The Catskills of New York are a "dissected plateau", a highland worn into mountains and valleys by erosion. Largely rural and wild, the Catskills are a popular vacation destination for New Yorkers, but they also have much to offer the traveler from out of state. The Catskills are adjacent to the Poconos region of Pennsylvania.
|Delaware County |
The least densely populated county in New York outside of the Adirondacks, Delaware County offers endless bucolic landscapes in the range's western foothills
|Greene County |
The Catskills became "America's First Wilderness" here on the Escarpment, rising up dramatically from the Hudson Valley
|Orange County |
The transition to the Catskills begins here, in the northwestern exurbs of the New York metropolitan area, where farms and woodlands nestle with small cities and commuter rail stations.
|Sullivan County |
For many people, the home of Woodstock, the Beaverkill's fly-fishing and hundreds of bungalow colonies and summer camps is still synonymous with the Catskills.
|Ulster County |
Thousands of acres of wilderness in the western half of the county are home to some of the range's highest peaks, their streams feeding New York City's oldest reservoir in the region.
- 1 Kingston – New York's first state capital is right where the Catskills meet the Hudson, making it an ideal starting point for explorations of the region.
- 2 Monticello – Centrally located in the Borscht Belt, the Sullivan County seat retains that small-town feel
- 3 Windham – A ski town at the north end of the mountains with the New England charm of its namesakes in that region.
- 4 Woodstock – The festival wasn't held anywhere near here, but this town nevertheless lives up to the hippie reputation evoked by its name.
The Catskills mean different things to different groups of people. To most residents of the Metro New York area to the south, they evoke summer camps, weekend homes and the vast reservoirs that supply clean, pure water to New York City. To historians of American popular culture they are home to the majority of the "Borscht Belt" resorts, where many legendary entertainers honed their skills before predominantly Jewish audiences, and where a later generation thronged to a dairy farm for "three days of peace, love and music" called the Woodstock Music and Art Festival. To art historians, they are the landscapes that captivated Thomas Cole, Frederick Church and the other painters of the Hudson River School, America's first homegrown art movement. To fly fishermen, they are the streams where the first dry flies were cast and tied in American waters, tested by Theodore Gordon and other legends of the sport. To hikers and naturalists, the 290,000 acres (1,150 km²) of "forever wild" land in the Catskill Park's Forest Preserve is an environmental treasure, the land where influential American nature writer John Burroughs grew up and which inspired him to write some of his most famous essays.
Yet for all these multiple meanings, no one is quite sure what "Catskill" originally referred to. Perhaps it was Henry Hudson's crew, seeing bobcats around the creek they stopped at, and then naming it "Catskill", which was extended to the distant mountains. Or the many Iroquois stockades along the riverbank, which the Dutch referred to as "kats". Or poet Jacob Kats, supposedly a shrewd land speculator. Or the Iroquois' lacrosse sticks, a small Dutch ship, or a Mohican chief who lived in the area. It's all the more surprising since the range was generally referred to as the Blue Mountains until the early 19th century, when Washington Irving's works popularized the long-scorned Dutch name.
Even with general agreement on the name, it's also hard to say where the Catskills begin and end, beyond the very abrupt boundary created by the Catskill Escarpment at the northeast corner of the range, where mountains suddenly rise to over 3,000 feet (900 m) above sea level from the valley floor. Communities far outside the Catskill Park's Blue Line, as far as the banks of the Delaware and Susquehanna rivers, claim to be or are considered to be in the Catskills. Perhaps the only real indicator is what a longtime resident once told historian Alf Evers: that as long as "there are two rocks for every dirt" in the soil, you are in the Catskills.
The Catskills began 350 million years ago as a river delta, absorbing the runoff from the Taconic Mountains to the northeast, then the tallest on the planet, as water drained into a shallow inland sea. At some point during that time, a meteorite one half-mile (1 km) wide struck the river delta; the resulting impact crater eventually formed Panther Mountain in western Ulster County, one of the range's highest peaks, through a process known as "inverted relief." Eventually the Taconics eroded to what they are now, and the rivers and sea dried up. What had been their floors became the shales, sandstones and other sedimentary rock that makes up the bedrock of the range.
Continental drift and plate tectonics formed the Appalachian Mountains. Instead of breaking up into smaller mountains and hills, the Catskills rose up as a single landform, a process visible in the dramatic rise of the Catskill Escarpment from the Hudson Valley floor in Greene County. Over the next eons, streams draining uplifted rock carved out deep gaps. The Catskills are thus, in geological terms, a "maturely dissected plateau", rather than true mountains, although you would be forgiven if the distinction was lost when driving around them.
In the last million years, the various glacial periods further shaped the mountains. The glaciers themselves were thick enough to cover all the mountains, save 4,180-foot (1,277-m) Slide, in the Ulster County town of Shandaken, the range's highest peak. The scouring under centuries of ice had some effects, the most significant of which may have been to remove any coal that might have settled there. But it was the lakes left behind as the glaciers melted which left us with the range as we know it today, the rushing meltwaters carving out the dramatic gaps like Stony Clove Notch and Kaaterskill Clove.
The first humans who came kept going. While the Iroquois who settled in Southern New York found routes through the mountains to the rest of their nation, and hunted there, they found the Hudson Valley a more amenable place to settle due to its more fertile soils and milder climate. It was there that they met Henry Hudson and the crew of the Halve Maen, journeying up the river that would be named for him in 1609.
Wars between the Dutch and the English kept most settlers for venturing into the mountains for the rest of the century. It was not until 1708, well after English rule had been established, that Lord Cornbury, the colonial governor, granted the Hardenbergh Patent, covering most of what is today considered the Catskills. Subdividing and selling the land, however, proved difficult. The Iroquois, as well as the few squatters in the region, disrupted the survey to the point of unreliability, and as the century wore on there were increasing questions about the validity of the deal, given Cornbury's well-deserved reputation for corruption and the patentees' willingness to enrich themselves by selling shares despite all these issues. It took until the middle of the century for all the land to be subdivided and settlement to begin.
Nevertheless the Catskills came to the attention of the wider public, if only through scientific research. Swedish botanist Peter Kalm passed through the region on his journeys to Niagara Falls, noting some of the species he found. One was "balm of Gilead fir", today known as balsam fir and mostly found only on higher summits in the range. Philadelphia botanist John Bartram went to the North-South Lake area with his son to collect some seeds of the tree for correspondents in London. His 1753 account of the trip, A Journey to Ye Cat Skill Mountains with Billy, was widely read both in the colonies and England.
Most early settlers were tenants, who held their lands under a quasi-feudal arrangement known as the "three-life lease", by which a father, son, and then grandson could theoretically take title to their land if the three generations were able to pay for it. In practice this rarely happened, and even after a pro-British tenant uprising against their independence-minded landlords was put down at the beginning of the Revolutionary War, the many Anti-rent wars continued until a new state constitution abolished those leases in 1840.
With the region's politics finally settled, its economy began to shake out. It was built around two industries – tourism and tanbarking – that would shape it into the 20th century. The first began with the Catskill Mountain House hotel, near North-South Lake in the Greene County town of Hunter. Hotelier Charles Beach marketed the spectacular views over the valley from the Escarpment after taking over sole control in the 1820s, and by the Civil War presidents, artists and other visiting dignitaries and celebrities were visiting "America's First Wilderness", where other hotels, some on mountaintops, had been built as well.
Deeper in the mountains, barkpeelers went into the abundant forests looking for the many large groves of Eastern hemlock. They sought not the wood itself, useful for some pieces of furniture but little else, but the reddish bark. When stripped from a sufficiently mature tree and boiled, it yielded quality tannin for the tanning process essential to making leather. The woods yielded enough bark that most of the leather holsters issued to Union Army officers during the Civil War were tanned in the Catskills. Other than bluestone used in making sidewalks, it was the only exploitable resource the mountains yielded.
In 1879 a guest at the Mountain House, Princeton geology professor Arnold Henri Guyot, took note of the many mountains to the west and southwest visible from the peaks near the hotel. It was already known that, contrary to Beach's publicity materials, nearby Kaaterskill High Peak, which had graced so many Hudson River School paintings, was not the range's highest peak. Guyot wondered what was, and in his spare time returned to the Catskills with a survey team. They became the first to record ascents of many of the range's highest summits, and in 1885 stunned the Escarpment hoteliers with the revelation that the highest peak in the range was, in fact, Slide Mountain, located 20 miles to the southwest in the Ulster County town of Shandaken.
The same year, politicians in that county had grown sick of dealing with an expensive problem resulting in part from tanbarking. Once they had stripped the good trees, the barkpeelers often left the land behind; while they reaped the profits, the land defaulted to the county, and by law they were responsible for property taxes owed to the state. The increasing costs incurred were beginning to strain the county's coffers, and when they could not get a reprieve their representatives in the state legislature found an even better solution. Earlier that year the legislature had designated certain state lands in the Adirondacks to be the state Forest Preserve, "forever kept as wild forest lands." They had the lands with the tax delinquencies transferred to the state as payment in full of the outstanding debts ...and nothing in the Catskills would be the same afterwards.
