Updated: Nov 14, 2022
first night in the Catskills
I recently shifted jobs, moving away from my work as a teaching artist and beginning work as a gardener with the Riverside Park Conservancy. The change has been a really wonderful one, but required my working over the summer, changing up the typical tradition J-Dub and I have for doing long trails over the summer. We had initially considered and did some prep work for the Tahoe Rim Trail, but had to the nix the idea.
Instead, we planned a smaller, 3-day trip into the Catskills. We’ve never been backpacking in them and wanted to test out some trails and enjoy the fall festivities and eerie, art so we decided to car camp and avoid some of the logistics and hardships of backpacking.
J-Dub picked me up from the metro north station in Beacon, NY and (after pizza, of course) we drove a crowded interstate up to the mountains to check in at the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC)’s North-South Lake Campground. We got in around 7:00 pm since I was meeting him after work, but the check-in range runs until 9pm. The DEC workers at the front were courteous and informative even with the mass of tourists like us. We had plenty of time to find our spot, set-up camp, drive back out for a firewood bundle, and eat dinner all before quiet hours.
I had read online that the campground can get loud and rowdy and should be avoided, but that wasn’t our experience with it at all. It was crowded, to be sure, but mainly with families and everyone around us were good neighbors. The sites aren’t the most secluded, but ours was on the perimeter of one of the camping zones and had a nice little stream running behind it.
In the morning we drove down to the lake itself and spent a short, chilly couple minutes exploring around. We anticipated it being crisp, cool, cold even, but it was chilly! Camping by a good-sized mountain lake probably didn’t help matters, but the luxury of car camping was really shining through when I was able to hop right into the heat of J-Dub’s car after breaking camp.
Our next stop was Kaaterskill Falls, one of the iconic sites of the Catskills. We snagged one of the last spots in the trail head parking lot and started off on the 0.3 mile trek to the viewing platform. The trail is a bustling, clear, and well maintained tourist trail, though there is an option to extend your hike down to the base of the falls. The platform alone offers a spectacular vista down into the gorge.
The busy tourist weekend had the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference (NYNJTC) and Catskills Center send out their summit stewards to popular destinations such as this to remind folks about the importance of staying on trail, leashing your dog, etc. They also handed out some free stickers from their info table at the trailhead. (Thank you!)
We intended to explore the Catskills, town and trail, on this adventure so we made a pit stop into Tannersville for coffee, parking and walking the main street along route 23A. It’s a nice little town, designed with tourists, hiker trash, and ski bums in mind as many mountain towns are, but with a distinctly Catskills style and aesthetic J-Dub and I would strive to define over the course of our trip.
While we had service and wifi in town we made a reservation at the DEC’s Woodland Valley Campground which would set us up nice for a hike to Giant Ledge the next morning.
Camp space reserved and coffees in hand we drove on into Phoenicia, the closest town to the campground and a lovely, little mountain hamlet with its own character. While there we did a quick resupply at the grocery store: more firewood, a separate bundle of kindling, and some snacks. Then we explored the town and I couldn’t resist popping into the Phoenicia Library which houses the Jerry Bartlett Memorial Angling Collection, “an extensive collection of books about fishing and fly tying, as well as historical memorabilia, artworks, archives and other resources. The special collection opened in 1996 in memory of Jerry Bartlett (1939-1995) a conservationist and tireless advocate for the cold water fisheries of the Catskill Mountains.” [Phoenicia Library]
More coffee in hand, we drove on and decided to explore Woodstock next because… why not? We took some windy local roads, purposefully eschewing the more direct, but trafficked, routes. Woodstock itself isn’t where the famous festival took place, it was simply the point of inspiration for the festival’s creators. The town has been a hotbed for arts and arts colonies since the early 1900s and still plays an important role in the Catskills art scene of today.
After eating lunch in Woodstock and touring some galleries and the museum, we got ourselves settled into the Woodland Valley Campground. A smaller campground than North-South Lake with a large stream running behind it and nice amenities such as shower rooms. We set up camp, then proceeded to do a thing of backpacking dreams: order pizza and bring it back to our campsite! The only pizza shop in Phoenicia is also its sports bar and cantina, so we had our doubts going in, but the pizza didn’t disappoint. It was a nice warm, woodfired crust on a chilly evening.
Our lot wasn’t as secluded as our North-South Lake spot, but everyone was neighborly again and our only midnight visitor was a nearby camper’s curious dog.
