Catskill Reveries: Falling for the Catskills

The sun rose brightly on our second day in the Catskill Mountains. Already we were finding the Catskills exceeding our admittedly modest expectations. We were ready for adventure, and certain that we would find it on the hike to Kaaterskill Falls. I packed my tripod in hopes of coming away with stunning waterfall images…

We know what high expectations bring, don’t we?

This is Kaaterskill Clove, one of two breaches in the steep escarpment wall that marks the east edge of the Catskills. Etched by glaciers and sliced by Kaaterskill Creek, the clove is a steep, rocky valley that plummets 2000’ in four miles.

The traditional route to Kaaterskill Falls is an easy ¾-mile hike uphill. Well, easy if you risk life and limb… To get to the trailhead, a hiker must walk ¼-mile along Route 23A into the heart of a hairpin turn. There’s no shoulder, no space outside the guardrail, nowhere to go if a vehicle approaches.

Really. We drove past this, and it’s a blind curve. No matter that the speed limit is 20-mph and drivers expect hikers, there was no way we were doing that. (Click photo for a larger image)

A few years ago, this was the only way to get to Kaaterskill Falls.

Fortunately, this is 2019, and there’s a better way.

Thanks to recent improvements, a good trail now connects existing trails above the upper falls with the bottom of the falls. Oh, and there’s a safe parking area and a viewing platform at the top. Thank you, we’ll do that!

Anticipation was high as we set off on the wide path to Kaaterskill Falls.

At 260’, Kaaterskill Falls is one of the tallest in the Eastern United States. The falls lie on a branch of Kaaterskill Creek called Lake Creek. The creek drops in two stages, followed by a series of cascades.

Starting at the top meant we walked downhill along a rocky but easy trail through the mixed hardwood forest. As the trail steepened, we came to a series of sandstone steps. Nice. (Don’t even think about the walk back up.)

Upon reaching the cascades below the lower falls, we got our first glimpse of Kaaterskill Falls.

Uh oh, this was going to be a bigger photographic challenge than I anticipated! Dark, dark woods and bright sunlight coming straight at the camera and leaving the falls in shadow – way too much contrast for the camera to capture. Getting the tripod steady on the rocks took constant tinkering. My high expectations were falling as dramatically as the waterfall.

A closer look at the twin drops of Kaaterskill Falls. A closer look at more challenges – people in every shot. And look at that terrain!  You can see how steep the climb was up from the cascades, even if it was on a clearly marked trail. The barely visible fence in the upper right bordered part of that trail.

Fences, trails and steps didn’t exist a few years ago. The trail only went from that scary parking spot on Rt. 23A to the bottom of the lower falls. The State of New York and all my slightly-out-of-date guide books emphatically warned against going beyond that. Sure, folks did anyway, scrambling over boulders up the steep slopes to reach the upper falls. And sure, people (and dogs) got hurt, and some died.

Thank goodness we waited to come to the Catskills until the Kaaterskill Falls Trail improvements were made!

Hold on a minute – I remembered that I did need people in my photo. Very specific people.

Every daily adventure on a trip requires a Photo Of The Day. This was the perfect spot for it.

Photo Of The Day: Don and Robb at Kaaterskill Falls.







Climbing up the trail. A glimpse of the 80′ tall lower falls and the pool below.











Looking back. Did I really climb all those steps? Yes, I did. Did I enjoy it?

Have I ever mentioned how much I hate steps?

But we’re grateful for those steps, aren’t we? Without them there would be no trail, just a lot of illegal rock scrambling.






The pool at the bottom of the upper falls, known as the Amphitheater. See the seats?

So did the other hikers… Several people were scattered around the pool, lounging on the rocks. That necessitated more cropping of photos than I would have liked. Kaaterskill Falls is a tourist destination, and those trail improvements, though necessary, make it easy for the masses to visit. Luckily, we got an early start, before the big crowds.

As I happily scrambled around with my tripod taking photos of the 180’ upper falls, another complication was developing. The mist from the falls wafted over the Amphitheater, which felt good on a rapidly warming summer day. I should have realized I was getting water drops on my lens…

It was only later – too late to try again – that I learned that I have no salvageable images from my “good” camera; all were decorated with dozens of water droplets highlighted by the sun. So much for great expectations!

Even the cell phone shots came out weird, with rainbows and random shafts of light.












I did get some images of the water tumbling over the lower falls. If you’re scared of heights don’t look at the next image.

Ok, you can look now. Time to leave the falls and head back, approximately 400’ uphill. Don on the stairs leading away from the falls.

Have I mentioned how much I hate steps?

Once we were done with those darn, er, wonderfully useful steps, the trail was less steep, and made for comfortable walking through mixed forest.

Lots of little delights along the way.




Mountain laurels were in bloom everywhere.

A little pop of color along a sunny edge.

A side trail led to the new viewing platform at the top of the falls. We hadn’t stopped on the way down, saving it for later. With thick woods all around us, it was hard to imagine that the view of the falls here would be impressive. Looking out as we reached the platform, we took in the verdant greens of the mountains against a deep blue sky.

Then we reached the front edge of the platform.

Wow. Just wow.

This we didn’t expect! Here we were with a spectacular view of Upper Kaaterskill Falls.

We stood for a time drinking it all in… the ribbon of water plunging over the edge into the pool below… the roar of the falls… the aroma of damp soil… the warmth of the sun.

If I had any lingering doubts, the hike to Kaaterskill Falls swept them away – I had fallen for the Catskills.

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