Man, it’s been a while. I can’t tell you the last time I sat down in front of a tablet and started writing for my OWN enjoyment, but WOW, it’s good to be back baby! No long introduction today. Let’s get right to it. I went on a hike in the picturesque Catskill Mountains in New York last weekend that provided arguably THE BEST views this entire country has to offer. (Okay, I may be overselling you a little bit but hiking during peak fall foliage is AMAZEBALLS, especially doing one as fun and challenging I just did). Interested in what that experience was like for me? Keep reading. Not interested? Well fuck you. (lol, kidding obviously 😂).
Do your research and plan
Okay. If you are an avid hiker, you know that for some of these trails, if you are not there EARLY, you may not find a parking spot. And for this trail, it is and was no different. Doing my research beforehand, I knew that the parking lot for Mt. Wittenberg is big, but supposedly fills up before 8 am. This meant for me, that I needed to set my alarm extra early to wake up Sunday morning and hit the road long before the sun would be rising if I wanted to nab one of these sought after spots.
Just a bit foggy
Boom. 5 am hits and I’m in the car ready to go. Except my car isn’t. The temperature reads 32 degrees and for the first time this year my car had to defrost and warm-up. (Pause for 5 minutes. Re-check bag for all the essentials; loud whistle ✅, first aid kit ✅, two liters of water ✅, fitaid ✅, dark chocolate ✅, extra socks ✅, gloves ✅, hand-warmers ✅, and last but not least, Thor’s hammer ✅ 🌩).
Ok, the car is warm, windows are defrosted, directions are set on the phone, time to get this show on the road. Everything’s a full go. The first hour of my drive was meditative. No one on the roads. Traffic lights stuck on yellow. Street lights and gas stations lighting up intersections. The world is at a standstill. It’s like the universe is giving me this free pass to cruise through it’s roads and highways like a mystical path to the destination. It’s surreal. This is bliss. This is life. This is………..OH MY GOD I can’t fucking see!!!
OKAY OKAY, calm down Derek you’re ok. Relax. Deep breath. Observe the situation. What can you see?
Nothing! Not a damn thing! I can’t see 15 feet in front of me. I don’t know if the highway is straight, curved, one lane, two lanes, no car lights ahead of me, no car lights behind me, I just see FOG!?! Pure heavy, grey, thick, FOG! And I’m stuck driving in it on a New York freeway at 6 am in the morning. Wtf.
Yeah. I’m not overselling this part either. I probably couldn’t see 10 feet ahead of me. I put my hazard lights on, slowed down to 20 miles per hour, maybe slower, turned off my music, and just prayed that there were no crashed cars ahead of me and no trucks speeding behind me. I knew the road direction because of the GPS map on my phone, but that’s it. Thankfully my movie references helped pull me through this scary situation as I internally repeated, “just keep driving, just keep driving” as I imagined Dory swimming through an abundant amount of massive jellyfish. (If you seriously don’t know this movie reference please stop reading and cancel our friendship). If she can swim through that, I can drive through a little fog. Pss, bring it on.
It went on like this for 5 minutes. Then the fog began to get lighter. I could start seeing 50 feet ahead of me, then 100, then a few more hundred feet, until it was all clear. It was a nightmare. (Good thing it’s October 👻 ). But I got through it. No Freddie Krueger or Michael Myers either.
That sunrise and mountain backdrop tho.
Once I got through that fog episode, the rest of the drive was perfect. Yes, more cars seemed to join me on the roads, but at about 6:45, the sky started to create that faint orange tint that forms when the sun begins to crack on the horizon. The sky is still dark enough to still see the stars and the moon, but the orange is a nice little visual that shows you day is about to break. It’s wonderful. Driving that early in the morning and being able to see that part of the sunrise is magical. Now driving during this time to the Catskill Mountains? Breathtaking. I’ll take it a step further.
I knew beforehand from hiking at another Catskill mountain last year, that the last 25-30 miles of the trip, would be on scenic freeways and roads that visually lead you to the Catskill mountains. You see them get bigger and bigger as you drive closer and closer to your destination during the final 30 minutes of the drive. And I’m not talking just about big hills, okay. I’m talking about mountains that rise between 3,000-4,000 feet into the sky. Mountain ranges with peaks of different heights filled with massive amounts of reds, oranges and yellows against a faded blue/orange tinted backdrop of the sunrise. Words can’t do it justice. Shoot, even pictures can’t do it justice. I wanted to stop in the middle of the road and just park my car to stare at it’s beauty. But I didn’t. I just took mental pictures and slowed down to take it all in. I knew the hike itself would provide even more breathtaking visuals for me.
I arrive at the parking lot around 7:35. Total time driving, two hours and 35 minutes. Not bad. (No I did not beat my GPS and you’re lying if you don’t play that game with yourself on long drives). The parking lot was huge. And to my surprise, was already pretty full with only a few spots open. (The parking lot probably can hold 30ish cars, but offers plenty of parking on the street around it). I knew this was a possibility because the parking lot is the lot for three different mountains, so it didn’t mean all these people were hiking the same trail I was doing.
One more check before I head out. No more fitaid because I drank that around 7. 🚫Handwarmers were in both of my pockets. ✅ Phone was fully charged with my offline map saved. ✅ And Thor’s hammer was packed safely and secure next to my two waters and dark chocolate. ✅ I was ready to go. As I begun to leave the parking lot to walk over to the trailhead across the street, there was an orange sign saying “Heavy Black Bear” activity, with a list of things to do on the trail to lower your chances of seeing one. I can’t sit here and say that’s something I didn’t think about, but hiking alone does run an increased risk since I don’t make as much noise or are as big as a group of hikers on the trail, so if that describes you, please make sure you understand what to do when you come across a bear and how to make noise on the trail. ⚠️Safety is sexy⚠️ (I made that up, but kind of catchy now that I think about it).
