Climbing Blackhead and Black Dome in the Catskills

Blackhead Mountain

Albany County from Blackhead Mountain.

Scaling Blackhead Mountain and Black Dome Mountain not only allowed me to cross the third and fourth highest peaks in the Catskills off my list, it marked one of the few hikes in recent memory where I did not get lost.

I set off early one weekday morning with my friend Ellen, who is making her inaugural appearance in The Other Hudson Valley. She is a good person to have along on a hike, as she is a certified wilderness first responder.

“Did you bring, like, any water?” I made the mistake of asking her.

Not only had she brought water, but sunscreen, carrots, apples, a mix of roasted root vegetables, a first aid kit, surgical gloves, a headlamp, and bug repellent made from essential oils.

We were to take a route suggested by Catskill Mountaineer that began in a small lot at the terminus of Big Hollow Road in Maplecrest, Greene County. I had decided against mounting Thomas Cole (heh), a third mountain nearby, because I had heard the views were underwhelming.

The trail was at first wide and stony and fissured by runnels feeding a creek the path ran along. The creek gathered into a couple of wading pools and was crossed by two thin footbridges.

Blackhead MountainBlackhead Mountain

The path had only a slight grade as it passed through a tunnel of beech and maple saplings, the sunlight filtering through the canopy and tinting everything lime. I heard a rustle in the ferns, and a common garter snake slipped beneath last year’s desiccated leaves.

We reached the Batavia lean-to, a DEC-constructed structure with a “No Camping” sign in front of it.

“Must be for if anyone gets caught in the rain,” I said to Ellen.

“Or if they have a broken femur,” Ellen pointed out.

Blackhead Mountain

Ellen quipping

We only saw two other groups on the trail. The first was a quartet of elderly Chinese hikers who, despite being elderly, were hiking at our pace with overnight packs on. The second time we passed them, one of the men laughed and clapped me on my bare shoulder while going, “Yesss…..Yesss!”

“He a friend of yours?” Ellen quipped when they were out of sight.

We were just questioning the validity of Catskill Mountaineer calling the ascent to Blackhead Mountain “very difficult” when the grade kicked up, and soon we were panting and scrambling over rocks.Blackhead Mountain

We passed the 3500-foot marker on Blackhead’s eastern side, and the deciduous trees were replaced by short conifers and grasses.

We reached the pinnacle, then descended west along the path for the overlooks. We snacked on trail mix and a mix of roasted root vegetables while taking in the northeasterly views. The day was hazy, and we couldn’t see more than 15 miles, but still saw the Hudson snaking off to our right as a wide swath of Albany County lay in front of us.

We turned around towards Black Dome Mountain, bumping into the quartet of Chinese hikers for a third time.

Ellen attempted chatting to them in her New Zealand-Australian-American lilt.

“Hm. No English,” she said, turning back to me.

“Lotta bugs up here,” she said, again attempting to communicate. “Bzzzzz.”

They did not respond.

There was a great view of Black Dome as the trail dipped down off Blackhead into a valley between the two peaks. There we bumped into the second group of the day, a couple in their late twenties. The woman was attempting to complete the 35 over 3500 — climbing all 35 peaks in the Catskills over 3500 feet. This was number 29.

The trail up Black Dome includes a view of the just-climbed Blackhead Mountain, and we could see the couple lunching across the valley about a mile away. I spastically waved my arms over my head in an attempt to alert them of this awesomeness, but they were too into their trail mix.

North-South Lake from Black Dome.

We reached a second overlook past Black Dome’s acme, the sharp angles of the western Catskills visible through a frame of leaves, but the view would be much more dramatic in the cold months.

Black Dome’s peak is also high enough to grow exclusively pine, and the green light exploded above our heads as we dipped back down into the silver birch and old-growth maple.

The trail was about seven miles and took us four-and-a-half hours; we were talking about sandwiches and pizza in near-sexual tones by the time we finished. The route certainly earned the “very difficult” designation. The car seats of my Nissan never felt so cushy as when we slid into them, backed out of the lot, and drove back towards civilization.

Blackhead Mountain snake

An eastern garter snake, not to be confused with the common garter snake from earlier in the story.

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