Monday, April 16, 2012

Trip report: Echo Lake, 2012-04-12/13

Thursday and Friday, 12-13 April, Kevin and Catherine decided to do a nice, fairly easy backpack to Echo Lake in the Catskill Mountains. (Cathy had spring break from school, and Kevin was much feeling the need to be incommunicado for a bit; things have been a bit crazy at work.) We decided to hike through from Meads Mountain above Woodstock to Plaat Clove (Platt, Platte—all three spellings are correct!). Mary Ann agreed to shuttle us down so that we could spot Kevin's truck at Plaat Clove and not have to make an in-and-out or a loop out of the hike. This drive is far beyond the call of marital duty, and Kevin praises Mary Ann to the heavens for it.

Trail map with GPS track overlay

Since we're planning a leisurely hike, we don't try to get rolling at the crack of dawn, and what with the 2+ hours of driving (including the “road closed—pass at your own risk” drive down Platte Clove Road), we wind up arriving at the trailhead around 11:00. Mary Ann snaps a picture of the departing hikers, and we start up the road to the TV transmitter and the old Overlook Hotel.

The hikers set off

The gravel road is maintained for vehicles, because occasionally a maintenance crew needs to visit the TV station (which is on State wild forest land, but with a grandfathered-in lease). But it's deceptively easy: it's gradual, but there is an unremitting 12% grade for the next 2.5 miles (4 km) to the top of Overlook Mountain. We set a sustainable pace, don't get burnt out, and fairly shortly arrive at the ruins of the Overlook Mountain House, an ill-starred grand hotel of the Catskills.

Approaching the Overlook Mountain House

Less well known than some of the other Catskill resorts, the Overlook Mountain House suffered considerable ill luck during its history. The first attempt to construct a guest house on the site was built in 1833, and changed hands in bankruptcy multiple times before the Civil War put an end to it. It was never successful financially. The first large hotel, which opened in 1871, was destroyed by fire in 1875. It was rebuilt in 1878, and continued sporadic operation until 1917, when it had its ultimate financial failure, and again fell victim to the flames in 1923. A third attempt to build a large hotel on the site commenced in 1928, but construction slowed during the Great Depression, and the hotel remained incomplete at the start of the Second World War. Much of the building survived—although the remaining construction materials had been pilfered—until the mid-1960s, when a final blaze brought down the never-finished building, leaving only the stone and concrete walls that stand to this day. The real reason that none of the attempts was successful appears to be the remoteness of the site. It is at a higher elevation than any of the other Catskill grand hotels, and had no ready rail access.[1]

Ruins of the Overlook Mountain House

We spend considerable time sightseeing and taking pictures of the magnificent ruin. The whole site has a post-apocalyptic feel to it, as the abandoned masonry continues its slow decay in the Catskill winters. Even the signs warning of the building's condition after the fire are in a state of decay.

Dangerous Structure

The great fireplace of the hotel lobby now serves to hold the occasional campfire.

The main lobby

The dining room has stood abandoned long enough for trees to grow to maturity and themselves be toppled by storms.

Fallen trees

Twisted wreckage and half-burnt timbers fill the basement-level boiler room.

Boiler Room

A majestic stone staircase, now cracked and moss-covered, leads nowhere. The upper storeys have fallen.

A grand staircase leads nowhere

The former vista from the front door is now grown to trees, but with the leaves down one can see how sweeping the view once was.

View from the front door

The squalls of sleet that continue to pelt us intermittently offer dramatic lighting for photographing the ruins.

Overlook Mountain House

The dark passage of a back door leads to the owners' mansion, also unfinished and burnt.

Overlook Mountain HouseOwner's mansion

Here, some of the windows retain their glazing, and are propped open as if some guests want to let in a little more air.


And yet, inside, it is open to the weather.

Looking into the owner's mansion

A debris-filled, claw-footed bathtub has fallen to a corner of the basement.

Fallen bathtub

Eventually, we manage to tear ourselves away from surveying the ruins and continue on up to the Overlook Mountain summit, where a now-unused fire tower stands.

Overlook Mountain fire tower

We stow our packs on the porch of the fire warden's cabin, eat lunch (resisting the cuteness of a pair of Springer spaniels that are trying to cadge a handout), and explore the mountaintop unburdened. A few young balsam firs, normally present only at higher elevations, surround the cabin.

