The Devil’s Path, a 24.4 mile trail in the Catskills, is regularly called the most dangerous and toughest trail in the East or in the lower 48. Over that short distance, there is 14,000′ of elevation gain and loss, much of it in very steep sections that require hands as well as feet to climb up or down the near vertical rocks using roots and any other handholds to be found.
Hiking the trail in winter can make some parts easier, like where the snow covers rock slabs and actually provides traction (assuming you are wearing traction devices), and make some parts harder, like when the more vertical rocks get covered in ice. With the abnormally warm weather the East coast has been having, the trail was covered in only about two inches of packed new snow. The below freezing temperatures kept it crunchy and it actually provided great traction once we were all wearing MICROspikes. We did carry crampons and ice axes just in case, but they were unnecessary for the low level of ice that has built up so far this season.
Kelly, Stretch, Gerald, and I drove up Wednesday night with the intention of spotting a car at the western terminus on Spruceton Road, driving over to the eastern terminus on Prediger Road, and night hiking less than two miles in to sleep in a lean to. We arrived later than expected though, and it was raining, so we decided to sleep in the cars at Spruceton Road and get started in the morning.
It was snowing lightly when we started hiking from Prediger Road on Thursday morning. The sun would come out here and there throughout the morning, but the day stayed mostly cloudy with some occasional flurries.
The trail started out fairly flat as we hiked in, but as soon as we turned to start ascending Indian Head Mountain, it got steep and we had to put our spikes on.
There were several lookouts on the way to the summit, and we had to stop at each of them for the gorgeous views, and to rest from the climbing that was beginning. Most of the climbs were short sections, and had plenty of roots to hold onto on the way up. I had to put my trekking poles away for one part, since I needed total use of both hands. Going up is always preferable to going down on these steep areas. You can see what you’re dealing with and lean in to the mountainside.
We reached the summit of Indian Head Mountain at 3573′ (the high peaks here are 3500′ and up), but there was no marker and no view.
From there, we descended into Jimmy Dolan Notch and had lunch in the sun before starting the climb up Twin Mountain.
We reached the summit of Twin Mountain at 3640′, no marker again but a view nearby, and then started our descent into Pecoy Notch.
From Pecoy Notch, it was another climb up to Sugarloaf Mountain at 3800′, where there was finally a marker to show where the actual summit was located.
It was a very long and rocky descent from Sugarloaf into Mink Hollow, with lots of climbing sections. There was even one part where we lowered some of the packs with a rope because you had to swing out around a root onto a narrow ledge, and the weight of winter packs could upset your balance on the down climb to that root.
We had to get our headlamps out, but we reached the Mink Hollow Lean To just after dark, after 8.6 miles. It was situated so not much wind could get in, and had a nice overhanging roof on the front. I immediately changed into dry clothes and blew up my Therm-A-Rest NeoAir XTherm to sit on. It has a high reflective value so it reflects my body heat right back at me and blocks the cold from the ground/shelter.
I used a layered winter sleep system for the first time and it worked out wonderfully. I had an Enlightened Equipment 10° Revelation down quilt underneath an Enlightened Equipment 40° Prodigy synthetic quilt. That combination is supposed to get me down to -20° but I don’t plan to ever test it that far. The down quilt is under the synthetic quilt so that any sweat and condensation can move through the down and into the synthetic layer, where it will do less harm. Everything was topped off with an Enlightened Equipment 0-20° Hoodlum, a synthetic hood for my hoodless quilts. I was very toasty, even without the added warmth of a tent.
Even though it was dark when we arrived at the lean to, it was still early, and cooking dinner (a new dehydrated meal company called Sporkables – delicious!) didn’t kill much time. I heated some water for a hot drink, made one final foray out of my sleeping bags to hang my food, and then we took turns reading some of The Snow Queen on my phone. It was New Year’s Eve, I was asleep by 8:30, and I loved it! Gerald and Stretch both said they woke up at midnight to sirens and shots from nearby towns but Kelly and I slept right through it.
We took a little longer than planned to get going in the morning. Getting out of a warm sleeping bag is very difficult. I kept all of my puffy layers on leaving the shelter because we needed to stop shortly up the trail to fill up water at a spring. From there, I got down to hiking layers, and we started up Plateau Mountain.
We hit the summit of Plateau Mountain at 3840′ (first mountain of 2016!), and enjoyed about two miles of flat walking on its plateau. We saw many animal tracks, including bobcat, porcupine, and rabbit.
Next was the descent to Stony Clove Notch, with the only road crossing the Devil’s Path, and the Devil’s Tombstone State Campground (closed in winter). This marks the divider between the more difficult eastern half of the trail and the slightly easier western half. The eastern half had taken us longer than planned, and Stretch was worried about finishing the second half in time for her to get home for work the next day, so we decided to get out on the road for the time being and get her back to her car after only 4.45 miles for the day.
Hitching was unsuccessful, but a taxi very fortuitously drove by. He already had a fare but said he’d come back for us. Soon, we were on our way back to Kelly’s car at Prediger Road, and then to Olive Garden in Kingston to gorge on pasta. Kelly had plenty of Hilton points and got us a room for the night. Thanks, Kel!
In the morning, we drove back to Stretch’s car at Spruceton Road, left Kelly’s car there, and Stretch dropped us off back at Stony Clove Notch to keep hiking while she went home. It was frigid when we got out of the car, making us question our decision to keep going, but we started climbing up Hunter Mountain any way.
The sun came out and we actually got down to just shirts on the steep climb. After most of the elevation gain, the trail surprisingly had some switchbacks, which was very nice but necessitated putting layers back on as we were no longer working as hard.
We had planned to overnight again, so we could grab the two peaks of Hunter Mountain on side trails, but once we got to the Devil’s Acre Lean To in the saddle between them, we decided to skip them and just finish the Devil’s Path that day. It would be 11.35 miles for the day, and considering how long our first day had taken us, and our late start that day, I figured we’d be headlamp hiking for three or four hours. We decided to go for it.
The descent to Diamond Notch and its Falls was fairly easy, and we started the climb up West Kill Mountain. There were very few difficult sections, and it was steep, but not as steep as the first half of the trail consistently was.
We reached the summit of West Kill Mountain at 3880′ but kept moving quickly as it was extremely cold up there.
We stayed up high until we reached St. Anne’s Peak, and then steeply descended to (another) Mink Hollow, where we followed the trail out more levelly to the trailhead. We were making such good time that we thought we might arrive before dark after all, but it was getting too hard to see the trail markers and we had to get out headlamps for the last fifteen minutes of hiking.
Devil’s Path winter thru hike success!
Brand new maps are available from the NY/NJ Trail Conference. The Devil’s Path is on Map #141 in the Catskill Trails set.
There are several lean tos along the trail, but they are not designated campsites and tents need to be set up at least 150′ away from lean tos, trails, water, etc. Camping is allowed above 3500′ only in winter. The lean tos do have privies.
Shuttle service is available through Smiley’s Taxi at 518-589-6533. We paid $26 for the first person plus $2 per additional person for the ride from Stony Clove to Prediger Road. I was told the price to shuttle from one terminus to the other is $70 for the first person plus $2 per additional person.