Pros: Accessible, Not Overdeveloped, Enchanting, Challenging Mountains, A Gem
Cons: Don't go on a holiday weekend - it can be busy!
Have you heard of the Catskill Mountains? They are the home of the real Woodstock, the land where Rip Van Winkle slept for years, the Mountains first seen by Henry Hudson on his maiden voyage up the Hudson River, a vacation destination for many downstate New Yorkers, home to some of the first grand resorts in the country, and in some ways, a wilderness that's only about 2 hours north of New York City.
The Catskills are often lost in the shuffle of New York State, which is, in many ways, so many different things. The first thing someone thinks of when they hear New York is of course, New York City. But that's not fair either. Mention “mountains” and “New York” and most people will probably think of the Adirondack Park in the northern portion of the state.
Unless you’re from the area, or you have had a reason to be in the Catskills, you probably haven’t heard of them, or might have some faint idea that there are some mountains south of Albany but north of New York City. That or you think of Borscht Belt in the Catskills very western margins. Now that is part of the Catskills, but there's just so much more to explore.
I grew up in the Catskills so I should know. My parents and I lived in the Hudson Valley, but we have a weekend home the Northeastern Catskills, right near the stunning 2000 foot to 3000 foot escarpment that marks the boundary between the Catskills and the Hudson Valley. I was at that home just about every weekend from the time I was born, until I went away to college. I lived there full time when I was a forest ranger in the Catskills and since I’ve been working in Maine and now Massachusetts, every chance I get, I’m back there.
Maybe I’m biased, but I haven’t found an area that hits me the way that the Catskills do yet and I’ve been to plenty of mountain ranges around the Northeast and the rest of the country. Sure, New Hampshire and Maine have higher mountains with stunning alpine areas, the Adirondacks in northern New York are larger, same with the Greens in Vermont, there’s the Berkshires in Massachusetts too, but the Catskills have a certain charm and mystique that I think is almost indescribable and makes them so very special.
I’m going to focus my review mostly on the Northern Catskills, those mountains and areas that are mostly within Greene County and Ulster Country, which is where most of my experience (and mountains) are. However there's a bit here and there about the rest of the Catskills, which slowly peter out to the west.
Where are the Catskills?
For some simple geography, the Catskill Park is about 50 miles southwest of Albany and about 150 miles north of New York City. To the east the mountains are bounded by the Hudson River Valley and to the west they gently taper out into gently rolling terrain. The largest concentration of the highest peaks and rugged terrain is in the Northern portion of the mountains, but the highest peak, Slide Mountain at 4,204 feet is located in what would be considered the Southern Catskills. There are also several other higher peaks located near Slide including Wittenberg and Cornell Mountains.
The Mountains Themselves
Want some geology speak? The Catskills really aren’t mountains in the truest sense of the word. Millions of years ago there was a great mountain range along the east coast of the US (today’s Appalachians are the basement remnants of those mountains) and as those mountains eroded over time, the debris flowed westward out across New York and Pennsylvania. Over time the eastern mountains eroded and the debris from them was buried further, and eventually then uplifted. So in a sense, the Catskill Mountains are really just an eroded plateau.
One of the most striking features of the Catskills is their eastern escarpment. This is where the rocks of the Catskills end, and the Hudson Valley begins. With the Hudson River at sea level (0 feet), the mountains rise up in a wall that is 2000 to over 3000 feet in height. Driving in the Hudson Valley – this imposing wall greets you to the Catskills.
To the west, the mountains slowly decrease in height and eventually the terrain becomes flatter and flatter – there is no great escarpment in the western Catskills.
The roughest and wildest terrain is in the northeast Catskills, which include the Schoharie valleys along with the Devil’s Path Range, the Blackhead Range and several other smaller ranges of mountains.
The Catskills have few lakes (except for New York City’s reservoirs) and most mountains are very steeply sloping with frequent lines of cliffs as you travel up the mountains. There are some spectacular waterfalls though, Kaaterskill Falls, which is the highest waterfall in New York State is located just south of North and South Lake in the Northeastern Catskills.