Fire warden's cabin

From the tower, we can see the squalls dropping shafts of sleet into the glacial cirque that will be our destination for the evening.


And Kevin manages to snag a phonecam shot to send to Mary Ann during the few moments in which he's able to get a signal. Alas, the signal fades before the message goes through, so she gets the picture a day later.

Overlook Mountain

The wind and sleet soon drive us off the tower.

Down from the tower

We take the more sheltered path to the sheer cliff on the east side of the mountain top. Even in the sleet, the cliff top offers spectacular views of the Hudson Valley and the Ashokan Reservoir. (Zooming view)

View from the Overlook Mtn ledge

Kevin grabs the obligatory "we made it" shot of Catherine.

We made it

And Catherine waits patiently for Kevin to enter a GPS waypoint for the overlook.

Kevin typing

Again, we manage to pull ourselves away from compulsive photography, hoist our packs, return to the Overlook Road (long unmaintained as a carriage road north of the mountain, but still usable as singletrack by mountain bikes), and hike north toward the Echo Lake trail junction. Before long, we're greeted by this little guy.


“Thank you for the photo-op, Your Porcupinity!” (Is that the correct form of address for a porcupine?) “Now, would you mind terribly if we were to use the trail here?” His (Her? How do you tell among all those quills?) Porcupinity graciously affords us a view of the other end of the creature:


And we continue to the Echo Lake junction, where we turn and descend. (Our course isn't as drunken as the GPS track would indicate: the GPS signal was fading in and out because of the sleet.) Kevin doesn't spot the spring along the way (although the trail is wet at several points), and so leaves a question mark on his personal map. Before long, we catch our first glimpse of the lake through the trees.

Echo Lake

By the time we arrive at the lean-to, the sleet has become pretty heavy. We decide to take time out and have afternoon tea, brewing up a nice cuppa over Kevin's alcohol stove. While we're sitting there enjoying our tea and energy bars, an enthusiastic Scottish terrier bounds up and starts nuzzling us, investigating our stuff, and generally acting amusing. A moment later, two young men appear. “Sorry! We didn't know anyone was in there! Rex![2] Leave those people alone!”

“Do you want the lean-to? We're not spending the night here, we just wanted to get out of the sleet and make a cup of tea. You're welcome to it, we're planning to tent anyway.”

“Yeah, we got caught in it up on the ridge! That was great! No, thanks, we're tenting, too! C'mon, Rex!”

By the time we've finished our tea, the squall has let up enough that we start walking along the lake, looking for the group of designated campsites that are supposed to be there. We run into the two young men again (Rex tries to follow us home, and one of the guys has to come and drag him back), but don't find a vacant spot. Finally, Kevin decides to just find someplace that's the required 150 feet (50 m) from water and trails. The first such place that's level enough to pitch a tent, he says to Catherine, “This spot looks perfect; it's lawful, and it's even flat, and, oh looky here, there's a CAMP HERE sign.”

We make camp, pump water from a nearby stream (Yuck, it tastes awfully tannic. Oh well, tannic water is generally safe), and go through the ritual of whirling and casting to get the bear bag line over a suitable tree limb. On one cast, the drawstring of the rock sack snags on the limb, and breaks as we're trying to haul back down for another try. Rock and sack are still in the tree. Kevin ties a monkey's fist arond another rock, and the very next cast is successful. So later we'll be able to hang all the food and toiletries.

Supper is mango chicken curry over rice and lentils. Kevin and Catherine both pronounce that recipe a winner. Instant chocolate pudding for dessert. Brush teeth, hang the bearbag, and it's time to crawl into the sack (we're going about by headlamp, and everyone knows that's “hikers' midnight”

Around about real midnight, Kevin and Cathy both need to visit the woods at nearly the same time. By now, the sleet has blown over, and the sky is so clear that we can actually navigate by starlight! (The Moon hasn't risen.) The beautiful weather continues for the rest of the trip.

Sometime in the wee hours, Kevin rolls over and hears the characteristic “huff whuff huff woof” of a black bear coming from the general direction of our bearbag. Reasoning that if the bear has got into our stuff, there's absolutely nothing we can do about it, he rolls over and goes back to sleep. In the morning, he asks Catherine, “Did you hear a bear in the night?”

