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Catskills: Pelnor Hollow, Huggins Lake, and Mary Smith Rd campsites 05/12 - 05/13/22

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  • Catskills: Pelnor Hollow, Huggins Lake, and Mary Smith Rd campsites 05/12 - 05/13/22

    (Author's note: I'm posting this Catskills trip report here instead of in the Catskill forum at because I for some reason, I keep getting errors when I try to post it there.)

    Spent a couple of days recently exploring a few new spots in the Western Catskills with a canine companion, Penelope. Over the course of 2 days were were able to check out a number of spots that have been on my "to visit" list for a while now.

    Pelnor Hollow Overnight

    A short and easy overnight trip to bag the Pelnor Hollow Lean-to as part of my ongoing quest to fulfill the lean-to challenge was the first item on our agenda. Previous research revealed that public access to Pelnor Hollow from the south is a bit tricky- the ADK guidebook indicates that foot travel is permitted from the end of Pelnor Hollow Road, but that the road gets pretty rough before the end and there's no parking anywhere near the end of the well-maintained portion of the road. I figured I'd scope it out for myself real quick, with the option of hiking in via the longer approach from Holiday Brook Road as a backup plan. I wanted to hike up to the viewpoint overlooking Little Spring Brook in any case, so the total mileage wouldn't be substantially different either way.

    Pelnor Hollow Road was indeed unwelcoming- both sides of the road are plastered in numerous no parking signs. Additionally, there was a sign at the end of the maintained portion of the road stating that no public motor vehicles were allowed beyond that point (a detail not mentioned in the ADK guidebook). I scouted the road closely looking for a decent parking option free of any no parking signs- without luck. Looks like the only option for the public to access Pelnor Hollow via this route would be to find parking further south, in the Beaverkill Valley, and hike the added distance up the road. In my case, it was a no-brainer to resort to my backup plan- take the longer hike in by way of the Holiday Brook Road trailhead to the north. Fortunately, it's not a very far drive from Pelnor Hollow Road and soon I was loading up both of our packs and setting out up the trail.

    The climb up to the height of land west of Holiday Brook Road was fairly straightforward- never overly steep, and despite getting relatively little use the trail was in good shape and had a bit of a well-worn tread to follow. It wasn't long before we were arriving at the junction with the Pelnor Hollow trail atop the hill.

    Before starting down the trail towards Pelnor Hollow, we took a quick detour west down the trail towards Little Spring Brook. Perhaps a tenth of a mile or so down this trail from the junction there is an overlook with some nice views towards Brock Mountain.

    Once we'd taken in the views and were satisfied with the scenery, we climbed the short distance back up to the trail junction and started south on the trail towards Pelnor Hollow. The sudden difference in maintenance made itself apparent pretty much immediately- this trail had pretty much zero apparent tread to follow. Fortunately, it was well marked and at first, had a decent corridor through open woods to follow.

    The trail remained decently well marked for the full duration, but as we continued south evidence of any other sort of recent maintenance more or less evaporated. Even with the assistance of the markers, there were a couple of spots that forced me to stop and scan carefully ahead for the continuation of the trail Portions of the trail were covered in blowdown...

    ..while other portions were just about overgrown with blackberry brambles.

    Still, the trail was not entirely without merit. It passed through some near rock outcrops, at a few times along the way it joined obvious old road grades for short stretches, leaving one to wonder about the history of the area and for what purpose the roads had been constructed.

    I could tell that I was probably getting close to the old lean-to when suddenly, all evidence of the typical rock-strewn terrain of the Catskills just about vanished, to be replaced with soft soils beneath, with occasional rock piles scattered throughout the vicinity. Clearly I'd entered what was once cultivated farmland, long abandoned and reforested.

    Soon, we were arriving at the Pelnor Hollow Lean-to itself. I'd read previously that Pelnor Hollow can be described as "one of the nicest lean-tos in the Catskills," and upon arriving there I could see what. For how old the lean-to is, both the shelter and the associated fire pit are in amazing condition. Clearly, this is a lean-to that receives very little use and especially very little abuse. It wasn't long before we were both unloading our packs and making ourselves at home.