Slowly the quarrying and barkpeeling industries ebbed, done in by the development of cheaper synthetic materials and processes. The hotels around North-South Lake, too, went into decline as their founders died. In their place came those drawn to the newly protected land, especially after the legislature drew the "Blue Line" in 1902, creating the Catskill Park. John Burroughs, a native of Delaware County who became one of the era's leading nature writers, devoted some of his most memorable essays to his journeys into the Catskill wilderness, including one of the earliest accounts of an ascent of Slide.
Another writer was Theodore Gordon, who went to live in the mountains during the 1890s to fight off his tuberculosis infection. To pass the time, he began fishing, and made some money writing about his experiences for Field & Stream. The remote headwaters of streams like the Beaver Kill had been quietly known for years outside the region as brimming with trout, and farmers had been living off the fisheries for years. Gordon not only popularized them, he revolutionized American angling when he introduced the dry fly, developed in Britain to imitate a surface insect, as a lure. Later anglers refined techniques and developed new flies, and thousands follow in their footsteps annually, wading into the cool clear creeks and rivers looking to land a trout to remember.
The waters also interested New York City, which had begun to outgrow its Westchester-based supply network at the end of the 20th century. The city looked all the way to the Catskills, where the "forever wild" language, added to the 1894 state constitution as Article XIV, protected the watersheds of streams like the Esopus and Schoharie creeks. A protracted legal and political struggle over the lands to be condemned led to the 1915 opening of Ashokan Reservoir in central Ulster County, the first of what are now six serving the city.
The city was home to another group of people that would redefine the Catskills. Jewish immigrants in the city, at the time banned from most established resorts, began spending summers in boardinghouses at the farms of their co-religionists in the lower Catskills, where they could at least keep kosher. Those boardinghouses and bungalow colonies gradually grew into resorts of their own like Grossinger's and the Concord, the nucleus of the "Borscht Belt", where dozens of entertainers would hone their skills and launch careers that took them to far greater heights. That era passed when laws ended religious discrimination, although many ultra-Orthodox Hasidim still relocate to the region for the summer. Today the large resorts are closed, and most of the smaller buildings gone, but the memories have been captured in films like Dirty Dancing, Mr. Saturday Night and A Walk on the Moon.
As the Borscht Belt era was ending, in 1969, the event that would redefine the Catskills for the present generation took place. Late that summer, thousands of the era's hippies gathered on a dairy farm near the Sullivan County town of Bethel for "three days of peace, love and music" from some of the era's top acts such as Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young; The Who, Jefferson Airplane and Jimi Hendrix. While the festival was actually declared a disaster area, launching scores of lawsuits, and many of the performances were subpar, the Woodstock festival gave the baby-boom generation a name and a spiritual touchstone for years afterwards, as many claimed to be there who had not been.
And it continues to frame the region today. It's most evident in the town of Woodstock, miles from the festival site, but throughout the modern Catskills you'll find a focus on the artsy and the spiritual, with retreats focusing on Eastern religion and New Age mysticism drawing outsiders to the region in the summer. Older communities hold on, too, even after the severe flooding caused by Hurricane Irene in 2011, damage which can still be seen in many places, particularly the Greene County village of Prattsville. And the hikers and fishermen continue to flock to the trails and streams, rich with the history of their sports, not only in the summer but most of the year.
New York City gets the bulk of its water from the Catskills for a very good reason: the region, in particularly the area around Slide Mountain, is the rainiest in the state. But that's not the only thing that stands out.
As an elevated mountainous plateau, the Catskill climate differs from its neighboring, lower regions. Summers are generally pleasant and cooler than elsewhere (why else would so many residents of the metropolitan area come to the mountains for long periods during that season?) although the experience of Irene has been a sobering reminder that the region is not some isolated mountain idyll beyond the reach of nature's fury.
After summer gives way to the shorter days and festive colors of fall and its leaf-peeping highlights, winter comes. And that's a different story. The first snows have been known to accumulate on higher summits in early November, before hunting season even starts. With much of the region at least 2,000 feet (600 m) above sea level, there is usually plenty of snow and, in a typical winter, at least a few nights with temperatures several degrees below 0°F (-17°C). The ski areas nevertheless maintain ample snowmaking facilities.
As February turns to March and saplines string trees to each other, gaps start to appear in the snow cover. While some white areas have lingered into early May in shaded areas of the summits, in the valleys it's all gone by the April 1 opening of trout season. From then to Memorial Day, spring gradually creeps up the slopes, just in time for another glorious Catskill summer.
- The Catskills: From Wilderness to Woodstock, (Alf Evers, 1982). Few regions can be said to have a single, authoritative history written about them as this magnum opus. Essentially the long (and, at 700+ pages, it is long) version of the history above, it covers everything important that's happened in the region from colonial times to the era of its writing. Evers, a folklorist by training who grew up on an Ulster County farm, pays special attention to the region's legends and the views of its ordinary people. The result is a multi-generational epic that rivals any science fiction or fantasy franchise.
- The Catskill Mountain House (Roland van Zandt, 1966). Somewhat overtaken by the scope of Evers' later work, this history of the region's signature resort was one of the earliest efforts to rediscover the rich history of the Catskills. Features some of the last pictures taken of the ruined building, by the author, before the state razed it in 1965.
- It Happened in the Catskills: An Oral History in the Words of Busboys, Bellhops, Guests, Proprietors, Comedians, Agents, and Other Who Lived It, (Myrna Katz and Harvey Frommer, 2009). There had been many books and memoirs written about summer in the Borscht Belt, but until this no real attempt to tell the whole story. Maybe it doesn't, but the many voices tell a grand enough story as it is.
- The Catskills: Its History and How it Changed America, (Stephen M. Silverman and Raphael Silver, 2015). Sort of a more condensed, 21st-century updating of Evers' work, on glossy paper with plenty of illustrations.
- Making Mountains: New York City and the Catskills, (David Stradlin, 2007) A history of the Catskills that focuses on the way the region has been conceived and altered over two centuries to serve the interests of New York City.
- The films Dirty Dancing (1987), Mr. Saturday Night (1992) and A Walk on the Moon (1999), were for the most part filmed outside the region, but effectively depict various aspects of the Borscht Belt era.
- The overlooked 1996 comedy-drama Manny & Lo, starring Scarlett Johansson, is worth watching as a cinematic introduction to the region. Not only is it set in the wilder areas of Ulster and Greene counties, it was actually shot at recognizable locations such as Devil's Tombstone campground.
- The Gunks: Colloquial term for the Shawangunk Ridge (see below), in particular the popular climbing cliffs on the east near New Paltz.
- The mountaintop: Local term for the Tannersville–Haines Falls area in Greene County, not because it's on an actual mountaintop but rather from being one of the highest-elevation settlements in the state (Tannersville is New York's highest incorporated municipality; Haines Falls is its second-highest hamlet after the Southern Tier community of Knapp Creek).
- Quickway: Older term for Route 17, from original name at planning stage. Began dropping from use even before conversion to I-86.
- Shawangunk: The ridge, town and stream are pronounced as spelled by visitors but SHONG-gum by locals.
- The Catskills: A region of the State of New York lying between the Hudson Valley to the south and east, the Leatherstocking region to the north, the Southern Tier to the west and Pennsylvania to the southwest. See map for more information.
- The Watershed: (specifically the Catskills/Delaware watershed) the area of New York State whose rivers and streams drain into the Cannonsville, Pepacton, Neversink, Schoharie and Ashokan Reserviors. See map [dead link] for more information.
- The Blue Line: the public and private lands comprising the Catskill Forest Preserve. While privately held land within the boundaries of this area is subject to strict environmental regulation, the same can be said of the watershed land not within the boundaries. Public land within the Blue Line is designated as 'forever wild' as per the state constitution. See map for more information.
- The Rail Trail: officially known as the Catskill Scenic Trail, follows the former right-of-way of the Delaware and Ulster Railroad for 26 miles through beautiful scenery in Delaware County.
- DEC: pronounced 'Dee Eee See' the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, which fields two police forces to protect the environment, the Forest Rangers and the DEC Police. Some may grumble about the DEC, being that they are a government agency. However most residents and visitors to New York appreciate the work that they do.
- DEP: pronounced 'Dee Eee Pee'. The third environmental law enforcement agency in the region are the DEP Police (not the same as the DEC) in that they actually work for the City of New York, and patrol the reservoirs.
There are no major airports in the Catskills themselves. The two that best serve the region are located to the southeast and northeast.
- Stewart International Airport, 1180 First St, New Windsor, +1 845 564-2100. Newburgh's airport is well-positioned close to the New York State Thruway and Interstate 84. It is an excellent place to arrive if your destination within the Catskills is on the south, such as Sullivan or Ulster County.
- Albany International Airport, 737 Albany-Shaker Rd, Albany, +1 518 242-2200. The airport to fly into if you're heading for the northern Catskills, particularly Greene County.
