A Guide to Hiking the Catskill Mountains

The Catskill Mountains are a popular stretch of land for visitors of New York State.
The Catskill Mountains are a popular stretch of land for visitors of New York State.
Peter Gridley/Photodisc/Getty Images

With its marvelous, unmatched beauty, the Catskill Mountains, located in southeastern New York, has inspired generations of wilderness seekers. Perhaps most famous are the Hudson River School painters of the 19th century, who memorialized the mountain range's grandeur in landscape paintings. To this day, the numerous activities and hiking trails in the Catskills attract thousands of visitors each year.

If you want to impress your friends with your geological knowledge, you can point out that the Catskill Mountains are misnamed. Geologically, they aren't mountains at all but actually dissected plateaus. That is, they were once a plateau of uplifted flat land that, over time, has been eroded by streams and rivers. Notice that the peaks are generally of the same height -- this is one distinguishing characteristic of dissected plateaus. In fact, the Catskill Mountains have dozens of peaks that reach above 3,500 feet (1,066.8 meters).

With so much to see, one could spend a lifetime hiking and exploring the Catskills. So, before you set out on your expedition, let's discuss some important topics to help plan your trip.

Catskill Mountains Hiking: Easy Hiking Routes

No matter how advanced you are as a hiker, there are days when all you want is an easy trail that won't be exhausting or take your whole day to hike. And if you have young kids, you know that they won't be able to handle anything too challenging.

Although we'll discuss the Catskill's waterfalls more later on, one if the most popular and beautiful of the easy hikes is the one to Kaaterskill Falls. At less than a mile long, the hike doesn't take a lot of effort. And although this hike is mostly level, be aware that it does have a couple of steep sections.

Another easy hike is the one to Huckleberry Point, which is about 5 miles (8 kilometers) round trip and provides beautiful views. If you're looking for a longer hike, but one that's still easy, try the Palenville Overlook and Indian Head hike. From the parking lot, the hike is about 8 miles (12.9 kilometers) round trip if you go around the lake. With this route, you get spectacular views from the overlooks, including a great sight of the lakes.

Looking for something a little more challenging in the Catskills? Turn to the next page.

Catskill Mountains Hiking: Challenging to Difficult Hiking Routes

There are enough challenging portions of the Catskills to satisfy experienced hikers.
There are enough challenging portions of the Catskills to satisfy experienced hikers.
Sabine Scheckel/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Rugged hikers looking for a more challenging hike don't have to look too far in the Catskills. One moderately challenging and popular hike is the Giant Ledge trail that only takes about two hours. It takes you along Panther Mountain, which is believed to sit on top of a site where a meteorite hit 375 million years ago.

A very difficult hike is one from Woodland Valley to Wittenberg Mountain and Cornell Mountain, at nearly 9 miles (14.5 kilometers) round trip. Before reaching Cornell Mountain, you'll have to pass through Cornell Crack, a difficult-to-climb, V-shaped wedge. Some adventurous hikers include Slide Mountain, the highest point in the Catskills, in this trip as well.

You know a trail is difficult when it's known as Devil's Path. This is considered the most challenging of the Catskills and ranges nearly 25 miles (40.2 kilometers) long over the Indian Head, Twin, Sugerloaf, Plateau and West Kill mountains. The trail also descends into several dangerously steep notches. Hikers should plan to camp one or two nights during the treacherous trip.

Catskill Mountains Hiking: Best Region for Winter Hiking

There's no doubt that winter hikes can be intimidating. Slippery snow and ice can be treacherous, access roads may be closed, and trail markers could be hidden by snow. But winter has its advantages, too: For starters, the views are better when the trees are bare, and you don't have to battle the crowds, as fewer people like to hike in the winter. So, if you're up for the challenge, it can be a real treat.

One of the best winter hikes in the Catskills is the Windham High Peak and Burnt Knob Loop Trail, spanning about 6.75 miles (10.9 kilometers). Although shaded and dark during the summer, it offers beautiful views in winter, and you might spot the Barred Owl, which fly up to live in an old growth forest there during the winter.

Catskill Mountains Hiking: Most Prominent Peaks

There are several peaks to admire along the Catskills.
There are several peaks to admire along the Catskills.
Frank Spinelli/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

The Catskill 3500 Club identifies 35 peaks in the Catskills that reach above 3,500 feet (1,066.8 kilometers), and it also qualifies its criteria about distance from other peaks. The most prominent is also the highest: Slide Mountain reaches 4,180 feet (1,274 meters). As you might expect, it's also one of the most difficult climbs in the Catskills. The name comes from a 19th-century landslide.

The other peak above 4,000 feet is Hunter Mountain, which reaches 4,040 feet (1,231.4 meters). You can access it from Devil's Path or Becker Hollow Trail. It's also the site of a fire tower, the original of which was built in 1909. Although it no longer stands, you can still see its footing. The one that stands today was built in 1953 and restored in 2000. The next two highest peaks are Black Dome and Thomas Cole (named after the famed painter of the Hudson River School).

Catskill Mountains Hiking: Waterfalls

We've already mentioned that the trail to Kaaterskill Falls makes for a good easy hike. It also happens to be the highest waterfall in Eastern United States at 260 feet (79.2 meters) high -- for comparison, Niagara Falls is 167 feet (50.9 meters) high. This includes both tiers of the waterfall. Washington Irving called Kaaterskill "wild, lovely and shagged, the bottom filled with fragments from impending cliffs and scarcely lighted by the reflected rays of the settling sun" [source: Scheller]. This waterfall was also particularly popular for Hudson River School painters, including Thomas Cole. Even Thomas Edison's studio filmed the falls in one of the first films.

One 10-mile (16.1-kilometer) hike could also take you to the top of three Catskills waterfalls: Viola Falls, Wildcat Falls and Buttermilk Falls. Experienced hikers have noted, however, that you can expect great views from the top, but not great views of the falls themselves. If you're feeling adventurous, you can climb down slopes near Wildcat Falls to see it from its base [source: CatskillMountaineer].

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Sources

  • Scheller, William G., et al. "New York Off the Beaten Path." Globe Pequot. 2007. (May 22, 2012) http://books.google.com/books?id=-L6XBgtJFu0C
  • Catskill Mountaineer. "Poet's Ledge, Viola Falls, Wildcat Falls, and Buttermilk Falls." CatskillMountaineer.com. (May 22, 2012) http://catskillmountaineer.com/KM-falls.html
  • Fodors. "Kaaterskill Falls." Fodors.com. (May 22, 2012) http://www.fodors.com/world/north-america/usa/new-york/the-catskills/review-437604.html
  • Lewis, Cynthia Copeland, et al. "Best Hikes with Children Catskills & Hudson River Valley." The Mountaineers Books, 2002. (May 22, 2012) http://books.google.com/books?id=YTbPq6NzkBkC
  • Silverman, Francine. "The Catskills Alive!" Hunter Publishing, 2003. (May 22, 2012) http://books.google.com/books?id=5qtsaPtM2zQC
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