TOE-TO-TOE WITH THE DEVIL: A DUEL WITH THE MOST DIFFICULT TRAIL ON THE EAST COAST
Words and Photos from Max Kiel @Max_Kiel_Trail
Located in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York, the Devil's Path has gained a reputation of being a particularly challenging and dangerous traverse. Even the name in itself is intimidating.
Not many people have heard of the Catskill Mountains before, as they often get overshadowed by the larger Adirondack High Peaks further north. However, the few people familiar with these mountains know exactly just how rugged and challenging these trails can be.
The Devil's Path is arguably the most popular trail in this region, attracting hikers from all over the tri-state area and beyond. This trail isn't for the faint of heart, and the stats are as brutal as they sound; twenty-four miles, close to 9,000' elevation gain, with five summits of 3,500' along the way. Many hikers take on this trail in pieces, making loops out of other paths that the trail intersects.
Outside Magazine included the Devil's Path in its list of most dangerous hikes in the world, and Backpacker Magazine included the trail in its toughest hikes list. Many even refer to this trail as the most difficult trail on the East Coast, right up there with the Great Range Traverse of the Adirondacks and the Presidential Traverse of the White Mountains.
Going to college in Oneonta, New York, I lived just over an hour away from all major trailheads in the Catskills. I had hiked the Devil's Path in sections over the years but hadn't gotten around to piecing the whole thing together. So I had made a goal with a friend to backpack the trail in two days, which is how roughly 90% of hikers choose to hike this trail.
Then one day, on a particularly flat and boring section of trail in Virginia during my thru hike of the Appalachian Trail, I found my mind wandering over to the Devil's Path. I thought about the prospect of not only backpacking the Devil's Path but completing the trail in one continuous shot.
After my thru hike, I began researching single-day traverses of the Devil's Path. Not to my surprise, this wasn't a very popular way of hiking this trail. Probably for a good reason, too.
What I did learn, however, is that the few who do partake in this challenge typically finish in a 12–14-hour time frame and report home on blown-up quads. I even stumbled upon the Fastest Known Time, which is four hours and twelve minutes. How is that even possible?
I had been taking trail running more seriously after my thru hike, and I began to wonder just how fast I could complete this trail. I knew that this attempt would be much more of a speed hike than an actual trail run, but I was determined to give it my best shot.
My "A" goal was an eight-hour finish, requiring an average of three m.p.h., but I would be very happy with a ten-hour finish. I'd even be content if it took twelve hours, just as long as I finished the entire thing in one go and did the best I could.
So, early in the morning on October 17th, 2021, I found myself at Prediger Road, the Eastern Terminus of the Devil's Path. I was pumped to take off and mentally ready for some suffering, in the "fun" kind of way.
The Eastern Section
The Devil's Path is broken down into two halves; the Eastern Section and the Western Section, separated by Devil's Tombstone Campground. Most hikers attempt the trail East to West to tackle the more rugged first half with full energy.
The Eastern Section is where the trail receives most of its reputation from. The trail climbs and descends four out of the five 3,500 footers in this first half; the elevation profile literally looks like the jagged teeth of a saw.
I hit "record" on my watch at six a.m. on the dot and was on my way, guided by the light of my headlamp. I was wearing a running vest, carrying only a half-liter of water and a few energy gels. My father would be meeting me twice, at mile eight and mile twelve, to resupply me and provide snacks.
The first mile and a half are mostly flat, acting as a good warm-up but is still very rocky and rooty with a couple of stream crossings. Heavy rains the previous night had flooded some portions of the trail and made the streams larger.
Arriving at the junction for Indian Head Mountain, it was time to get to work. I had climbed Indian Head a few times prior to this attempt, so I knew exactly what to expect. It was a two-mile ascent, the longest one of the Eastern Half, but also the most gradual, gaining roughly 1,300'. Tons of rocks and roots the entire way up add to the challenge.
Closer to the summit, the trail arrives at a ten-foot cliff, forcing hikers to use the roots of trees to pull themselves up. Frequent technical scrambles like this one help give the Devil's Path its dangerous reputation. The majority of the trail is covered in rocks and roots even without the technical features–think Southern Maine on the Appalachian Trail.The sky lit up in bright orange and yellow colors as the sun began to crest over the horizon line slowly. I snapped a pic before passing the official summit and pushing on to Twin Mountain.
The trail instantly descends 400' in half of a mile before climbing straight back up 400' to the South peak of Twin. A brief, flat traverse quickly led me to the official summit of Twin, elevation 3,652'.
I was greeted with phenomenal views, looking South at several Catskill High Peaks. I was amazed at the orange hue that covered the landscape; it was peak Fall colors here in the Catskill region.Now was when the fun would begin. A steep 800' descent that required some down climbing was yet again instantly followed by a 1,000-foot climb in just under a mile to the summit of Sugarloaf Mountain. Seeing a pattern here?
I was moving much quicker on the descents than I was expecting but knew I had to remain focused because the 1,100' descent off Sugarloaf would not be an easy one. I had climbed Sugarloaf up this Western slope before in the Winter, so I knew from experience just how steep and technical this descent would be.