- For private planes (including jets), the best option in the region is Sullivan County International Airport, in Bethel, a short distance from the county seat at Monticello.
There is no passenger rail service directly to the Catskills. The Rhinecliff and Hudson stations on Amtrak's Empire Service line along the Hudson River correspond to the river crossings closest to the Catskills, and bus connections can be made. Amtrak also serves Poughkeepsie, which has the most bus connections, although if you're coming to that station from within the New York area you must use Metro-North [formerly dead link] to get there instead.
Adirondack Trailways offers two routes across the region from its west-of-Hudson line. One follows Route 28 west to Pine Hill, Belleayre Mountain and beyond from Kingston. The other, from Saugerties, follows Routes 23A and 23 across Greene County, with stops in Tannersville, Hunter and Stamford. Both lines eventually reach Oneonta, where transfer is also available from Trailways' service along the Interstate 88 corridor.
The New York State Thruway (Interstate 87), a divided toll road, is the primary route to the Catskill region for visitors coming from the south and southeast (i.e., New York City and its suburbs).
- Catskills region exits 16 through 21: As signs along the highway inform you, Exits 16–21, roughly 45–113 miles (72–185 km) from the city, serve the Catskills. The toll for that distance ranges from $2.50-5.20, with discounts available for users of the EZPass electronic payment system. Which exit you'll want to take depends on where in the Catskills you're headed.
- Exit 16 – Harriman – US Route 6 – NY Route 17 (Future I-86): travelers to the Catskills should decide well ahead of the Harriman exit whether or not they are to leave the Thruway at this point. This is a very busy area, and as you will see, NY Route 17 (I-86) is surrounded mega-malls from here to Middletown NY. Not a place to be making travel decisions. Travelers to Sullivan County and western Delaware County (Roscoe, Hancock, Deposit) should exit the Thruway at 16.
- Exit 18 – New Paltz – Poughkeepsie – NY Route 299: see below.
- Exit 19 – Kingston – Route 28 – Rhinecliff Bridge: The most convenient highway to the central Catskills, New York State Route 28, begins at Kingston. After getting off the Thruway at Exit 19, you'll bear right into the traffic circle and see the Catskill Park welcome sign before you cross the Thruway. Don't let the car dealerships and restaurants just beyond the overpass disappoint you.
- Ahead lies a 30-mile (50 km) drive up the Esopus Creek valley that just gets more and more picturesque as you go, taking you past New York City's Ashokan Reservoir to the hamlet of Phoenicia, the largest settlement in the corridor, nicely recovered from the floods that ravaged it after Irene. After you continue past Shandaken and Big Indian, the road climbs almost 2,000 feet (600 m) in a steady two-mile (3 km) stretch past Pine Hill to the divide between the Hudson and Delaware watersheds (also the Ulster–Delaware county line), and the entrance to Belleayre Ski Center. Beyond, it continues to Margaretville, Delhi and the city of Oneonta at Interstate 88 before heading north to Cooperstown and the Adirondacks.
- Exit 20 – Saugerties – Woodstock – Route 32: From Exit 20 in Saugerties, follow New York State Route 32 a few miles north, then bear left on the short New York State Route 32A to Palenville, where it ends at New York State Route 23A. Immediately after heading west, you'll begin the scenic climb of Kaaterskill Clove. At the bottom is Kaaterskill Creek with its many waterfalls and cliffs, where it will be easy to find popular swimming holes on nice summer weekends. On either side are the tall cliffs of this break in the Catskill Escarpment. Near the top of the climb is the short hike to Kaaterskill Falls, popular despite the dangerous road walk along the highway required to reach the trailhead. Once you've leveled off, you're headed for Haines Falls, Tannersville and Hunter, with the spectacular Devil's Path range to the south.
- Exit 21 – Catskill – Cairo – NY Route 23: Exit 21 is not only the last Catskills exit, it's the Catskill exit—literally. The Escarpment and the tall peaks of the Blackhead Range, the Catskills' third, fourth and fifth-highest mountains, loom off to the side of the Thruway. Here New York State Route 23 makes a slow climb up the north face of the Escarpment, past Five State Lookout (which lives up to its billing on clear enough days), to Windham, home to another popular ski area with that same name. To the west it continues along Schoharie Creek to flood-damaged Prattsville, then to the remote Delaware County communities of Grand Gorge and Stamford before meeting Route 28 outside Oneonta.
- Exit 18 – New Paltz – Poughkeepsie – NY Route 299: The New Paltz exit is listed out of numerical order for a reason: it comes with a caution. Most travelers to the Catskills are best advised to continue north on the Thruway one more exit (19) and utilize Route 28 for access to the region. However, intrepid travelers may want to try The Back Route via Rondout Reservior – Claryville – Frost Valley – Slide Mountain – Big Indian. At Big Indian, one can re-join Route 28.
- There are two sections to this journey:
- First is the drive from the Thruway at Exit 18/New Paltz to the Village of Napanoch (on US Route 209, 2 miles north of Ellenville) via Minnewaska State Park.
- The second half of the journey begins in the Village of Napanoch at the junction of US Route 209 and Ulster County Route 55. Ultimately it will lead through Claryville, past Slide Mountain and on to Big Indian in Ulster County, NY and State Route 28.
- This route may be a destination in itself. There are many wonderful Catskill hiking trails along this route. The eastern terminus of the FLT is in the not-even-a-village-anymore place called Dennning. The FLT begins (ends?) at the Long Path, and just north of Claryville on Ulster County Route 47 is Frost Valley and just north of that is Slide Mountain, the premier trophy peak of the Catskills.
- Consult a map – and bring it with you – for more details on this route. While you are in Claryville, stop by the Country Deli, which is clean, modern, and serves excellent food. This trip covers some remote territory, so make sure your fuel tank is at least at 3/4 tank.
New York State Route 17: is a freeway in the process of being converted to Interstate 86.
- NY State Route 17 from the southeast: Route 17 begins its westward journey at Thruway Exit 16 in Harriman. In its early years it was called the Quickway, for the speedy trip it offered to the many resorts in Sullivan County and the fishing spots of the Beaver Kill and upper Delaware system.
- NY State Route 17 from the northwest: is also the only expressway leading to the Catskills from their west; the highly scenic route from that direction begins from Interstate 81 just south of Binghamton and takes you along the Delaware's upper branches and then Beaver Kill, all usually being well-fished in season, on the way to Sullivan County.
- NY State Route 17 in Delaware County: About an hour and fifteen minutes north of the Thruway/Route 17 interchange in Woodbury, (and just over two hours from the Bronx), is the village of Roscoe, NY. At this point, and for the next 35 or so miles northbound, the highway not only provides a southerly access to the Catskills (as it has since crossing the Shawangunk Ridge), but it is now truly within the Catskills, with all its scenic beauty.
- The Village of Roscoe, in Delaware County, is home to the Roscoe Diner, which is a landmark in its own right. Route 206 begins in Roscoe, and heads generally northwest, through Delaware County, and on to Greene, NY and then to Whitney Point, NY at Interstate 81. Route 206 is the access route to the quietest towns (Downsville, Walton, Masonville, Franklin) of the quietest county (Delaware County) that the Catskills has to offer.
- Friday nights: If your plans take you to the Catskills on a Friday, consider leaving closer to the evening hours as many of those heading for the mountains are Orthodox Jews who leave the city early to arrive before sundown and keep the Sabbath; the roads may be a little clearer after dark. Route 17 can be crowded on Fridays and Sundays during the summer months, especially around the junction with the NYS Thruway, due to the proximity of the neighboring Woodbury Commons outlet mall.
Interstate 88: spans the 140 mile distance form Albany NY to Binghamton NY, with Oneonta NY roughly the half-way point between these two cities. This modern, limited access, divided, non-toll road does not enter the Catskills at any point, but it is worth listing this road as an important contributor to access by car into the Catskills.
- Exit 23 (Schoharie): New York State Route 30 (actually 30A for 1 mile) proceeds south from Interstate 88 for 35 miles until the village of Stamford, and the midpoint of the Catskill Rail Tail.
- Exit 15 (Oneonta): New York State Route 28 proceeds south from Interstate 88 for 21 miles until the village of Delhi, the county seat of Delaware County, the westernmost county of the Catskills.
- Exit 10 (Sidney) Delaware County Route 8 proceeds south from Interstate 88 for 6 miles until the crossroads of Masonville, NY. Within a mile or two of the blinking light at Masonville are several access points to the Finger Lakes Trail and four state forest areas: Beals Pond, Arctic China, Steam Mill and Barbour Brook State Forests. These lands are the absolute westernmost hiking and hunting lands of the Catskills region, and seem like an 'undiscovered land' to the few visitors to the area.
Some of the state routes through and within the region are also designated as bike routes. In addition, the state Department of Environmental Conservation is considering formally allowing mountain bikers to use some unpaved roads within the Forest Preserve areas, which would make some shortcuts possible.
