you reach the 3500-foot sign at 0.86-miles from the col and then the high point on Eagle on the trail at 1-mile. You’ll have climbed 436’ from the col. The summit of Eagle is about 700-800’ off the path.

Next, you’ll drop about 358’ in 0.6-miles to the col between Eagle and Haynes Mountain from the high point. In the next 0.7-miles, you gradually climb 176’ to the summit of Haynes Mountain. From the summit of Haynes, you start to drop progressively for the first 0.4-miles and then steeply for the last 0.3-miles losing 381’ to the junction with the Oliverea-Mapledale Trail between Haynes and Balsam.

Seager Trail Junction to Oliveria - Mapledale Trail Junction
Scott | copyright Challenged Hiking Seager Trail Junction to Oliveria – Mapledale Trail Junction

Oliveria – Mapledale Trail Junction to Lost Clove

Distance: 4.70-miles

Elevation change: +1125′ -2616′

Difficulty: Difficult

Camping: Belleayre Mountain Lean-To on the Pine Hill West Branch Trail; Hirschland Lean-to 0.44-miles on the Belleayre Ridge Trail.

Water: ?

Bailout: Mine Hollow Trail to the Rider Hollow trailhead, The upper lodge at the ski center?

Overview

Leaving the junction walking on the level, you’ll soon begin a steep climb up Balsam Mountain. In 0.55-miles from the intersection, you reach the 3500-foot sign, and at 0.7-miles, you come near the summit of Balsam after 574’ of climbing. The actual peak is off to the right, marked by a stone. You begin to drop to the viewpoint from the summit, which is about 0.18-miles and 40-feet down. The view is the only open year-round view on the hike. You’ll reach the col between Balsam and Belleayre Mountain, a 1.0 mile from Balsam’s summit with 764’ of downclimbing.

The initial walk across the col is easy, and you will pass the junction with the Mine Hollow Trail that leads to the Rider Hollow Trail. The climb from the col gets progressively steeper as you’ll gain 535’ and reach the East Summit of Belleayre Mountain and a trail junction 2.0-miles from the summit of Balsam. The East Summit was the site of a Fire Tower. At the intersection, the Belleayre Ridge Trail leads left to the Hirschland Lean-to (0.44-miles; elevation change +98′ -113′), Belleayre Mountain, and the ski area. Heading right and downhill, the trail will become steeper and reach the Belleayre Lean-to at 0.44-miles from the intersection. Continuing the steep descent, you reach the Lost Clove Trail at 0.6-miles from the junction. Take the Lost Clove Trail continuing the steep drop to the trailhead found at 1.3-miles from the intersection with the Pine Hill Trail.

Map of Oliveria - Mapledale Trail Junction to Lost Clove
Scott | copyright Challenged Hiking Oliveria – Mapledale Trail Junction to Lost Clove

Camping rules

All primitive campsites are on a first-come-first-serve basis. You cannot reserve a site. Camping for more than three nights or 10 or more people requires a Forest Ranger permit.

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).

Lean-to rules

  • 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.

Safety

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.

DEC contact and other information

Big Indian Wilderness
Contact Information:DEC Region 3 New Paltz Office:
phone (845) 256-3000 (M-F 8:30AM - 4:30PM), email: r3admin@dec.ny.gov
Law Enforcement, Emergency & Ranger: 518-408-5850 or dial 911
Location: Towns of Denning, Shadaken and Hardenburgh in Ulster County
Map: Big Indian Wilderness Map
Amenities:Gas may be found in the nearby communities of Arkville, Fleischmanns, Livingston Manor and Pine Hill.
Food and other supplies can be found in the nearby communities of Margaretville and Livingston Manor.
Dining opportunities can be found in the nearby communities of Arkville, Big Indian, Fleischmanns, Margaretville and Pine Hill.
Lodging may be found in the nearby communities of Arkville, Big Indian, Fleischmanns, Oliverea and Pine Hill.
Weather:Big Indian Mountain Forecast
Cell Service:Never count on your cell phone for rescue. There are many spots in the Big Indian Wilderness that service is poor.

Full map of the Pine Hill – West Branch Trail

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

Image of Pine Hill West Branch Trail Map
Scott | copyright Challenged Hiking Pine Hill West Branch Trail Map
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References

Kudish, M., West, E., Lawson, B., Brooks, R., & Brooks, T. (1972). Eagle Mountain Range Sampling Sites. https://www.uvm.edu/femc/attachments/project/1623/1972%20Eagle%20Mountain%20Range%20Sampling%20Sites%20(220-16).pdf
Fieldnotes