Backpacking New York: the Eastern Portion of Devil's Path

Our itinerary - Overlook Trail to Devil's Path, along eastern portion of Devil's Path
from east to west, overnight between Indian Head and Twin. Devil's Path
continues west after crossing NYS 214. We did the eastern portion only.
In 1999, Backpacker Magazine listed Devil's Path in the Catskills among its 12 devilishly brutal trails. As such, we decided it was a perfect place to take a pair of unsuspecting friends training for a honeymoon climb of Mount Rainier.

Devil's Path isn't all pain and suffering without reprieve, though on one of the numerous ascents up 3,500' Catskill peaks, it can be difficult to focus on spectacular summit views and the feeling of accomplishment when it's over. This marked my third and most successful trip to the region. Unlike our previous two Devil's Path trips, the weather was perfect. Mother Nature seemed to take pity on us and despite the gnarly terrain, I know we'll go back for more.

Day 1: Overlook Trail and Devil's Path to the Summit of Indian Head

Approximately 9 miles in 7 hours.

After the long drive from Philadelphia on Friday, our four person crew spent the night at Devil's Tombstone Campground in preparation for an early start Saturday. Next time, we'll likely stay elsewhere.* We dropped one car off up NYS 214 at Notch Lake, part of a fee-regulated day use area just across the road from Devil's Path's midpoint and our route's end point. We took the second car through Woodstock, NY and up the incredibly steep Rock City Road. Overlook Mountain trailhead parking is located directly across from Karma Triyana Dharmachakra, a beautiful Tibetan Buddhist Monastery. It's certainly not something I expected to find in the Catskills!

The old Overlook Hotel. (D. Herscovitch)
After nearly two miles of steady climbing up a wide, stone covered access road, the Overlook Trail leads to the ruins of the Overlook Hotel. Only the ghostlyconcrete shell of the storied buildings remain.** 

We opted not to summit Overlook Mountain on a 0.3 mile long side trail, but did drop our packs for a 1.2 mile round trip jaunt down to Echo Lake and Back. It's a beautiful lunch spot and home to what we heard is one of the least used lean-to sites in the area. After another 2.3 miles along the Overlook Trail, we came to a junction with Devil's Path and started heading west.

At this point, the real climbing began. From the trail junction, Devil's Path gains almost 1,300' up to the summit of Indian Head (3,573'). Indian Head makes a great day hiking destination with a number of different loop options, and I found myself a bit jealous of day hikers with day packs while I shouldered my overnight pack! 

We dropped 500-600' down to Jimmy Dolan Notch and found a suitable camping spot for the night.  Bear canisters are encouraged in the Catskills, and we made sure to cook and store food far away from our tents to prevent unsolicited visits from wildlife.  We also found a small trickle of water to pump filter from near the campsite, a trickle that likely wouldn't have been there without the previous days' rainstorms. (Water sources are few and far between along Devil's Path; backpackers should be prepared!)

Day 2: Summits of Twin, Sugarloaf and Plateau Mountains

Approximately 7.5 miles in 7.5 hours

One particularly gnarly section of the trail!
(D. Herscovitch)
After sleeping like a baby, the second day of 6am wake-up calls came too soon, but I was glad to see the weather was still beautiful. We packed up camp and continued west along Devil's Path to the top of Twin Mountain (3,650'), ascending 600' in 0.5 miles to the first of two summits. The true summit is reached as the trail gradually ascends along the ridge, then drops back down 700' in 0.7 miles to Pecoy Notch. We continued to see day hikers and a handful of ultra runners making a loop with Pecoy Notch, the Mink Hollow Trail and the summit of Sugarloaf (3,810') along Devil's Path.

Ascending nearly 1,000' up Sugarloaf was the most physically difficult of the three summits (four if you count both of Twin Mountain's summits) for me that day. We'd just completed an ascent and descent of Twin, got to the top of Sugarloaf, then had to descend Sugarloaf and climb all the way back up to the summit of Plateau (3,850). 

All of the ups and downs begin to feel the same after a while, all equally challenging. Devil's Path definitely earned its name on the second day, particularly as we reached the top of Plateau and began the 1.5 mile traverse across before the steep (1,700' in less than one mile) descent down to Notch Lake. 

Dan was nursing an ankle injury from a previous incident and found my Leki trekking poles to be lifesavers. Carla found herself particularly sensitive to stinging nettles, and all of us were battling countless mosquito bites and black flies.

We were all "smelling the barn" without a doubt, and were happy to reach the car mid-afternoon. One of my favorite things to do on trips is to find local places to have my first real post-trip meal, and Winchell's Pizza in Shokan, NY was exactly what we needed. After feasting on gourmet pizza, BBQ chicken, burgers and delicious beer, we were ready for the ride home.

Until next time, Echo Lake!
I'd call this the most successful Devil's Path backpacking trip so far because (a) we completed the itinerary we'd set out with, (b) Mother Nature gave us a break with amazing weather, and (c) Carla and Brad were among the best prepared and best conditioned relatively new backpackers Dan and I have had the pleasure of doing a trip with! 

Devil's Path is an amazing trail, both because it's incredibly difficult and the rewards you'll receive if you're willing to put up with and push through the challenges. Maybe we'll manage the whole 24-mile trail someday! 

Have you done Devil's Path, or a portion of it? Tell us in the comments!

 *There's a two night minimum stay at Devil's Tombstone, a $9 online reservation fee and a $5/night out of state resident fee to stay there. You also forfeit your reservation if you arrive after 9pm. It cost us $51 for one night of camping in a primitive campground without flushing toilets or trash facilities. Hopefully, the NYSDEC will amend this policy to make it less cost prohibitive because if not, I wouldn't recommend staying there despite close proximity to the trail.

**Morris Newgold, owner of the Times Square Hotel in New York, purchase the second Overlook Hotel in 1917 after the first burned to the ground. The second burned in 1924, and Newgold sold the Times Square Hotel in 1924 to fund the concrete structure in place today. Work began in 1927 and continued, as Newgold was unaffected by the stock market crash in 1929. Construction continued until Newgold fell ill in 1939, and the hotel was boarded up in 1940. The hotel was never finished. (May-June 1976 issue of "The Conservationist," "My Grandfather and the Mountain", Bill Newgold, grandson of Morris Newgold.) More photos here.


Justin Doran said…
Sounds like an awesome trip. I used to spend easters up in the Catskills with my family and I think we actually hiked close to these trails. I'm definitely going to have to do the full trek soon!
Katie L. said…
Nice! It's a beautiful part of New York, that's for sure. I want to get up again and do the entire trail at some point too; we've only done the eastern portion so far.
Eric said…
Hey, I've been there! I once did a short day hike up Indian Head with a then girlfriend, but much more often I used to go ice climbing, mostly in Stony Clove near the Devil's Tombstone, but also in the Devil's Kitchen; a box canyon accessed off of the trail up Indian Head from Prediger Road. Oh, the memories this brings back, thanks!
Katie L said…
Nice, Eric! I've never been ice climbing up there, but I bet it's amazing. I'll have to look for that spot next time, I'm pretty sure I know exactly where you're talking about. Now I'm thinking about memories from past trips! Thanks for sharing yours :)