- Catskill Scenic Trail: AKA 'The Rail Trail' is a 26 mile multi-use trail (hiking, jogging, biking, horseback riding, skiing and snowshoeing) that follows along the former Ulster and Delaware Railroad right of way in Delaware County. The trail runs alongside NYS routes 10, 23 and 30, through the hamlets of Bloomville, South Kortright, Hobart, Stamford, Grand Gorge and Roxbury. Access points which include dedicated parking are available at Bloomville and Stamford. The trail does cross roads at various points, caution should be exercised at these crossings.
- See the To Do section below for more biking information.
- While Ulster County Area Transit (UCAT) serves primarily the more populous eastern half of the county, it has lines to Ellenville and Belleayre.
- Greene County's Rip van Winkle Express Bus service [dead link] mainly connects outlying areas, including some in the mountains, with Catskill, the county seat. Service is limited.
Several ways to enter the Catskills, as alternatives to the main routes include:
- New York State Route 213 is a roundabout back road from Kingston to the Ashokan Reservoir. If you've got more time than you need get between them along Route 28, consider following Route 213 down Rondout Creek, past the bed of the old Delaware and Hudson Canal, through the picturesque hamlets of Rosendale, High Falls and Stone Ridge. From there Route 213 plunges through dense woods to drop you off just in front of the reservoir's main spillway, now closed to cars but not pedestrians.
- Ulster County Route 47 is described in the section above (see Thruway Exit 18/New Paltz) as part of a 'back route' that originates in New Paltz and winds its way to Big Indian on Route 28 in Ulster County. This route is not a casual drive or for people who get lost easily.
Roads that traverse the more mountainous area of the Catskills include:
- New York State Route 42: the northern segment of this road goes through the dramatic Deep Notch between Halcott and Sherrill mountains, both major peaks of the range, shortly after leaving Route 28 at Big Indian. It then descends past West Kill, following the creek of that name to Schoharie Creek at Lexington, where it connects to Route 23A.
- New York State Route 214: probably the most-used Catskills interior route, New York State Route 214 follows Stony Clove Creek up from Route 28 at Phoenicia through Stony Clove Notch, the pass between Plateau and Hunter mountains pictured at the top of this page. North of there it connects to Route 23A between Hunter and Tannersville.
- New York State Route 296: just west of Hunter, New York State Route 296 climbs north from 23A, offering some beautiful views of Hunter and Rusk mountains in the rear view mirror. It continues to Route 23 at Hensonville.
In Delaware County, try exploring the roads surrounding the two main reservoirs, the Cannonsville and the Pepacton. These roads are actually owned and maintained by the City of New York, and travel through the pristine landscape responsible for supplying NYC with drinking water.
- New York State Route 10 is a beautiful drive, beginning just north of Deposit, heading west past the Cannonsville, it continues on through the villages of Walton, Delhi and Stamford, before heading north and out of the county. Along the way is provides access to the Catskill Rail Trail at Bloomville, Hobart and Stamford.
- New York State Route 30 begins at the interchange with NY Route 17 (Future I-86) in the Town of Hancock, and follows the East Branch Delaware River to Downsville. East of Downsville, NY 30 runs along the south side of the Pepacton Reservoir and briefly overlaps NY 28 in Margaretville. Fom Margaretville, it heads north east to Roxbury, where the tracks of the Delaware and Ulster can be seen at several places near the river. From Roxbury, NY 30 travels up to the headwaters area of the East Branch, and crosses a narrow gap in the hills, into the hamlet of Grand Gorge, where it intersects NY 23. From there, it heads north out of the region and on to Interstate 88 in Schoharie.
As with most large mountainous regions, there have been efforts to link hiking trails into a long-distance network. So far, there have been two that allow long-distance multi-day hikes in the Catskills:
- The 558-mile (897 km) Finger Lakes Trail (FLT) begins its trip to that region at a trail junction in the Slide Mountain Wilderness Area, near the headwaters of the Neversink River. From there it heads west, following white blazes past the Balsam Lake Mountain firetower and Pepacton Reservoir, through Sullivan and Delaware counties.
- The eastern terminus of the Finger Lakes Trail is the junction with the Long Path, a 347-mile (560 km) trail from the George Washington Bridge to the Schenectady area. Most of the trail in the Catskills has been taken off the road; the one section where a road walk is still required passes close by the hamlet of Phoenicia. Highlights include Slide Mountain, much of the challenging Devil's Path range, and the North-South Lake area. Generally it follows existing trails on state land; when on roads or private property it follows the same aqua blazes as the rest of its route.
Although it is primarily a tourist heritage line, the Catskill Mountain Railroad, serves some short-range transportation needs along the Route 28 corridor, most notably for tubers on the stretch of Esopus Creek below Phoenicia. It has recovered from severe damage inflicted by Hurricane Irene; there have been plans to connect its Kingston segment with that one using the old Ulster and Delaware tracks although those have faced strong local opposition from proponents of a rail trail.
- 1 North-South Lake, County Route 18, Haines Falls (NE of Haines Falls along North Lake Road), ☏ , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. 24. An excellent all-around introduction to the Catskills for either day or overnight. Fish, boat and swim in the lakes, or hike the extensive trail system to the ruins of the Catskill Mountain House and the views it made famous. $22 for camping permits; less for day use.
- 2 Opus 40, 50 Fite Road, Saugerties (Off Glasco Turnpike between Mt. Marion and NY 212), ☏ . Thursdays through Sundays and holiday Mondays 11AM-5:30PM. A splendid sculpture garden listed on the National Register of Historic Places, carved out of an old quarry, with spectacular views complementing the art $10 adult, $7 students and seniors, $3 children 6-12, under 6 free, no dogs.
- Franklin Stage Company: on Institute Street, Village of Franklin (northwestern Delaware County) Founded in 1996, the Franklin Stage Company is dedicated to the production of classic and new plays that unsettle, provoke, and entertain. Franklin Stage Company’s joint mission is to produce admission-free world class theatre in our rural area of the western Catskills while preserving our magnificent home, Chapel Hall. There is a restaurant on Main Street in Franklin that is usually open on show nights.
Rivers like the Willowemoc and the Beaverkill are famous for their brown trout, particularly in the spring and fall when the weather is cool. Three streams in Sullivan and Delaware Counties — the Neversink, the West Branch of the Delaware and the East Branch — are tailwaters (released from reservoir impoundments) whose temperatures stay cool and fish-favorable all summer.
- Trout Town, USA: also occasionally known as Roscoe, N.Y. This village, located directly on Route 17 (exit 94) has more fishing-themed business than can be mentioned here.
- Al's: just downstream of the Pepacton Reservior dam in Downsville, NY at the junction of New York State Route 30 and New York State Route 206, Al has a motel, sporting goods shop and canoe rental.
- 1 Catskill Fly Fishing Center and Museum, 1031 Old Route 17, Livingston Manor, NY (2 mi west on Old Route 17 from Exit 96 on NY 17), ☏ , fax: , ✉ email@example.com. Apr-Oct: daily 10AM–4PM; Nov-Mar: Tu-Sa 10AM–4PM. Located on the banks of Willowemoc Creek, this is an excellent introduction to the region's historic trout streams for both the experienced angler and the novice who'd like to give it a try. Childrens environmental education classes $90 once a summer.
- Living off the land: If you or a friend have been fly-fishing and have caught a trout large enough to consider actually keeping it instead of releasing it as is the custom (and indeed the law in some areas), nothing tastes better than eating it fresh around a campfire, prepared by someone who knows how to cook it.
The following organizations are worth taking a look into as prep for hiking in the Catskills:
- 3500 Club: The Catskill Mountain 3500 Club, a group of hikers who have climbed all 35 peaks in the range above that elevation, whether trailed or trail-less, as well as a select group of four peaks in winter (and many have climbed all 35 in winter, as well), is the hiking club with the most specific focus on the Catskills. It schedules regular weekend hikes, most but not all on those 35 peaks.
- NY/NJ Trail Conference: If you'd prefer to explore the mountains and trails on your own, the New York–New Jersey Trail Conference produces the standard maps of the region. These maps are a printed on a highly durable, waterproof material and are impeccably detailed. They are a must-have for any hike in the Catskills.
- Finger Lakes Trail Conference: produces excellent paper maps of the entire FLT trail system and has an on-line interactive map on its website.
- Other outdoors organizations that organize group hikes in the Catskills are the North Jersey-New York chapter of the Appalachian Mountain Club and several chapters of the Adirondack Mountain Club.
Some of the most popular – and more demanding – hikes worth mentioning here:
- Slide Mountain: at 4,200 ft, it is the highest peak in the Catskills, located in the Town of Shandaken, Ulster County, NY. Trailhead parking on Ulster County Route 47, approximately 9.5 miles south of New York State Route 28 in Big Indian, NY. Not a particularly risky hike on its own, due to the fact that much of the route is an old access road for the (no longer extant) fire tower, however it is physically demanding nonetheless. The risker portion of the trail begins after the summit, on the down-slope towards Cornell Mountain. Wooden ladders have been installed on the rocky slopes, and if one looks out from these ladders, they can feel as if they are nearly hanging in mid-air. Combining the climb to Slide Mountain with the Cornell/Wittenberg route to Woodland Valley (or the reverse) is an impressive, two-car, multi-day undertaking.