We got up, packed up, and drove just down the road to the parking lot for the Woodland Valley trail head. We were heading out on the 6.8 in-and-out hike along the yellow blazed Phoenicia East Branch trail to the blue blazed Giant Ledge- Panther- Fox Hollow trail. The trail is so popular that the lots require a parking fee. The nice part about the DEC camping pass is that it covers you for the day, even after campsite check out, so our pass waived the fee.
The trail was a steady, though incremental, uphill with one massive stone staircase along the way. The staircase descends on the way toward Giant Ledge and provides some serious glute work on the way out.
The gradual ascent was made pleasant by the fall foliage around us, a sea of yellow and fading, light greens dotted with crests of red and orange. From the trail junction on, the blue blazed Panther trail becomes a gantlet of steep scrambles interspersed with level(ish) trails.
This kind of hiking seems par for the course in the Catskills, so we received a nice introduction to the rocky terrain of the region. On a busy day, it took some patience letting big groups navigate the scrambles, but getting the view itself made it difficult to complain. It’s clear why Giant Ledge is another popular stop, it offers an incredible westward vista of the Indian Head Wilderness. A trail conference steward named Brandon was at the view to help crowd control the area. He was kind enough to take our photo when we asked and also helped us identify the ridge in the vista as the route of the Devil’s Path, a roughly 24 mile hiking trail deemed one of the hardest in the country for its elevation change and rock scrambles.
Making our way back down, then up the staircase, we opted to stay in Phoenicia again based primarily on availability. The closest campgrounds through the DEC were booked up, but there were a few privately owned ones around. We ended up right outside of town at the Black Bear Campground. J-Dub had heard it was a popular stop on the Long Path, which runs right through Phoenicia on a road walk portion, so we wanted to scout it out. The campground had availability and a short cash transaction later we had a campsite for the night! Black Bear Campground is a relaxed atmosphere right on the Esopus Creek, reminiscent of some of the BMT fishing camps we hit along the trail.
After setting up our camp we hit the town, exploring the artfully designed storefronts and getting food at Brio’s again, the same spot we had gotten pizza from the night before. This time we opted for a few different things off the menu and I can highly recommend the soft pretzel, especially around a campfire.
Our night along Esopus Creek was a spectacular way to cap off our time in the Catskills with a full moon and Jupiter above the fork in the stream.
In the morning fly fishers lined the banks up the Esopus and a bald eagle flew round the bend in the creek.
Keeping on our town adventure, we made reservations at the Thomas Cole National Historic Site to tour the house and the grounds of the Hudson River School’s founder. The preservation work of the house and studio is incredible, even details as granular as rug design are taken into consideration. Though preservation isn’t the only discipline on display, with a thoughtful and eloquently curated immersive experience entitled The Parlors around the house and exhibits of contemporary regional artists Marc Swanson placed in conversation with the house's architecture and design.
Here, the kind of creepy, cool, vibe of the Catskills scene was finally starting to make sense to me. There’s something very, intentionally, eerie about the art, perhaps carrying on a long tradition of dark folklore and fairy tale in the Mountains. Or perhaps the mountain’s history themselves. Most of the forest here is relatively new since the area was extensively logged throughout the 1700’s and 1800’s. Perhaps land and environment and use have been a question for this area for awhile and contemporary artists are continuing to explore and trouble that tradition today. For example: found object and collage work, which has become pretty widely popular, has found a serious home in the galleries, café decor, and even advertising of the area, but here artists are collaging with the dried jaw bones and preserved plant material. There’s an earthiness to a lot of what we saw and experienced on this trip that borders on folk art, but with too modern a structure.
J-Dub and I were pretty into it, but I can’t say the rest of our tour appreciated the contemporary work as much as the period home décor and Cole's art work.
Our camping arrangements for the night were made outside the Catskills, back in the direction of New York City at Fahnestock State Park. The campground is situated right off the Taconic Parkway and nestled along a nice loop trail of Pelton Pond. We followed the rolling trail after we made camp and I really enjoyed meandering along the water’s edge and rocky outcrops. Towards one end of the pond there's remnants of an old dam.
This was our most secluded site of all our campground stays. I was pleasantly surprised at how tucked away the tent sites were given it's proximity to NYC. I had often been told to visit Fahnestock, especially because the AT runs right through it, but unlike Harriman and Bear Mountain there’s no direct public transit, making it a bit trickier for me to venture out to. After this first visit though I’ll definitely be back for more.
Heading back down route 9 through Cold Spring and into Beacon, we stopped for one more coffee together before I got on a morning train along the Hudson and J-Dub headed on to explore the New River Gorge.
The Catskills certainly didn’t disappoint. I’m looking forward to a return trip up to those mountains, maybe I’ll pay my friend Rip Van Winkle a visit again when I’m up that way.