Guide: Hiking in New York State's Catskill Mountains

Looking to take a hike in New York's Catskill Mountains and the Catskill Park?
Near the John Robb Lean-to on Hunter Mountain

The Catskill Park, at the heart of the Catskill Mountains region contains over 300,000 acres of public lands owned by New York State that are part of the Forever Wild Forest Preserve of the State that are open to the public for hiking, fishing, camping, and hunting.  There are plenty of hiking options and plenty of things to consider with all of the resources that the Catskills and the Catskill Park have. If you would like, there are hikes that will only last a few hours and for the more adventurous, there are multi-day hikes that will take you across some really rugged and wild, yet beautiful terrain that is only a few hours north of New York City.  Overall there is something for everyone in the Catskills, including walks and hikes for families, peakbaggers and climbers.

The Catskills

The Catskill Mountains, which are located within the Catskill Park, are about 50 miles southwest of Albany and around 150 miles north of New York City. The Hudson River and the Hudson River Valley run just to the east of the mountains and in the west, the Catskill Mountains taper out into rolling hills.

The highest peak in the Catskills is Slide Mountain at 4,204 feet. Slide is located in the Southern Catskill Mountains along with several other tall peaks (Wittenberg and Cornell) that make up the High Peaks of the Catskills.  In addition to that area though, there are a number of high peaks and rugged terrain in the northeastern portion of the Catskill Mountains.  To the southwest near Route 17 and the towns of Liberty, Livingston Manor and Roscoe, the Catskills are lower in elevation, there are more ponds and wetlands and the hiking is generally more family friendly.

The Catskill Park

http://catskillcenter.org/store/the-catskill-forest-a-history-by-michael-kudishThe Catskill Park was created in 1904, following the establishment of the Forest Preserve in the area in 1885.  The original goals of protection were to protect New York's natural and water resources during a time when resource explotation was running rampant around the State. First protected by law, today all public lands in the Catskill Park are protected by the “Forever Wild” clause in the New York State constitution:

"The lands of the state, now owned or hereafter acquired, constituting the forest preserve as now fixed by law, shall be forever kept as wild forest lands. They shall not be leased, sold or exchanged, or be taken by any corporation, public or private, nor shall the timber thereon be sold, removed or destroyed . . ."

About half of the Catskill Park is publicly owned, the other half is privately owned, thus like the Adirondack Park, the Catskills are one of the few parks that is a mix of private and public lands.

There is more about the Catskill Park on our sister site, ReviewThis.


History of the Catskills

The history of the Catskills is in many ways the history of Wilderness in America.  The Catskills are known as America's First Wilderness, first as the imposing mountains above the valley where colonists settled, then as an escape for the city dwellers with massive and spectacular hotels and railroads, a place that led to the birth of America's first school of landscape painting, a place that helped launch the conservation movement and to today where the Catskill Park protects some truly wild areas just hours from New York City's doorstep.

Planning your hiking trip to the Catskills

The first thing to consider when you are planning a hiking trip to the Catskill Mountains is what kind of hikes you are interested in. Do you want to do a series of day hikes and you'll stay at a hotel or motel in one of the local towns? Do you want to do a multi-day backpacking trip where you'll be camping in the woods?  Either choice gives you plenty of options. The vast majority of the Catskills Mountains' trails can be accessed via day hikes, while the overnight backpacking trips tend to link together trails and mountains into a multi-day trip.

Great map set and guide!

The best way to start planning your trips is to take a look at the Trail Conference's Catskill Trails 6-map set. This is the definitive map set to the Catskills and provides map coverage for all of the hiking trails within the Catskill Park.  As a bonus, the maps also feature trail descriptions for all the official, maintained trails in the Catskills on their backs. This makes them indispensable for trip planning and for guiding you when you are out on the trail and mean that you don't need to invest in both the map set and one of the guidebooks for the region if you feel comfortable enough with the map descriptions alone.  If you are looking for a large map of the entire Catskill Mountains region, National Geographic publishes a Trails Illustrated Map for the Catskills.  This map, while not as detailed as the Trail Conference map set, does give you a big picture view of the entire region.  The Catskill Center also produces an excellent overview map for the Catskills. If you feel you need a guidebook, AMC's Catskill Mountain Guide and ADK's Catskill Trails are both well written and useful guidebooks for Catskill Trails.