- Escarpment Trail: 24 miles of rugged, rocky and at several points dangerous terrain, running generally north/south along the Catskill Escarpment – the huge wall of a mountain overlooking the Hudson Valley of the northeast Catskills. A sample section of the trail can be experienced at the North-South Lake area, accessed via County Route 18, Haines Falls, NY. The entire trail requires three days and two cars.
- Devil's Path: 25 miles of hell. One of the most popular trails in the Catskills, featuring 18,000 feet of elevation change over its length. Consistently featured in hiking magazine articles entitled 'The Five (or Ten) Most Dangerous Hiking Trails in the (State, United States, World, Solar System, etc.) This trail is laid out so that there are quite a number of day trip loops that utilize this trail as part of the loop, but return the hiker to the same parking area at the end. Dogs and children should be left at home for the eastern section (Jimmy Dolan area to Route 214) however the western (Route 214 to Spruceton) section is not much more risky than other trails in the area.
- Hunter Mountain: at 4,040 feet, the second highest peak in the Catskills, with the western approach trailhead located at the east end of Spruceton Road, Spruceton, NY. Hunter Mountain is similar to Slide Mountain in that the trails (the western approach from from Spruceton) utilize old roads to create a scenic, quite physically demanding but not particularly dangerous hike. There is a firetower at the top of Hunter, and during the summer, there may be an interpretive guide – who spends nights in the nearby cabin – to welcome you to the top of the mountain. An interesting – and otherworldly – experience is to take the Colonel's Chair side trail down to the tops of the Hunter Mountain ski area, which is virtually abandoned during the summer. Be careful navigating as you approach the main ski slopes, there is a network of side trails up here that are not well marked.
Less demanding – and possibly kid-friendly – hiking ideas:
- Shavertown Trail: Located in the town of Andes, the Shavertown trail offers families and novice hikers a unique opportunity in the Catskills – a spectacular view after only one moderately strenuous mile, followed by a fairly level mile and a half through beautiful rock ledges and wonderful forest to explore. The trailhead is on County Route 1, about a tenth of a mile north of the intersection of Route 30 and County Route 1 in Andes. Park at the parking lot by the bridge.
- North/South Lake: check with the Forest Rangers so you can avoid the challenging adult-only trails that begin in this area, and otherwise you will have a kid friendly vacation, including gentle hiking trails, a swimming area and a campground.
- Catskill Scenic Trail: see the Getting Around (Bicycle) section above. With children, take extra caution at the several road crossings along the route. Take a break along the trail in the Villages of Hobart and Stamford particularly.
- Balsam Lake Mountain and Fire Tower Trail: is a moderately demanding, and relatively safe trail, in that it follows a wide footpath that is actually still listed as a non-maintained road in the Town of Hardenburg in Ulster County. Begin at Dry Brook Road and State Route 28 the Village of Arkville, Delaware County. Take Dry Brook Road south for 6 miles, make a right (heading west) onto Mill Brook Road, (there is a barn sitting in the middle of the intersection) and then after 2 miles on (a very winding) Mill Brook Road, the trailhead parking will be on your right. The actual trail is across the road from the parking area. The fire tower is attended on summer weekends, there is a nice DEC cabin nearby in which a husband-and-wife team lives for a day or two at a time giving tours of the tower.
- Kelly Hollow: an idyllic setting, including waterfalls, a beaver pond, foot bridges, and two campsites, Kelly Hollow is also located on Mill Brook Road, 6 miles west of the intersection with Dry Brook Road. Stay on the trail when hiking on the hills above the river. A very brief road walk completes a lovely loop hike.
- Western Catskills (Cherry Ridge Wild Forest): For hikers who would prefer to explore the woods in relative solitude, while much less spectacular than the eastern or northern Catskills, the 17 trails in the area south of the Pepacton Reservior (in the towns of Colchester and Andes) are the 'road less traveled.' Wonderful hikes for the family in the western Catskills include:
- Trout Pond/Mud Pond: in the far southwest corner of the Catskills, near the intersection of Morton Hill Road and Russell Brook Road in the Town of Colchester. Take New York State Route 17 to State Route 206 north at exit 94 (Roscoe) Proceed north on 206 for 2½ miles, take a left onto Morton Hill Road and go another 2½ miles to the seasonal and rugged Russell Brook Road. There are loop trails, two lakes, and several campsites. This place fills up on busy weekends.
- Huggins Lake: on Holliday and Berry Brook Road in the town of Andes, roughly half way between the Beaverkill Campground in Sullivan County, and State Route 30 at the Pepacton Reservoir in Andes. This gentle, less than 2 mile hike ends at a lovely, very remote lake, that has an old canoe laying around, left there by the DEC for your use. They did not leave any life vests around, so an adult should accompany children on any boat rides.
The western Catskills (Cherry Ridge area) is easily accessed from NY Route 17 (Future 86) Seasonal homes are located on the many north/south roads that run from Route 17 north to the Pepacton Reseroir).
There are several ski areas in the region.
- Hunter Mountain. On the range's second-highest peak in the eponymous Greene County community, is the best-known and most popular. It programs events year-round, and operates its chairlift in the summer for those who'd like to get a high-level view without the hike.
- Belleayre Ski Center: Outside Pine Hill, in Ulster County, is state-owned Belleayre Mountain, where slopes are less challenging but prices are cheaper.
- Windham Mountain: Windham Mountain, formerly a private club near the north end of the range, comes in third. Delaware County's sole ski area is small but interesting Ski Plattekill, outside Roxbury. In Sullivan County, the very small Holiday Mountain just off NY 17 near Monticello is ideal for families on day trips.
- Platekill Mountain: located near Roxbury, NY in Delaware County, this privately-owned ski facility has ski packages during the winter months.
- Catskill Scenic Trail: see details in the Getting Around section above.
- Bear Spring Mountain Wildlife Management Area: consists of over 7,000 acres of upland habitat in Delaware County acquired by the State in 1961. It is located in the Towns of Colchester and Walton along Route 206. This multi-use area is open to hiking, biking, horseback riding, and many other outdoor recreation pursuits. Restrictions include swimming and camping only at designated areas, and a prohibition of building any structures, such as the jumps built to enhance the biking experience. Ample parking (and trail maps at the kiosk) in a spacious lot off of Route 206 on the mountaintop between Walton and Downsville villages.
- Trails for beginner and experienced mountain bike riders are available and well marked. Cautions include sharing trails with horseback riders, and the fact that the roads in the park are open to traffic using the park as a short-cut to remote communities.
- Homer Folks State Forest: located just north of the City of Oneonta, while not in the Catskills region per se, this network of trails is the premier location in a town that is becoming a mountain biking destination. The trailhead kiosk is located at the upper parking lot of the Homer Folks State Facility, which was a state hospital in the 1930s through 1970s. Take West Street past the State University, make a left onto Homer Folks Avenue, past Job Corps, and make another left onto Hill Street. Park as far from the Hill Building at the end of the road as you can, this one-lane parking lot is busier that it seems. The trail are off to your right as you approach the Hill Building.
- On these trails, you will pass the City of Oneonta water tanks, and eventually approach Hartwick College property. Call the number on the signs and speak to security if you wish to continue onto Hartwick property. The cliffs at Table Rock are worth the extra effort.
- While in Oneonta, there are sporting goods stores both large and small, and a four-block-long urban pub/restaurant scene on Main Street.
- Platekill Mountain: near Roxbury, NY in Delaware County, this privately-owned ski facility has mountain biking packages during the summer months.
- Upper Esopus Creek: the river experience of the Esopus Creek begins at the small path behind the cemetery in the hamlet of Shandaken, NY which is located on State Route 28, approximately 30 miles northwest of the New York State Thruway at Kingston.
- River adventurers riding in inflatable boats should be aware that there are large chucks of either conglomerate rock or actual concrete that can rip open the bottom of the boat. These hazards are located just past the put-in point.
- There have been many naturally occurring changes in the river, including tree-falls and washed-out riverbanks that have made river-riding dangerous. Fortunately, they have been repaired, but since history is an indicator of future events, it could happen again. Most dramatically, sections of track from the former Delaware and Ulster Rail Road, which closely parallels the river (as does Route 28) have draped into the river as a result of wash-outs of the track bed. Again, these have been repaired, but the lesson is that rivers are ever-changing creatures.
- Do not put-in at the Shandaken Tunnel, also known as the Portal, or the Chute. The water in the Chute is exiting the 18 mile-long tunnel, coming from the Schoharie Reservoir, on its way to the Ashokan Reservoir. It exits the tunnel with furious force. Fatalities occur here at a distressingly frequent rate.
The eastern Catskills have as their lifeblood the dollars brought into the region by skiers, hunters, anglers and other tourists. Therefore, in the villages of Hunter, Windham, Woodstock and Tannersville, there is an ample supply of excellent restaurants. A walk down Main Street in each of these villages will yield the opportunity to dine in a different location each night, and yield no disappointments.