The Catskill Park
The Catskill Park was created in 1885 to protect New York City’s water supplies (many of the city’s reservoirs are in the Catskills with underground aqueducts running water southward to the city), and to provide outdoor recreational activities for the public. All public lands in the park are protected by the “Forever Wild” clause in the State constitution:
"The lands of the state, now owned or hereafter acquired, constituting the forest preserve as now fixed by law, shall be forever kept as wild forest lands. They shall not be leased, sold or exchanged, or be taken by any corporation, public or private, nor shall the timber thereon be sold, removed or destroyed . . ."
It’s interesting to note that New York State is the only state that offers constitutional protection to the public’s lands within the Catskill and Adirondack Parks. These lands cannot be developed (without an amendment to the State Constitution), cannot be sold and must be left in a “forever wild” state in perpetuity for future generations. These lands are known as “Forest Preserve.”
About half of the Catskill Park is publicly owned, the other half is privately owned, thus like the Adirondack Park, the Catskills are one of the few “parks” that is a mix of private and public lands.
This "forever wild" clause however, has been interpreted to mean that trails can be built and thus the Catskills have an extensive hiking trail system. Some peaks still remain trailless, but no matter what your skill and physical condition, you can find a hike that will suit you in the Catskills.
All public land is open to the public for hiking, camping, fishing and hunting. Private land access is variable and it depends on the landowner. However, most trailheads are located on public land, so as long as you stay on marked trails, you will not run into any problems. The New York-New Jersey Trail Conference publishes the most comprehensive map set for the Catskills - Catskill Trails - which provides detail on all of the Park's hiking trails.
The public lands in the Catskills are broken down into various management units and depending on their size and location, managed as either Wild Forest or Wilderness Areas. Some of those areas include the Hunter Mountain Wild Forest and the Westkill Mountain Wilderness Area.
You can camp anywhere in the Forest Preserve so long as you are at least 150 feet from any open water (streams, creeks, rivers and lakes), 150 feet from any trail, 150 feet from any road and below 3500 feet (and it hasn't been posted as a no camping area). Elevations above 3500 feet are more fragile high mountain habitats and thus camping is prohibited above this elevation.
There are several state run campgrounds through the Catskills. Two of the most popular are North and South Lake Campground and Woodland Valley Campground. Both provide great access to the rest of the Catskills with North and South Lake in Haines Falls, providing easy access to the northeast Catskills and Woodland Valley near Phoenicia, providing good access to the south-central Catskills. Another state campground is the Devil's Tombstone Campground and Day-Use Area located in Stony Clove Notch about halfway between the Towns of Hunter and Phoenicia. These campgrounds provide basic services, but do not have electricity or water available at the sites.
Hiking in the Catskills
If you are looking for some day hikes, the majority of the Catskills are available to you to explore. Some great day hikes include the various mountains of the Devil's Path Range (Indian Head, Twin, Sugarloaf, Plateau, Hunter & Westkill). These mountains are located in the northern portion of the park and all have maintained trails over them. There are several different trips that you can make and depending on the location, offer the potential to make loop trips so you don't need to backtrack what you've already hiked. Further to the northeast there is the Blackhead Range near the Town of Windham. In the south, the Catskill Mountains tallest peak, Slide Mountain is a great day trip, as are Wittenberg and Cornell, two mountains near Slide. Even further south and west are the trails and ponds of the Willowemoc Wild Forest. In this family friendly hiking area you will find easier trails that visit a number of small ponds and lakes.
If you aren't looking so much for mountain climbing and instead just want some great scenery, there are several trails that offer this. The Escarpment Trail, running along the eastern edge of the Catskill Mountains doesn't climb or descend too much, but it offers stunning views across the Hudson Valley almost constantly. The Dutcher Notch Trail offers a walk through mostly levels woods to some stunning fields and a quiet, wilderness notch. Trails in the more western parts of the Catskills are also gentler, as the mountains out there are more rolling and generally lower than they are in the east. The hike up to the base of Kaaterskill is short, though it is a bit rugged. However, you are rewarded with a view of the highest waterfall in New York State when you reach the end of the trail.