“What does a bear sound like?” (Kevin tries to imitate the sound.) “Is that what that was? Thanks for not telling me then, I'd have been terrified!” The weather outside our tent is perfect. The bearbag is untouched (the Catskills don't have genius bears as the Adirondacks do), so breakfast of porridge, dried fruit and coffee is soon inside us. Pump more water (somehow Catherine draws sweet water out of the stream that was so tannic for Kevin), pack up, and head back up to the ridge.

While Catherine was waiting for Kevin to wake up and gather his wits, she also took a picture to show how gorgeous the campsite was. This sort of thing is why we go hiking.

Echo Lake

On the way back up, we pass yet more evidence of the fury of Hurricane Irene, in the form of the root ball of a huge tree that she uprooted.


Heading north on the old Overlook Road again, we soon come upon the reliable Skunk Spring, where Kevin snags a GPS waypoint for his personal map. We have plenty of water, so don't bother to break out the filter and bucket.

Skunk Spring

A short distance further along, we reach the abandoned bluestone quarry at an outcropping called Codfish Point. There are no codfish anywhere nearby; why is it called that? Apparently, the quarrymen ate sandwiches of canned codfish, and discarded the inedible bits in the quarry. Eventually, the quarry came to smell as you might expect. The quarry has been closed (and sweeter smelling) for over a century, but the name has stuck.

When we reach the quarry, we discover that the Quarry Gnomes have been busy preparing for our visit. We rest for a while on the throne of the Gnome King,

Throne of the Gnume King

preach to the wild creatures like Saint Francis,

Catherine preaching to the flock

eat our lunch at a charming little conversational grouping overlooking the Hudson Valley,

Gnomish sofaView of the Hudson Valley from Codfish Point

survey some gnome-sized benches around a gnome-sized firepit,

Gnomish fire circle

and try to fit Kevin's fundament into a gnome-sized chair.

Gnome chair

Back on the trail, we decide that we're going to limit our side excursions and not attempt anything ambitious, and head down toward the Platte Clove Nature Preserve and the way out. At the lower elevation, the ground has a lovely green carpet of Lycopodium..

Lycopodium clavatum

On the way through the preserve, we run into two artistic ladies who are on a nature walk, sweaters around shoulders, tennis shoes, and so on. They treat us as if they're observing the local wildlife: “You've such big backpacks! Are you real campers? Did you actually spend the night in the woods?” “Yes, we made camp at Echo Lake, about five miles back.” “Wow, they told us there might be hikers traveling through here, but I never expected that we'd actually run into any!” Kevin and Catherine are able—barely—to stifle the giggles until the ladies are out of earshot.

The preserve has built a small-scale replica of the king-post bridge that once carried the wagons hauling bluestone out of the Catskill quarries to building sites all over the East Coast (and even farther, at times).

Kingpost bridge

One side trip that we can't resist is the climb down the gorge to the lovely Plattekill Falls. This waterfall is actually one of over a dozen spectacular falls in the Clove, but most of them have been seen only by climbers with technical gear—the Clove is one of the most inaccessible places in New York State.


So: What worked: Almost everything. The PCT bearbag hang foiled an actual Catskill bear. Meals were satisfying. Everyone stayed warm and dry, and both of us were comfortable with pack weight. The curry recipe is tasty. Wonderful scenery, some wildlife encounters, lots of history, on the whole a great trip!
What didn't work.Batteries. Kevin's phone ran out of juice a couple of hours before the end of the trip. And: We brought three sets of batteries for the camera. The two spare sets were both dead on arrival. Well, not quite dead, but low enough to trip the low-battery indicator of the camera after a couple of pictures. And yes, they were just-purchased, name-brand batteries.
Using a rock sack on the bear bag line. Rock sacks are for hikers that can't tie monkeys' fists.
Lessons learnt:Kevin has to be careful when cooking breakfast (and therefore undercaffeinated by definition). He caught his jacket sleeve on the handle of the cookpot (fortunately, still filled with cold water) and overset it on the lit stove! Fortunately, there was no real harm done. Catherine got all the food out of the way, we had plenty of water, and only the primer pan went out. The stove stayed lit, and boiled the replacement litre of water without complaint (and without refuelling).

[1] Yasinsac, Rob. “Hudson Valley Ruins: Overlook Mountain House” , downloaded 2012-04-15.

[2]Not the dog's real name, but I've forgotten the real name.