The same cannot be said as you travel west, however.
As it turns out, the western Catskills, while arguably even more picturesque than the east, have lower mountains – they are hills, really – and between those hills are valleys of rich soil and gentle rivers. And that means farming. Lots of it.
People make their homes in the western Catskills. Delaware County may have the lowest population of any county in New York south of the Adiraondacks, but these are real, hardworking people. At best, you may get a slight wave from them on a quiet county road.
But you are not going to get them to open a restaurant, not just for you.
Take a ride west, into farm country, and take a village by village look at where you may want to stop in to eat:
- Shokan: Still in the eastern part of the Catskills, many tourists and residents alike utilize Route 28 as an entryway to the Catskills area. Purely a utilitarian stop, Olive's County Store in Shokan on State Route 28, 12 miles from the Thruway, is a decent place to refuel your vehicle and yourself. A country store with some basic camping supplies is attached to the deli area. Just down the road (Route 28, west) is the Reservoir Delicatessen. Update February 2020: Olive's General Store has hired new cooks, the food (at least the deli sandwiches) are downstate New York quality, and huge.
- Phoenecia: Heading west on Route 28, Phoenecia seems to be an epicenter of something called the 'Hipster Treatment.' To a local, that sounds like a hot bath for a sore upper leg. There are a number of great places here, but they are all a bit pricey and seem to take advantage of the tourist crowd. There are few local food specialties, but one you may want to try to is fresh maple syrup, after the sap season in late February. You can easily buy some to take home with you, although it costs more than it would at a supermarket. The Phoenicia Diner seems to always be packed, but just east of there is a small strip-mall with a few excellent and less-traveled restaurants.
- Claryville: Another entry route into the Castkills, Ulster County Route 47, will take you through through some impressively rugged terrain. Most people have no idea where Claryville is, but if you find yourself near Claryville (this is a beautiful wilderness area with spectacular hiking on the FLT, Long Path and Slide Mountain, to name a few), you will be wondering if there is any place out here to get food – other than trail mix – in the middle of nowhere. Yes, the Claryville Country Store and Deli is an excellent, clean place. Be warned: there is no gas station anywhere around.
- Roscoe: people who collect bumper stickers to commemorate their travel experiences used to consider a 'Meet Me at the Roscoe Diner' bumper sticker a must-have. There have not been bumper stickers in a while, but the diner is surely there, serving as a stalwart landmark along a Catkills (and Finger Lakes Region) adventure. Roscoe is located at exit 94 on State Highway 17 (AKA Future Interstate 86).
- Downsville: because fishermen eat fish (one would suppose) and Downsville is a fishing town, there are only a few options here, but they are quite good. Located on Route 206 in Downsville (which is between Roscoe and Walton) the Downsville Diner (excellent breakfast) seems like a perfect location to film a movie that takes place in a diner, and the Old Schoolhouse Inn, besides being in a beautiful building, has juicy steaks and burgers.
- Margaretville: is a solid half-hour past Phoenecia on State Route 28. Margaretville is well within Delaware County, but is not immune from tourist-dollar lust. The village has recovered from the devastating floods of 2011 and has remade itself into an upscale village serving as kind of an entrance way to Delaware County. There are two restaurants on Main Street open until 9PM, and then there's the Bun-N-Cone... oh, the Bun-N-Cone. Children will insist on eating here at least once each trip. Avoid anything with faux Italian sauce on it, unless you have several bottles of antacids with you.
- Delhi: the county seat of Delaware County, home to a state technical college. There are some very good dinner options here, despite its small-town appearance. Some of the places close early (Delhi Diner, 7:30 am to 1:30PM), some are open until 9PM and the Shire Pub is open until midnight. Just down the road (west on Main Street, past the entrance to the college, turn left after Pizza Hut) is a strip mall with a full size drugstore, huge supermarket and Cugino's Pizzeria.
- Andes: was not much more than a crossroads and a blinking light until a few years ago, now some want to crown it the Brooklyn of the North. Whatever. Being home to dozens of antique stores (you can't eat old furniture) the Andes Hotel is pretty much your only option. Luckily it is a busy, fun place, with a restaurant, bar, motel out back, and an occasional live act entertainment now and then.
- Bovina: used to be a village that was not even on the map. And that was a map of Bovina. Today they have a whopping one general store, a restaurant/café, and a rustic hotel that serves gourmet food one night a week (Saturday). The real estate in Bovina sells for Long Island or Westchester County prices, so they must be doing something right over there.
- In the village of Bovina Center (Delaware County Route 6 – two miles east of State Route 28) is Russell's General Store [dead link], which has been there since before any of us were born. The Mountain Brook Inn three miles down County Route 6 is the rustic hotel with gourmet food. Oh, and Russell's is available as a movie location. It's also a must-see country place that pretty much defines rural Delaware County in one building.
- Franklin: if Norman Rockwell were still around, he would have moved to Franklin. A two-block by four-block village as small town America as it gets. Franklin is a dry town (for alcohol, not humor) but the Quickway gas station sells beer. The Tulip and The Rose has Middle Eastern food with the ingredients raised on a nearby farm. Open weekends only (Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays).
- Walton: is a distinctly down-market dining experience, unless eating in gas stations with tables is your thing. However, there is one really good down-home type diner on Main Street (T A's Place, 249 Delaware Street) near the cheese factory (that's not an attraction, it's a real cheese factory) and one across Main Street (Gramma D's, 192 Delaware Street) that serves Italian food. But hey, you can always see the Region's Largest Walk-in Beer Cooler (seriously) to make up for the otherwise lack of culture in this town.
- Hambletville: is not a town, village, or even a crossroads. Located very roughly halfway between Deposit and Masonville on County Route 8 in Delaware County, right off to the side of the road, is a huge ice cream cone about the size of an SUV. After a small gravel parking lot, there is a small building with pictures of all kinds of delicious treats above the little window. And the nearest place name on the map to there is Hambletville. Everyone calls it 'The Ice Cream Cone.' Wherever it actually is, there is nothing else around for miles but forest and farms, and in summer, the parking lot is always packed. Presumably, they sell ice cream there. Worth a try.
- Oneonta: While they're not in the Castkills, and somewhat out of the way from the area, visitors may want to stop by any of the various excellent restaurants in the City of Oneonta, in southern Otsego County. Try Nina's, Alfresco's, Fiesta Mexican, Simply Thai, or the Jambalaya place, all on Main Street.
- Oneonta is also home to a number of those places where you point to the picture of the food you want, and the lady shouts something to the guy in the back. If you are pulling an all-nighter or live in a university dorm, go for it. However for a decent sit-down meal in a clean place, China 19 is located in the strip mall behind the Recruiting station (across from the Fire Department).
- Oneonta is also roughly a half-way point on a day trip from the Catskills to Cooperstown and the Baseball Hall-of-Fame.
- Oneonta/Meredith - While the address is Oneonta, the location is actually on a very rural Route 28 equidistant from Oneonta, Delhi and Franklin. The Polar Bear Homemade Ice Cream and More Restaurant is a mecca of 1950s-style American food and ice cream, the scene with McFly and Biff could have been filmed here.
- Sullivan County: During summer, there are many kosher restaurants open, particularly in the areas of Sullivan County that have a high seasonal Orthodox Jewish population, but they are usually quite expensive. Year round, there are plenty of restaurants selling basic food items, such as pizza, burgers, and fries.
One last piece of advice: never assume you can roll into the western Catskills late at night and find anything open, including gas or food.
- Oneonta (again, not really in the Catskills) is one of the few places in the region with a large selection of 'real' stores. Southside (Route 23) has a shopping mall (Southside Mall) and all the usual big box stores, plus Losie's Gun Shop on the far west end of the strip.
- Delhi has a Tractor Supply right on Main Street in the middle of town, and a strip mall west on Main Street (Route 10) with a huge grocery store.
- Margaretville has a sporting goods store on Main Street, and a nice grocery store on Bridge Street.
- Andes has an entire Main Street lined with antique stores.
- Hobart is known as a village filled with book stores.
- Arkville has an on-again, off-again military surplus store which sells whatever they may have in at the time.
- Between Arkville and Fleischmanns on Route 28, there is a huge home improvement store (Wadler Bros.) which also sells items (flashlights, batteries) of use to the traveler.
- In Grand Gorge, there is a surplus store with army tanks and troop transports outside, if you want to help defend against a Soviet invasion. Seriously, he also may have surplus gear and clothing that may be of interest to a hiker.
If you are deep enough in the woods and come across a running stream or a spring, consider using a hand-pumped water filter to drink the water. However, one should avoid drinking any unfiltered water from any source in the wild except possibly from springs that come directly from underground. These will be marked 'spring' with DEC signs (brown signs/yellow lettering).
Oneonta has a decent pub scene. But please, have a designated driver, as these mountain roads are dangerous even for those who don’t partake. The State Police and the Oneonta City Police will be watching you drive out of the city.
