Saturday, March 15, 2014

Catskill Mountains and the Catskill Park of New York

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 what has always been America's First Wilderness that is only about 2 1/2 hours north of New York City by car.

At times the Catskills are lost in the shuffle of all that is 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.  So unless you are 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 the former Borscht Belt in the Catskills very western margins.  Now that is part of the Catskills, but there's just so much more to explore that that single area.

I grew up spending most of my weekends in the Catskills right near the stunning 2000 foot to 3000 foot escarpment that marks the boundary between the Catskills and the Hudson Valley. I was there 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 assistant forest ranger in the Catskills and when I lived and worked in New England, I made sure I was back every chance I had.  Nowadays I've lucked out and I am back living and working in the Catskills and it is great to be home.

Maybe I’m biased, but I haven’t found an area that hits me the way that the Catskills do yet and I have 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.

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 which make up the "High Peaks" of the Catskills.

The Mountains Themselves 

Want some geology speak? The Catskills really are not 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.  If the climate was more like the southwestern US, the area would probably look a lot like the Colorado Plateau region.

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 one of 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 Forest Preserve (along with the Forest Preserve in the Adirondacks) was were created by the New York State Legislature in 1885 to protect forest and water resources. The original law creating the Forest Preserve included Ulster, Sullivan and Greene Counties in the Catskills and Delaware County was added as a Forest Preserve County in 1888. In a first for the state and the Catskills, New York made its first fiscal allocation for a trail on the Forest Preserve here in the Catskills, for what would become the bridal path that climbed Slide Mountain, portions of which are still used by trails that climb Slide Mountain today.

In 1892, the Adirondack Park was created by the legislature and defined in law as a “blue line,” hence the language we use today when we talk about something being inside or outside of the Blue Line.

Following the creation of the Forest Preserve and the Adirondack Park, it quickly became apparent that the legislative protection afforded to the Forest Preserve by the original 1885 law was insufficient to truly protect the resources in the two preserves and legislators began working on a constitutional amendment which would permanently protect the Forest Preserve lands as Forever Wild.

In November of 1894, an amendment to the New York State Constitution went before voters and was passed by the citizens of New York. In part, the Amendment stated that “The lands of the state, now owned or hereafter acquired, constituting the forest preserve as now fixed by law, shall be 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.” This amendment took effect on January 1, 1895 and the Forest Preserve lands of the Catskills and Adirondacks were permanently protected as Forever Wild Forest Preserve lands.

Following the creation of the Adirondack Park and the constitutional amendment providing further protection to the Forest Preserve, the Catskill Park was created by the New York State Legislature in 1904. Over the years since 1904, the Forest Preserve and the Catskill Park have grown, with the Catskill Park now comprising approximately 700,000 acres, about half of which is public Forest Preserve.

All of the public land owned by the State 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 State owned 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 Falls 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.  New trails are being designed and built every day through the hardwork of many regional organizations including the New  York-New Jersey Trail Conference, the Catskill Mountain Club.  These new trails include miles of backcountry trails, but also new trails such as the Shavertown Trail on New York City lands near the reservoirs.

An very popular destination for hikers are one of the five restored Fire Towers in the Catskills.  These towers used to be staffed by Fire Wardens scanning the mountains for signs of forest fires, but today they are staffed in the summer months by volunteers who provide interpretive services for hikers and visitors.

If you are planning on hiking in the mountains, it's best to get your hands on the Catskill Trails Map Set.  This map set will give you just about everything you need to find the trails and follow them throughout the Catskills.  Other maps include the National Geographic Trails Illustrated map for the Catskills and there are several guidebooks available, including ones from AMC and ADK.  For general advice and hike descriptions from the Catskills, Adventures in the Outdoors maintains a great resource page for the Catskill Mountain Region.

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.

History of the Catskills

The history of the Catskills is in many ways the history of Wilderness in America.  The Catskills are known as America's First Wilderness, first as the imposing mountains above the valley where colonists settled, then as an escape for the city dwellers with massive and spectacular hotels and railroads, a place that led to the birth of America's first school of landscape painting, a place that helped launch the conservation movement and to today where the Catskill Park protects some truly wild areas just hours from New York City's doorstep.

So Why Should You Visit The Catskills 

All the words in the world will be unable 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, mystery and amazement 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:

Final Thoughts 

The Catskills are their own destination in New York State. Everyone will find something of interest here - and it is amazing that there is such a wilderness and wild experience that is less than three hours from New York City.

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