By Matthew Young
6 miles round trip
Several Catskill peaks rise above the small upstate town of Phoenicia. Mount Tremper reaches upward from the bends of the Esopus Creek before it empties in the Ashokan Reservoir. One of the reservoirs that provides New York City with its renowned drinking water.
Though not one of the high peaks, the views from the top of the Mount Tremper Fire Tower rival any of the high summits. The trail itself begins at a small parking area off Mt. Tremper-Phoenicia Rd. Not many cars can fit in the designated area, so parking can be difficult on summer weekends, but considering this hike is not as popular as some of the high peaks, with a little luck you can find a space. There is an additional pull-off just down the road from the official parking area, but the narrow road means there’s no real shoulder or roadside parking.
You’ll begin the trail by crossing a few small wooden bridges over some trickling streams making their way down to the Esopus. A peaceful way to begin your trek, especially when the first few hints of spring start to appear, brightening up the dull winter forest. However, the trail does begin to climb almost immediately after, following some stone steps and loose rocks up the slope of the mountain.
Be sure to follow the Red Trail markers. At times the trail will follow a stream bed, which can make it tricky at times when the trail suddenly breaks away from the stream. Once in the flow of a hike, it is easy to get used to following a specific landmark or type of terrain, and not realize that the actual trail has split off in the opposite direction. So keep a watch on the tree trunks for the red circles.
The terrain levels-off briefly until you approach the junction with an old road. Follow the red markers to the right after you sign the trail register. From here the trail will once again begin to climb.
Mount Tremper has a rich history, dating back hundreds of years. Starting from the area’s settlement in the 1780’s, there was an emphasis on the the abundance of hemlock bark available on the mountain. The bark contained tannin which was used in the process of leather tanning. Being situated along the Esopus, it was especially easy to transport the bark to other areas of the state. Even roads were built for the purpose of harvesting the bark. Due to the over-harvesting however, there is little to no hemlock still present on Mt. Tremper.
In the late 1870’s, a Catskill resort known as the Tremper House was constructed on the Mountain, which hosted several famous guests such as Oscar Wilde & Henry Ward Beecher. The resort remained open until 1904, when it almost transitioned to a tuberculosis sanatorium. However, that plan fell through, and only four years later it unfortunately fell victim to a fire, the same outcome as many other Catskill resorts.
Similarly to the Shawangunk ridge near Minnewaska State Park, this area also saw a seasonal influx of blueberry pickers during the early 1900’s. The Tower was built in 1916 partially in response to the annual blueberry pickers burning over areas of the mountain.
The mountain even used to house a bluestone quarry, which now serves as a home to one of the few confirmed rattlesnake dens in the Catskills. There are Rattlesnake warnings posted on the trail, so it is important to be careful and keep an eye and ear out, though sightings are not very common. As you walk the often rocky trail, you’ll notice an abundance of shale lining the path, with its purple and pink hues standing out amongst the grays, browns, and greens of the forest.
The terrain and scenery does not vary much, though if hiked in the spring before the leaves fully bloom, views of the high peaks can be spotted between the branches. Though spring can provide you with a better view, it can also be challenging when you reach higher elevations. Snow and ice can last late into the season, making some of the steep inclines especially tricky. If you can manage to stay to the outer edge of the trail, you can sometimes find a narrow path clear of ice. Winter and early spring hikes may even require the use of micro spikes to make it up the slippery trail. Ice flows along the larger boulders and rocky overhangs form impressive and fleeting natural sculptures, growing smaller with each day.
The ice can sometimes even be difficult to spot on the trail, often covered by fallen pine needles, leaves, and wind blown branches. The crisp air, made even cooler by the remnants of winter, carries with it the scent of balsam and the rejuvenating smell of the damp earth. Spring maybe not be the most popular time on the catskill peaks, but it always manages to provide its own beautiful characteristics, showing glimpses of the warm and lush summer ahead.
As you continue your ascent you’ll pass a camping lean-to just downhill from a fresh spring water source, flowing cool and welcoming. For those hikers on longer backpacking trips, these two often overlooked sites are an appreciated scene. Once at the top of the trail, an elevation of 2,740 feet, you’ll come across a second lean-to. Several backpackers passed by as I ate lunch near the wooden shelter, but it didn’t appear as if anyone had spent the night in a while. The stone fire pit was iced over, waiting for the first flames of the season.
Just beyond the shelter is the Mount Tremper fire tower. Standing 47 feet tall, peeking above the leafless canopy, shaking in the wind, but holding strong. You can get a semi-obstructed view from a rocky ledge in front of the tower, but for the best views and the ones that make the trail worth it, climbing the tower is a must. The enclosed room on top was locked during my trip but that didn’t affect the views from the highest landing. With no branches or trees to obscure your line of sight, you can get a true panoramic view of the Catskill Range and the Ashokan Reservoir nestled between the hills. A completely unique vantage point, compared to the other nearby summits.
With Each step you take further up the tower, more uniques perspectives of the distant peaks takes shape. Patches of snow form white mosaics under the birches and oaks, but in just a few weeks all of the leaves will be in full bloom, turning the brown and bluish hues into a blanket of deep green.
The wooden steps may seem unstable as the structure itself sways with the breeze, but they continue to survive unfazed, year after year.
Standing atop the tower, peering over the uneven land that seems ready to reawaken, there is a feeling of calm anticipation, of readiness for the changing season ahead. I could stay motionless on the top, endlessly taking in each separate scene, but the chilly spring winds get the best of me. Once the clouds roll in and the summit temperature starts to drop, I make my way back down to the trailhead and grab a bite at the nearby Phoenicia Diner.
Mount Tremper is a a sleeping giant in the Catskills that may not have the same appeal as some of the high peaks, but allows you to escape the crowds and view the Catskills from a new perspective. Maybe it is the history, maybe it is the solitude, or maybe it is something else entirely, but there is a specific feeling that draws me to this mountain in the midst of the quiet towns and sprawling forests.
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