Difficulty: 10 out of 10 (long climb up a big fat mountain with some very steep sections and light rock scrambling toward the top)
Highlights: Beautiful trails, light rock scrambling, amazing view at the top (if you called it the best view in the Catskills, it’s unlikely anyone would argue too much)
Distance: 7.2 miles, up-and-back
Approximate roundtrip time: 6 hours
Total ascent: 2,645 ft
Max elevation: 3,780 ft above sea level
GPS goodies: Google Terrain map of hike route
This hike is for you if: You want to see one of the best views in the Catskills, and you’re prepared to climb a big fat honking mountain to see it.
Cheapskate alert! The day-use fee at Woodland Valley Campground (where you’ll park to tackle this hike) is $6 per car as of this writing in 2015, during camping season only (mid-May through mid-October). Money well spent.
Background you can feel free to skip: As I descended Wittenberg Mountain over a decade ago, stumbling down the seemingly endless trail, my legs wobbly from the exertion of the day, I remember laughing to myself and thinking, “I’m SOOOOO glad Kara didn’t come with me.”
Kara was my girlfriend at the time, and she might not be my wife today if she’d joined me to climb Wittenberg back then. She enjoys a good casual day hike, but the word “casual” should never be applied to a climb of Wittenberg, unless you’re discussing the dress code. (And even then, it should probably be something more like “casual synthetic chic” or “wilderness casual.”)
I also had only a hazy memory of the gorgeous view from the top of Wittenberg, and any pictures I’d taken that day were on film, which means they were lost to the winds years ago. I won’t lose the pics we took on our most recent visit back to Wittenberg, though. Dude. What a spot.
The summit of Wittenberg might not have the best view in the Catskills, but then again, it might. The stair-step ledge at the top gives a vantage point that’s tough to beat, too – it’s like nature’s own stadium seating. Here’s a nine-shot panorama (the photo in the banner image above is also a stitch of nine photos, so the perspective is a wee skewed):
This is a popular hike, and it deserves to be – if you visit on a nice weekend, expect a crowd at the summit. We burned a day of vacation to come on a Friday in July, and we hit the trail at 7am (long story, we had no choice). We had the summit to ourselves and didn’t see another soul until the descent. From what I understand, this was a rare treat.
A popular add-on to this hike (in case climbing 2,600 feet over 7+ miles and bagging one of the 3500’ Catskill Peaks isn’t enough for you) is to continue past the summit of Wittenberg to bag Cornell Mountain as well. You’ll traverse the saddle between Wittenberg and Cornell along the Bruins Causeway to shimmy up the infamous Cornell Crack. There’s a decent view from Cornell (from what I’ve seen online), but not nearly as awesome as Wittenberg. We didn’t have time to do Cornell on our visit, but CatskillMountaineer.com has a very nice trail guide if you’re interested in adding another 1.5 roundtrip miles or so to climb Cornell Mountain as well.
My guess is that the name “Bruins Causeway” didn’t happen by accident. CatskillMountaineer.com lists this hike as low-risk for bears, but this is bear country, so you should bone up on how to handle a bear encounter as good practice, anyway.
Note to dog people: My fifty-pound pooch loved this hike, but I did have to hoist her up some steep spots on six occasions during the ascent. On the way back down, I had to carry her down steep spots twice (and she made some precarious leaps to handle some of the others on her own). If you bring your dog, expect the area near the summit to make all of your lives interesting.
If you extend your trip to include Cornell with your pooch as well, please read this snip from this very nice blog post: “We quickly hiked the narrow ridge connecting Wittenberg to Cornell, and caught up to the other climbing party at Cornell Crack. Their progress was stymied by the inability of the dog in their party to get up the scramble. After securing a rope to the dog’s harness and pushing the dog up a seam in the scramble, they finally got her to the top of the formation.”
Sounds like a very dicey proposition to bring a dog beyond Wittenberg’s summit (and even getting that far can be tricky) – I don’t think I’d try it.
Continuing notes for humans: My GPS clocked this hike at 7.2 miles, and CatskillMountaineer.com also called it at 7.2. We are both in disagreement with the sign at the trailhead (and also just about every other trail guide out there), which all give 7.8 miles as the official distance. 7.2 feels right to me, and it’s the distance I listed at the top of this guide, but if I were you, I’d trust the sign over me, too.