Better yet, try the various liquor stores on Southside in Oneonta (near Hannaford's), or Main Street in Walton (across from the bank), and take the booze back to your cabin.
- General precautions: drive cautiously on all roads in the area if you are unfamiliar with them, particularly those that are unpaved. Many of the roads in the Catskills were built to serve local farms, not visitors, so they take steep slopes and sharp turns. Should you have an accident, assistance is some distance away and will take time to arrive. Be patient: one of the most dangerous mistakes in the area is passing a slow-moving vehicle.
- Electronic devices: cellular phone coverage is not available in much of the region, except for within some (not all) of the villages (and on some of the mountaintops!). If you navigate via GPS, always second guess its ability to deliver you to your destination via the safest and most direct route. Both GPS and online mapping programs have been known to send travelers onto seasonal roads that are barely passable under the best of conditions, across bridges that were washed out in the most recent storm, and along roads that have similar names of other roads in the area.
- Winter driving: All advice contained in this section goes doubly or triply for travel in adverse weather conditions. Some dirt roads have signs noting that they are not maintained (seasonal roads) in wintertime. If your vehicle is not equipped with four-wheel drive it would be wise to consider an alternate route. Even the best highways are not immune to winter hazards; Interstate 88 has been known to get very windy and icy during the winter. In adverse winter conditions, it is best to avoid driving at all. If you absolutely cannot avoid driving, be sure to test your traction frequently by gently tapping your brakes. If you are having difficulty stopping on a level road surface, the next down-hill section of road (this is a mountainous area) will potentially be deadly.
- Summer driving: During summer, many people go into the Catskills from New York City. Some of them drive like they're still in the city, so be careful when driving. Locals from the area, familiar with the roads, have been known to tailgate slower drivers on occasion. It is usually best to pull over, if it can be done so safely, for these people.
- Heavy rainfall: Rain can also turn some of those roads into quagmires. Paved roads are by no means immune, especially if they travel alongside rivers or if they travel through narrow gaps between mountains. NY 268 (Hancock to Cannonsville) has been closed for months at a time in the wake of major storms due to flooding and landslides, for instance. The rivers of the Catskills have been known to over-top their banks suddenly after a rainfall, even several days after heavy rain. Do not attempt to drive through standing water of any depth; several inches of water will cause your car to hydroplane, more than that may cause your car to literally float away.
- Sudden turns and curves: There are many locations throughout the Catskills in which a two-lane, paved, well-marked state and county routes can suddenly enter a very curvy section. Examples would include State Route 28 between Margaretville and Andes, and another, very heavily travelled section coming off Franklin Mountain just south of Oneonta. Many of the roads coming up the escarpment from the Hudson Valley (northeast of Woodstock) have very curvy sections. Be especially careful on Route 47 between Claryville and Slide Mountain, it is very narrow here and subject to flooding. There is a very sharp hairpin turn at the trailhead to Giant Ledge on this road as well.
- Animals: Collisions with animals, mostly deer, are quite common in the area. Most locals have someone in the family who has hit a deer with their car. Deer are usually out in the early morning and evening, but the caution should apply at all times. Honking or flashing lights will be of no use, and may serve to 'freeze' the deer right on the roadway. Better to watch one's speed, and remember that stopping distance increases exponentially with increased vehicle speed. Hitting a deer can be very dangerous; the damage can break the windshield, the deer can get caught under the vehicle, and the damage can be extensive enough that the vehicle's doors may not open. Let the tailgater behind you pass you and hit the deer instead.
- General precautions: Be sure to equip yourself with the proper equipment while hiking. As a general rule and at minimum, wear sturdy, waterproof hiking boots, carry plenty of water, avoid cotton garments except during the hottest months, leave plenty of time to return to the trailhead, and expect sudden changes of weather – much more so than in coastal climates. Many hikers wear trousers (not shorts) at all times in the Catskills, there is an increasing concern over ticks, and a walk through a field of stinging nettles (a plant about knee-high with tiny stinging hairs on the leaves and stems) is an unforgettable experience.
- Rugged terrain: In contrast to the conventional wisdom of the Catskills being relatively tame and safe (they are!) there are a small number of exceedingly challenging hikes (climbs, really) in the Catskills. Devil's Path is consistently listed as one of the most dangerous hikes in the nation, if not the world. What really should be said of this or any outdoor adventure is that it is potentially dangerous, in that it may be rugged and comprised of many difficult obstacles, but the hikers who travel this trail are well-educated about its hazards and prepare accordingly. Nevertheless, there are one or two fatalities a year in the Catskills, usually fall-related.
- Choose clothing wisely: Always expect, and equip for, a sudden change in weather – concerning temperature, precipitation and wind – in all seasons. A mid-weight fleece jacket, known to be water resistant (not just advertised as such) in a bright color, is the quintessential 'I'd rather have it and not need it' item that may just save your life, or at least eliminate the adjective 'miserable' from a day turned cold and rainy. Wear socks (year 'round) with a wool content as high as you can find in the store, and do not accept substitute materials other than wool. A knit cap for cold/wind and a brimmed 'boonie' hat for a light rain (or very sunny day) completes the list of must-have garments.
- Avoid wearing: Avoid non-breathing garments such as raincoats or nylon windbreakers, except for the most drenching downpour. They are much less comfortable than fleece. Beware of cotton except for the hottest days of summer; despite the resurgence of cotton flannel shirts and blue jeans among the fashion forward, no garments could be more useless on a cold rainy day, as cotton absorbs rainfall and pulls the heat away from your body.
- Planning your hike: There are excellent guide books to the Catskills that are a must-have for the frequent visitor. Interactive online maps such as those provided by the DEC are highly valuable. The New York/New Jersey Trail Conference publishes an excellent set of must-have maps.
- Other equipment: Carry enough water for the hike-in, the hike-out, and a reserve supply. Parents should carry extra water for their children, as little ones usually need more water than they are happy carrying. In mid-summer, dogs need to be accounted for as well, due to the streams drying up in July and August. Also carry a first aid kit, a small flashlight, a compass, a pocket knife, and have up-to-date maps of the trails you are hiking. A hydration backpack with a modest load carrying capacity will serve a hiker much better than a walk-to-school type of book bag. Equipment for winter hiking will not be addressed here, that is a topic unto itself.
- Hunting seasons: Be aware of the various hunting seasons in the Catskills, primarily deer/rifle season, which generally extends from roughly a week before Thanksgiving to several weeks after Thanksgiving. Check the DEC website for exact details. The Catskills are in the 'southern zone' according to DEC hunting season maps. Hiking during hunting season is generally not recommended, but it is not impossible, either, if one takes the proper precautions.
- Clothing for hunters and non-hunters alike: It never hurts to have an outer layer (a fleece jacket, see above) of a bright color with you in any season. During hunting season, it is mandatory for hunters, and strongly suggested for anyone in the woods at this time to wear at least one garment colored 'blaze orange.'
- Rattlesnakes in a small number of locations in the Catskills (primarily near Hancock and north of Woodstock). These snakes are not much of a hazard for adults with a fair amount of situational awareness, but they could become a problem for curious children and dogs.
- Skunks and porcupines can wreak havoc for curious dogs who have not been told to keep their noses out of rock piles, caves, old logs, etc. These little but well-armed animals are defensive fighters only, and if a dog gets 'skunked' or 'porcupined', it's probably their human's fault. While a 'skunking' is extremely annoying and unpleasant, getting 'porcupined' can be deadly for a dog; the dog may not be able to drink water, and may even drool so much that it will die of hydration before the quills can be removed.
Animals that may have undeservedly fearsome reputation among the uninformed are black bear and coyotes.
- Black bear, contrary to their size (just a little bigger – but way stronger – than the largest football player) and their appearance, black bears are the 'shy kids' of the woods, and will avoid an encounter with humans if at all possible. If that reassurance is not sufficient to make you comfortable, carrying jangling keys or simply having a conversation while hiking will alert the bears and send them on their way. None of the size comparisons, diet, ferociousness, territoriality, nothing you have heard about grizzly or brown bear applies to black bear. The only dangerous time may possibly be if you get in between Momma and her cubs. Any common sense and awareness on your part will prevent that from happening.
- Coyotes (which, full-grown, are approximately the size of a small-ish German Shepherd dog) will communicate pack-to-pack around sunset via howl, barks or a yipping sound. Being in the woods at this time is a thrilling experience, especially if one hears accompanying footsteps from the nearest pack. What may seem like an entire forest-full of animals is usually a family of a half-dozen coyotes at most for each pack, the packs are very spread out over the forest, and several coyotes in each pack are often juvenile coyotes. Coyote's diets consist almost exclusively of small rodents, certainly not tourists.
- Mountain lions do not exist in the Catskills, according to officially published Department of Environmental Conservation guides to hiking and other outdoor recreation in New York State. However, you may hear stories that begin as such: "my neighbor's friend says he saw one down near..."
