Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Kaaterskill Falls

Kaaterskill Falls
1.6 miles round trip, 400 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Good gravel road to trailhead, no entrance fee required

Wild and scenic, the two-tiered Kaaterskill Falls- the tallest waterfall in the state of New York with a 260 foot drop- has enchanted visitors for centuries, inspiring paintings by Thomas Cole and writings by Washington Irving. Near the popular North South Lake recreation area in the Catskill Mountains, the base of the falls can be accessed by a short but steep hike with lots of stairs from the Laurel House Trailhead. Uphill-averse visitors can still see the falls from above via a short hike to an overlook, although the view from the base of the falls is far mightier and satisfying. This is one of the highlights of New York’s Catskill Mountains but it’s no secret: expect to share this wonder with hundreds of other hikers on nice weekend days.

A word of warning: as with almost all waterfalls, the terrain around Kaaterskill Falls can be treacherous due to cliffs, slippery rocks, and fast-moving water. Stay on trail and don’t do stupid things.

I hiked Kaaterskill Falls during a fall foliage trip through the Catskills with Anna and my parents in mid-October. The waterfall is about two to three hours driving from the New York metro area, depending on where you leave from; we took I-87 (the New York Thruway) north to exit 20 at Saugerties, turned left at the exit ramp onto Route 212 west just briefly and turned right onto Route 32 north, following it 6 miles to a fork between Route 32 and Route 32A. At the fork, we stayed to the left to take Route 32A, which brought us into the village of Palenville. When Route 32A merged with Route 23A, we took the left fork to follow Route 23A west into the Kaaterskill Clove (the canyon of Kaaterskill Creek). Route 23A winded through the canyon and ascended to the village of Haines Falls; once in town, we followed the signs for North South Lake and turned right onto North Lake Road. We followed North Lake Road two miles east to the signed turnoff on the right for Laurel House Road and Kaaterskill Falls. Laurel House Road was a bumpy paved road that headed briefly downhill to a large gravel parking lot. Although the parking area is large, Kaaterskill Falls is immensely popular and the lot is frequently full; we waited about 10 minutes to be able to pull into the lot and find a parking spot on a sunny October holiday Monday.

The trail to Kaaterskill Falls departed from the southeast corner of the parking lot. While the hike described here is the full hike to the base of the lower falls, there are three potential final destinations for hikers, depending on how much they wish to exert themselves: the short, easy half-mile round trip to the falls overlook and the viewpoints at the base of the upper and lower falls, both of which involve long staircase ascents on the return hike.

Initially, the trail was wide with a gentle downhill grade and a comfortable trail tread as it began descending through the forest from the Laurel House Trailhead. Arriving in mid-October, we had come near peak fall color and so we enjoyed the yellow and red foliage around us shining in the afternoon lighting. After just 0.2 miles of hiking, as the trail approached a bridge on Kaaterskill Creek, we came to the turnoff for the falls overlook. On our inbound hike, we checked out the overlook, taking the short spur trail downhill through a switchback to reach the wooden viewing platform. The view at the overlook was decent: we could see the upper falls dropping into the cliff-lined gorge below and there was also a nice view to Kaaterskill High Peak across Kaaterskill Clove. However, this view was far more subdued than the view we caught later from the base of the falls and lacked the grandeur that the lower viewpoints delivered. This overlook is easily reached by most visitors and while it still involves a bit of elevation change, the round trip from here to the parking lot is never steep and the trail is always well maintained.

Kaaterskill Falls from the overlook
View of the Catskills from the waterfall overlook
Returning along the overlook spur trail to the main trail, we turned right onto the main trail and crossed a bridge over Kaaterskill Creek. The creek was pretty, tumbling down a rocky and wide (by Appalachian standards) streambed through the brilliantly lit forest of autumn hardwoods.

Kaaterskill Creek
On the far side of the bridge, we came to a trail junction with the Escarpment Trail, where we took the right fork, which led towards the spur trail to Kaaterskill Falls. The wide, easy-hiking trail ended here, transitioning to a much rockier path that briefly ascended for an eighth of a mile to reach a junction with the Kaaterskill Falls Trail. We followed the Kaaterskill Falls Trail as it branched off to the right from the Escarpment Trail and began descending, first gradually and then more steeply, into the gorge below. The beautiful fall foliage canopy and bountiful mushrooms fruiting in the understory made the descent down some occasional stone steps quite enjoyable.

Fall foliage
The trail turned right for a steeper final descent into the gorge, dropping down a set of staircases to reach a fork between the trails leading to the bases of the upper and lower falls. 

Staircase on the descent to the base of the falls
We took the right fork initially: this trail followed a sandstone ledge, clinging to the top of a cliff above the lower falls. The trail here was muddy and a bit slippery due to mist coming from the falls, so luckily a chain fence provided some support and protection. The trail ended on a sandstone ledge at the edge of a pool directly below the leaping, taller drop of the upper falls. The upper falls is a 180 foot free fall, which makes it just taller than Niagara Falls and the second tallest single drop in the state of New York, after Taughannock Falls near Ithaca.

Airy upper drop of Kaaterskill Falls
Thomas Cole, the painter who founded the Hudson River School (the first major landscape painting movement in the United States), painted Kaaterskill Falls multiple times, including once climbing to the rocky alcove behind the upper falls to paint that scene. Fellow painter Asher Durand’s Kindred Spirits- a staple of art history textbooks- featured the falls as well. However, it was writer Washington Irving who first drew the attention of these European American artists to the area: he described the wildness of the falls vividly in Rip Van Winkle. Publicity from Irving and Cole eventually made Kaaterskill Falls a major tourist attraction in the later nineteenth century; the Laurel House, a large hotel, was built at the current trailhead to welcome tourists from New York City. By the mid-twentieth century, tourist attention had moved to other sights out West and Laurel House was torn down.

During our visit, water flow in Kaaterskill Creek was sufficient to make the waterfall quite impressive. However, in dry years (or even dry times of year), the waterfall may shrink to a trickle; I advise you to time your visit appropriately and check trail reports or river gauges in the area to get an idea of what to expect if you are set on seeing the falls in higher flow.

We also had lovely views from here of the steep, tree-lined walls of Kaaterskill Clove.

Forested Kaaterskill Clove
Returning to the main trail, we continued downhill on the long staircase, which ended at the base of the lower falls. From there, we made our way across some rocks to reach the banks of Kaaterskill Creek just below the lower falls. Here, we could see both drops of Kaaterskill Falls, an exceptionally scenic two-tier shape that almost reminded me of Yosemite Falls. This was the busiest spot on the hike; as there’s only a small area from which one can see the falls fully, expect things to be a bit crowded. After enjoying the views here, we retraced our steps and ascended the staircases out of the gorge to return to the trailhead.

View from the base of the lower drop of Kaaterskill Falls
This was a great short hike to one of the more impressive waterfalls on the East Coast. The only real drawback to this hike is the crowds: the beauty of the falls is well known and the hike is short, so this is a popular spot. While there’s enough room on the hike for people to spread out a bit (or at least to avoid lengthy queuing at popular viewpoints), the trailhead parking for this hike is likely to be overcapacity on nice weekends.

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