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Hiking in Catskill Park

Big Indian


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The 33,500 acre Big Indian Wilderness Area lies in the northwest corner of Ulster County, just south of the Hamlet of Pine Hill, nearly evenly divided between the neighboring towns of Denning, Hardenburgh and Shandaken.  Crescent-shaped, the area also straddles the divide between the Delaware and Hudson River Basins. It is bounded on the north by the Belleayre Mountain Ski Center, on the south by the Willowemoc-Long Pond Wild Forest and is immediately adjacent to the Slide Mountain Wilderness Area to the east.

Big Indian Wilderness Area offers numerous opportunities for solitude in a remote area. There are five lean to's available for those looking for an overnight backpacking trip. The Big Indian Wilderness can best be described as a rugged, mountainous area marked by deep glacial cuts resulting in a series of parallel, steep-sided hollows. The area is host to eight prominent peaks including Balsam, Fir, Haynes and Eagle, as well as several unnamed mountaintops. Elevations range from 1500-3860 feet.

Access to Big Indian Wilderness

The area is accessible from several trailheads that have parking lots:

From the East:
NY 28 to Big Indian, south on County Route 47 as follows:

  • Lost Clove Trailhead - Town of Shandaken, 2 miles south of Big Indian, end of Lost Clove Road. GPS coordinates N42 06.286 W74 28.112
  • McKenley Hollow Trailhead - Town of Shandaken, 4 miles south of Big Indian, end of McKinley Hollow Road. GPS coordinates N42 04.277 W74 28.497
  • Biscuit Brook Trailhead - Town of Denning, 13 miles south of Big Indian on County Route 47. GPS coordinates N41 59.462 W74 29.057

From the South:

  • Black Bear Road Trailhead-Town of Denning, 2 miles northwest of Claryville. This is a rough road. GPS coordinates N41 59.176 W74 34.185
  • Mongaup Pond Trailhead-Town of Rockland, Sullivan County, at Mongaup Pond State Campground. GPS coordinates N41 57.490 W74 41.485

From the West:

  • Hardenburgh Trailhead-Town of Hardenburgh, on Beaverkill Road, 6 miles east of Turnwood.
  • Balsam Lake Mountain Trailhead-Town of Hardenburgh, end of Beaverkill Road, 8 miles east of Turnwood. GPS coordinates N42 01.431 W74 35.977
  • Seager Trailhead-Town of Hardenburgh, end of Dry Brook Road, 9 miles south of Arkville. GPS coordinates N42 02.849 W74 31.504
  • Rider Hollow Trailhead-Town of Hardenburgh, end of Rider Hollow Road. There is a designated primitive campsite near the trailhead. GPS coordinates N42 05.930 W74 30.763

From the North (Access is limited due to parking constraints.):

  • Pine Hill-West Branch Trailhead-Town of Shandaken, 1 mile south of Pine Hill, take Bonnie View Ave. to Station Road to Woodchuck Hollow Road.

McKenley Hollow Trailhead sign


Hiking in Big Indian Wilderness

All 30 miles of trail in this area are open exclusively to foot travel, affording those seeking solitude the guarantee of an uninterrupted backcountry experience. Some suggested hikes include:

McKenley Hollow Trail (1.9 miles, red markers) This trail, which provides access from the east to the Pine Hill-West Branch Trail, is at first deceptively easy but becomes a progressively strenuous climb. This is a popular route to Balsam Mountain

Rider Hollow-Mine Hollow Loop (4.8 miles) Beginning at the Rider Hollow Trailhead, follow red trail markers 0.4 mile to the Mine Hollow junction. Turn NE on yellow markers for a 1-mile ascent to the Pine Hill-West Branch Trail. Turn south. Follow blue markers 2 miles up and over the summit of Balsam Mountain which provides a window view of the Hamlet of Big Indian. Proceed to the junction of the McKenley Hollow-Rider Hollow Trail. Turn NE on red markers, 1.4 miles back to the Parking Area.

Pine Hill-West Branch Trail (14.1 miles, blue markers) This trail offers a moderate ridge hike spanning five peaks that is long and somewhat strenuous. The easiest approach is from the south. Spur trails provide access to lean-tos and water, allowing for excellent backpacking opportunities.

Mongaup-Hardenburg Trail (6.4 miles, blue markers) With less dramatic ascents, the views from this trail are obstructed until after leaf drop. However, this moderate, mid-elevation hike usually provides a greater chance to observe a variety of bird and animal life. This trail is best used in conjunction with the neighboring trail network to the south in order to loop back to the point of origin for either a one- or two-day venture.

Be Prepared - Even on a day trip, take along a rain shell with a hood, a flashlight with spare batteries, a whistle, matches, map and compass, first aid kit, small tarp and extra, quick-energy food and water. Regardless of the season, dress in layers of non-cotton and wear sturdy hiking boots. Leave Word-Spell it out! Leave a copy of your itinerary and map with a responsible third party.

Sign in and out at Trail Register Boxes-This will help locate you in case of an emergency and also provide a record of the area's use.

Primitive Camping

To protect backcountry resources and ensure the quality of visual aesthetics, New York State law requires that all campsites be located at least 150 feet from any water source, trail or road, unless otherwise designated by the Department. The buffer reduces unwanted conflicts between hikers, campers and wildlife and also reduces the threat of fouling the waters by camp chores. A designated site is either a lean-to or a site marked with a yellow "Camp Here" disc. There are five lean-tos located trailside throughout the area, each supported by a seasonal water source and pit privy.

State law also prohibits camping above 3500 ft. in elevation from March 22nd to December 21st each year. During the winter months, the snow pack acts as a buffer, protecting the fragile summit environment.

A camping permit is required for one or more people to camp at the same site for more than three consecutive nights. Groups of 10 or more must also obtain a camping permit, regardless of the number of nights involved. These permits must be obtained from the local Forest Ranger in advance. In a Wilderness Area, group size is limited to a maximum of 12. This is enforced to protect the wilderness character of the area, minimize degradation and enhance the opportunity for other users seeking solitude. Larger groups may be accommodated in any of the Forest Preserve's Wild Forest areas such as nearby Balsam Lake Mountain or Willowemoc Wild Forests. Whenever possible, use a designated site to minimize your impact.

Water is relatively scarce in the Catskills. It is not unusual for the springs and streams in this area to run dry during the summer months. The department cannot ensure the purity of any water source. Giardia lamblia is a water borne parasite which causes a severe and prolonged intestinal disorder that has infected the water supply as a result of poor human sanitation habits. Boil all water for 2 minutes, filter or treat chemically.

Campfires are permitted below 3500 feet in elevation, but only dead and downed wood may be used. In a designated campsite, use the existing fire ring and burn wood no larger than that which can be snapped in your hands - it's sure to be dead, dry and will burn down to ash. Never leave a fire unattended and make sure your fire is cold before braking camp.

Bear Precautions-Using nylon cord, hang all food, garbage and toilet articles 150 feet from camp, suspended a minimum of 15 feet above the ground and an additional 8 feet from any adjacent tree trunks or overhead limbs.

Keep a clean camp. First strain, then distribute rather than concentrate, dirty dish or wash water 150 feet from camp and any water source. This disperses the physical impact and related odors that attract wildlife.

Human Waste-If available, use the privy. If not, dig a "cat-hole" 6-8 inches deep, a minimum of 150 feet from any water source. Cover waste with soil and leaf litter. Minimize the use of toilet paper and burn or pack it out. When appropriate, use leaves instead. Treat feminine products as you would all other garbage and pack out as well.

The two maps above courtesy of Andy Arthur from
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