Weekend in the Catskills: Devil’s Path

The Devil's Path in the Catskills of New York is notorious for being difficult, so much so that Backpacker Magazine named it the "hardest day hike in the United States."

There are several reasons why it got this reputation, the main one is that it is deceptively challenging. Inexperienced people interested in a weekend hike overlook the word "dangerous." Instead, they see that it is close and easy to drive to, has plenty of access points all along the trail, and offers beautiful vistas over its "short" 23 miles. They come expecting a more challenging version of a walk through a city park with some roots or stones, but quickly discover they stepped into the deep wilderness.

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Almost immediately, I discovered the common pitfall that I had fallen into previously as well; hiking fast. The approach from the parking lot is fairly flat; so if you're excited and fresh out of a car after several hours driving, then it's easy to fall into a fast pace as you chat with your friends. I had a couple groups pass me; heads down, sweat rolling down foreheads, and mouths chattering. Now, this was not my first time hiking the Devil's Path, but it was my first time here alone. As if pulled by a current, I felt myself inclined to increase speed almost as if to keep the order and stay in front of the approaching groups. It was a deliberate decision to step to the side and let them pass.

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The problem is that this speed sets the pace when you enter the technical section, otherwise known as the rest of the entire trail. Almost as if hitting a wall, the trail turns upwards into a scramble. The terrain underfoot is large flat stones that cracked and turned on angle in every direction, twisted thick roots that trip you and sometimes give under your weight, and overhanging vegetation that seems to want to grasp onto anything that's hanging off you. For those on cruise-control at their fast approach pace, then this is where the trail becomes the nightmare worthy of being dubbed the "Devil's Path."

And it never lets up. As if resisting ever becoming an actual hiking trail, the path winds up and down over unforgiving boulders with old trees that grasp onto them with thick root hands. These immovable features are separated by gaps that washed out under heavy rain and got blown out by strong winds. Luckily however, between each set of peaks is a reward and blessing of easy to find, flat backcountry camping. This is where I set up for the night.

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There is certainly something to hiking without a goal that seems absolutely necessary after you do it; a therapy most of us seem to have forgotten or just don't talk about. This time I didn't care how far I hiked or how long I took at each location, it was about being being where you are and not where you're going. You're able to take the time to appreciate each step and notice the unique way in which each tree twists into its own "fingerprint." You can think about what you're smelling, or contemplate your footing at a technical section instead of just smashing your feet down and hoping for the best. It seemed like the trail known as the "hardest trail in the United States" suddenly melted underfoot into a pleasant stroll. In spite of the heat and humidity, I was barely even sweating. This is especially remarkable considering the people that passed me literally looked like they had just crawled out of a sun-warmed pond.

Another interesting observation was the peace I felt when I woke up in the morning to the sound of water droplets like rain falling on my tent. When I opened my door I realized that the mountain was shrouded in a cloud. Wind gusts blew against the trees and pressed thick white water vapor through the canopy. It appeared as if a giant with a spray bottle was spraying the mountains, watering them. Everything was wet from the humid air and it wasn't actually raining, the trees would just drop their dew each time the wind shook them.

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Unlike other hikes when rain was a source of stress, this time there was a serenity to it on this trail. The cloud was bright and almost glowed, illuminated by the sun, and hovered in the trees to create a roof. It obscured anything in the distance and moved as you moved to create a sort of personal and private space. The experience was totally surreal and, since I didn't travel very far the day before, I didn't have to rush to be finished. While most people wish for sunny weather for their outdoor adventures, I'm actually very happy that I got to experience two very different environments in the same place on one weekend.