Thursday, May 11, 2006

Hunter, NY | Catskill Mountains

If you’re looking to explore the heart of the northeastern Catskills, you’ll probably find yourself in the Town of Hunter, which stretches from the edge of the Catskill escarpment in the east westward to the Towns of Jewett and Lexington and southward towards Saugerties and Woodstock.

The Town is home to several smaller villages including: Hunter, Tannersville, Haines Falls, Elka Park, Onteora Park, Platte Clove, Twilight Park and Edgewood. The largest of the villages include Hunter, Tannersville and Haines Falls, which are located west to east along Route 23A, which travels through the largest valley within this portion of the Catskill Mountains.

Not only are there several villages to explore, the Town of Hunter is also home to many of the Catskill Mountains highest peaks including Hunter Mountain (4,050 feet making it the second highest in the Catskills), Westkill Mountain and the peaks of the Devil’s Path Range (including Plateau, Sugarloaf, Twin and Indian Head Mountains). There is an extensive trail network and much of the land within the Town of Hunter is owned by the State of New York and protected as part of the Forever Wild Catskill Park.

Getting There

The Town of Hunter is easily reached from almost any direction. It is about 2 hours north of New York City, 3 hours from Boston and about 45 minutes south of Albany.

There are two major roads that traverse the Town. Route 23A runs east-west through the Town, climbing the Catskill Escarpment through Kaaterskill Clove in the east and exiting the Town in the west into the Towns of Jewett and Lexington. Route 214 travels north and south and connects with Route 23A between the villages of Hunter and Tannersville. It travels south through Stony Clove Notch to the small village of Edgewood and then continues on southward into Ulster County and the Town of Phoenicia.

There are other smaller roads that provide access to the Town. County Route 16 travels through Platte Clove and Elka Park and descends the Catskill escarpment through Platte Clove via a small and sometime precarious seasonal use only (it’s closed in the winter) road to the Town of Saugerties.

You can also travel northward towards to the Town of Windham and several other roads spider out from the main villages of Hunter and Tannersville to reach various destinations throughout the town.

Sightseeing and Activities

So what is there to see when you’re in the Town of Hunter? If you don’t even want to get out of the car, the drives up the two roads through the Catskill escarpment can be quite the adventure (or nightmare if you don’t like heights). For those who want to get out a bit - you can take a chairlift ride at the Hunter Mountain Ski Resort, browse the shops and stores within the villages, or take in a movie or visit an art gallery.

For outdoor adventure seekers, depending on the time of year you are there, the Town offers downhill and cross-country skiing opportunities, mountain biking, hiking, walking, biking, swimming, canoeing, and rafting opportunities.

As you can tell, Hunter excels when it comes to offering various outdoor activities and probably the best is hiking. Hunter is home to a significant amount of public State land that is forever protected by the New York State Constitution. This includes two wilderness areas and several other protected areas including the North and South Lake campground and recreation area.

Arts and culture on the other hand suffer a bit – most of Hunter and Tannersville focus on servicing the ski area with a mixture of hotels, restaurants and bars. There has been a recent effort to revitalize both Hunter and Tannersville with mixed results. The biggest change has been an increase in small shops in the two villages and the opening of an art gallery and cultural center in Hunter.

Accommodations and Dining

The majority of the Town’s accommodations are focused within the villages of Hunter and Tannersville, since they are closest to the Hunter Mountain Ski Area. Scattered throughout the rest of the town are smaller hotels and some bed and breakfasts.

Restaurants follow the same pattern – with the most in the greater Hunter and Tannersville area. These villages are also host to several bars and clubs and the ‘ski scene’ in the Hunter Village area has been identified several times by various ski publications as one of the biggest party spots in the northeast for skiers.

Reservations are almost always needed for lodging in the wintertime, during the fall foliage season, and on holiday weekends during the summer. Restaurants are generally busiest in the winter, though it would be wise to call ahead on busy weekends to get yourself a table.

If you want to go camping, there are two major State run campgrounds in the Town of Hunter. North and South Lake Campground is located in the northeastern corner of the Town on the very edge of the Catskill escarpment surrounding North and South Lake. This campground offers hundreds of sites, structured activities, swimming beaches, and surrounding the campground is an extensive network of hiking trails that let you hike anywhere from a few minutes to a few days.