Towns and Villages of the Catskills

If you are planning on doing day trips, most of the Catskills are available to you to explore. You should stay in a hotel or a motel in one of the mountain towns such as Hunter, Tannersville, Windham, Phoenicia, Woodstock, Big Indian, Pine Hill, Margaretville, Roscoe or Livingston Manor. This will give you quick access to the Park, the mountains and the trails that surround them. Most of these towns have plenty of lodging options. There are also state run, public campgrounds located near Tannersville (North-South Lake Campground and Devil's Tombstone Campground), Phoenicia (Woodland Valley Campground), Woodstock (Kenneth Wilson Campground), and Livingston Manor (Mongaup Pond Campground and Little Pond Campground).  In addition, all of the major peaks and trails are accessible from these towns with only a short drive in most cases.

Major Roads and Transportation Options

On the way to Trout Pond in the southwestern Catskills
There are four major transportation corridors in the park.  The most southerly is Route 17, which leaves the New York State Thruway in Harriman and then travels past the southwestern Catskills.  Route 17 provides access to Liberty, Livingston Manor and Roscoe.  There are numerous trails in this area and a number of smaller mountains to explore with some great views.  There are also a number of ponds, some of which have some great swimming areas, like Trout Pond.  Moving towards the north, Route 28 leaves the NYS Thruway in Kingston and travels westward into the heart of the Catskills, passing several villages including Shokan, Boiceville, Mount Tremper, Phoenicia, Big Indian and Arkville and Margaretville.  This route provides access to the trailheads of the Catskill High Peaks, in addition to several other destinations.  Further north, Route 23a, accessible from the Saugerties or Catskill exits of the NYS Thruway provides access to the center of the northeastern Catskills, including the North and South Lake Campground area and the Devil's Path.  Furthest north is Route 23, which intersects with the NYS Thruway at Catskill and provides access to the northernmost portion of the Park, including the village of Windham and the northern Escarpment Trail.  Traveling north to south, Route 30 connects most of these routes in the far western Catskill Mountains and Route 214 provides a connection between Route 28 and Route 23a.

If you are looking to visit the Catskills without a car, there are several options, especially for those coming from the New York City area.  There is daily bus service from the bus station in the City of Kingston that runs to the major Towns in the mountains, including Phoenicia, Margaretville, Tannersville and Hunter.  From those points taxi service is available to shuttle hikers to trailheads and arrange future pick ups.  For more details, there's a story we've written at the Watershed Post for accessing the Catskills for hiking without having a vehicle.

Hiking Options

Some great day hikes include the trails on the various mountains of the Devil's Path Range. These mountains are located in the northeastern portion of the park and all have maintained hiking trails over them. The mountains (Indian Head, Twin, Sugarloaf, Plateau, Hunter and Westkill) offer a number of different trips and depending on the location, offer the potential to make loop trips so you don't need to backtrack what you've already hiked. Further to the north the Blackhead Range near the Town of Windham offers some rugged climbing and some great views northward to Albany and beyond. In the south, the Catskill Mountains tallest peak, Slide Mountain is a great day trip, as are Wittenberg and Cornell, the two other mountains that with Slide make up the High Peaks of the Catskills.

Kaaterskill Falls from the end of the Kaaterskills Falls Trail
If you aren't looking so much for mountain climbing and instead just want some great scenery, there are several trails that offer this. The Escarpment Trail, running along the eastern edge of the Catskill Mountains for most of its length does not climb or descend much, but it offers stunning views across the Hudson Valley almost constantly. The Dutcher Notch Trail from Colgate Lake offers a walk through mostly levels woods to some stunning fields and a quiet, wilderness notch. Trails in the more western parts of the Catskills are also gentler and more family friendly, as the mountains out there are more rolling and generally lower than they are in the east.  The trail and hike up to the base of Kaaterskill Falls is short, though it is a bit rugged. However, you are rewarded with a view of the highest waterfall in New York State when you reach the end of the trail.  In the south, a loop hike around Frick Pond is a great afternoon trip for a family and the Little Pond Trail offers amazing views of the Beaverkill Valley.  Trout Pond, near Roscoe has two lean-tos for camping, a sandy swimming beach and a family friendly hike to reach the site.

The five restored Fire Towers of the Catskill Park also make excellent destinations.  The towers, which originally had been used to observe and position forest fires, today are staffed on summer weekends by volunteers to provide interpretive services for visitors.  The towers all offer 360-degree views of their areas and are one of a kind destinations.  There are towers located on Hunter Mountain, Overlook Mountain, Mount Tremper, Balsam Lake Mountain and on Red Hill.  There is even an annual Fire Tower Passport program where you can earn a badge and get entered into a raffle for outdoor gear by climbing the Fire Towers.

