Background you can feel free to skip: As I stood on the steps of the fire tower at Hunter Mountain, looking at the amazing panorama unfolding in all directions, I had two thoughts:
1) Duuuuuuuude. So glad I came here today.
2) Dude, why have I never been here before?
One answer to the second question: I’ve always had this notion that Hunter Mountain (the hike) was closely related to Hunter Mountain (the ski area). I pictured the chair lift dropping off people next to the fire tower all summer long, and having to elbow my way through the flip-flop-wearing masses to get to the view at the top.
The reality, though, couldn’t have been any different.
On the day I visited (a beautiful late-October Sunday), I had the tower to myself for thirty minutes, until I finally forced myself to put down the camera and descend. (I also got up before the crack of dawn and arrived at the trailhead just before daybreak, so if you wake up at a sane time, you’ll probably have more company up there.)
For the entire hike, I saw zero signs that this hike shared a mountain with a popular ski area, except for the drive through Tannersville, which felt like a cool little ski-town place to hang out (and probably a nice spot to grab a bite before heading home). This hike is a beautiful wilderness romp from start to finish, complete with a sign at the summit that informs you that the nearest chair lift is 2.1 miles away. If somebody makes it to the fire tower wearing flip-flops, then they earned that view, more painfully than the rest of us.
During the busiest hiking weekends, the awesome folks at the Catskill Center open the top level of the fire tower (thanks, Catskill Center!). If you visit at a different time (as I did), you won’t be able to get into the top of the tower – the trap door is locked. The views are absolutely amazing from the two platforms immediately below that padlock, though, and I can’t imagine they’d be much different from a few feet higher. You shouldn’t feel too deprived if you can’t get all the way up there.
Besides the gorgeous tower, which offers one of the finest views in the Catskills, the trail is everything you’d want to find in a mountain hike, assuming you want to be immersed in wilderness while spending a few (thousand) calories clambering your way up very steep inclines.
For all the beauty to be found here, this mountain is not to be tackled lightly. At 4,040’, Hunter Mountain is the second-highest peak in the Catskills and one of the 35 peaks in the Catskill 3500 Club. A friend of mine who eats mountains for breakfast described the ascent of Hunter as “relentless.” I agree with that assessment – if you tackle this hike, come prepared for the 2,200’+ vertical ascent, and the steep, rocky terrain. It never becomes steep enough to qualify as a “scramble,” but it just keeps on going up, up, and up. Then up again.
In addition to steeling your legs for the relentless ascent, be sure to also steel your retinas for the insane views.
This is an amazing spot that should absolutely be in your hiking rotation. Bring a camera and high expectations, but you can leave your snowboard at home.
Note: The hike detailed below shows you the shortest, steepest route to the top of Hunter Mountain. There are several other ways to get there, including a slightly gentler (and horse-accessible) 8-mile hike from the Spruceton Road trailhead, saving yourself around 300 vertical feet. Personally, I’d rather climb the extra 300’ and chop off three miles, but you can find a nice write-up of the Spruceton Road route on this trail guide from CatskillMountaineer.com. If you want to cheat and take the chairlift (which still requires a four-mile hike and owning the knowledge that you cheated), you can find more details on the Hunter Mountain Scenic Skyride page (okay, it actually looks like fun).
Gratitudinal aside: Thank you to Monique Quigley for posting this suggestion to the site’s Facebook page:
You were right, Monique! Many thanks for bumping this one up the queue.
1. From the parking lot (see “Directions to the trailhead” below), head over to the kiosk and see if you can’t learn a thing or two.
2. When you’re ready, hop on the blue-blazed Becker Hollow Trail (heretofore referred to as the Blue Trail), heading between those two stone pillars to your left (assuming you’re facing the kiosk). Off to a great start – only 5 miles and 2,217 vertical feet to go!
3. Follow the Blue Trail on some single-track that will widen shortly. In just a moment, you’ll notice a burbling brook down below, to your right. Inhale. Exhale. Man, this beats pretty much anything else you could be doing today, doesn’t it?
Less than ten minutes from the trailhead, you’ll come to a picturesque wooden bridge that crosses the burbling (or roaring, depending on the conditions when you visit) brook. (UPDATE June 2019: This bridge has been rebuilt since my visit. See Miranda’s helpful comment below for a picture of the new-and-improved bridge, which is now large enough to serve as troll habitat.)
4. Perhaps five minutes after the bridge, you’ll see the remains of an old dam on your left. There’s apparently a nice little waterfall here sometimes, but it was barely a trickle on my visit. The trail here is wide and relatively flat, luring you into forgetting that you’re climbing a mountain.
5. Just past the dam, let the relentlessness begin!
At least it’s a beautiful relentlessness.
If you got up ridiculously early this morning, you might even catch some leftover sunrise to your left, through the trees. Makes getting up before dawn worthwhile. Sort of.
6. Your next landmark is the 3500’ altitude sign, which is being swallowed by a tree in the middle of the trail. Took me fifty minutes of huffing, puffing, and following the blue blazes to get to this sign from the old dam. See you there!
Standing in front of this sign, you’ve now climbed 1,708 feet over 1.9 miles. Just 529 more vertical feet and .5 miles until the tower! You could do that walking on your hands, right?
7. Enjoy the occasional, limited views to your left, and the changing makeup of the forest – as you continue climbing, the vibe becomes decidedly more alpine.
8. The next landmark is the well-marked junction with the Yellow Trail, about 10 minutes after the 3500’ marker. From the signage, you can see that this is a loop trail – you can get to the tower going either left (.6 miles) or right (.35 miles). Take a right turn here to hop on the Yellow Trail, the shortest route to the tower. (We’ll come back to this spot later via the other trail to complete the one-mile loop.)