    After settling in and setting up camp, we took a few minutes to poke around. The ADK guidebook mentioned that there was a spring nearby, accessed from the lean-to via a short, informal path. While we did eventually find the path (or what was left of it, which is to say that there wasn't much of an established tread remaining) we found the spring first- downhill and directly in front of the lean-to. It was flowing pretty slowly, but there was one pool that was deep enough to dip a Nalgene bottle into.

    While I was sorely tempted to spend the afternoon relaxing at the lean-to and enjoying some R&R, the red liner in me wouldn't let me sit still until I'd hiked the remaining portion of the trail south to the state land boundary. And so once we'd finished putting the final touches of camp for the evening, we set off again to traverse the last mile of trail... once again following markers alone, without much of a tread to guide us. Along the way we made some neat discoveries- including an old 1960's era Conservation Department trail marker.

    Along the way I also noticed a similarly ancient Conservation Department snowmobile trail marker. Pelnor Hollow is still listed on the DECInfo database as a snowmobile trail, although I suspect that it's been years- if not decades- since the last time a snowmobile passed through on this trail.

    About half a mile from the lean-to, the trail joins a woods road that is used to access a nearby private inholding. The rest of the trail to the state land boundary coincides with this access road- and it's rocky, muddy, and washed out. It did not make for particularly nice hiking, but at least it wasn't too much further to the turn around point- approximately another half mile or so. I was satisfied to see that there was indeed zero room to park right at the state land boundary, either- so I'd not missed out on any easy access options by deciding to take the longer approach from the north.

    We retraced our steps back to the lean-to, where we found that our wanderlust still hadn't yet abated. There's a decently sized beaver pond not far from the lean-to that is missing from most maps of the area, so we decided to poke around along the shoreline. On our way down to pond, we passed through the remnants of an old apple orchard... the orchard had been overtopped by taller forest trees, and most of the apple trees had succumbed to the shade and died off. I'm sure that for decades after the abandonment of this farmland, the old orchard was a popular Autumn hangout for the resident dear population, however.

    A few minutes of meandering through the woods brought us to the outlet of the beaver pond, where we were treated to some nice afternoon views out and over the water.

    At last it was finally time to settle down for evening. We spent the remainder of the daylight hours eating our respective dinners (Knorr rice sides and kibble) as the shadows lengthened. The black flies had been out and about during the day but not particularly horrendous, and as usual they began to disappear not too long before sunset. The evening was warm but not horrendously so, and we spent a nice night in the lean-to enjoying the deafening roar of amphibuous mating calls emanating from the nearby beaver pond. It was Penelope's first night camped in the backcountry, and despite being overwhelmed in exhaustion, she spent much of the night alert and fascinated by the sounds of the forest after dark.

    We were up early the next morning, with camp broken down quickly so as to take advantage of a bit of cooler morning air for at least the first bit of our hike back to the car. Someone was especially excited to be donning their backpack yet again.

    Just before departing, I happened to finally notice for the first time the old crosscut saw that was hanging on the exterior of the lean-to. Definitely a neat bit of (presumably local) history.

    The hike back northward went quickly and uneventfully- with the previous days knowledge of the route, we were able to quickly find our way back through any of the less-than-obvious stretches where the route wasn't readily apparent. We did stop to check out an odd artifact near the height of land adjacent to the trail junction- we'd noticed it on the way in but hadn't paid much attention to it at the time. A couple of metal poles were lying on the ground here, along with a conical object of some sort that was attached to one of the poles. Given that it was located just about at the high point of the hill, my best guess is that it was some sort of beacon for airplanes, but I am anything but certain in this supposition.

    From the summit it was a relatively easy stroll back down the hill to the trailhead and the conclusion of the first part of our western Catskills explorations.

    Continued in next post...

