A Hiker’s Guide to the Catskills
Eight can’t-miss landmarks along hiking routes and trails that every outdoorsman and woman must see
Map art by Arlene So
Exploring the Catskills on foot is a perfect way to experience the region’s flora and fauna. But choosing the right path can be a challenge: many have steep inclines, a lack of parking, and more fellow hikers than you might expect (or want). So we asked Michael Drillinger of Catskill Country Walks and Alan White of the Catskill Interpretive Center to share their favorite places.
The Ashokan Reservoir
Not into hiking? Just stop the car and stroll along the Catskills’ largest reservoir, which is the very best place to watch the sunset.
North South Lake
With mountains rising behind it, this beautiful lake was an inspiration for many Hudson Valley painters. Today there is swimming for kids, plenty of trails, and a quarter-mile climb to the site of the now-vanished Catskill Mountain House. Enjoy panoramic views of the Berkshires, once as high as the Alps. Another trail through pine forest and up a rock scramble takes you to Artist’s Rock, where the view is even better.
People have clamored to see this magnificent 230-foot, two-tiered waterfall since the early 19th century, when it was mentioned in Washington Irving’s tall tale “Rip Van Winkle” and painted by Thomas Cole. It became a site of pilgrimage for authors, artists, and travelers, and today is just as breathtaking — though more crowded, especially on fine weekends. There is limited parking, and you’ll get a $100 ticket for parking on the road, so you’re best off visiting on a weekday. The payoff comes after a mere half-mile hike that almost everyone can manage. Put your feet in the water, feel the cool mist against your face, and breathe.
This is an easy 2.86 mile hike with a big payoff — one of five Catskills fire towers that are manned by volunteers on summer weekends is at the top. There’s not much of a climb, which makes it good for beginners, though you do have to cross a stream near the beginning. Climb up the stairs and into the “cab” of the fire tower to best enjoy the 360-degree view.
This is another relatively easy hike (that’s Catskills easy, which means you’ll still have to climb) that delivers a lot of view for the effort — five miles round-trip. It starts on Platte Clove Road and takes you past a beautiful 80-foot waterfall before opening out onto one of the region’s most spectacular views, where the Hudson Valley stretches out before you while the Catskills loom on the other side.
In 1851, an enterprising Catskills farmer named Mark Carr cut down fir and spruce trees that grew in abundance, took them to New York City by boat, rented space in Washington market, and quickly sold out. His family stayed in the Christmas tree business until 1898
This is a strenuous hike at 5.2 miles, but it’s less traveled than many high peak hikes. It’s also an ideal place to see the three ecosystems that make up the Catskills. The first stretch from Rider Hollow takes you along a Catskills stream and a classic hemlock ravine. Ascend through majestic stands of northern hardwood forest that include maple, beech, birch, and ash. As you reach the top, enjoy the alpine forest, a healthy mix of balsam fir and red spruce, where the fresh scent of wild Christmas trees wafts on the breeze.
Overlook Mountain (the back way)
With a trailhead right outside of Woodstock, Overlook Mountain is the most popular of the Catskills’ five fire tower hikes. It’s a hard slog that takes you straight up for two and a half miles along an old access road before you turn around and go back down. But if you start from the other side of the mountain at a trailhead off Platte Clove Road (County Route 16), it’s a less-steep, more-rewarding hike past waterfalls and varied scenery. Highlights are Codfish Point (4.5 miles out-and-back), Echo Lake (8.8 miles out-and-back), or go all the way to Overlook Mountain (13 miles out-and-back). The most adventuresome can camp overnight (the lake has several official campsites), or you can make a 10-mile “shuttle hike” by leaving a car at the more-popular entrance on Meads Mountain Road.
At 4,180 feet, Slide Mountain is the highest of the Catskills High Peaks, and hikers able to make the strenuous-but-doable 6.8 mile loop can see views of all the other mountains over 3,500 feet. It’s also one of the most popular hikes, so try weekdays to avoid the crowds. Slide Mountain was made famous by Catskills native John Burroughs, who created the nature essay genre and authored more than 30 books. Burroughs made many treks up Slide, writing about the experience most famously in The Heart of the Southern Catskills. He slept many nights beneath a ledge near the summit, where a commemorative plaque now quotes his work: “Here the works of man dwindle.”