Slide, Cornell and Wittenberg (Catskills)

April 1, 2020, Slide Mountain trailhead

I arrived at an empty trailhead around 7 am on this weekday at the start of April. The sun already shone brightly on what would be a gorgeous, mild spring day. After signing in at the trail register, the hike began with a quick crossing of a broad but shallow brook.

A mossy roof shelters signage and the trail register at the start of a nice 12-mile out-and-back to Slide, Cornell, and Wittenberg peaks in the Catskills.
A mossy roof shelters signage and the trail register at the start of a nice 12-mile out-and-back to Slide, Cornell, and Wittenberg peaks in the Catskills.

My original plan for the day only included Slide Mountain, a modest 5-mile out-and-back with a gross elevation change of 1600′. I knew very little about this area of the Catskills, except that it contained two peaks taller than 4000′. Having recently completed the Adirondack 46ers, Slide, Hunter and MacNaughton were the only 4000+ foot summits left on my list of New York’s highest peaks.

You cross a broad but shallow stream at the start of the journey to Slide, Cornell and Wittenberg mountains.
You cross a broad but shallow stream at the start of the journey to Slide, Cornell and Wittenberg mountains.

Ascending Slide

The ascent from the trailhead to Slide, the Catskills’ tallest peak, represents roughly half of this hike’s total vertical. That said, the trail is in great shape, with minimal erosion and a broad, smooth path. The ascent proved quite fast and painless. The scenery evolved from dry, bare ground with budding leaves to snow in just a couple miles. In between were birch stands filled with moss-covered boulders.

Moss-covered boulders en route to Slide, Cornell and Wittenberg.
Moss-covered boulders en route to Slide, Cornell and Wittenberg.
The last bits of ice and snow atop Slide Mountain in the Catskills, as of early April.
The last bits of ice and snow atop Slide Mountain in the Catskills, as of early April.

The summit sported decent views of the rolling hills of the Catskill Park. A broad and flat rocky ledge formed the highest point. At the very least, I found this payoff commensurate with the effort involved.

Rolling hills seen from Slide Mountain's summit.
Rolling hills seen from Slide Mountain’s summit.
A rocky ledge atop Slide Mountain features a plaque.
A rocky ledge atop Slide Mountain features a plaque.

Onward to Cornell

Having reached the summit, I saw a trail sign for Cornell and Wittenberg peaks. I had not planned on continuing beyond this point. But being an alum of Cornell University, and with the peak just a couple short miles away, I decided to bite.

Almost immediately, the trail plunged, steeply, down the much more rugged back side. Early on, you pass a natural spring that pops out from Slide’s summit.

A natural spring just east of Slide Mountain's summit, en route to Cornell and Wittenberg peaks.
A natural spring just east of Slide Mountain’s summit, en route to Cornell and Wittenberg peaks.

The descent down Slide’s far side to Cornell and Wittenberg was quite steep. The trail involved a lot more scrambling than the ascent from the trailhead. On balance you lose nearly 1000 vertical feet in under a mile. This portion of the hike felt a lot more akin to an Adirondack experience. This side of Slide also had a lot more snowpack to contend with.

Eventually I reached the col, which included some decent camping spots in thick stands of conifers. I loved the mix of snow and trees and mossy rocks.

Rocks, snow, roots and moss at the col between Slide and Cornell.
Rocks, snow, roots and moss at the col between Slide and Cornell.

I began my ascent of Cornell, and looked back to find some excellent views of the prior summit.

Slide mountain, as seen near the summit of Cornell.
Slide mountain, as seen near the summit of Cornell.

The true summit resided back into the trees a bit, with inferior views. But just past there, I got a great view of Wittenberg and glimpses of the massive Ashokan Reservoir.

Wittenberg's peak, as seen from Cornell.
Wittenberg’s peak, as seen from Cornell.
The Ashokan reservoir, a massive man-made lake, as seen from near Cornell's summit.
The Ashokan reservoir, a massive man-made lake, as seen from near Cornell’s summit.

Just one more summit: Wittenberg

I told myself once I reached Cornell I’d turn around to return to the car. This had already added over 1000 vertical feet of ascent to the hike and more than three miles. But Witternberg looked pretty cuspy and interesting. And I really wanted to get as good a view of the Ashokan Reservoir as possible. It was just one more mile and just a few hundred vertical feet from the col. I decided to press onward.

This turned out to be the right decision. Wittenberg featured a great set of summit ledges where I could enjoy the lunch I packed. It also had some excellent close-ish views of the sprawling Ashokan Reservoir.

Roughly 90% of New York City’s drinking water comes from the Catskill Mountains. It collects in a half-dozen giant reservoirs both within the forest preserve and on land owned by the City itself. The Ashokan Reservoir is by far the most massive of these man-made lakes. The water from the Ashokan drains into the Catskill aqueduct, a series of tunnel bores and cut-and-cover trenches that carry the water beneath the mighty Hudson at Breakneck Ridge before turning south towards the Bronx and Manhattan. The reservoir looked pretty epic from Wittenberg’s summit, and I’m sad to say these photos do not give you a proper sense of scale.

The Ashokan Reservoir, the largest of New York City's reservoirs, as seen from Wittenberg after summiting Slide and Cornell Mountains.
The Ashokan Reservoir, the largest of New York City’s reservoirs, as seen from Wittenberg after summiting Slide and Cornell Mountains.

Having completed this triple peak bag, I made my way back towards Slide and the trailhead. The journey clocked in at roughly 12 miles and 3000 vertical feet of gross vertical gain. But the views were pretty decent, all things considered. My first hike in the Catskills proved a success.

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