Over the weekend of May 22rd through 25th, 2020, Porcupine and I and I hiked a 30 mile section of the Finger Lakes Trail from Alder Lake to Downsville. The Finger Lakes Trail is a 580 mile long distance trail stretching from Slide Mountain in the Catskills to Allegheny State Park on the NY/PA Border. I’ve been wanting to start section hiking this trail since about 2013 and my dream is finally taking shape.
Our hike covered 30 miles of the Finger Lakes Trail. This was just about the entire length of the trail on the New York / New Jersey Trail Conference’s Map 144. We hiked just a mile the first night before setting up camp. Then we had a 13 mile day and two 8 mile days. We hadn’t been doing a lot of elevation gain since the start of the pandemic, so even these short days were tiresome.
We started late in the afternoon on Friday and hiked just over a mile before pitching a stealth camp near a small stream. There are a lot of rules to consider when stealth camping in the Catskills. You must be 150 feet from any trail or water source, 1/4 mile from the nearest trail head, and below 3500 feet in elevation. There is also a rule that you shouldn’t pitch camp within 150 feet of an established campsite. This last rule helps keep established sites from growing into tent cities.
After waking and packing up Saturday morning, we continued walking west along the Finger Lakes Trail. Portions of the FLT get very little traffic or maintenance and can be hard to follow. Blazes along the trail are also inconsistent, alternating between FLT blazes and various local trail blazes.
After two miles, we arrived at Big Pond. This is a nice Pond with a beach and several campsites. Some of the sites are a very short walk from the parking area. Others require a longer walk or canoe ride. The area is nice, but gets crowded and messy on holiday weekends. This is one of many free-to-use camping areas available in the Catskills.
From Big Pond, the trail climbs steeply to the summit of Touchmenot Mountain. In this area, the Finger Lakes Trail is actually co-aligned with the Touch-Me-Not Trail. From this junction, you could walk down to Little Pond Campground, a full service state campground closed for the pandemic. This might be a nice place to reserve a site if you’re doing a longer section of the FLT and require a night with better facilities to refresh.
Life is hard in the mountains. Harsh weathers forces animal life to be creative in making shelters. Building your house on rock may be tough, but it will help you tough out bad times. There are many of these hanging cliffs in the Catskills, but this is the first time I have seen one used by a bird.
The finger lakes trail crosses a nice stream near Beech Hill Road where we filled up on water and had lunch. At 13 miles, Saturday was our longest and hardest day of backpacking in a while and we were really feeling it by mid day. The trail in this area doesn’t always follow ridges: it just goes straight up and down the sides of hills. It can get pretty steep at times. The footing is often a mix of broken rocks and jumbled roots.
This was a great weekend for wildlife. We counted dozens of these Red Eft Newts each day. The Eft is the juvenile stage of the newt. These amphibians are born in the water as brown tadpoles. The juvenile turns orange and sprouts legs for its overland trek in search of a new home. Once it finds its adult home, it moves in and turns brown again. This migration helps mix up the genetic diversity between various ponds and bodies of water.
On night 2 we camped near the intersection of the Little Spring Brook Trail. We had walked about a quarter mile down the trial to a nice pond where we tried to find a spot, but no luck. I kept remarking how much like the Adirondacks this area felt, due to its seeming remoteness. The next morning the trail started off following an old wall-lined road. There were many flat clearings beyond the walls that would have made for better campsites than we used.
About halfway through Day 2, we arrived at Cat Hollow Brook. Here we found a beautiful stream just past Route 206. Large, smooth rocks downstream of the bridge made for a great lunch spot. We loaded up with water and continued our hike westward. We thought we would need the water, but found quite a few more sources as we hiked.
We passed Campbel Mountain Leanto and then passed many open meadows west of the summit of that mountain. Any of these would have made good camping if the day hadn’t been so short. We pushed on looking for a stealth spot.
We finally found a nice stealth site overlooking a cliff above Downsville. I set up my Stratospire right at the edge of the cliff and actually hung one apex from a tree rather than using the pole on that side. This made for a great evening for watching the sun set though the trees. At night we could see the lights of Downsville in the distance.
OK, I have to confess something. Last year, a bear got into my bear bag. He completely ignored my coffee packets. Since then, I’ve been using this to justify sleeping with my coffee packets in my tent so that I can sit and sip coffee in the morning without getting up. The Tarptent Stratospire Series has gigantic vestibules that are perfect for gear storage or cooking out of the rain.
A short ways out of camp the next morning, Porcupine and I came across several old structures lying in ruins. This area was patchworked with old roads, some of them still maintained for snowmobiles. When we came though, there were a lot of seasonal springs. At times of year, this may make a nice campsite. Just remember when setting up camp to keep out of sight of the trail – at least 150 feet.
Mid-morning on our last day, we came into the town of Downsville, NY. Here we crossed the East Branch of the Delaware River on a covered bridge. There’s a park here with picnic tables that would make a nice lunch break. There are also a few services available in town, including churches, delis, gas stations, and a post office.
Walking through Downsville, we passed Holy Family Catholic Church. It would have been nice to stop in to say a prayer, but it was closed for the Pandemic. This town had several very cute small churches. This was the smallest.
As we passed the Volunteer Fireman’s Park in Downsville, we realized that on a normal memorial day this is where the parade would end and the people would gather for a picnic. Not in 2020.
From Downsville, we crossed Bearspring Mountain and then came down to a state campground for equestrians. The trail in this area was well overgrown. My bad ankle started to tire of the uneven footing hidden beneath the tall grass.
As we come to the end of our hike, we find this old dam, augmented by the work of beavers. I’ve seen this before. Beavers like to let humans know they can build too, often adding 2-3 feet over the top of one of our dams.
Like many scenes on this section of the FLT, this one reminded me more of the Adirondacks than the Catskills. I suppose it is because the Western Cats are just more remote and less visited than high peaks region. You should check it out some time.