Trail, parking improvements make this hike easier to find, stick with
By Tim Rowland
The great swell of hikers arriving in the Adirondack Mountains through the course of the pandemic is clearly subsiding, which means it’s safe to come out again at some of the more appealing trails that had been swamped over the past few years.
Yes, there were still a zillion cars at Cascade over the Labor Day weekend, but on that Friday there were only, count’em, three at the trailhead at 3,157-foot Catamount, one of the great short climbs in the northeastern quadrant of the park. I daresay that two years ago, cars would have filled the ample lot and spilled out onto the road.
Twenty(ish) years ago when I first hiked it there was no parking lot, only the smallest of cairns on a desolate stretch of back road that was all but unfindable. Maybe 10 or 15 years ago, back in the days when the Department of Environmental Conservation still cared about hiking trails, it moved the trailhead and built a big new lot, encouraging hikers to deviate from the increasingly popular High Peaks.
Like contemporary improvements at Jay and Cobble Lookout, it had been falling into Yogi Berra’s category of being so crowded that nobody goes there anymore. Maybe that high tide has ebbed, or maybe we just caught it on a good day.
Finding Catamount can be harder than climbing it, but from the four corners in Wilmington, ascend the Whiteface Memorial Highway, bear right on Gillespie then right on Roseman Lane and right again on Forestdale Road/Plank Road. In the space of five minutes you will have traversed three New York counties, all of which have different ideas of what roads should be named, and an almost zen-like apathy toward humanistic constrictures, including highway signage. You’ll find it, it can just take some advance planning is all.
The valleys and mountains that flank Catamount are forested with hardwoods, which will make this an increasingly great hike as the leaves change. Novellas have been written in honor of the summit view, but evergreens on the northern side have been reclaiming their old territory, partially obscuring the Saranac River Valley and its myriad lakes and ponds. Stupid trees.
To the south is the Stephenson Range, with a glimpse of Morgan and other notable members of the tribe, like Wilmington peak. Further to the west is an interesting view of Esther with Whiteface behind it, almost like gunsights.
But if you’re a rock scrambler, the joy of Catamount is in the climb. Half of this two-mile is a tame walk, first through an oasis of moss and evergreens then an attractive stand of hardwoods. At about a mile in, the trail crosses a creek and the big boy (or big girl, I am nothing if not inclusive) begins.
There are two steep and unrelenting stages, one to a pronounced knob, the second to the true summit. Early on in the first stage is the signature feature of the hike, an exceedingly narrow, 20-foot chimney that takes some wriggling and some hefting to negotiate.
But if Santa can do it, so can the Grinch, and for those citizens of ample carriage who may not fit, there is something of an escape hatch half way up that, while not easy, is a way around the narrowest section.
People successfully bring their dogs on this hike, but I have yet to see one that looks like it’s having a lot of fun, and almost all have to be lifted/maneuvered/shoved by their owners in several places. I have two dogs: One would positively kill himself to go anywhere I went; the other would look at the chimney, then look at me and think “Lord, you’re stupid” before turning around and walking back to the trailhead. Neither condition is ideal, so do what you want, but I’d leave the pups home.
Atop the chimney the views begin, notably a long, nicely framed look at Camel’s Hump in Vermont and the broad shoulders of the Stephensons closer up. More scrambles bring you to the top of the bump, after which the trail eases in steepness, although there are still several boulders to negotiate before tackling the true summit.
The trail as I remember had been notably hard to follow, but either the markings have gotten better or my memory has gotten worse, because it seemed easier to follow this time — although it still pays to go slow and keep constant tabs on the discs and yellow daubs of paint.
For the scramble-averse, workarounds have developed that skirt the trickiest outcrops and ledges. But of course that’s no fun, and to true rock junkies they will feel like cheating. So for those who like to test the limits of the ole Oboz’ adhesion to angular surfaces, there is much in the way of entertainment.
The summit doesn’t present itself as others do. There is no stirring of a breeze, no expanding ribbon of blue over the ridgeline, no clutch of tight-knot evergreens and pools of muck. All of a sudden you suddenly realize you’re not climbing anymore, and thar you be.
You will have climbed a hearty 1,540 feet, most of it in the space of one mile, which is not chopped liver. My own, purely subjective gauge is that 750 feet in a mile represents moderate climbing. This is to say that in Wilmington there is a nice chocolate shop. You will have earned it.