The Other Catskills: A Convenient and Historic Place to Go Backpacking Near New York City

by Nicholas Lemann

AS A KID at summer camp I fell in love with hiking, but it was not an activity that I could easily work into the fabric of my life—I grew up in New Orleans, which is about as far from any mountains as it’s possible to get. When my wife and I moved to New York, a few years ago, it didn’t occur to me that I was getting an opportunity to take up hiking again. Like many provincials, I thought of the entire New York metropolitan area as extensively and unrelievedly urban, to the point where you’d be able to hail a cab on the street anywhere within a hundred-mile radius of Times Square.

Lately outdoor-gear stores seem to be proliferating in big cities. Poking around in one shortly after we moved, I noticed book called Walks in the Catskills, by John Bennet and Seth Masia, which, I was amazed to find, was a real hiker’s guide to an area barely two hours’ drive north of Manhattan. I bought the book and read it, and soon I had become a hiker again.

Southern New York State looks like a giant funnel, with the Bronx as the spout. The term “Catskills” tends to be used indiscriminately to refer to just about everything at the top of the funnel, all the way from the Pennsylvania border on the west to the Massachusetts border on the east. The borschthelt Catskills, home to Grossingers and other famous Jewish resorts, and the fly-fishing-paradise Catskills are not the same as the hiking Catskills, which are a small, steep mountain range, “swelling up to a noble height and lording it over the surrounding country” (as Washington Irving once put it), near the west bank of the Hudson River. The spiritual epicenter of the hiking Catskills, my Catskills, is an area called Kaaterskill Clove—“Kaaterskill" being an alternative spelling for the mountains, and “clove” being a regional version of “gorge” or “canyon.” On a twoor three-mile stretch of New York State Highway 23A, between the towns of Palenville and Haines Falls, you ascend nearly 1,500 feet into a dark green forest punctuated by small, fast streams, with, because of the rapid gain in altitude, wonderful views.

During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries this tiny, out-ofthe-way area occupied a central place in the American mind, because it represented pure, savage, beautiful, threatening wilderness: the sublime thing that we had and Europe hadn’t. At the time, the more spectacular sights of the West—and, for that matter, of the southern Appalachians and the White Mountains of New Hampshire—were either undiscovered or extremely remote. What set the Catskills apart was their relative accessibility and their complete disjunction from the calm agrarian plain beneath them, which makes them seem more miraculous than most mountains of the eastern United States. Thomas Cole, Albert Bierstadt, Frederic Edwin Church, Asher B. Durand, and the other painters of the Hudson River School used Kaaterskill Clove as one of their prime subjects, often giving it a grandly Edenic quality. Washington Irving had Rip Van Winkle take his magical twenty-year nap in the clove (Palenville was supposedly the model for the village where Rip lived). In The Pioneers, which is the earliest volume of James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales, Natty Bumppo describes the most famous sight in the clove—high, narrow, remote Kaaterskill Falls:

There the water comes crooking and winding among the rocks; first so slow that a trout could swim in it, and then starting and running like a creatur’ that wanted to make a far spring, till it gets to where the mountain divides, like the cleft hoof of a deer, leaving a deep hollow for the brook to tumble into. The first pitch is nigh two hundred feet, and the water looks like flakes of driven snow afore it touches the bottom; and there the stream gathers together again for a new start, and maybe flutters over fifty feet of flat rock before it falls for another hundred, when it jumps about from shelf to shelf, first turning thisaway and then turning thataway, striving to get out of the hollow, till it finally comes to the plain. . . . To my judgment, lad, it’s the best piece of work that I’ve met with in the woods; and none know how often the hand of God is seen in the wilderness but them that rove it for a man’s life.

The Catskills were, in effect, the Hamptons of the late nineteenth century. Having been (like the Hamptons) discovered as a recreational spot by artists and writers, they then became a vacation mecca for the rich and prominent, from ex-President Ulysses S. Grant on down. Two grand resort hotels were built in the clove, the Catskill Mountain House and the Hotel Kaaterskill, and a new rail line brought tourists up the escarpment from the Hudson Valley. During the same period the surrounding area was ruthlessly exploited by tanners, who devastated the mountains’ virgin hemlock forests to obtain bark used in curing hides. By the early twentieth century the Catskills were essentially finished, both as a fashionable resort, because the well-to-do had shifted their interest from the mountains to the beach, and as a tanning capital, because all the hemlocks were gone. Just about the only things of more than purely local note that have happened there in the twentieth century are the metamorphosis of the town of Woodstock, at the southern edge of the mountains, into an artists’ and musicians’ colony, and the establishment of ski trails and snow machines on Hunter Mountain, a few miles to the west of Kaaterskill Falls.

