Just 100 miles north of New York City, the Catskill Mountains feel worlds away from the loud, congested streets and soaring skyscrapers of the nation’s largest metropolitan area. Spanning 3.8 million acres in Upstate New York, the sandstone mountains covered with old-growth forests and the deep canyons cut by waterfall-powered rivers have stirred the imaginations of writers, inspired artists, and delighted vacationers.
Home to lumbering black bears, howling coyotes, and cautious white-tailed deer, 287,000 acres of this rugged wilderness have been declared “forever wild” by the New York State Constitution. (As a comparison, New York City spreads across 205,000 acres in the southeastern corner of the state.) This decree guarantees that sprawling resorts and residential subdivisions will never be built on the 700,000 acres inside Catskill State Park, protecting the land for the remainder of time.
From the first signs of spring until the last leaf flutters to the ground in autumn, the Catskills call city dwellers and nature lovers to the crisp mountain air with a siren song that urges them to disconnect from their hectic lives and slowly drink in the natural beauty. And for those who seek out winter wonderlands, many of these trails can also be explored when blanketed with snow.
If you heed the call of the Catskills, be sure to check out these fantastic hikes.
1. Kaaterskill Falls, Kaaterskill Wild Forest
Visiting Kaaterskill Wild Forest and not seeing Kaaterskill Falls would be like visiting the Big Apple and not making eye contact with Lady Liberty. After all, this waterfall in the northeastern part of the Catskills is the highest cascading waterfall in the Empire State.
The easiest way to hike to the falls is from Laurel House Road, where a 1.7-mile out-and-back trail nearly encircles the falls. Be prepared to climb a lot of stairs, but your efforts will be rewarded with stunning views of both the Hudson River Valley and the magnificent waterfall.
For a longer (and quite challenging) hike, take on the Kaaterskill High Peak Trail. This out-and-back trail slowly rises nearly 2,000 feet over 7.8 miles to a big uphill push in the last half mile. (To put this trek into perspective, the Empire State Building is only 1,454 feet tall from the sidewalk out front to the tip of its lightning rod.) You’ll definitely want hiking boots with good ankle support before setting out on this path. And, if you visit in the early spring or late fall when there’s snow or ice on the path, be sure to take crampons.
If your itinerary only accommodates a brief stop at the falls, then get a quick glimpse by following the relatively flat, 0.3-mile gravel trail from the Laurel House Road parking area to the Kaaterskill Falls viewing platform.
2. Bastion Falls, Kaaterskill Wild Forest
Just southwest of Kaaterskill Falls, Bastion Falls cascades over three tiers before it crashes into Spruce Creek.
If you don’t have much time, you can see Bastion Falls via a 5-minute walk along Route 23 from the Molly Smith parking lot. Take in the views, snap a few photos, return to your car, and be on your way.
Or, you can slow down, inhale the fresh mountain air, and enjoy two waterfalls for the price of one by continuing along the trail to Kaaterskill Falls. This hike is good for explorers of all ages and skill levels and will take about 30 minutes (not including the time you pause to take photographs and enjoy the scenery along the way).
Fun Fact: The Catskills cover four counties -- Delaware, Greene, Sullivan, and Ulster -- but the highest mountain peaks are in Greene County.
3. Catskill Mountain House And Boulder Rocks Trails, Kaaterskill Wild Forest
Once you’ve seen the breathtaking Kaaterskill Falls, there are several other enjoyable hikes in the Kaaterskill Wild Forest to consider. Just south of the strip of land that juts into the lake, dividing it into North Lake and South Lake, you’ll find the Catskill Mountain House and Boulder Rock Trails. Together, they make a 1.7-mile loop that winds past the site of the Catskill Mountain House before continuing on to Boulder Rock.
While there is little that remains of the massive whitewashed building once perched on the edge of the mountain overlooking the Hudson River, the spot still offers the same sweeping views that once impressed business tycoons, inspired artists, and wowed presidents when they stayed at the resort.