  • #2
    Huggins Lake
    The next stop was Huggins Lake, a short day hike that lies just down the road from the Mary Smith Hill trailhead. Huggins Lake is a 2 mile round-trip day hike up and over a low ridgeline down to an artificial lake constructed at the head of Huggins Hollow. The trailhead itself is accessed via a short drive uphill to a parking area- this driveway is a bit washed out but I was able to make it to the lot by picking my route carefully and bridging the ruts.

    The trail into the lake is unmarked but follows an old road that is in excellent shape so navigation is no issue. I'm not sure but I got the sense that the DEC maintains the road for administrative vehicle access- possibly for fish stocking operations at the lake. A steady climb brought us up to a low ridge, where the road leveled off for a bit and turned into a grassy lane that dipped briefly into the head of a small hollow.

    From there it resumed a much more gently ascent up to the main height of land, where we started to get glimpses of Huggins Lake below.

    From the height of land it was a relatively gentle descent down to the lake. We passed maybe 2 or 3 blowdowns on the way down, but these were all easily stepped across. About 40 minutes of casual strolling after departing the trailhead saw us arriving at the lake.

    The artificial nature of the lake is readily apparent upon arrival- the outlet is contained by a grassy dam. Still, there's some nice views to be had from the dam.

    Just across the dam is a single designated tent site. It's an alright site- there's plenty of flat, grassy ground for nice tenting, although there's not much of the way in shade and I suspect the site gets a bit toasty on hot summer days. Still, it could be a nice spot to camp in spring or fall. Winter might also be a nice option, although access might be tricky then- I'm not sure if the driveway and parking lot are plowed or not.

    There was unfortunately a fair amount of trash at the campsite. In addition to a pile of discarded cans, it appeared that someone had once used a cheap plastic wagon to haul camping equipment into the site... and when their cheap plastic wagon broke, they elected to simply leave it behind rather than make any attempt to haul it out.

    There was also a discarded transformer, riddled with bullet holes. This was a particularly distressing find, as when intact, transformers are filled with less-than-environmentally-friendly chemicals... when transformers spill in the front country, necessary cleanup efforts typically include the removal of affected soils. Since the transformer itself was still present, it seems likely that Huggins Lake was not subject to any cleanup of any sort.

    Before departing, we bushwhacked a bit up the eastern shore of the lake to take in a few more views.

    Someone also discovered that the muddy shoreline gave excellent opportunities to apply a mud mask for personal health and beauty purposes.

    The hike out went easily- the climb up and out of the lake was even more moderate than the climb in had been.

    The trash at the campsite was a bit distressing to find, but overall it seemed like a nice destination. And despite the drawbacks of the lack of shade at the campsite, it occurred to me that Huggins Lake could be a good spot for a beginner backpacking trip- the initial climb up to the height of land is a bit sustained but is never particularly steep or rugged. And even at a relatively slow pace, it shouldn't take much more than an hour at the most to reach the lake.

    Continued in next post...


    • #3
      Mary Smith Road Campsites

      My final destination for the day was a quick and easy one- ever since noticing that the DECInfo database shows a couple of designated tent sites near the height of land on Mary Smith Road, I'd wanted to visit them to check them out. These sites are near where the Delaware Ridge trail crosses the road, and accordingly they could be useful campsites to utilize as part of a longer hike across the Western Catskills (or even across the full Catskills Park).

      As per usual, it turns out that the DECInfo database wasn't entirely correct- although at least in this case, the "official" source of info shows too few campsites. There's actually 3 designated roadside sites here, not 2.

      The first site is literally a stones throw of where the Delaware Ridge trail crosses the road- you can see it from the trailhead parking lot. It's a nice site set adjacent to the road in a stand of pines. The center of the site is a bit rutted from vehicles pulling into it, but there's some decent flat ground for tenting set off to the side on the north side of the site.