I FIND THE Catskills strangely unappealing except as hiking terrain. Of the towns in the area, only Woodstock and next-door Bearsville are at all charming; most of the pleasures of rural touring, such as good restaurants, inns, and antique stores, are absent. In human terms the Catskills are a blue-collar neighborhood: the roads are lined with mobile homes, gun stores, diners, and auto-repair shops, and the mountains rise too steeply for there to be any picturesque rolling farmland. The only really pretty parts of the built environment I’ve seen there are three small, gated late-nineteenth-century summer colonies in the vicinity of the clove: Twilight Park, Elka Park, and the Onteora Club.

But the obscurity of the area is a great plus for hikers. Most of the Catskills are now part of a beautifully maintained state park. Only two areas of the park— Slide Mountain, which was memorialized in John Burroughs’s essay “The Heart of the Southern Catskills” and which is, at 4,180 feet, the highest point in the Catskills; and a large campground accessible by car at North Lake, in the Kaaterskill Clove area—are regularly complained about as being too crowded. The rest is amazingly empty, considering how close it is to the biggest concentration of people in the country. Writing a hundred years ago, Burroughs described the Catskills in terms that today would almost have to be reserved for a Himalayan expedition. Still, of the thirty-five Catskills peaks above 3,500 feet, sixteen have no trails to their summits. On most Catskills trails you’re unlikely to see more than a couple of people a day on weekdays, or more than a dozen on weekends.

The Catskills would not be a good place to take a big finding-yourself hike: the two longest trails, the Devil’s Path and the Escarpment Trail, are each only about twenty-three miles long and can be covered in a trip of two or three nights. What the area is ideal for is day and overnight hiking for people living or visiting in the vicinity of New York City. Most places in the Catskills are not much more than a hundred miles from the city, and the area is by a wide margin closer to being wilderness than anyplace else within that range. For people with jobs and children, who have to work hiking into the interstices of their lives, it can take years of small darting trips to explore the whole park.

Many people I know are tremendously put off by the idea of sleeping outdoors. To them I’d recommend an inn near Elka Park called T he Redcoat’s Return, which has good food and hiking trails almost at its door, but my true impulse would be to say, Get over it. Outfitting yourself for backpacking is not very complicated or expensive: the bigticket items (boots, pack, tent, sleeping bag, stove) together cost less than $1,000 even if you buy pretty fancy stuff, and that’s pure opportunity cost: your second trip will be almost free. Sleeping outdoors greatly enhances the feeling of being away from civilization, partly because it lengthens your tether beyond three hours’ distance from a parking spot and partly because spending the night in a place provides a sense of true passage into a different environment.

Of course, it isn’t just New Yorkers who can pretty easily engineer this kind of escape: anyone living within half a day’s drive of mountains can be a weekend hiker. The easiest way to find out where to go is to stop in at an outdoorgear store. Recreational Equipment Inc. is a reliable national chain, but there are many other good ones. Just check the Yellow Pages under “Camping Equipment.”The store will have a section devoted to guidebooks and maps of nearby wilderness areas. These places often rent equipment and mount guided trips, too.

As an introductory day hike in the Catskills (though one less isolated than most), I’d recommend starting at the North Lake campground, taking the Escarpment Trail up to North Point, and, to avoid retracing your steps, returning to the campground on the Mary’s Glen Trail. It’s a trip of about four miles, with one steep ascent. After about half a mile you come to Artist Rock, where there is a view of the Hudson River far below, dividing two strips of farmland. North Point itself is a windswept, treeless spot from which you can see not just the river but the surrounding Catskills peaks, the Berkshires off in the distance, Nelson Rockefeller’s Albany Mall to the north, and entire weather systems sweeping across the area. On this hike you get mostly scrubby, coniferous summit vegetation. For another (longer and pretty strenuous) day trip with more of a forest feeling—freshets, ferns, hardwoods and birches, deer—you can begin at the terminus of the Devil’s Path, in Plattekill Clove, a few miles north of Woodstock; ascend 1,500 feet to the summit of Indian Head Mountain; and complete the circuit on the Jimmy Dolan Notch Trail: 7.7 miles total. An easy overnight hike would also begin in Plattekill Clove, but you’d quickly leave the Devil’s Path for the Overlook Trail and head for Echo Lake, headwaters of the Saw Kill river, which is especially beautiful when the leaves are turning colors. All these, and every other conceivable Catskills hike, are delineated in a series of five folded “Catskili Trail Maps” published by the New YorkNew Jersey Trail Conference and available at outdoors stores in New York or from the conference at 232 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y., 10016. The conference also publishes the best recent general guidebook to the Catskills, Hiking the Catskills, by Lee McAllister.