Also, some trail guides refer to this hike as “The Wittenberg” rather than “Wittenberg Mountain” or “Wittenberg.” Just wanted you to be in the loop on that one. It’s kind of like how Californians say “the 405” for no good reason. If you want to sound cool by throwing the gratuitous article in there, though, feel free to try to pull it off.
Whatever you call it, if you’re in the market for a strenuous hike with a big fat payoff, you’ll have a hard time finding a better one than this. Also, if you drag a significant other along who doesn’t like hiking as much as you do, be prepared to end the day as a single person.
1. From the parking area, after you’ve settled your debts (see “Directions to the trailhead” below), turn to face the road. Exit the parking lot to your left (back toward civilization, away from the campground), and turn left onto Woodland Valley Road.
2. Immediately on your right, you’ll see your first red blaze, accompanied by an arrow pointing to the right, toward a paved road and some campsites. Turn right to follow this arrow.
3. Briefly join the paved campsite road, heading to your left at the T and the peninsula of trees surrounded by asphalt (you may also notice a red-blazed arrow hiding in the trees here).
4. When the road curves sharply to the right just past those trees, you’ll continue straight ahead into the woods, just to the right of campsite #46 (marked on a post on your left, to the left of the picnic table). A large, flat rock (“Hey, I’m a boulder!”) sits in the center of the path you want to be on.
5. Once you enter the woods, find a burbling (or rushing, depending on the conditions when you visit) stream to your right. Nice spot, right? The trail hops over that stream on a picturesque wooden bridge.
From the bridge, it’s a mere 2,600 vertical feet and 3.55 (or so) miles to the top of Wittenberg. You’re, like, halfway there! Or you will be, in an hour or two.
It’s also 2.3 miles from our next trail junction, where the yellow-blazed trail to Terrace Mountain splits off to the left, and we’ll turn right to continue climbing Wittenberg. It took me and my buddy Jeff an hour and eight minutes to reach that junction from the bridge.
For those who would like a break from my blathering, you really just need to follow the Red Trail all the way to the top from here. Feel free to put me back in your pocket and concentrate on the thousands of calories you’re about to burn.
6. You’re still reading? Why? I mean, awesome! Let’s do this thing! Immediately after the bridge, the trail gets serious about climbing. Those 2,600 vertical feet have to start somewhere, right? In about five minutes, arrive at the trail register and sign in.
7. Going up!
While I was expecting a relentless slog all the way up Wittenberg, this section of trail actually has some merciful interludes where you can catch your breath and amble along, gradually gaining altitude.
About 35 minutes past the bridge, we came to a beautiful spot where the ground drops away to your left, and you can get a hint of a view through the trees.
Careful here – the trail turns sharply to your right to head uphill, but it’s easy to get bucked off the trail if you keep heading straight while checking out the (obstructed) view.
At that cascade, you’re 1.5 miles and 1,117 vertical feet into this hike, at an elevation of 2,371’. It’s another mile (but only 350 vertical feet) to the next (very well-marked) junction with the yellow-blazed trail to Terrace Mountain. It took us about 25 minutes to get there from the cascade. See you there!
9. When the trail Ts into a well-marked junction with the yellow-blazed trail to Terrace Mountain, turn right to continue following the red blazes. Whoof! Time for a water break.
From here, it’s 1.15 miles and 1,100 vertical feet to the top. That might sound like a lot of remaining vertical feet if you weren’t so hard core, right? Good thing you are, which will come in especially handy quite soon.
10. Less than ten minutes after the Terrace Mountain junction, right after some nice stone-stepping trail work that takes you through a boggy section, you may notice a blue-blazed trail marked “Lane St.” splitting off to the left. Just ignore this junction and keep following the red blazes straight ahead. (My buddy Jeff wasn’t paying attention and briefly took the Lane St. trail, so stay on your toes unless you want to wind up on Lane St. in Phoenicia, several miles away. Not a bad outcome, really, but probably not the one you’re intending.)
11. You may notice some green Long Path markers (which you can ignore) in this next section. Even if you don’t notice them, I bet you will notice that you’re gaining some serious altitude now. My ears started popping here, and it felt like my aorta might pop, too.
You’ll also notice that your arms don’t get to just dangle there anymore. Time to put them to work!
As long as the terrain is going to be steep, it’s a nice bonus that it happens to be beautiful, too.
If you have a four-legged companion with you, she’ll appreciate your assistance in some of these spots.