The Hunter Mountain Fire Tower
If you are planning on an overnight or longer backpacking trip, several other options open up. The Trail Conference's Long Path travels through the Catskills and you can follow this trail through the area.  In the Catskills, the Long Path travels from Wawarsing in the south to Windham in the north, a distance of almost 100 miles with very few roadwalks.  There are also longer trail sections within the park that you can string together to create multi-day trips.

One of the premiere longer distance hike is hiking the Devil's Path in two or three days. This is a famous route that starts in Spruceton Valley and travels over Westkill Mountain, Hunter Mountain, Plateau Mountain, Sugarloaf Mountain, Twin Mountain and Indian Head Mountain. You gain and lose thousands of vertical feet over 26 miles of this trail. Another option is a hike from Mount Tremper in the south to Warner Creek and then up to the summit of Plateau Mountain where you join the Devil's Path. If you continue eastward to the Devil's Path terminus, you are looking at an almost 25 mile hike where you will not cross any roadways and have a wilderness hike. That makes it the longest roadless section of trail in the Catskills and probably one of the longest roadless sections of hiking trail in New York.

If you are planning on camping within the Catskill Park, there are some regulations to consider. On State owned, public lands, you are allowed to camp anywhere below 3,500 feet during the summer months so long as you are at least 150 feet away from any roadway, parking lot, open water or trail. In the winter months, the rules are the same, except that you are allowed to camp above 3,500 feet so long as there is snow on the ground.  For the 30 lean-tos of the Catskill Park within the Forest Preserve, these backcountry camping shelters are available on a first-come, first-serve basis.  Each lean-to can generally hold about 8-10 people.  Location really determines the popularity of lean-tos, but you should not expect to find them available on most weekends unless you arrive early.  During the week, many of them are available.


Mountain Conditions

While the weather in the Catskill Mountains isn't as variable as other, higher mountain ranges, in the northeast, the weather can change quickly and is often quite different from the weather in the Hudson Valley at lower elevations.  You can get local information from Hudson Valley Weather and more generalized weather conditions from the National Weather Service.

In the Spring and the Fall the Catskills will often experience wintry weather when its only raining in the valleys. In addition, the summits of the mountains are often much colder than the valleys, especially in the winter months. Winds can be strong any time of the year. In the summertime the differences generally aren't as distinct, though the summit areas are usually cooler than the valleys.

The mountains can get a lot of snow, especially in the higher elevations. If you are planning on wintertime hikes, you should be prepared for full winter conditions and have snowshoes and crampons with you. You should also have plenty of warm clothes.

In the summertime unexpected thunderstorms can roll through the mountains. They can be dangerous along the summits, where the potential for lightening strikes is very real. They can also soak you, so it's always a good idea to carry at least some amount of extra clothing with you.

The Trail Conference maintains a Trail Conditions page that is updated weekly.  This page provides information and the status of all hiking trails within the Catskill Park and is a useful resource for those visiting the region and wanting to go on a hike.  It is always best to check the conditions before you head out and have the latest news and information in hand.

Hiking Experiences

For what some would consider being little mountains, the Catskills are surprisingly rugged. The trails on the mountains tend to either be steep or very steep and the geology of the Catskills means that there are often ledges and cliffs that must be climbed up and over to get to the summit of the mountains. This can be a challenge in the summertime and in the wintertime you often need crampons and ice axes to make it as ice forms over these ledges.

People shouldn't take hiking in the Catskills lightly. They are tough mountains and are home to some of the most rugged hiking trails around. The Devil's Path is considered by many to be one of the roughest hiking trails in the east and has been featured as such in Backpacker Magazine.

Accidents can and do happen. Every year people hurt themselves or get lost in the woods and must be found and rescued by the Ranger staff that patrols the mountains. The best way to avoid these problems is to prepare. Plan out your hikes, plan on taking the right gear and when you are out on the trail, avoid situations where your hiking party could get lost or seriously injure itself.

Get Out There!

The Catskills are a unique and interesting natural area that has been protected by New York State as Forest Preserve in the Catskill Park. While the Catskill Mountains are not as high or as imposing as some other mountain ranges, they do have some tough trails and a charm that is all their own.  I've always found that the Catskills are well worth exploring.

So go out and get yourself the map, plan out your hike and get into the Catskills to start exploring!

A great first step is our Catskill Mountains Information Page, which links to articles, guides, stories and hike descriptions for trails throughout the Catskill Mountains.

If you need help with getting ready for your first hike, check out our Hiking 101 post.  We provide all the basic information you'll need to get out and enjoy your first hike.


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


Read up on the Catskill Park at our Catskill Mountains Information Page for hikes, advice, travel and planning information.  We have on our sister site, ReviewThis is a Guide to visiting 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.

   

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