      The second site is located perhaps a couple tenths of a mile north along the road (and down from the height of land). This site appeared to be the most well established, and was accordingly also fairly well impacted, although there appeared to be plenty of decent tenting space. There was a tent set up in the site so I didn't explore it in detail aside from taking a quick photo from the road and moving on.

      The third site is located a few tenths of a mile further north still of the second site (and further downhill to boot). This was the smallest of the three sites, and also appeared to be the least frequently used. There really wasn't a whole lot of room aside from the fire pit area at the center of the site, although I could see where satellite tent pads were starting to pop up in the forest nearby.

      All three of these sites were dry sites, without any water source in the vicinity. So anyone hiking through on foot would need to be prepared accordingly and carry all the water they needed for the evening (and the next morning) with them. So perhaps not the most appealing sites to use as part of a longer thru-hike across the Catskills, but good sites to be aware of nonetheless.

      I will also add that some maps show the north part of Mary Smith Road as being a "rough road." I had little issue descending it with a low clearance vehicle myself, although it's a good road to go slow on- it's narrow and twisty and there's not good visibility to see traffic coming from the other direction.


      • #4
        Great trip report; it's a good time of year to hike in the Catskills. Your photos are so typical of that area. The southwest region, with its smaller mountains, really doesn't see much of a volume of hikers. I was introduced to that area when I maintained the Mine Hollow trail near Margaretville. It was a whole new world that I knew nothing of.
        A couple of years ago I camped at that Huggins Lake campsite. Never saw anyone. Last year I spent some time in the Mongaup Pond area. There is a maze of trails around Frick Pond, all in good shape with some interesting history. Thank you for posting this; looks like Penelope had a wonderful time.


        • #5
          Yeah, as use in the eastern Catskills has skyrocketed in recent years, the western Castkills has remained a good refuge for those seeking solitude. Again, I was especially amazed by how the Pelnor Hollow lean-to was in such excellent shape despite how old it was- likely at least in part due to the extremely low levels of use.

          Mongaup Pond, Frick Pond, Hodge Pond, and especially Quick Lake have been on my "to visit" list for a while now too.

          Trout Pond/Cable Lake is another nice spot. I camped out at one of the lean-tos there 9 years ago... still need to return and camp in the other lean-to to count it towards the Lean-to Challenge.


          • #6
            I can't tell you how much I enjoy reading your posts--with all the tidbits, history and great pics. A number of years ago I recall reading one of your posts about the Devil's Kitchen lean-to and nearby campsites (not sure if they were official) up and behind the lean-to if it was full. Along with 2 friends, did spend 2 nights there. In fact the photo I use in my profile is me sitting in a "slate chair" on the hike from the lean-to toward Overlook Mt firetower. best wishes & peace!


            • #7
              I've met the property owner at the end of the road that leads to the Pelnor Hollow shelter and understand why he's posted everything and is so particular about people not parking by his buildings or along his land. Seems like he was constantly dealing with people blocking access to his place; including his driveway and barn. When he did allow people to go up the road they parked in his fields; destroying some of his crops. All and all, it seems like another case of some people ruining it for everyone. Because of this, the shelter is no longer on the list of the NY-NJ Trail Conference's "Adopt A Lean-to" program. My guess is between no one coming in from the south, and very few from the north, the trail will continue to degrade while the shelter will be little used.

              That's all for now. Take care and until next well.



              • #8
                I've heard from others since this trip that despite the apparent decent condition that the shelter is in, the roof is a bit leaky and will probably need a replacement in the not-too-distant future. Will be interesting to see if the DEC decides whether the shelter warrants continued maintenance or not... given the access issues and lack of use, I could see an argument for removing it entirely.


                • #9
                  How much does hiking with a canine buddy add to your adventure? For me, seeing my dogs loving every moment (and seeing them deal with those more difficult ones), adds tremendously to my enjoyment when out hiking or backpacking.

                  I love your sense of adventure. Nothing seems too big or small for you.
                  Are you hiding in the shadows - forget the pain, forget the sorrow.