Hiking in the winter can be tricky in the Northeast. Even with infrequent snowfall in most places, the higher elevations we love to visit tend to be more often covered with a blanket of white. While beautiful, this isn’t always ideal for a good hiking experience; especially if you don’t have the proper gear.
In the Catskills, you can drive up and down the mountain roads without knowing what the weather might be like when you reach your trailhead. As we approached Notch Inn Road and the Warner Creek Trailhead, our surroundings suddenly changed from deep green to all white. The steep drive up Notch Inn Road was slow and careful until we found a spot to pull off and layer up for the hike.
Finding the trailhead was tricky, as the road also serves as a driveway to a large house. The trail starts just before the house’s proper driveway and begins up a rocky stream bed. The large rocks were covered in snow, which masked the layer of ice underneath. We found that out the hard way; literally. Suddenly, each step became a calculated move over uncertain terrain. This didn’t change as we moved on; it only got worse.
After a seemingly long scramble over and around big rocks, we reached a trail junction that led toward Plateau Mountain and the Devil’s Path. This was a less rocky trail with a slight grade that increased as we went. The trail started to switch back several times at this point, with the thick layer of ice beneath the snow becoming more troublesome under our normal hiking boots. I would highly recommend crampons or other winter hiking gear if you try this in similar conditions.
We got the hang of walking on the edge of the trail, where the leaves and twigs helped us gain some traction. The going was slow, but once we bypassed the switchbacks we had to climb through some more rocky sections before coming to the most difficult part of the ascent. A steep climb even in normal conditions, this section was an exercise in creativity as we used roots, small trees, and rocks as anchors and handholds to pull ourselves up the icy slope. Slowly but surely we reached the end of this push and were back on flatter ground.
The scenery changed to a serene, snow-covered grove of fir trees. The trail rolled gently as we enjoyed the break from watching every step. Every turn provided another beautiful scene pulled from a winter painting. The snow hung softly on green needles of each tree, poised to fall with the slightest brush. Silence hung pleasantly in the air except for the crunch of snow under our feet, and the frequent yelps as one of us lost our footing.
After one final quick climb, we reached a nice overlook where we rested for a bit and decided it was probably the best idea to turn back. Though it was hard to measure distance with our slow speed, it was late afternoon and we knew we didn’t have a lot of time to make our way down. This turned out to be a wise choice since the trek down was almost more tedious.
The slight grades that provided a small annoyance on the way up were now ice chutes just waiting for a misstep. We took our time and made it through the worst stuff safely, using the ice to our advantage when we could just sit and slide down parts of the path. Once darkness fell, however, we were still a good mile or so from the car, standing on icy rocks and now we had no idea what we were stepping on. If the initial descent was slow, then this was basically standing still. Each extra cautious step brought us closer to home, though every corner we rounded had us wondering how much farther we had to go (and if we were even still going the right way.)
Luckily I had my flashlight with me, as I always carry it in my pack for situations like this. We made it down after what seemed like hours and happily took our seats in the car, peeling off boots and socks before we headed directly for the nearest deli for food that we had been craving since before the sun went down. I suppose this is a cautionary tale, but you can’t get the sweet feeling of relief without enduring a little pain first!