Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Giant Ledge

Fall colors of the Catskills from Giant Ledge
3 miles round trip, 1000 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no fee required

The sweeping views of the high peaks of the Catskills makes Giant Ledge one of the most popular summit hikes in New York State's Catskill Park. The hike delivers panoramic vistas of the range's most spectacular mountains while requiring a relatively mild effort, by Catskill standards; however, this trail still involves a good amount of uphill and has multiple stretches that are very rocky, so novice hikers should understand that although this is an easier wilderness hike in the Catskills, it's still a wilderness hike in the Catskills.

I hiked up to Giant Ledge with Anna and my parents in mid-October during a fall color trip through the Catskills. The trailhead is about three hours driving from the New York metro area; we took I-87 (the New York Thruway) north to exit 19 for Kingston and Route 28, where we exited and then hopped onto Route 28 heading west from the exit roundabout. We followed Route 28 for about 30 miles west into the mountains to the village of Big Indian, where we turned left onto Oliverea Road (signs before the turn indicated the direction of the Giant Ledge trailhead). We then followed Oliverea Road south for 7 miles, passing through the village of Oliverea before ascending into the mountains and coming to the trailhead, which was at a sharp right bend in the road. Parking at the trailhead is unfortunately limited as there's no parking lot; you'll have to find room on the shoulder of Oliverea Road. We did not have trouble finding parking when we arrived on an autumn Tuesday, although I would certainly imagine that on nice weekends you might have to park some distance away from the trailhead and walk along the road to get to the start of the hike.

The hike started on the yellow marker Phoenicia East Branch Trail, which left Oliverea Road at the sharp bend in the road. The trail crossed over a small footbridge at the beginning and then immediately entered the Slide Mountain Wilderness, a wilderness preserve within Catskill Park that protects Slide Mountain, the highest peak in the range. The trail was initially fairly flat as we followed it through a beautiful autumn forest to a sturdy footbridge spanning a small stream. After crossing the stream, the trail began a steady ascent over the next three-quarters of a mile to reach the high ridge connecting Slide Mountain to Giant Ledge and Panther Mountain.

The Phoenicia East Branch Trail was quite rocky in places, especially during the steeper stretches of the ascent; wet soil from recent rains and copious fallen autumn leaves made the path a bit more treacherous at that time of year. However, there was plenty around the trail to entertain and reward us on what would otherwise have been a rocky uphill slog: the forest around us was at peak color and mushrooms were popping out all over the forest floor. This initial stretch of trail carries the majority of the hike's elevation gain, with just under 600 feet of uphill between the footbridge and the ridge.

Peak color
Autumn leaves of the Catskills
Mushrooms everywhere
Autumn mushrooms
At three-quarters of a mile from the trailhead, after a final push up a particularly rocky stretch, we arrived at the top of the ridge and came to an intersection with the Giant Ledge-Panther Mountain Trail, which was signed with blue markers. At this four-way intersection, we turned left and began following the blue-marked trail north along the ridge. This marked the halfway point of the hike, although at this point we had completed a majority of the hike's elevation gain. 

The half mile of trail that followed was fairly gentle as we followed a wide and fairly flat ridge that rose inperceptibly as we traveled north, although this stretch was surprisingly wet and muddy. The beautiful peak foliage in the forest around us made the rock-hopping through the mud a little more pleasant; it was interesting to me that we would find so much water at what is essentially the top of a mountain.

Beautiful foliage and flat hiking along the ridge of Panther Mountain
The Giant Ledge Trail became much steeper at one and a quarter miles into the hike. The final quarter mile of the hike was particularly rocky and ascended over 200 feet; many of the rock steps here were quite high and although most hikers can deal with this stretch without using their hands, some may find they have to engage in some mild rock scrambling here. We passed a small spur trail on the left that led to a spring at the start of this final ascent; otherwise, the trail was quite straightforward, heading continuously uphill through the rocks.

Rocky trail along the ridge on final ascent to Giant Ledge
The trail leveled out atop the long summit ridge of Giant Ledge, although it remained quite rocky. After a mile and a half of hiking from the trailhead, we came to an unmarked spur path to the right, which led briefly downhill and brought us out onto a rocky outcrop with a spectacular view: this was the first of the ledges at Giant Ledge and the destination of this hike.

There was a stunning 180-degree panorama of the Catskills east of Giant Ledge. Below us, the hardwood forests of the range were approaching peak color, although substantial swaths of green remained at lower elevations. The forested slopes of Giant Ledge eventually dropped into the gentle cradle of Woodland Valley, which was bound by Mount Pleasant on its far end. Beyond Mount Pleasant rose the imposing ridge formed by Indian Head Mountain, Twin Mountain, and Plateau Mountain, which are collectively known as the Devil's Path. An extremely challenging trail of that same name connects that chain of mountaintops. Beyond these peaks, the Catskills dropped away to the Hudson River Valley; we could not make out details in the Hudson River Valley clearly but could see the faraway peaks of the Taconics and the Berkshires- including what must have been Massachusetts' Mount Greylock- rising across the valley.

Remarkably, the view included no obvious signs of human habitation: no houses or roads or power lines were clearly visible, so this view gave the illusion that the range- which is actually quite populated- was some remote, untrammeled wilderness. 

Woodland Valley and the Greene County high peaks
Slide Mountain rose to the south as the high point of a ridge that included Wittenburg and Cornell Mountains. At 4190 feet, Slide Mountain is the highest point in the Catskills and the crowning summit of the Catskill High Peaks, which consists of the 35 Catskill peaks that exceed 3500 feet. 

Cornell and Slide Mountains from Giant Ledge
There are a total of five ledges at Giant Ledge, each a rocky outcrop facing east with similar views; hikers wishing for a quieter experience can continue past the first ledge to one of the later overlooks for a bit more solitude. Hikers who are done with the rocky Catskill terrain won't miss out on too much if they turn back after this first ledge, however. Intrepid hikers looking for a longer day hike can continue north up the ridge to the summit of Panther Mountain, roughly a 6 mile round trip journey, but most hikers will find Giant Ledge to be a sufficiently satisfying destination. 

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