The next landmark arrived, for us, a hard-earned .5 miles and 652 vertical feet from the Lane St. junction (took us about 25 minutes), when you come into a small clearing with a relatively permanent-looking (unless it’s not there anymore, of course) fire pit. The trail curls left here to continue climbing.
12. From the fire pit, it’s less than .5 miles (and about 375 vertical feet) to the summit. In this next section, we found several unmarked trails lacing across the red-blazed path, and there were a couple of spots where it wasn’t crystal clear which way to go, but the multiple paths always seemed to converge again shortly. Keep playing a game of “find the next trail marker” to make sure you stick to the trail as best you can.
13. It took us seventeen minutes from the fire pit to reach the summit, which all of a sudden jumps out at you and says, “SURPRISE!!!”
14. And what a nice surprise it is.
Take a nice, long break. And plenty of pictures, too. In the distance, the Ashokan Reservoir smiles back at you.
Before you go, if applicable, don’t forget to tell your pooch what a good girl she is. Yes, you’re a good girl. Yes you are.
15. From the summit, once you’re done soaking your eyeballs in the fruits of your labor, simply retrace your (millions of) steps back to your car, following those red blazes the whole way. If you’re interested in continuing your trek to Cornell Mountain from the summit of (The!) Wittenberg, you’ll need to consult a trail guide from someone who’s actually done it. We didn’t have time to tackle the extra mileage on our visit, and I have a sneaking suspicion that it would have felt like overkill if we had. Maybe someday. Good luck and enjoy if you give it a whirl!
For everyone else, let’s head for home. From the top, it took us 50 minutes to get back to the Terrace Mountain junction (where we turned left to stay on the Red Trail), then another 75 minutes to get to the parking lot. Voila!
Happy trekking back down the mountain! Bet you’ll be glad when you see that bridge again.
When you get back to your car, feel free to locate a park ranger and give him/her a high-five. Then give one to yourself, too. Hope you enjoyed the adventure today! If someone puts a large pizza in front of you, you’ve earned the right to snarf the whole thing by yourself. Which might work out well, if your significant other is no longer talking to you.
Directions to the trailhead: From Kingston, head west on Route 28 for 26 miles. Just past the town of Phoenicia, turn left onto Woodland Valley Road. Follow Woodland Valley Road for 5.5 miles until you arrive at the well-marked parking lot on your right.
If you’re visiting when the campsites are open (mid-May through mid-October), you’ll need to proceed on foot from the parking lot for a couple hundred yards down Woodland Valley Road, to the ranger station on your left, where you’ll deposit your moolah (see the “Cheapskate alert!” at the top of this guide) for your parking pass. (And if you’re concerned about adding extraneous yardage to your day, yes, you could drive down to the ranger station instead, lazy bones.)
Note for early birds: On the day I visited, we had to hit the trail at 7am, but the ranger station didn’t open until 8am. We stuffed an envelope with the money in the crack of the door at the ranger station, then left a note on our dashboard.
That did the trick – didn’t have a problem. Other people have also vouched for the coolness of the rangers here, with one guy telling me you can leave a note and pay when you get back. I’m sure these aren’t officially sanctioned payment methods, but anecdotally, you shouldn’t have any issues as long as you figure out a way to pay.
You can also get directions by checking out the Wittenberg Mountain entry on the HiketheHudsonValley.com Google map.
Sorta nearby address for your GPS: The address of the Woodland Valley Campground is:
1319 Woodland Valley Road
GPS coordinates of parking area: 42.03634, -74.35782 (Clicking will open in Google Maps or the Apple Maps app, depending on your browser/device.)
Related resources: If you’re looking for actual facts and/or useful information, visit these resources:
- The official DEC Woodland Valley Campground homepage
- A very nice write-up on this hike, including the additional jog to Cornell Mountain, from CatskillMountaineer.com
- The brief (but pretty!) Wittenberg Wikipedia entry
- Some good information on longer routes in the Burroughs Range on the Wittenberg Mountain page from CatskillHiker.net
- The brief (but informative!) Catskill 3500 Club Wittenberg page
- A nice blog account of a Wittenberg-Cornell hike at patrickmauro.com
- A cool video of a Wittenberg hike that Jacob Pack shared on this site’s Facebook page, and which is narrated by Carl Sagan, of course
More Wittenberg Mountain pictures from the hike’s Flickr album:
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