Kaaterskill Falls is the tallest two-stage waterfall in New York State. It is just objectively gorgeous. Famously, the falls helped inspire the first American art movement, the Hudson River School of painting, popularly founded by Thomas Cole. I’ve lived within driving distance of this waterfall–which totals 260 feet between both stages–for most of my life, but I’d never seen it in person. The Sunday before Memorial Day, my best friend and I decided to meet up there and check it out.
Thomas Cole and the Hudson River School’s paintings turned the Catskills into an overnight tourist destination back in the early to mid 19th century, and not much has changed since then; this place is a madhouse. There’s a small parking area across Route 23A from the lower trailhead where I planned to meet my buddy, who was heading down from Saratoga for the day. I got to the parking area first at a little before 10 am. It was completely full. Visitors had begun to park their cars wherever they could along the winding, narrow and heavily trafficked road despite clearly posted NO PARKING ANY TIME signs, then walking down said road toward the trailhead.
This struck me as highly dangerous behavior. Could any waterfall possibly be worth the risk of a ticket, a tow or getting run down by a passing motorist? I thought not. If old Thomas Cole had to put up with this I think Falls of the Kaaterskill would be a much less pleasant painting. Anyway, I continued up the hill and kept an eye out for the next safe place to pull over to figure out what to do. As I entered the town of Haines Falls I saw a large empty parking lot with a sign that said Mountain Top Historical Society Visitor Center and another that said Kaaterskill Rail Trail. In a field near the parking lot I found a kiosk with a map of the rail trail and surrounding area [pdf]. I texted my buddy to meet me there. When she arrived, she made some inquiries at the visitor center about our best course of action. To make a long story short (too late), the KRT departs from the parking lot and continues for a flat mile to the top of the falls. It’s part of an improvement project completed in 2016 to make the wilderness around the falls safer and more accessible. I highly recommend this parking option if you plan to do this hike.
As I’ve complained before, we’ve had lots of rain this season. All that rain was about to pay off big time in the waterfall, but it didn’t bode well for the quality of the trail. The KRT itself was pretty dry, considering. We were able to pick our way around the few muddy spots we encountered. (Spoiler: there was plenty more mud in our future.) After a little more than a mile, the KRT leads to another (full) parking area with another nice kiosk and map. From there, we just followed the crowds. Fist stop: the first stage viewing platform.
The first stage falls 154 feet, and is by far the more powerful stage. It’s awe-inspiring. Unfortunately, we had to sort of wait in line with a crowd of noisy tourists for this view and, of course, we knew others were waiting behind us so we didn’t dilly-dally. We snapped a few pics, then followed everyone else back down the trail, which crosses Spruce Creek on a big bridge to hook up with the Yellow Trail down to the bottom of the second stage, and then onward to Bastion Falls and Route 23A.
The Yellow Trail is steep and narrow and crowded and, the day we were there, quite muddy. Most of the many, many people sharing the trail were properly shod and practiced good etiquette, but the mud was impossible to avoid and made for a slow trip down. One bright spot about the conditions: they made possible one of the most adorable conversations I’ve ever overheard:
Little Boy: Since I don’t want to step in the mud, I’m going to walk over here instead.
Mother: Since you don’t want to step in the mud, you’re going to have to use your wings to fly down.
How cute is that? Anyway, when the trail reaches the top of the second stage it hangs a left to descend about 65 wooden stairs. This made a nice change from inches-deep mud, but we couldn’t help feeling some trepidation about the return trip up the stairs. We didn’t worry about it very long, though, because at the bottom of those stairs is the bottom of the falls.
Kaaterskill Falls is a force of nature that helped characterize the nature of America. It is magnificent, especially at full-flow, even when viewed form among a horde. We gaped at it for a bit. We knew we’d have a chance to see it again on the way up, so we tore ourselves away and headed further down the trail, which luckily stayed pretty dry. In about a quarter mile from the bottom of Kaaterskill Falls we reached Bastion Falls. The Yellow Trail dead-ends into 23A here.
Doesn’t that look like a lovely spot to enjoy a snack? We thought so, too. Off came our packs (I’d lightened the weight in mine to 20 lb because my back felt a bit twingey after my 9-mile hike at 30 lb the day before). We found ourselves some prime sittin’ rocks and chowed down on some fruit and Cliff Bars. When we felt full and rested I got my buddy to take my picture, then we retraced our steps back up the hill, past the spectacular and art-world-changing waterfall, up the 65 stairs (hours Stairmaster time doesn’t make it easy, just slightly easier) and through the mud field.
A few hundred yards short of the start of the yellow trail, we saw a blue trail departing to the right, marked by DEC sign that said “To Layman’s Monument.” We decided to take a little side trip to check it out. We didn’t know if Layman’s Monument was an actual monument, or a local term for some geographical feature, or something else entirely. The trail led gently downhill through occasional mud for 0.6 miles before it ended our suspense. Layman’s Monument is, indeed, an actual monument. It commemorates a firefighter named Frank Layman who died on or near the spot while fighting a forest fire in 1900. It was worth a little detour to check out. We again retraced our steps back uphill through occasional mud, rejoined the Yellow Trail, and headed from there back to the KRT, which brought us back to our cars. We were especially glad to have parked near the Mountain Top Historical Society visitor center and its convenient bathroom.
It was crowded, it was muddy as heck, but we had a great time out there. We would have obviously preferred a quieter trail. This hike is one-of-a-kind, though, and worth it.
Length: 5.75 miles
Total Elevation Gain: ~1300 ft
Hiking Time: 2.5 hours
Training Grade: B-
Enjoyment Grade: A