Crime in the Catskills region takes several forms:
- Street crime is generally concentrated in the Sullivan County cities and towns along Route 17, particularly Monticello, which can get pretty rough, especially at night. Late-night travelers to the area coming up via Route 17 should wait until they have made it to Delaware County before stopping in for gas and supplies.
- Violent crime in Delaware County, according to the NYS DCJS averages below one incident per year per category for the past five years except for aggravated assault, which are almost exclusively fights between persons who are known to one another. In Ulster County, the statistics would be quite similar if it were not for the City of Kingston. Also in Ulster County, the Village of New Paltz accounts for several incidents per year, as it is a party-oriented college town.
- DWI is a tragedy about to happen anywhere it occurs, but in the Catskills, there is an ever present risk, in the best of conditions, of running off a road in a winding section, or having a head-on collision on a two-lane road. DWI just makes those situations way worse. Always watch your speed and be aware of the behavior of oncoming motorists.
- Property crime is the most prevalent type of crime, primarily due to unattended second homes.
Travel with firearms:
Many visitors from more populated areas are often taken aback at the prevalence of firearms carried openly. There are several species of small game that the DEC has designated as 'open season', so be aware that there may be some hunting going on at any given time of year. Individuals who own homes or seasonal cabins in remote areas may engage in target practice on their own land, anyone can do so on public lands. If hearing shooting near a hiking trail makes you nervous, it is very reasonable to ask the individuals to stop shooting until you are well past. Do not take the following information as legal advice, but an overview of the laws and customs pertaining to this topic are worth knowing:
- Rifles and shotguns: New York State (except for New York City) has laws pertaining to long guns (except so called 'assault weapons') that are similar to pro-gun states such as Pennsylvania and Vermont. Firearms-related sports bring a substantial boost to the upstate economy, and are actively and officially encouraged. The firearm (long-gun) should be cased, in the vehicle's trunk, with the ammo in a separate case, while in transport. Target shooting is available at many small ranges throughout the state, or in a woodland area with a safe backstop. Non-resident hunting licenses are available. There are strict safety rules while carrying a long gun afield, these are taught in-depth at hunter safety courses.
- Handguns: Do not transport a handgun into New York State without a New York State handgun license. Handguns in New York are required to be registered and listed on the individual's handgun license. Therefore, no un-registered handguns are allowed in New York State (even by a license holder), and no individual can possess a handgun in New York State without a license. New York State does not recognize any out of state licenses, despite New York's license being recognized in several states. The restrictions on handgun licenses for travelers from downstate (Long Island and Westchester) stay with you as you travel.
- Air travelers who live in neighboring Vermont and utilize Albany International Airport as the nearest airport to their home have been arrested by the Albany County Sheriff's office upon check-in with the airline if they have a handgun (and no NY State Handgun License) in their checked luggage.
Proximity to the New York City metropolitan area is no guarantee that customs imported 'up the Thruway' will gain immediate acceptance in the Catskills. Quite the contrary; the Catskills are home to generally conservative, hardworking people who have a distinct culture of their own. The levels of tolerance for other cultures and habits that a visitor will experience and enjoy in this region, however, may be much higher than in many of the suburbs much closer to the city. The acceptance of cultural differences (and similarities) is always a two-way-street, and the more a visitor is aware and accepting, the more his or her hosts will be as well.
Except for Sullivan County, the Catskills region is populated primarily by individuals who self-identify as Protestant Christian. There is a very strong tradition of religious tolerance in the area, and the cultural influence of Catholics, Jews, Muslims (and others) far outweighs their relatively small numbers.
Buddhist retreats can be found in many communities, usually in very rural settings, and can be identified by their numerous colorful banners.
Muslim enclaves dot the landscape in western Delaware County, one in Sidney Center raises animals to provide fresh food for their restaurant in Franklin.
The Village of Fleischmanns, in southeastern Delaware County, is predominately Orthodox Jewish.
Environmentally, the Catskills are unique, in that they supply the majority of the drinking water for one of the largest cities in human history. And they do so pretty much by just letting it rain. There has been a cultural, political and economic price for this, however, in that some of the most beloved communities in what is now known as 'the watershed' no longer exist, and have not for generations. A visitor may still meet old-timers who fondly recall their homes in long-vanished villages, which were moved, everything – including the cemeteries – to higher ground to build the reservoirs.
Visitors to the area may also hear, and be invited to engage in, arguments about the proposed upgrades to the energy infrastructure, including hydrofracking, power lines, electricity-producing windmills, and a natural gas pipeline. Local residents have been vehemently divided on these issues.
Tourism is the dominant economic force in the eastern Catskills, while dairy-farming is the predominant force in the western Catskills. Dairy-farming shapes culture; it is a 7-day-a-week undertaking, and cows walk very slowly. In many places in Delaware County, the farm buildings may be mere feet away from a two-lane highway, as on Route 28 east of Delhi. This may cause the locals to have a critical eye on the driving habits of all drivers passing by, including tourists.
Farmers on slow-moving tractors can be seen on all roads except divided highways, their fields are not always contiguous to the farm buildings.
For someone looking to relocate, house prices upstate are generally much lower (as are property taxes) than in the suburbs of the NYC metropolitan region, or NYC itself. Retirees to the area are often accused of 'paying too darn much' for their dream house, thereby raising prices of real estate overall.
In 2015, fifteen towns in Sullivan, Delaware, Broome, and Tioga counties were reported to be looking into seceding from the State of New York and joining the state of Pennsylvania: although they did not.
There are communities throughout New York State in which one can hear the resentment that accompanies a feeling of political impotence, that Albany politics is not responsive to (fill in your resentment here).
How this affects a visitor is that as one leaves the wealthy Hudson Valley, and approaches the southern tier and central New York, residents in the area identify less as members of an extended metropolitan area, and more as 'simple rural folk' even possibly Appalachian in terms of culture.
Hunting and firearms
In the late fall, the Catskills turn orange, not from the leaves, but from the hats and vests worn by hunters. It's a time, four weekends known as 'rifle season', when even those vehemently opposed to hunting temporarily give up the fight and turn the woods over to the men and women with guns. Like it or not, hunting and firearms are very much a part of the culture of upstate New York.
In all seasons, there is also a strong tradition of firearms carried for self-defense. Don't bother arguing – even if it is true – that short of a nasty slip and fall on jagged rocks, people are safe in the Catskill forests. That's not the point.
In 2015, each of the county sheriffs of the Catskills region issued open letters to their handgun licensees, encouraging them to carry their handguns as a deterrent to crime, and possibly terrorism.
Again, the possibility of that happening in such a remote area is not the point, either. Americans will still respond to a 'call to arms.'
If you see a law-abiding civilian carrying a handgun in the Catskills, don't let it bother you. That person is just doing what they feel is the right thing to do as an American. You may disagree, that's your right, too.
Hunting season for non-hunters
The safety/risk of entering the woods during hunting season will not be discussed here, but wearing a vest colored 'blaze orange' is a good idea for anyone afield during hunting season, including pets.
Traffic vests (for people) can be purchased at any Home Depot or Lowes before your trip. Tractor Supply (Oneonta, Delhi, Liberty) sells a wide range of blaze orange hats and vests.
Garments such as a Lands End Dog Squall Jacket in a bright color are ideal for your pet. At minimum, have dogs in a bright colored dog harness with a bright colored bandanna tied on.
New York State law prohibits the public from purposely bothering or annoying (harassing) licensed hunters, a 'hunter' is anyone in possession of a firearm or bow, a hunting license, and who is not obviously poaching or trespassing. They do not need to be actively engaged in hunting at the time to be protected by that law. Also protected from harassment are unarmed persons accompanying the hunter.
Despite the collapse of the Borscht Belt, there still are world-class entertainment venues in the Catskills, as there are world class entertainers. The theme music from the Ken Burns' documentary The Civil War entitled Ashokan Farewell was not authentic to that era. Considered by its fans to be one of the most moving pieces of music ever written, it comes from New Paltz in the 1980s.
The Catskills are synonymous with Woodstock, not the village, and really not even the weekend of peace and love. More the fact that the Catskills were the epicenter of a youthful rebellion – the Haight Ashbury of the east, if you will – a rebellion that ended a divisive war and helped pass civil rights legislation to the benefit of many.
It is that spirit, not just the incredible music, which one feels echoing through the countryside, nearly a half-century on.
On the east, the Catskills are adjacent to the Hudson Valley, to the point that it's almost impossible not to visit that region while visiting the Catskills.
The Albany metropolitan area, known in the state as the Capital District, is located in the valley's north, just to the Catskills' northeast.
Beyond it, to the north, are the Adirondacks, the larger of upstate New York's two mountainous regions.
Southeast of the valley is the New York metropolitan area, home during the week and the off-season to many Catskills visitors.
In Pennsylvania, the smaller mountains across the Delaware River are the Poconos, also a popular resort destination for New York metropolitan area residents.
Upstate New York has several regions to the west. Route 17 continues across the Southern Tier to Binghamton, Elmira, Corning and Jamestown. On the northwest, crossing Interstate 88 leads to Central New York.