9. In three minutes, after following those yellow blazes through the woods, you’ll notice a spring-fed pipe just off the trail, to your left. As a general rule, I don’t drink untreated water, unless I’m in the mood to invite potential violent gastrointestinal distress into my life. It’s probably fine, but I recommend slaking your thirst from the water you packed instead. (Unless you have a water filter with you – in which case, happy pumping, and bottoms up!)
10. Continue climbing on the Yellow Trail, taking some time to appreciate the nice trail work in this section. Thanks, people who did that!
About twelve minutes from the water pipe, keep an eye above the trees, to your left. THAR SHE BLOWS!
11. As the trail wraps underneath the tower, you’ll see a funky wooden structure straight ahead (I asked my friend about this, and he explained that this is a stand for making it easier to mount/dismount from a horse, to help make the Spruceton route up here more handicap-accessible, which is a pretty cool goal, and a better explanation than “funky wooden structure”), then you’ll emerge into the clearing with the ranger’s cabin and the tower. (There’s also a well-marked trail to an outhouse on the far side of the clearing, if you’re feeling adventurous.)
The tower! You did it! Let’s climb that bad boy.
12. Going up!
Maybe there are better Catskill views somewhere else. Maybe there aren’t.
When you’re done letting your eyeballs marinate in the view, head back down. Wait, one more moment! Okay, let’s head back down.
13. Walk over to the ranger’s cabin and notice the trail signs just behind its back-right corner. Those signs are where we want to be.
Turn left at the signs to follow the Blue Trail toward Devil’s Acre Leanto.
14. Enjoy the flat stroll through the alpine forest, following those blue blazes as you go. This was one of my favorite sections of the hike – just flat, peaceful, and piney.
It took me seven minutes to arrive at the next junction, with the Yellow Trail.
Take a right turn here to visit a short yellow-blazed spur trail (one minute or less) to a ledge with a very nice view.
15. In just a moment, you’ll see the little ledge straight ahead.
And then, sha-BAM! More views!
The views are partially obstructed, and we’re spoiled from the panorama at the tower, but this is still a great spot, right? It also feels more wild and secluded here, so you’ve got that going for you. Which is nice.
16. When you’re done checking out the view, return to the junction with the signpost from a few moments ago.
Here, you’ll follow the sign straight ahead, toward State Rd. 214 (2.3 miles) on the Blue Trail.
You can verify that you’re going the right way in just a moment, when you’ll stroll across a large, flat rock, and pick up a blue blaze entering the woods on the far side.
(Make sure you’re not following the Yellow Trail off into the wild green yonder, which would happen if you visited the ledge view, then accidentally turned right onto the Yellow Trail. Don’t do that!)
17. It’s all downhill from here! A mere 2.2 miles and 2,103 vertical feet back to your car. Following the beautiful Blue Trail, it took me eight minutes to reach the junction from Step 8 above, where our loop around Hunter’s summit began. Remember this spot?
18. From this junction, keep heading straight/right on the Blue Trail.
From here, no more turns or junctions to worry about! Just a straight shot, retracing your steps, following the Blue Trail all the way back to your car. Nothing much to do now but enjoying the scenery and putting one foot in front of the other about a million more times.
From the junction at the start/end of the loop, it took me one hour and nine minutes to get back to my car. And what a pleasant one hour and nine minutes they were.
Hello again, car! Nice to see you again. Take me to food.
Hope you enjoyed your Hunter Mountain hike today! Aren’t you glad you didn’t take the chairlift? (Or should we wait to discuss that until after the blisters have healed?)
Have fun hunting down a large pizza for dinner tonight – you’ve earned it!
Directions to the trailhead: From the town of Tannersville, NY, head west on Main St (NY-23A). Just over two miles outside of town, turn left onto NY-214. In just about one mile, look for the gravel parking pulloff on your right, marked with a brown-and-yellow “Trailhead Parking” sign by the far entrance. (If you come to Lane Rd, you’ve gone just a little too far.)
Hop out and let the adventure begin!
You can also get directions by checking out the Hunter Mountain entry on the HiketheHudsonValley.com Google map.
Sorta nearby address for your GPS: As far as I can tell, they don’t appear to be too big on “addresses” out this way, but Bear Creek Landing Restaurant is right on the intersection of Rt 214 and Rt 23A. So if you pop this landmark into your device, it’ll take you just one mile from the trailhead, then you can head southwest on 214 to the pulloff described in “Directions to the trailhead” above. Give this a shot (or just click the GPS coordinates below):
Bear Creek Landing Restaurant
GPS coordinates of parking area: 42.181825, -74.196879 (Clicking will open in Google Maps or the Apple Maps app, depending on your browser/device.)
Super-cool Google Earth flyover of hike route:
Google Terrain Map of hike route:
Related resources: If you’re looking for actual facts and/or useful information, visit these resources:
- Some good information on the Catskill fire towers from the Catskill Center (and thanks for everything you do, awesome Catskill Center dudes!)
- A nice alternate write-up on this exact same hike from CatskillMountaineer.com
- An alternate route (via the Spruceton Road trailhead – longer, but less ascent) on CatskillMountaineer.com
- The very informative Hunter Mountain Fire Tower Wikipedia page
- Hunter Mountain’s Scenic Skyride page (for cheaters)
- Hunter Mountain’s homepage, in case you just want to go skiing and can’t figure out why you’re on a hiking web site
- If you’re looking for peace and quiet, except the opposite, the New York Zipline Adventure Tour at Hunter Mountain looks like fun
Want to support trails in the Hudson Valley? Here’s one great way: Visit the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference homepage and click on Volunteer, Donate, or Shop! (Then you can volunteer, donate, or shop, depending on your mood.)