The Devil’s Tombstone Campsite is a bit more rustic and is located on Route 214 within Stony Clove Notch. It offers fewer sites with less improvements than North and South Lake does and does not offer the structured activities, and doesn’t offer the swimming and boating opportunities like North and South Lake Campground does.

Forest Preserve and the Catskill State Park

The Town of Hunter is home to large tracts of the public land located within the Catskill Park. The Park was created in 1885 to protect New York City’s drinking water supplies (the city has several reservoirs 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 which reads (in part):

"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 . . ."

Overall about half of the Catskill Park is publicly owned, the other half is privately owned and this is generally the ration within the Town of Hunter. The majority of the mountain peaks and mountain approaches are held by the state with the majority of the valley lands between the mountains in private hands.

Within the Catskill Park, all parkland is open to the public for hiking, camping, fishing and hunting. 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. Elevations above 3500 feet are more fragile high mountain habitats and thus camping is prohibited above this elevation.

Getting outside

Most people come to the Town of Hunter looking to hike or, in the winter ski. The Town doesn’t disappoint and offers a lot more than just hiking and skiing for people who want to get outdoors.

Home to some of the highest peaks in the Catskills, the Town is also host to watch has been described as one of the most grueling hikes in the Catskills, the 24 mile long Devil’s Path trail. The trail climbs over 7 different peaks and is generally completed in two to three days.

For hikers looking for something a little less strenuous, there are smaller hikes on the peaks of the Devil’s Path Range and an extensive trail network surrounding the North and South Lake Campground that explores the Catskill escarpment and offers tremendous views into the Hudson Valley.

The New York – New Jersey Trail Conference’s Long Path also traverses through the area and is a long distance trail that runs from George Washington Bridge in the southern portion of the state northward to the Catskills and then beyond towards the Albany region.

For a short hike with a big reward, the half a mile in length trail from Route 23A in Kaaterskill Clove to Kaaterskill Falls is well worth the effort. The 260 foot double waterfall (the first falls is 180 feet and the second is about 80 feet tall) is spectacular and the climb through the gorge to the falls is also very interesting. Do not hike beyond the end of the trail though, every year people are injured on the rocks and by falling when they leave the trail.

All of the state maintained trails in the Catskills are clearly marked with blue, yellow and red “trail markers” that make the trails easy to follow. There is a great map set available from the Trail Conference and there are guidebooks available for the Catskills from the ADK and the AMC.

Our sister site, Adventures in the Outdoors, offers a Guide to Hiking in the Catskills and also a Catskills information page with links to hikes, trail descriptions and more on their site.

Mountain Biking
All of the hiking trails within the Catskills are currently open to mountain bikes, though many of them are unsuitable for riding because of cliffs and other grades that make them impossible to ride. Several old carriage roads are located throughout the town on State land and make for excellent riding. Many of these old roads are located near North and South Lake.

Downhill skiing in limited to the Hunter Mountain Ski Area, but for cross-country ski and backcountry ski enthusiasts, the sky is pretty much the limit in the area. All of the State hiking trails are open for skiing in the wintertime and with some effort, almost all of the peaks in the area can be skied with the right amount of snow.

The only official beach in the area is located at North and South Lakes, with each pond having a maintained beach that is staffed by lifeguards when the campground is open. The public is welcome to use the beaches, even if they are not staying at the campground for a small day-use fee.

If you want something more adventuresome when you’re swimming, the cloves of the region are home to many waterfalls and deep pools. Be aware though that some of these places are difficult to reach and can be dangerous if you are not careful. However – there’s nothing like finding a deep pool and jumping in.

Route 23A and County Route 16 both make pleasant bike rides as they lack any real steep sections. The trip through Stony Clove Notch along Route 214 is a bit harder as there’s a significant climb to the top of the notch, though the ride back down is awfully refreshing.

In Closing

Being a homeowner there and having had the chance to grow up and live in the area I think I can honestly say that if you are traveling to the Catskills, your trip wouldn’t be complete without visiting the Town of Hunter. It encompasses the heart of the northeastern Catskills where you’ll find almost unlimited opportunities for outdoor activities like hiking, biking, rafting and skiing and for those who aren't as interested in the outdoors, the Town offers enough to keep almost anyone busy for at least a day or two of sightseeing.

While the Town hasn’t quite caught up with its natural resource wonders, Hunter is well worth a visit, especially if you love the outdoors.

More to Explore in the Catskills

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