At the heart of Catskill Park, a 700,000-acre forest preserve, are the Catskill Mountains, a dissected plateau that rises from the Hudson Valley in southeastern New York. Though the Catskills are often compared to the nearby Adirondack Mountains, the two ranges are not geologically related. In fact, the Catskills aren’t technically mountains at all – they’re really an eroded plateau.
Over 350 million years ago, the mountainous landscape of the Catskills was actually an extensive river delta that contained numerous rivers and streams. Large deposits of gravel, sand, and silt from the rising and eroding ancient Acadian Mountains to the east formed layers of material that would eventually become buried and turn to solid rock. Eventually, the entire area would experience uplift. Today’s Catskills were largely formed by the continued erosion of these rocks, though glaciers have also made their mark on the landscape.
The Catskills are a physiographic province of the impressive Appalachian Mountains and contain more than 30 peaks that reach over 3,500 feet in elevation. These peaks, aptly named the ‘Catskill High Peaks,’ and are either separated by one-half mile or contain a vertical drop of at least 250 feet between it and the next nearest summit. Some of the most notorious Catskill High Peaks include Slide Mountain, the tallest mountain in the Catskills, Panther Mountain, which is said to be the site of a meteor landing 375 million years ago, as well as Hunter Mountain, Black Dome, Thomas Cole, Blackhead, West Kill, Graham Mountain, Table Mountain, and Cornell Mountain. Interestingly, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation works to preserve higher elevations of the Catskills by imposing special rules on areas reaching over 3,500 feet. Camping is generally permitted during winter months and fires are strictly prohibited.
Today, the Catskills sit just 40 miles southwest of Albany, New York, beginning west of the Hudson River and spanning five counties – Delaware, Greene, Schoharie, Sullivan, and Ulster. The region contains several historic towns, including Kingston, the first capital of New York. The origin of the name ‘Catskill’ remains largely a mystery, though an assumption can be made that the region’s name relates to a native predator – the mountain lion.
The Catskills are one of the best-known mountain ranges in American culture. One of the most iconic landmarks built in the Catskills, the Catskill Mountain House, was built in 1824 by a group of businessmen. In its prime, not only did the Catskill Mountain House accommodate three U.S. presidents – President Grant, Arthur, and Roosevelt - but it also served as one of America’s first luxury resort hotels. The Catskill Mountain was infamous for its panoramic views of the Hudson Valley and became a popular destination for famous artists and writers like Thomas Cole and William Henry Bartlett.
The Catskills also received their fair share of infamy after becoming the filming site for the beloved rom com, Dirty Dancing, and hosting the iconic Woodstock Music Festival in 1969. In the 19th century, the Hudson River School, an American art movement was said to “depict the American landscape as a pastoral setting, where human beings and nature coexist peacefully”, was heavily influenced by the sweeping Hudson Valley and surrounding Catskill summits.
Mount Tremper is one of the most popular hikes in the Catskills. The trail leads hikers along a 3-mile footpath to an old fire tower that sits at the top of Mount Tremper in the Phoenicia-Mount Tobias Wild Forest. The trail follows an old jeep trail and ascends a series of switchbacks before reaching the tower, which sits 47 feet off the ground. The Mount Tremper fire tower was built in 1917 and is one of the last fire towers in the Catskills. Though it hasn’t been used since 1971, the tower has been restored and can accommodate up to six people at a time.
If you’re looking for the best views of the Catskills, look no further. The hike to Giant Ledge is best-known for its sweeping views of the Catskills, particularly during Autumn. The trail features five distinct ledges that offer unobstructed, panoramic views of the surrounding landscape. The trail is just 3.2 miles round trip to the first ledge, and about 4 miles roundtrip if for those that continue to the fifth ledge. Or, if you’re looking to bag a Catskill high peak, you can opt to continue on for an additional two miles to reach the top of Panther Mountain.
Reaching over 4,000 feet in elevation, the Hunter Mountain Fire Tower is one of the Catskills’ most challenging treks. This footpath climbs almost 2,000 feet in elevation and spans over 8 miles. The reward, however, is definitely worth the effort. On a clear day, hikers will enjoy incredible panoramas unfolding in every direction and views that span three states – Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Vermont.
Hike to the 2,812-foot summit of Bramley Mountain, the site of a former fire tower and an abandoned bluestone quarry. Along this 4-mile footpath, hikers can expect to be dazzled by impressive cliffs and caves that line the trail. The trail, which was built by the Catskill Mountain Club, gradually ascends through mixed hardwoods and stone walls, many with craggy outcroppings. At the summit, hikers can soak in views of southern high peaks like Mount Pisgah and peaks of the western Pepacton Range.
Known as the birthplace of American art, Catskill is a small town packed with a ton of history. The town, which is nestled along the banks of the Hudson River, is where you’ll find the former home of famous Hudson River School Painters, Thomas Cole and Frederic Edwin Church. Catskill features a variety of Victorian storefronts, charming boutiques, and eclectic restaurants. Visitors can hike to the site of the Catskill Mountain House, stroll beside nearby waterways, or charter a boat to explore the Hudson, all from the picturesque town of Catskill.
Cairo is a small town with a big job – it connects most of the Great Northern Catskills with Albany and other major cities. Cairo also happens to be an ideal basecamp for visitors hoping to explore Catskill hiking trails and scenic vistas. Cairo is best-known for its local events and family-friendly festivities, as well as its charming accommodations and eateries.