Distance: 6.3 Miles
Elevation Gain: 1,981 Feet
Location: Shandaken, NY
I’ve never been to the Catskills. Not sure why.
I drive up from Brooklyn. Once I get off 87 and onto smaller roads, the world opens up. The pavement swoops and rises in large controlled, meandering movements. Small streams run alongside the road, then split off only to reappear under bridges. Through breaks in trees, the Catskills look like a blue-green sea with mountains rolling in different directions like enormous lost waves, some even with rocky crests likely called “noses” or “ledges.” Houses of different sizes dot the landscape often with views that fill me with a sense of tranquility. As I drive, I’m struck how lucky any person would be to call such a view “home.” I remind myself that I’m a tourist here: someone who wants the splendor of a place without bearing any of its pain.
I wonder if speed limits indicate whether roads are meant for locals or tourists. I often find myself driving well under the posted speed limit suggesting that these speed limits are intended for those who know what they’re doing and where they’re going. To me, the roads feel endless and fill me with a strange sense of optimism and hope. Endless beauty surrounds me, and I have the freedom – if briefly – to drink it in. A small amount of sadness pools in me as I approach the trailhead not ready to stop driving.
The trail starts in heavy shade. It’s cool in the morning – below 60°, and the sun sits low in the sky. Gone is the blue-green sea of mountains I saw from the road. The ferns and mosses and leaves glow a warm yellow-green, and I’m reminded of what Rebecca Solnit says in her essay, “The Blue of Distance”:
For many years, I have been moved by the blue at the far edge of what can be seen, that color of horizons, of remote mountain ranges, of anything far away. The color of that distance is the color of an emotion, the color of solitude and of desire, the color of there seen from here, the color of where you are not. And the color of where you can never go. For the blue is not in the place those miles away at the horizon, but in the atmospheric distance between you and the mountains.
Soon the trail starts to follow mountain runoff. I read that the path had been muddy and to wear boots. Good advice. Ideally, waterproof boots with outsoles you can trust. Between the runoff, the sitting water, the dusty rocks, the loose rocks, the fallen leaves, it’s very easy to slip. The shade keeps the trail wet and the fungi happy.
The first part of the ascent is pretty steep and steady. I’d describe the trail as neither a staircase nor a scramble but something in between. About 1.5 miles in, the path suddenly becomes completely flat. For about a half mile, I almost feel like I’m in an art gallery: every so often, there’s a gap in the trees with a perfect little ledge where you could sit and refuel with perfect vistas of the “blue of distance.”
I’m not sure which of the ledges is “Giant Ledge.” I confess I expect some sort of sign but don’t see one. Regardless, each ledge seems more striking than the last. Then the trail turns downhill, and I start to have that Sisyphean feeling that I’m the rock that I’m going to need to roll up the hill again.
Sure enough, the trail starts up Panther Mountain, which feels very similar to the path up to Giant Ledge. Pretty steep and pretty steady. The biggest difference is that you’re starting 3,000 feet above sea level. There’s a sign marking 3,500 feet, where the vegetation gets strikingly shorter and thickset, which makes me feel like I’ve suddenly grown. I wonder if this kind of experience led Tolkien to Middle Earth. A squat, round doorway would have felt almost unsurprising.
As far as I can tell, there is no sign to indicate the summit of Panther Mountain, either. I don’t need something to celebrate, but I would love a “You’re good!” or a “The next stop is Shandaken. Stand clear of the closing doors please.” or anything to indicate roughly where I am. Despite being 600’ higher than Giant Ledge, the views from Panther Mountain are very similar. I recommend it if only for the solitude of a less popular hike and to add a good 4 miles to your day.