Pro Tip: Art lovers will enjoy following the Hudson River School Art Trail when visiting the Catskills. Featuring many of the spots that inspired the paintings of Thomas Cole and other artists drawn to the beauty of the Catskills, the trail includes Kaaterskill Falls, the Catskill Mountain House, and 18 other stops throughout New York before spilling into the nearby states of Massachusetts and New Hampshire.
4. Layman’s Monument Loop Trail, Kaaterskill Wild Forest
Beginning just north of Kaaterskill Falls and looping for 2.2 miles to the east, the Layman’s Monument Loop Trail is another popular trek in Kaaterskill Wild Forest. It includes a stone memorial honoring Frank D. Layman, one of several locals who perished in the summer of 1900 battling a forest fire.
Pro Tip: To help ensure that everyone who visits leaves no trace, there is a $250 fine for littering in the Catskills.
5. Huckleberry Point Trail, Catskill State Park
Winding past clear streams and through thickets of pine trees, this 4.6-mile out-and-back trail in Elka Park caught my attention because I associate delicious huckleberries with the big skies of Montana. However, the huckleberries growing wild in Montana are globe huckleberries, while the Catskill Mountains are home to black huckleberries. Although both dark, round, tasty berries are loved by bears, an added benefit of visiting the Catskills is that you aren’t likely to meet a grizzly along the trail. (But you may see a black bear if you time things just right!)
6. Artists Rock And Sunset Rock, Catskill State Park
Beginning just east of North Lake, this 1.8-mile loop meanders past Artists Rock and loops around Sunset Rock. From the rugged cliff of Artists Rock, take in the sweeping views of the Hudson River Valley and enjoy the regional beauty that inspired artists like Hudson River School founder Thomas Cole. At Sunset Rock, you might feel as if you’ve stepped into a Jasper Cropsey or Sanford Gifford painting as you absorb the same stunning panoramic view that inspired some of their most famous works.
7. Ashokan Rail Trail, Catskill State Park
Stretching more than 11 miles along the north bank of the Ashokan Reservoir between West Hurley and Boiceville, the Ashokan Rail Trail is scenic, shaded, and relatively flat. This gravel path with nonstop water views is dog friendly and wheelchair accessible. Start your trek at any one of the three public trailheads south of Highway 28.
The Ashokan Rail Trail is a mixed-use trail, so be sure to walk to the right so that joggers and bicyclists can easily pass on the left.
8. Pratt Rock Trail, Huntersfield State Forest
If the Catskill Mountains are New York’s version of Yellowstone National Park, then Pratt Rock is the Empire State’s answer to Mount Rushmore. Incorporated into a 3.1-mile round-trip hike up Pratt Rock, a series of rock carvings immortalize the life and times of Zadock Pratt, the founder of nearby Prattsville. At the top of the trail, you’ll be treated to panoramic views of the Schoharie Creek and the land that was once Pratt’s 350-acre farm.
Pro Tip: As you explore the Catskills, keep an eye out for the region’s historic covered bridges. Dating to the mid-19th century, some of the overpasses still accommodate vehicles, while others are only open to pedestrians.
9. RamsHorn-Livingston Sanctuary Trail, Catskill
With marshy swamps, thick forests, and lush glens, the 436-acre RamsHorn-Livingston Audubon Sanctuary along the Hudson River is a wildlife lover’s dream. Watch for bald eagles, herons, white-tailed deer, snakes, and butterflies while exploring a series of relatively flat trails good for hikers of all skill levels.
10. Mountain Top Arboretum, Tannersville
In Tannersville, west of the Kaaterskill Wild Forest, the Mountain Top Arboretum has walking trails that wind through meadows, glens, and marshes full of native plants, trees, and wildlife. Look for wildflowers like trillium and violets in the spring, blooming mountain laurel bushes in the summer, and a final burst of color from the birch, beech, and maple trees as winter approaches.
From the first snowflake that melts into a waterfall to the last colorful leaf that floats to the ground, explore the beauty of the Catskill Mountains with these fantastic hikes.