Phoenicia East Branch Trail


Just as I complete the climb, the sunlight leaps through a large break between two cloud banks and casts an intense light on the mountainsides up to my right. The trees take on a bronzish tinge, hinting at fall and turning the page from just yesterday. Right in front of me are the brilliant yellow-green clusters atop the goldenrod stalks, upright and hopeful that they may join their neighboring kin, whose magical deep-yellow blooms now hang and sway in the breeze as they begin to bend their stems groundward. Throughout the field, this green-to-yellow spectrum is on full display in colors only nature can deliver. If there is such a thing as time, I can see it cast across this field and the mountainside above me, expressed in these colors of seasonal evolution. The moment is deep yet fleeting, as the opening in the clouds begins to disappear. Simple yet profound. I pedal home.

It doesn’t take much to step into sacred time, where the cyclical permeates and the linear fades. Or, as author John Hanson Mitchell puts it, ceremonial time is when past, present and future can be realized in a singular moment. Surely then, the influence of place has much to offer for enjoying the older ways we’ve gotten away from, as the metronomic influences occupying our immediate perceptions close in. The ability to step into nature is convenient in the Catskills, and it often comes with the desire to climb a mountain. A hiker can ascend through millions of years of Devonian strata and at least a couple of forest types in an hour or so. Living in Phoenicia for a time, the canyonlike slopes seemed to call, even nag at us to climb them. Maybe there was some subconscious dynamics at play; leaving the older rocks in the valley behind and striving for the youngest ones on top. Or simpler, to extend the day’s sunlight and beat the afternoon shadows that consume the valley.

Romer Mountain (1978’) and Mount Pleasant (2812’) form a consistent wall that begs to be climbed. Knowing the property owner at a key location, we approached him to confirm permission. Offering guidance, he said, “When you see the sign that says ‘no trespassing’ that’s where you go into the woods.” A memorable exchange. This was long before the Phoenicia East Branch Trail occupied that ridgeline. We managed to undertake this bushwack at the peak of one of those years when the caterpillars were stripping all the leaves from the trees. Swinging everywhere from their silky strands, the worms’ munching and the plopping of excrement on the understory leaves was quite audible -- as we moved our arms like we were opening curtains or doing the breaststroke to forge forward. Fortunately, this subsided, and we soon traversed Cross Mountain (2503’), an appropriately named land bridge that eventually leads to the lower slopes of Wittenberg Mountain (3780).

The route we took approximates where the current trail goes. However, the trail is masterfully threaded across this unique stretch so that it captures almost every viewpoint. There is a somewhat surprising amount of open rock along the way. One map includes nine stars (viewpoints) along the eight-mile length of this trail that runs from Lane Street near Phoenicia to its junction with the Wittenberg- Cornell- Slide Trail. Note, this junction is about three miles from the Woodland Valley Parking Area, so the full one-way hike is 11 miles. References to this trail can be confusing, but if we focus on the name, it helps us understand where this trail goes. The East Branch is referring to the East Branch of the Neversink River, which runs up into the town of Denning. So there’s a western segment of the trail from Denning to Woodland Valley that’s marked with yellow blazes. The trail described in this article is the eastern section, marked with blue blazes. This newer section shifted the 2.6-mile segment of trail from Woodland Valley Road to the ridge that crosses the three mountains mentioned above, thereby realizing a more complete off-road connection between the East Branch and Phoenicia.

While it’s fun to write about adventure in a ‘real-time’ way, the practicality of getting out there for a fuller journey does not readily present itself. But this limitation makes it more special when the opportunity does occur. It’s been almost five years since my brother and I hiked the Phoenicia East Branch Trail. The prospect of returning has grown stronger. The memory of moving along those outcrops with those ever-changing views recalls the flow of time as an unfolding succession of moments, each one offering a glimpse into something deeper and strung together by what lies ahead. It’s that possibility of entering William Blake’s eternity in an hour. Not that you’ll catch it every time – far from it, actually – but the chance that you might is an anticipation filled with life.

Peter Manning is the Executive Director of the Catskill Mountain Club. To learn about CMC projects, events, membership, and to join the mailing list, visit