Leaves and rocks and scrambling, OH MY!
At the start of the trailhead I see the mileage to each summit and the lowest number is my trail to Wittenberg, a whopping 3.9. You can also take this trail to the summit of Cornell, which is 4.7 miles to the top, or Slide mountain, one of the 4,000 footers in the Northeast, which is 7 miles from the trailhead. I already did my research. I knew that Wittenberg was enough for me. Those who’ve tackled the Cornell and Slide summits did so on a full 8-10 hour day of hiking. (Thank you All trails app). I wasn’t prepared to do that. Plus the millions of reviews I read all said Slide and Cornell weren’t good trade offs for the time spent hiking. And that is why the internet is awesome. Off to Wittenberg I went. (Through the yellow brick road I go…actually leafs. Yellow leafs).
One of the first things that greets me is this perfectly made bridge. One of my favorite parts of trails are wood bridges. I love coming across a stream and then having to cross a perfectly executed bridge made out of wood. How lucky was I to start off this trail with one of my most favorite things? Score. After I crossed the bridge, I soon realized that it would be the last smooth and flat surface I would walk on for the remainder of my ascent.
The trail lines with tons of rocks and inclines up relatively quickly. The first 0.3 mile is a 30-40% grade. Then for the next mile you can say it gets easier? Easier meaning a 15 or 20% grade. It feels like the trail just keeps going up. And up. Luckily my views surrounding me were those out of a painting. The trail was overflowing with tons of reds, oranges, greens, browns, and yellow leaves, all clashing against one another as battling to show which one was the most vibrant. Trees in the front, back and side of me in those same colors. Crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch, as I made my way through the trail. The crunchiness of a fall leaf is ear porn on a quiet hiking trail. WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! Yup. I hope you screamed that like Ric Flair, because those were the screams I let out every 15 minutes in between the crunching of the leaves to warn off any potential black bears creeping kind of close. (I also had hikers and campers that I periodically came across on the trail who pointed out how good some of the “woo’s” were). Like I said before, safety is sexy.
As I kept making my way up, there is a point where you realize you’re already pretty high up. The forest begins to change around you, and soon begin to be surrounded by forest pine. At this same point, you also see the dynamic of the trail change. The trail transforms to big boulder type rocks falling on top of each other, forming huge sections of vertical formations to climb. These are called scrambles. (Vegan scrambles because no eggs are used…lol, get it?). The trail continues on with these scrambles for a good half mile. But it is a long half mile. Each rock scramble is different than the last, and once you feel like you’ve reached the top the mountain gives you another one. Until it doesn’t, and you’re there. Which was exactly what it felt like for me.
The summit greeted me at the top with no warning. It’s a bald summit, and gives you a good 200 square feet or so to pull up a seat and take in the view. There were a couple of people already up there, and I found a seat somewhere towards the middle. (Yes, Thor’s hammer was now beside me.) I couldn’t believe the views. All of those colors that I saw while driving, I can now see from above the skyline. I also had a panoramic 180 degree view of the entire Catskill mountain range. It was amazing. Windy. But amazing. I didn’t enjoy the summit by myself. Soon after, I was greeted by a group of 20 and 30 somethings that had also survived the hike up, and took up camp around me. Lots of excitement, lots of stories, lots of snacks being eaten, a dog!, and lots of pictures. I enjoyed the busyness of it all. It was a good contrast from the majority of my hike. I enjoy it being peaceful and quiet during the trail, but I loved hearing the stories and hearing about their hikes while on the summit. We got to share that experience together. And I’m grateful that presented itself to me.
45 minutes later, (15 of those minutes spent stretching) I finally summoned up enough energy, thank you dark chocolate bar and RX bar, and laced up my shoes to begin my descent back down.
Even though you are going downhill, some can argue that the descent is actually more challenging. On hikes with steep grades and touch scrambles, I agree with that statement. Going down was a challenge. Descending rock scrambles meant crab walking on all fours or reverse climbing. Also, since the trails was marked with lots of leaves and rocks, sometimes if you did not have good balance the trail could continue to carry you down. (Thanks a lot momentum and gravity). So you had to continue to use your core and leg muscles to slow you down and control each step so you wouldn’t go flying.
The trail was just as beautiful going down as it was coming up. Like my hike up, I also hiked down in solitude. Periodically I passed hikers making their way up in which the common question was, “how much longer to the top?”. Hikers were polite, friendly, and very much enthusiastic to be on the trail. As I finally came across the wooden bridge to mark the conclusion of the trail, I stood in the middle, and faced the flowing stream. I watched and listened for a few minutes. So peaceful. So calming. So beautiful. My gratitude was overflowing. The hike did what I wanted it to do. I was recharged, mentally and spiritually.
The drive home wasn’t as exciting. I knew I was driving back to home. Driving back to reality. The reality of lesson planning, emails, virtual meets, and virtual teaching. Today was my get-away. Mt. Wittenberg was my escape.
Thank you Catskill Mountains for being so beautiful.
Thank you Mt. Wittenberg for providing me the solitude and beauty to recharge my soul.
And thank YOU for reading and following my Sunday hiking adventure.
Peace and love yall, ✌️