If you are planning on hiking in the mountains, it's best to get your hands on the Catskill Trails Map Set from the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference. This map set will give you just about everything you need to find the trails and follow them throughout the Catskills.
Towns and Villages in the Catskills
Several major towns and villages dot the Catskill landscape.
The Village of Woodstock is just south of Catskills proper, located just beneath Overlook Mountain. This Woodstock is the “true” Woodstock of festival fame. The original Woodstock festival took place several miles to the south and west.
The real Woodstock village offers an eclectic choice of curiosity shops, book stores, clothing stores, new age stores and more. The village green, at the center of town is one of the best places for people watching. Woodstock also boasts some local theater companies and other types of public performances. Both a summer and winter destination (though best in the summer) – Woodstock is a definite stop on any Catskill trip.
Hunter, Tannersville and Haines Falls
These three towns in the Northern Catskills are home to the Hunter Mountain Ski Resort and provide access to the Mountains of the Devil’s Path Range (a range of mountains, all over 3500 feet tall that run for over 20 miles – the Devil’s Path – one of the Catskills’ few long distance trails runs over this grueling range), along with several other small mountains. North and South Lake Campground is located in Haines Falls. All three offer restaurants and some shopping opportunities. In addition to the Hunter Mountain Ski area, Hunter Mountain is also home to the Hunter Mountain Fire Tower, which is located near the mountain's summit in the Forest Preserve and offers some great views of the area.
Windham is a quaint village in the northeast corner of the Catskills near their northern escarpment. It's also home to the Ski Windham Ski Resort. In addition there are quite a few excellent restaurants and shops.
The Village of Phoenicia is the gateway to the southern Catskills and also the base of the rafting businesses on the Esopus River. You can eat at some great restaurants, shop, or if you are feeling adventurous, take a rafting or tubing trip down the Esopus River. The Belleayre Mountain Ski Resort is located about 20 miles further up the road and the world's largest kaleidoscope is located just to the south of town at Emerson Place. Just south of the village itself on Route 40, is the trailhead for the trail that climbs to the summit of Tremper Mountain and to the Tremper Mountain Fire Tower that sits on the top of the mountain. You can get some great views of almost the entire region from this Tower.
So Why Should You Visit The Catskills
All the words in the world aren’t going to give you an accurate picture of these mountains, from the imposing and amazing escarpment, to the hidden waterfall deep in the forest, the Catskills truly are a wonderful and amazing place. You will find popular destinations, historic places, and private, secluded and secret treasures. Take a few days, hike a trail, go skiing, just take the time to absorb the mountains that the Dutch settlers called the “Devil’s Playground” because there truly is wonder and mystery here.
Best time to visit the Catskills?
Depending on your preferred activity, summer and fall are the best times to visit the mountains I think. Holiday weekends can be quite busy, even on the trails, so plan accordingly. If you're a skier, then by all means get up there for the snow in the wintertime!
Some Web Resources on the Catskills:
There are plenty of web resources on the Catskills, here are just a couple of links on some basic information
http://www.dec.state.ny.us/website/dlf/publands/cats/ - The State of New York’s official Catskill Website for public lands
http://www.nynjtc.org - The New York – New Jersey Trail Conference – maps of the entire Catskills and their volunteers maintain many of the foot trails
http://home.epix.net/~ab257/esopus.html - information on Esopus River Rafting and Tubing
The Catskills are more than an afterthought in New York - they really are their own destination. Everyone will find something of interest here - and it's amazing that there's such a wilderness and wild experience is less than three hours from New York City.
More Catskill Resources
Hunter, Tannersville and Haines Falls
Town of Windham
Hunter Mountain Wild Forest
Westkill Mountain Wilderness Area
Willowemoc Wild Forest
Tremper Mountain Fire Tower
Hunter Mountain Fire Tower
Woodland Valley Campground
Devil's Tombstone Campground and Day-Use Area
North-South Lake State Campground and Day-Use Area
Hunter Mountain Ski Resort
Ski Windham Ski Resort
Belleayre Mountain Ski Resort
Catskill Trails Map Set