Kaaterskill Falls, more than a waterfall hike
Kaaterskill Falls area is more than a waterfall. Yes, just about everyone who comes to this place comes to see the falls, and it would be right to do so. But without understanding the history and meaning that this area had to generations of Americans would be folly. Also, just rushing to the falls and back to your car would deprive you of one of the best natural spectacles that are not the falls!
In this guide, we’ll explore this area’s unique history, its formation as a geologist would see it and as a historian may see it. Oh, and yes, we will talk about trails!
Our description of the physical land boundaries
For this description, the approximately 172-acre Kaaterskill Falls Area is bordered by the Laurel Road Parking Area extending east to the Escarpment Trail and west to the ravine’s edge in the north, generally following the railroad bed of the Kaaterskill Branch. The east border is the Escarpment Trail, with the south being the parking area on RT 23A and the west is the west wall of the ravine following the line of the Kaaterskill Wild Forest.
Falls of the Kaaterskill
There are two spots in the Catskill Front that are penetrated, one at Platte Clove and the other at Kaaterskill Clove. These cloves gouged out by torrents of glacial movement and runoff if one could step back in time and imagine that in the last glacial period, this area, including the surrounding mountains were covered by a sheet of ice.
However, as the glaciers moved, like rivers of ice, they carved valleys that made these mountains. The falls canyon and deep clove below are the work of the vast and powerful waters that the glaciers unleashed as they melted. Rivers of water undercutting the ice sheets at first must have been a spectacle as the roar of water of these underground waterways. At places, water must have shot out when it found its escape.
Today, we see the remains of the glacial work. As you hike, the trails look down. See the striated rock from the glaciers dragging rock and scouring and scraping the bedrock below. Look around you and see large boulders perched in odd places; these glacial erratics were plucked from the ledges and hills by the glaciers and moved and deposited as the glacial movement stopped and the ice finally melted.
One of the most famous erratics in the area is not at Kaaterskill Falls but a couple of miles away at Boulder Rock.
The Falls of the Kaaterskill was not always where they are today. As you stand atop of the falls, think for a moment that at one time, they were about 1-mile away. Yes, 1-mile! This deepening is because the water rush has slowly eroded the hard sandstone top and continued its slow widening of the beautiful gorge.
The Falls as a Riparian Area
The falls area has a sensitive environment needing protection for plant habitats and communities along the river margins and banks. It is also dangerous, and protecting hikers is essential. Given its intense popularity, an area of about 5-acres around the falls has been designated as a Riparian Area. The site extends about 225′ up and downstream from the falls.
The following rules in the zone must be followed:
- ban all campfires and portable stoves (except when camping at designated campsites or otherwise camping in accordance with DEC regulations);
- prohibit glass containers except for the storage of medicines;
- ban the use of audio devices without the use of headphones/earbuds (except at designated campsites or otherwise camping in accordance with DEC regulations, and not audible outside the immediate area of the campsite);
- ban the possession of alcohol (except when transporting to, or camped at, designated campsites or where otherwise camping in compliance with DEC regulations);
- prohibit the public from entering restricted areas, as designated by signage.
- prohibit the possession of portable generators, except at designated campsites or otherwise camping in accordance with DEC regulations (previous regulations already prohibit the possession of generators at Platte Clove).
- prohibit the public from going within six feet of cliff edges, except on marked trails, and prohibit the public from entering the water within 150 feet upstream of the falls.
Mans history at the falls
America had (and has) a love affair with Kaaterskill Falls. In the 1800s, the Laurel House was perched near the falls and was a modest accommodation compared to the other resorts in the area. On South Mountain stood the Hotel Kaaterskill, and near the lakes with the commanding view of the Hudson Valley was the Catskill Mountain House.
The popularity of the falls was probably started with Washington Irving and his book Rip Van Winkle where Rip is purportedly to find the falls after his 20-year slumber. This lead one of America’s most famed landscape painters to explore the area. After reading Rip Van Winkle, Thomas Cole came to the Catskills and headed to Kaaterskill Clove. His painting from this donned the Saturday Evening Post cover, and the falls became the place to go. For Cole, this begins an intense love for these mountains, a place he painted his most delicate art. Many other artists would paint these falls, including Frederic Edwin Church, Sanford Gifford, and Winslow Homer.
During this period, trails spread quickly throughout the area. According to Micheal Kudish, by 1879, a network of trails had spread between the Catskill Mountain House and Laurel House and all over South Mountain to North Point. Hiking in this area is not new!
Guests of the hotels would come to see the famed Kaaterskill Falls. The Laurel House owner, Peter Scutt, whose son ran the operation until Scutt sold it to Jacob Fromer, a native of Wittenburgh, Germany. After the Civil War, the hotel was enlarged and with a platform for viewing the falls at the top. The falls had a dam that could regulate the flow, and guests could pay 25 cents to see the falls in all its glory.
Laurel House above Kaaterskill Falls with observation deck and dam
Even at that time, people could reach the bottom of the falls by a crude trail with wooden ladders and stairs.
The Laurel House was in operation until the early 1960s when New York purchased it and eventually burned it. What is left today is scattered parts of foundations.
First growth forest
When hiking from RT 23A, you’ll be walking in the first growth forest from Bastian Falls to Kaaterskill Falls. The first growth probably extends up the ravine walls due to its ruggedness.
Trails in the Kaaterskill Falls Area
In the past several years, the trail system has undergone significant upgrades. These upgrades are in response to the intense popularity of the area. The updated trail system is mostly emphasizing the environmental stability of the site and hiker enjoyment and safety. Since 1998 the area has been associated with over 40 serious accidents and too many fatalities.
Even though the trails have been improved and signage indicates the dangers, people still risk a venture into dangerous areas. Not only have trails been improved, but so has parking capacity. Much of the land on Laurel House Road is private land, don’t park on the road. The space in the parking area has enough room for about 50-cars. If you cannot get a spot, try another trailhead. If you cannot get parking at any trailhead for the falls, have a backup plan.
Below is a NYSDEC YouTube video about trail improvements.
Upper Kaaterskill Falls Trail
The Upper Kaaterskill Falls trail [g1] from the Laurel-House Road parking area to the observation deck is .3 miles of 7% grade with 541 feet greater than 8% (the slope of a standard ramp). The trail is firm crushed stone 60 inches wide with a typical cross slope of 1.25% and 376 feet greater than 2%.
Lower Kaaterskill Falls Trail
(0.5-miles to Falls, +0.3-miles to Escarpment trail, ascent to falls 400′, yellow markers) Kaaterskill Falls Trailhead (RT 23A)
DEC contact and other information
|Kaaterskill Wild Forest|
|Contact Information:||DEC Region 4 Stamford
Office hours: M-F 8:30AM - 4:30PM
Phone: (607) 652-7365;
Backcountry Emergency: (Search, Rescue & Forest Fire): 518-408-5850 or dial 911
|Location:||Towns of Hunter and Catskill in Greene County and the town on Saugerties in Ulster County|
|Map:||View Kaaterskill Wild Forest Map - PDF (3.0 MB)|
|Amenities:||Lodging and dining opportunities, as well as gas, food and other supplies may be found in the communities of Hunter, Tannersville, and Pallenville.|
Kaaterskill Falls trail map
Click on the map or here for interactive version of the map.
Backwoods wanderer with a passion for backpacking, hiking, and exploring the wilds of the Catskills and Adirondacks in New York. A Catskill 3500 Club Member and Adirondack Forty-Sixer. Climbed Mount Rainier. Professionally an Exercise Physiologist.