This past Sunday 12/20 I bushwhacked Eagle and Balsam along with MountainSister3, MtnSister10 and Nimblefoot. We started and ended at the McKinley Hollow parking area, whacking up Eagle and down Balsam for two very different off-trail experiences on the same day.

Leaving the trail just past the register, we hiked southwest and then due west up a ridge to Eagle staying well west of private property that ends around 2400 feet. For a whack, it really is a nice route with rather open forest and few obstacles. With the leaves down, there are partial views through the trees with interesting looks at Big Indian, Fir and Panther. We crossed a couple of old woods roads below 3000 feet.

Most of the route had a light coating of snow on the ground, ranging from a dusting to over an inch in spots. This was fairly consistent all day, except for later in the afternoon descending the south side of Balsam after the sun had a chance to melt out the snow on the lower elevations. There wasn’t much ice and the spikes stayed in our packs all day. In fact, we noticed hiking up Eagle how unusually soft the ground was; i.e., not yet frozen on December 20!

The navigation was by map and compass, although we did have GPS capturing a track that we could look at later. I was also using a new toy, an altimeter (basically an aneroid barometer) which I am finding quite helpful. I like it because it helps me estimate where I am without an LCD screen telling me where to go.

Upon reaching the Pine Hill West Branch trail we crossed it and continued whacking, contouring through gentle ups and downs but mostly flat ground with conifers of varying thickness to just north of the summit clearing. The trail would have been easier, but we previously had to settle for finishing on the trail for a short distance when whacking West Kill from Broad Street Hollow. This seemed like a more appropriate place to completely ignore the trail.

From the Eagle summit, we did take the newly renamed Sneagle Trail over to Balsam (our hike, our name). There were no footprints in the trail other than our own where we had crossed it about a quarter mile from the summit herd path. Near the summit of the former Haynes Mountain (we temporarily renamed that as well) we met the only people we would see all day, our friend Claudine and a couple of her hiking partners. They had come from Rider Hollow. We were the only ones who signed the register at McKinley Hollow that day. Perhaps 12/20 is not a popular hiking day in the Catskills because it is the last day in December that does not count for the winter 35s. Too bad because weather-wise it was a great day for a hike.

From the summit of Balsam, we headed southeast hoping to correctly time a turn to the south in order to catch a small ridge shown on the maps just above the shelter. It looked like if we did that we should be able to whack directly to the shelter from where we would walk out the last ¾ mile on the trail. The southeast side of Balsam is “ledgier” than the east side of Eagle and we found ourselves drifting left to find easier passages down the steep sections.

However, the ledges weren’t the big story for us. This side of Balsam is the opposite of the open whack we had on Eagle. On December 20 we encountered the most annoying, most persistent stretches of prickers we have experienced. There was also a lot of blowdown, which is probably why there are so many blackberries. It might not be a good route to take in late summer, unless you like blackberries and blood.

As for the planned navigation, we let the ledges push us way left of the planned course and wound up next to the private property line down around 2100 feet. From there we backed away from the property line and paralleled it down to a point where we crossed the creek onto the trail a short distance from the parking area. We explored a little to see what’s left of the pre-Irene section of trail near the PA and returned to our cars in full daylight at 3:40PM.