My first resupply point with my dad came at the Mink Hollow notch in between Sugarloaf and Plateau, roughly eight miles into the day. I had given him an E.T.A. between 8:15 and 10:00, with 8:15 being the ambitious arrival time.
My dad was pleasantly surprised to see me when I rolled in at around 8:00, still moving very well. "Good thing I got here this early," he told me as I quickly downed a Gatorade and many potato chips before loading up my vest again and beginning the ascent up Plateau.
1,400' of gain over the course of just one mile awaited me, the toughest climb yet. It was a mental slog to the summit as the trail relentlessly gained elevation, headed directly for the summit, getting more technical towards the top.
I was excitedly awaiting the much-needed two-mile flat ridge walk past the summit of Plateau (hence the name for this mountain).
I was in the zone, making good time while thoroughly enjoying the moss-covered spruce forest I was fully engulfed in. Although the ridge walk is in the thick of the forest, it is still one of the most scenic portions of the trail. The forests instantly change to dense spruce past 3,500'.
I soaked in another fantastic view from Danny's Lookout before beginning the 1,600' descent down to Devil's Tombstone Campground, the 'halfway point of the trail at roughly twelve miles in. I arrived at the road around 9:50, ahead of the 10:00 early arrival time I had told my dad.
The Western Section
I was ahead of my "A" goal pace, and although I still had twelve miles remaining, the Western Section is much more forgiving than the Eastern. It still features two big climbs; the trail is not nearly as rugged and technical as the Eastern half. The descents are long and gradual compared to those of the Eastern half.
The adrenaline was definitely pumping, and with the "easier" half remaining, I had my sights set on a seven-hour and thirty-minute finish time. I bid farewell to my dad, who I wouldn't see again until I finished since there were no easy access points on the Western Section. I was now entirely on my own.
The trail instantly regains all of the elevation it lost when descending down to Devil's Tombstone by means of another 1,400' ascent over the course of one mile up Hunter Mountain. Hunter Mountain is a popular 4,000-footer, but the trail never officially reaches the summit, which can be accessed on a one-mile side trail.
During the climb, my inner thigh on my right leg seized up and began to cramp badly, sending pain throughout my entire leg, and I was stopped dead in my tracks for about a minute to recover.
I had been drinking plenty of fluids and fueling my body properly, or at least, so I thought. Was the elevation change finally catching up to me?
I reached the shoulder of Hunter, leg still feeling on the verge of seizing up at any moment. To add salt to the wound, my right knee started to really bug me, particularly on the downhills.
The trail levels out for a mile, passing through some more spruce forests and right past the popular Devil's Acre lean-to, before beginning the long, gradual descent down to Diamond Notch Falls, another popular day hiking destination.
This portion of trail is definitely the easiest part of the entire route. I had hiked this part before and envisioned myself easily cruising down this descent but was slowed to a twenty-five-minute/mile pace.
The descent dragged on forever. Every step hurt, and I was beginning to reach a low point, thinking about how much I still had left. I began cursing my legs for failing me after I was having such a great traverse thus far.
Arriving at Diamond Notch, I stopped to gather my thoughts. Was sub-eight hours out of the picture? I started crunching numbers and doing math in my head. Maybe if I really push it on this final climb up West Kill, I could get back on track.
I gave myself a brief pep talk for the final ascent up WestKill Mountain, the highest peak on the trail at around 3,900' in elevation. Just get to the summit and go from there. Feeling remotivated, I pushed on.
The instant I began my 1,600' ascent, both of my legs seized up again at the same time. The entire climb consisted of battling these cramps, slowing my pace now to about thirty minutes/mile. This climb was long but, thankfully not too technical.The wooded summit on West Kill is very similar to that of Plateau as the trail gradually descends through more mossy spruce forests. At least I would be able to enjoy my surroundings while enduring this pain.
A five-mile descent down to Spruceton Road was the final piece to the puzzle, and I knew that with the conditions my legs were in, sub-eight hours wasn't very feasible anymore. It was time to dig deep into the pain cave and just grind it out to the finish, no matter how long it took me.
I tried to ignore my knee as much as I could on this long downhill portion, but it simply wouldn't go away unless I stopped moving. I had entered the boxing ring with the Devil, and after winning the first few rounds, the Devil was getting prepared to deliver his finishing blow.I wobbled my way down to Spruceton Road, where my dad was waiting for me, along with a few day hikers who were cheering me on. I touched the sign and stopped my watch, which read "eight hours, forty-six minutes."
Not my "A" goal time, but I honestly didn't care too much. I had accomplished what I set out to do while getting the challenge I was looking for, and I enjoyed some great views and scenery along the way. Sounds like a win in my book. On the car ride home, I began daydreaming about backpacking this trail at a much more chill speed with my friends.
Max Kiel is a Maine-based ultra/trail runner, thru-hiker, snowboarder, writer and Customer Experience Specialist at Hyperlite Mountain Gear. Upon graduating college in the Winter of 2021, he completed a long-time dream of his and thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail. When not working with customers Max can typically be found running trails all across New England. You can follow more of his adventures on his Instagram.