Trail Trials: Kaaterskill Falls
The wilderness of New York’s Great Northern Catskill Mountains bear witness to the captivating cascades of Kaaterskill Falls—a 260-foot, double-tiered waterfall that flows from the tranquil waters of Spruce Creek. The majesty of these falls has fascinated countless generations and inspired brilliant works of art, such as Asher Durand’s Kindred Spirits and the romantic poetry of William Cullen Bryant. Even today, Kaaterskill Falls continues to enthrall each visitor that witnesses its enchanting appeal.
The first recorded European encounter with Kaaterskill Falls occurred in 1753 when naturalist John Bartram and his son, William, stumbled upon the spectacle during an expedition of the nearby Hudson River. Bartram’s account of Kaaterskill was published in an essay titled “A Journey to Ye Cat Skill Mountains with Billy.” In 1819, famed American essayist Washington Irving wrote the following passage in his groundbreaking short story “Rip Van Winkle” to describe the imposing beauty of the falls, which cast a national spotlight on the natural landmark:
“At length [Rip Van Winkle] reached to where the ravine had opened through the cliffs to the amphitheater; but no traces of such opening remained. The rocks presented a high, impenetrable wall, over which the torrent came tumbling in a sheet of feathery foam, and fell into a broad, deep basin, black from the shadows of the surrounding forest.”
Irving’s awe-inspiring description motivated painter Thomas Cole—founder of the esteemed Hudson River School—to visit the falls for himself in 1825. His resulting artwork, Falls of the Kaaterskill, sparked a large-scale artistic movement to the Catskill Mountains, attracting painters, poets, and writers alike. Kaaterskill Falls was even mentioned in Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America essay in 1835.
The natural splendor of Kaaterskill Falls did not exclusively fall on artists’ eyes, as it became a popular tourist destination during the mid-19thcentury. In 1852, Peter Schutt built The Laurel House—a 50-room hostel positioned one hundred feet from the top tier of the falls. It was a cheaper alternative to the area’s luxury spas and hotels, which attracted scores of middle-class vacationers. Schutt’s enterprise also claimed water rights to Spruce Creek, had its flow dammed during tourist season, and charged spectators a fee to observe the dams release and initiate the falls. At its peak, Laurel House could accommodate up to three hundred guests at a time. The hotel stayed in operation until 1965 when New York State acquired the falls’ property. Laurel House itself was intentionally razed in 1967. Only parts of its stone foundation remain.
Though you can no longer lodge at the edge of the cascades, Kaaterskill Falls is still one of upstate New York’s most popular hiking destinations, attracting hundreds of people each day during peak season. It is also one of the most dangerous waterfalls in the world—the location of nearly two hundred deaths over the past two centuries. It is important for me to preface this hiking review with a warning to exercise extreme caution if you choose to visit this natural landmark. Do not be fooled by the siren’s song. While the falls are strikingly beautiful, getting too close can be incredibly dangerous.
There are two ways to reach Kaaterskill Falls. The first (and easiest) route is to drive up to the Laurel House parking lot and walk a 0.3-mile access road to the upper falls lookout area. I, however, being someone who loves a good challenge, opted for the second route: a 2.8-mile out-and-back excursion that begins in a pull-over parking lot along State Route 23A, located 0.2 miles from the Lower Kaaterskill Falls Trail head. Please be careful when walking along the shoulder of the road, as it is heavily trafficked during the summer months. Steep grades and hairpin turns give drivers little time to react if you cross their path.
The yellow-blazed Lower Kaaterskill Trail begins at the base of Bastion Falls, a small but impressive waterfall the flows underneath the main road. The initial climb is rather steep, much like a rock scramble, but the trail mellows out after a couple hundred feet and parallels the rippling waters of Spruce Creek for nearly a half-mile. The winter scenery around the creek was absolutely stunning and it’s easy to see why Kaaterskill’s landscape was the subject for so many works of art.
Preluding the base of Kaaterskill Falls is a daunting series of stone steps (which were coated in an inch-thick layer of ice when I hiked the trail). I slowly ascended step by step and was careful to find solid footing before drudging ahead. It’s times like these where I really wish I had crampons! The stairs wind their way up the side of the cliff and bring the 85-foot lower waterfall tier into view.
After ascending another lengthy set of icy steps, I took a left to access the base of the upper falls. I had to make use of the rope handles for the majority of my walk as the pathway was incredibly slick. As I neared the falls once more, I noticed an irregular thickening of ice on the branches, rocks, and ropes adjacent to the creek. The water spatter from the falls was instantly freezing to whatever it touched (including my camera lens on several occasions), creating a mystic white aura around the base of the 175-foot upper cascades.
It should come as no surprise that a landmark marred by tragedy has a ghost story attached to it. If you venture along the walls of the natural amphitheater, you may stumble across an inscription that reads: “To the Memory of Vite / The Bayard of Dogs / Sans Peur et Sans Reproche / Killed / June 19, 1868, by Leaping from the / Platform Above the Falls to / the Rocks Beneath / This Epitaph is Inscribed to His / Memory by His Friends / J.S. McK. – W.E.P. – J.K.M.” According to legend, the spirit of Vite is said to return on the anniversary of his death and bark at hikers near the falls. Obviously, it was too treacherous for me to explore the amphitheater behind the falls. The tenuous footing combined with the iciness of the already narrow pathway would have made injury inevitable if I risked it. So I decided to marvel at the scene from afar.
From the Lower Falls, I continued my journey on the Upper Kaaterskill Falls Trail—a 0.7-mile yellow-blazed path that leads from the base of the waterfall to a scenic overlook. This trail connects to the blue-blazed Escarpment Trail at the top of the ridge. Be sure to take a left-hand turn at the intersection to stay on the correct path (it will be marked by yellow and blue blazes).
The end of the Upper Trail was essentially a ski luge so slid down its icy slope to the Laurel Hill access trail. I made another left and walked across the Spruce Creek hiking bridge (which was, of course, completely iced over). From there, it was several hundred feet to the overlook platform, which offers a spectacular view of the waterfall and Hunter Mountain way off in the distance. After taking in the views, I embarked on my return hike and miraculously, I didn’t fall once.
The wintry landscape at Kaaterskill Falls fostered a frozen phenomenon that was nothing short of magical. The rather hazardous hiking conditions made the journey more rewarding to overcome, as I was met with a spectacular scene people seldom see. Trail Rating: 10/10
Click the link for a map of Kaaterskill Falls
Go to the New York Department of Environmental Conservation for more on Kaaterskill Falls
Check out Atlas Obscura for more about the Bayard of Dogs ghost story