After climbing it while researching a guidebook, author cannot resist revisiting a rocky peak celebrated for its views of the northern Adirondacks.
By Lisa Densmore
Some mountains call me back to them. Catamount Mountain, about six miles north of Whiteface Mountain as the crow flies, is one of them.
There are five Catamount Mountains, one Catamount Peak, and several Catamount Hills and Knolls in New York State. This one is in the northeastern Adirondacks and the highest at an elevation of 3,173 feet. It’s also the most fun to hike if you like lots of blue sky above your head and scrambling on rock.
Often overlooked due to its short mileage, 3.2 miles round-trip, and the fact that it’s less than four thousand feet in elevation, Catamount should be on everyone’s hikes-to-do list. Although I’ve climbed it only twice—in October 2008 while researching my guidebook Hiking the Adirondacks and last summer—the peak is among my favorites for its extensive open rock and long treeless ridge.
When I first learned of Catamount, I figured it would take me two to three hours round-trip to visit its summit. I planned to squeeze in the hike between meetings in Wilmington and Chateaugay. The route was short, I was solo, and I was in peak hiking shape. I missed the meeting. Four hours later, I made it back to my car, feeling rushed and promising myself to come back.
You need to climb Catamount like a stealthy lion. The mountain requires pondering in places, stretching of limbs, and a bit of slinking here and there. I loved climbing the rock chimneys and rocky ledges, boulders, and protrusions. Though it’s not a big mountain, the extensive open rock makes it feel higher and wilder.
One fair June afternoon, I recruited my sweetheart Jack, his son Micah and daughter Zoe, and a childhood friend of mine, Ilyse, to hike the peak with me. Ilyse lives outside of New York City but grew up in Plattsburgh. She arrived at my house with an Adirondack agenda—pack in waterskiing, kayaking, biking, and hiking during her four-day visit. I had my excuse to revisit the mountain named for a mountain lion.
As we loaded up our day-packs, we briefly discussed the chance of seeing a live wild cat on Catamount. Catamounts, also known as mountain lions, panthers, cougars, and pumas, have not lived in the Adirondacks for over a hundred years, according to state biologists. On the other hand, there have been almost seven hundred rumored sightings since 1983 throughout the Adirondack Park. It’s a topic of great debate, but the odds of encountering a catamount on Catamount were virtually zero, especially as they are notoriously shy.
We parked on the shoulder of Forestdale Road by Catamount Mountain’s unofficial trailhead. There was only one other car. How delightful to have the mountain almost to ourselves on a weekend! A few thousand people reportedly climb the peak each year, though on my two visits, I’ve yet to see a crowd. That said, the state Department of Environmental Conservation intends to adopt the route. Its plans include building a twelve-vehicle parking lot and improving the trail with water bars, other erosion control, and official trail markers.
Not that the route was difficult to follow. Yellow paint splashed on tree trunks to mark the Forest Preserve boundary also served as trail markers for the first halfmile. Once the rock scrambles began, small rock cairns generally marked the way.
From the road, we headed north into the woods on a flat, winding path through a corridor of spindly hemlock. Pretty mosses grew in a patchwork of greens, whites, and pastel blues on either side of the smooth trail. At 0.3 miles, the trail dipped through a blueberry patch, but the fruit was still a month from ripening. Maple, birch, and beech dominated the forest mix. Seeing the maples, I recalled the autumn view from the summit on my earlier climb up Catamount, a flaming panorama. The photograph I took became a calendar shot.
Soon the well-worn trail got rockier and began to climb rather steeply and directly. At the top of the first pitch, Jack and Micah pulled away from me and the other girls. Suddenly, a grouse flushed unexpectedly, doubling my heart rate. Or maybe I was just working harder. As Ilyse, Zoe, and I clamored up a large hump of rock and then more rock slab and boulders, I sensed our gain in elevation through the trees. Catamount ascends aggressively, over 1,500 feet in 1.6 miles.
We watched carefully for the miniature cairns on the rock slabs, but if we went off course, it soon became obvious: when we reached the edge of the rock, the notquite-krummholz shrubs, densely packed together, would block our progress. About halfway up, a mountaintop loomed above us.
“Is that the top?” asked Zoe. “No,” I replied, “it’s a false summit.” With a question like that, I expected Zoe to be impatient to reach the summit, but she wasn’t the typical ten-year-old who constantly asks, “How much farther?” She
seemed eager to tackle each rocky protrusion as we came to it. Reaching the top meant the end of the fun.
A few steps later, I glimpsed Whiteface Mountain to the south from a small rock perch in the trees. From there the trail wound along a narrow outcropping, eventually breaking onto a long, broad shoulder of the mountain.
About a mile into the hike, we squeezed up a ten-foot ledgy crack that looked like a rock sandwich, half-buried in the mountain with its meat removed. I mused that a really large person would have to end his hike here. We nicknamed the outcropping the Human Panini as we squeezed up it.
After passing through the Human Panini, we continued up the last part of the climb over a patchwork of slab and scrubby trees. I kept my eyes peeled for the small rock cairns, some only three or four rocks in a nondescript pile, but each turning a seemingly dead end into another ledgy scramble. Whiteface Mountain became omnipresent behind us. I used the outstanding view of the peak as an excuse to take periodic breathers.
At the summit, we found Jack and Micah lounging casually. They had already eaten their lunches but didn’t seem in a hurry to leave. The view was magnificent and diverse. I had to force myself to stop ogling Whiteface and the myriad of other four-thousand-footers that gnawed the southwestern horizon like the teeth of a lion. A clump of firs blocked a small part of the panorama to the northeast, but I could see Lake Champlain and the high ridge of the Green Mountains in Vermont due east. Silver Lake and Union Falls Pond lay below to the northwest.
As I nibbled a sandwich, I savored the bird’s-eye view of these smaller lakes and the forestlands that covered the rolling plains around them like a lush green blanket. Though the expanse was still three months away from its colorful autumn show, it morphed into red, orange, and yellow hues in my mind. It was that singular image, that magical moment from my first visit, that had drawn me back here, and would again and again. And though I might never again have the chance to sit atop Catamount during peak foliage, the mountain will always be one of those rare Adirondack gems that I want to show off to others.
DIRECTIONS: From the junction of NY 86 and Whiteface Memorial Highway in Wilmington, follow the Memorial Highway (Route 431) for 2.8 miles. At the fork, bear right onto County Route 18 toward Franklin Falls. Go 3.0 miles, then turn right on Roseman Road. Go 0.8 miles to a T-intersection,then turn right on Forestdale Road. The rocky peak beyond the fields on the left is Catamount Mountain. At 2.1 miles from the T, look for the trailhead on the left just after the fields. There is no DEC sign, but a generous amount of paint and surveyor’s tape on the trees mark the start of the path. Park along the road.