Over Hill and Hollow
An overnight bikepacking trip in the Catskills
I recently decided to continue my bikepacking education with an overnight trip in the Catskill Mountains. The weather was cool and dry as I set out for the two hour drive to Bovina Center where I planned to leave my car and start my loop. When reading about the route on Bikepacking.com, I was struck by the sheer amount of climbing and mileage.
In comparison to my last trip, there would be significantly more elevation gain and longer days- a real physical test for me. Although I have been riding frequently this summer, I have not logged many long days in the saddle. My bike and gear, weighing in at about 45 pounds, would slow me to a crawl on steep climbs and, as I learned in Vermont, the road surface factors heavily in the difficulty. I used basically the same biking setup as I did on my recent Vermont bikepacking trip (I wrote about that trip and the gear I used here). When I set out on that Friday morning, I felt a thrill of excitement at the challenge I was taking on.
Day 1: Bovina Center to Steam Mill State Forest
The climbing began immediately as I left Bovina Center, but I was quickly rewarded with the sorts of views that I would revel in throughout the trip: beautiful rolling farmland with hills and valleys merging into the horizon like a Thomas Cole painting.
Delaware County is one of the least populated in New York state and the lack of human settlement was noticeable. Working farms share the hill country with the occasional fancy ranch or summer cottage. In the valleys, I would occasionally roll through a tiny town or hamlet. Some of these had a general store or a barber shop. One public works department had an eclectic collection of old town vehicles and fire trucks. Actually, ancient trucks and farm equipment were a visual theme of this trip. Where there is an excess of land and a lack of neighbors to complain, defunct equipment is left in place to slowly be claimed by rust and foliage.
Another theme was farm buildings, both modern and ancient. I noticed that many barns had an earthen bridge or ramp connecting their main doors to the road. There was sometimes stonework supporting these and some even had more than one ramp. I don't recall seeing this feature in local barns further upstate.
I made slow progress even after finding my climbing groove. I was in no great hurry though, and took a longish break almost every hour. I tended to pause at the top of climbs where ridge lines and high meadows offered the best views. The weather continued to be cool with an increasingly stiff breeze. I grew accustomed to well-maintained dirt and crushed stone on the climbs with the route only occasionally dipping onto paved roads before leading me up another hill. There were a few exceptions, including one dirt climb which became an unmaintained forest road with lots of large rocks and water. I did some hiking here and probably logged my slowest mile of the trip. Fortunately, the downhill side was less rocky and made for a safe descent.
In the last twenty miles of the day, I had some difficulty finding water to purify and was getting dehydrated. I was hesitant to take water from streams near livestock and most of the route passes through private land. I eventually found a suitable brook and filled every one of my containers with water before climbing a dirt road up to a dry ridge in the Steam Mill State Forest. The sun was hanging low when I located a spot to camp. I wandered around the forest for an hour or so watching the sky change colors and enjoying the variety of trees that lined the dirt roads. Nightfall couldn't come fast enough and I fell asleep before it was fully dark.
Day 2: Steam Mill State Forest to Bovina Center
It was a cold night for July with temperatures dipping into the low 40's: excellent for sleeping. The cool dry air meant that the stars were incredibly clear. At one point in the night, I mistook the light of the moon (a mere waning crescent) for dawn. Around 8AM, I could hear the sound of my friend Jared's intrepid Honda Fit crawling along the primitive road towards my camp. The plan was for us to ride the rest of the route together after which I would drive him back to his car. The rocky descent from the ridge wasn't a kind warm-up for Jared, but he did admirably despite having much narrower tires than me (35mm cyclocross tires). We left the state forest and emerged onto a quiet road and one of the longer paved flat-ish sections of the whole trip. After a few miles, we started climbing up the first of many dirt roads. Despite not being a frequent cyclist, Jared was fresh off a successful 18 mile trail race and had fitness to spare. Although I knew I could have left some overnight gear with Jared's car for pickup later, I considered this ride a sort of test for myself. I wanted to see how I would hold up to consecutive days of significant distance and climbing when loaded down with overnight gear. He courteously kept me company as I huffed up the steepest climbs.
One dirt road took us past a sprawling ranch with a number of small dogs who detected our presence instantly. From a distance, I could see them rally from the far side of the property and sprint towards us. They advanced quickly as I frenetically pedaled uphill past a sign that read "Warning: Dogs will Run in Front of Cars." Perhaps they were befuddled by this strange bag-draped, two-wheeled contraption and its smelly rider because they didn't follow me for long, despite my ponderous pace.
This road eventually petered out and we entered one of the most rugged sections of the trip, a sort of rocky, uphill path abutting two properties. There was a minor stream flowing in the trail and plenty of medium sized rocks. I got to practice my limited mountain biking skills and was able to ride parts of it. To my relief, the top of the path merged with a well-maintained dirt road on the other side. It was a good place for a relaxed lunch and Jared graciously shared a delicious wrap and some chocolate. This was a welcome change from the high-calorie bars and drink mixes that had been sustaining me.
After an invigorating descent, we tackled one of the most brutal climbs yet, a paved road outside of the hamlet of De Lancey. The route then followed a series of forest roads with classic Catskill names (probably half of the roads I used on this trip included the words "hollow," "clove," or "hill"). Skunk Hollow Road gave way to Turkey Hollow Road followed by Wolf Hollow Road. The last featured the most savage climb of this route, registering a 49% grade at one point on loose stone and dirt. These roads left me drained and I was grateful that some minor climbs and a coasty descent were all that was left between us and my car.
Another satisfying trip
Bikepacking is a fantastic way to see a wide swath of area without the stress of frequent motor vehicles encounters. This route was a real challenge with its constant climbing. However, the surfaces were very manageable with well-maintained dirt roads and only a few miles of really rough terrain. Water sources were relatively abundant, although some might think twice about purifying water so close to human habitation and livestock. I didn't bring enough food (a pattern with me, I know!) and I came close to bonking at the end of both days. I took the number of calories I would need for backpacking and added a few more snacks but this ended up being quite insufficient; I'm lucky that Jared had some extra food to share. My mountain bike has turned out to be an excellent touring machine with plenty of gears for going uphill and enough rubber and suspension to make descending a real joy, even on dirt and loose gravel. Again, thanks go to Joe Cruz from Bikepacking.com for designing such a great route. Although I cursed him good naturedly a few times on this one, it's hard to overstate how nice it is to have a thoughtful route laid out for me with all the background information ready at my fingertips. Soon, I hope I'll have the confidence to start planning some of my own bikepacking routes.