Hiking: Southern Escarpment Trail and Palenville Overlook | Catskill Mountains, NY | 8/9/2012

The Escarpment Trail travels 23 miles from south to north along the eastern and northeastern edge of the Catskill Mountains.  The Trail offers amazing views of Kaaterskill Clove, the Hudson Valley and Mohawk Valley.  The trail begins at the Trailhead on Schutt Road, just west of the entrance to the North and South Lake State Campground.  From here, the trail makes it way east along the edge of Kaaterskill Clove passing by Layman's Monument and Inspiration Point.  The trail then turns northward and follows the Catskill Mountains eastern escarpment, passing by sites such as Boulder Rock, the Catskill Mountain House site, and North Point before passing through Dutcher Notch, over Blackhead Mountain, Acra Point, Burnt Knob, and Windham High Peak before ending at the trailhead on Route 23 in Windham.

This hike included most of the southern Escarpment Trail, but also used the horse and snowmobiles trails to reach the Palenville Outlook and to return to the North Lake parking area.

Getting There 

Unless you do not mind a significant road walk, two cars are needed for most hikes of the southern Escarpment Trail.  For this trip, there are two potential starting points, one is the trailhead for the Escarpment Trail on Schutt Road, the other is the South Lake parking area next to the South Lake Dam.

For our hike, we went with the South Lake Dam parking.  From the parking lot, you walk up the road, across the dam and then turn onto the cross-country ski trail that links the South Lake Dam area to the Escarpment Trail.  This is about a half a mile of trail and is shown as unmaintained trail on the Trail Conference map for the area.

We parked our second car at the beach area on North Lake near the trailhead for the Escarpment Trail.

Our route took us from South Lake Dam, along the Escarpment Trail to Layman's Monument, then past several other views including Inspiration Point.  At the intersection of the Escarpment Trail and the Harding Road Trail, we went down the Harding Road trail to its intersection with the Rip Van Winkle Horse Trail and followed that down to the Palenville Overlook.  From the overlook we continued following the horse trail across the face of the Escarpment to where it where it intersects with the Escarpment Trail once again just to the east of North Lake. 

All of this hike is shown on the Trail Conference's Map 141 from the Catskill Trails Map Set with detail shown on the North and South Lake inset map.

The Hike

Our hike began with a car shuffle. We left one car at the North Lake Beach parking area and then drove back to the South Lake Dam parking area to begin the hike. It is a few hundred feet of walking along the South Lake Road over the dam to reach the cross-country ski trail that heads west to join the Escarpment Trail. This trail follows and old road and is a gentle walk for about half a mile or so.

The trail intersects with the Escarpment Trail and the Schutt Road Trail just across Lake Creek from the end of Schutt Road on the other side. From here you follow the blue blazed Escarpment Trail.

The Trail passes by Lake Creek as it begins to descend to Kaaterskill Falls and then climbs gently over the shoulder of South Mountain before descending down to Layman's Monument. Layman's Monument is approximately 0.7 miles from the intersection with the ski trail and the Schutt Road Trail.

There is a view of Kaaterskill Clove, Haines Falls and Twilight Park to the west, though the vista has been growing up over the years.

From Layman's Monument the trail turns to the east and begins following the edge of the escarpment in Kaaterskill Clove.  This escarpment, while not a the top of the mountain, marks the elevation where the gentle slopes of the upper mountains break and drop steeply into the clove.

In about four tenths of a mile you reach the intersection with the yellow marked horse trail that would bring you back to the Schutt Road Trail if you wanted to return to your car.  We continued on the Escarpment Trail, passing by several more viewpoints including Inspiration Point, which as the name implies, is one of the most stunning vistas in the clove.


We continued along the Escarpment Trail past Inspiration Point until we came to the trail junction with the Harding Road Trail. This was a distance of about 1.1 miles. From here, we started down the Harding Road Trail a short distance to its intersection with the Rip Van Winkle Horse Trail.

This horse trail descends further down the escarpment and allows you to access the stunning Palenville and Indian Head Overlooks.  It is about 1.2 miles from this intersection to Palenville Overlook.

At first the horse trail is a bit rough as it begins to descend to lower elevations, however it levels off fairly quickly as it begins to make a sweeping switchback to get down to the Palenville Overlook.

photo.JPGAt the turn of that switchback you reach another trail junction, where you can either go out to the Palenville Overlook or take a cut off that avoids the switchback past the overlook.  Unless the weather is absolutely pea soup fog though, this is not a vista to be missed and you should make your way out to the overlook.

From here the trail follows an old road out to the Palenville Overlook.  The overlook gives you stunning views of Kaaterskill Clove to your right and of the Hudson Valley to your left.

From the Palenville Overlook there is a short, unofficial trail that takes you to the Indian Head Overlook, who's cliffs are visible from the Palenville Overlook.  Again, the trip out to this vista is well worth your time.

Leaving the Palenville Overlook, we followed the lower leg of the switchback back to the intersection with the cutoff trail.  From here, the trail makes an approximatley 1.7 mile trip back to the Escarpment Trail.  The vast majority of that hike is almost level as you make your way along the eastern face of the Catskill Mountains.  The woods is fairly dense though, so there are no good vistas along this section of trail.

You do cross the route of the old Otis Elevating Railroad on the trail though.  This railroad provided access to the hotels on top of the mountain (Catskill Mountain House and others) from the railroads that provided service to the base of the mountain.  The tracks are long gone, but there are remnants of trestle along the route and today a powerline travels the distance, keeping the old track somewhat open.

Just after crossing the old Otis Railroad route, the trail begins to climb back up the eastern escarpment of the mountains, first somewhat gently and then getting a bit steeper as you go, especially after you reach the intersection where the Rip Van Winkle Horse Trail continues on towards Rip Van Winkle Hollow and the short spur trail heads up to the Escarpment Trail and the North Lake area.  We followed the short spur trail up the old road where within a few tenths of a mile you reach the Escarpment Trail.  From here, we walked out to our car at the North Lake Beach parking lot, just a short walk from the Escarpment Trail.

Trip Details

Need more information on hiking and planning your 
trips to the Catskills and the Catskill Park?

Need a hiking map for your hikes in the Catskills? We recommend the Trail Conference's Catskills Trails 6-Map Set. These maps are the best available for hiking and outdoor adventures in the Catskills and the Catskill Park. The Catskill Center offers a regional map of the Catskills that provides an excellent overview of the region, it's roadways, attractions and trails. National Geographic Trails Illustrated also produces a map for the region. 

How about a guidebook? Both AMC and ADK publish trail guides to the Catskill Region and thAdventures in the Outdoors Bookstore carries many more books and maps that will help you as you hike and explore the Catskill Mountains region. 

If you are looking for more information about the extensive history of the Catskill Mountains and the Catskill Park, we would suggest reading The Catskills, From Wilderness to Woodstock and The Catskill Park, Inside the Blue Line. For the most comprehensive natural history of the Catskill Park and the Forests of the Catskill region, we recommend reading The Catskill Forest, a History by Michael Kudish.