WHEN WK moved to New York, my older son, Alex, had just gotten too big to be carried places, but he was much too little to go hiking. When he turned five, I started breaking him in with overnight camping trips in the back yard. (Kids are just the opposite of adults: to them, sleeping in a tent and cooking over a camp stove are the alluring parts of hiking, and have to be displayed in the store window, so to speak, in order to get them to sign on for the walking part.) After a year or so he was ready for real mountains but not the Catskills, with their thousand-foot ascents. On the advice of John Bennct—the co-author of Walks in the Catskills and now, by coincidence, a neighbor of mine—I took Alex to a place called Tom Jones Mountain, in Harriman State Park.

Harriman Park is the former country estate of E. H. Harriman, the robber baron who owned the Southern Pacific Railroad. It’s at the northern end of the Ramapo Mountains, and has a strange, moody, windswept terrain that alternates between boggy fens and outcroppings of rock. It’s only lightly forested in most places, lacking the Catskills’ deepin-the-woods feeling—but that makes for better views. Harriman Park adjoins Bear Mountain State Park, named after a mountain on the bank of the Hudson, which is notoriously crowded. The crowds, though, stick to Bear Mountain. Despite having been much worked over by the Civilian Conservation Corps, which constructed roads and beaches on dammed lakes there in the thirties, Harriman Park usually can deliver nearsolitude.

Tom Jones Mountain rises a few hundred feet from the side of a road in the park. The summit is only about a half mile from the place where you park your car. On the day designated for our first overnight trip there, it was raining. We waited and waited for the weather to clear, to no avail; the neighbors who were supposed to go with us canceled; it was getting late; finally, submitting to the relentless logic of childhood expectation, we went anyway. During the drive the rain stopped, the clouds parted, and the sun came out. We got to the rocky top of the mountain in time to make camp before sunset. We pitched the tent on a grassy ledge just east of the summit, which Alex calls “the living room,” and from which there is a view of Lake Sebago and of the sunrise. Everything looked preternaturally clear, almost magnified, because of the end of the rain, and of course nobody else was there. This was only a fortyfive-minute drive from our house! My hope was that Alex would be imprinted with this early camping experience, in the manner of those experiments that graduate students in psychology perform on newborn monkeys, and would forever after long for the wilderness. This year it’s probably time to take him to the Catskills.

The last time I was in the Catskills was on a Thursday in February. I sneaked up for the day. Not having either the time or the winter gear to undertake anything ambitious, I decided simply to go to Kaaterskill Falls.

Can there be any monument of American culture less denoted than this? The trail to the falls begins at a hairpin turn in Highway 23A as it ascends Kaaterskill Clove. It’s marked only by a painted wooden sign no bigger than the top of a shoebox. On the day I went, the trail, which follows a creek bed, was icy and hazardous; in other seasons you can reach the base of the falls in an easy trip of fifteen minutes or less. Judging by the footprints in the snow, someone had been there a few days earlier, and various animals had turned up much more recently. The creek was frozen over in most places, with just a small sluice of water running fast under the ice. The snowr on the ground killed all sound except that of the creek. The cold air had a faint coniferous odor. By moving myself hand over hand between tree trunks, branches, and shrubs, I worked my way up to the falls: an elaborate campanile of translucent ice, buttressed by ice stalactites and other fretwork that covered the surrounding cliffs and rocks. Inside, as if it were running through a pipeline, was a thin column of falling water, which made a small black pool surrounded by snow and then went on its way. The scene couldn’t possibly have looked very different to someone who bushwhacked up there 200 years ago—someone with whom I could momentarily imagine I had a lot in common, since I, too, know what God’s hand wrought in the wilderness only because I rove it.