On the Rocks: The new Kaaterskill Falls trail

The Kaaterskill Falls vicinity a century ago. (photo courtesy Mountain Top Historical Society)

The Kaaterskill Falls vicinity a century ago. (photo courtesy Mountain Top Historical Society)

Part One —
An introduction

How long has it been since you went to Kaaterskill Clove and took the trail from Bastion Falls on Rte. 23A up to Kaaterskill Falls? This has always been among the most popular hiking trails in the Catskills. Well, it has changed — a lot. This has always been the classic path to take to get the best views of the falls. It is not a hard trek; it is not very rough, not especially long, nor is it very steep. What it’s good at is being very picturesque, but that should not surprise you, should it? You drive up 23A from Palenville, park at the Molly Smith parking lot (if you can!) and then walk down the road and enter the canyon that lies below the falls.

We have been making this ascent for decades and we have always recognized that changes were needed. The old trails here, especially on the steepest slopes, had become worn out and were rapidly losing their natural scenic beauty. This has always been, and always will be, a hazardous place, and some of the trails needed to be improved in order to make them a bit less dangerous. Also the trail system needed to be re-routed to make better connections with other parts of the park. The trail system needed to be more carefully thought out in providing visitors with a full experience of this scenic and historic landscape. Over the years On the Rocks has called for such changes.


A 19th century print of Prospect Rock and its view. (Author’s collection)

A 19th century print of Prospect Rock and its view. (Author’s collection)

So, we are happy to report, the Department of Environmental Conservation last year set about on a plan to completely revamp the whole trail system in the Kaaterskill Falls vicinity. Much of the immediate impetus was the unusually large number of people who had been falling to their deaths there. Several people, each year, were dying. Tragically, still one more death occurred while we were researching this article. Attempted rescues were also extremely hazardous to first responders. Something had to give.

Also, it has become apparent that Kaaterskill Falls was a growing tourist attraction and the weak Greene County economy needed to expand its “green” industries. It had simply become economically worth the effort and expense to “fix” Kaaterskill Falls. The two of us have been on the local Scenic Byways Committee so this is dear to us. The centerpiece of the Kaaterskill project was to construct a staircase, just right (east) of the falls. But there was more. The trail system needed some new bridges to make getting around a little easier than it had been. Work began last summer. The project is now largely complete and we decided to go see what had been done.

We began our climb at Bastion Falls and headed up the canyon. There was still work going on, with crews shoring up the stream banks (see photo). We quickly found small staircases that we had never seen before. They blended in with the natural landscape; preserving Nature and serving man as well.

But before we continue in that vein, let’s go back and see how we got to where we are. Kaaterskill Falls has gone through three stages during the last 200 years.  The falls were, essentially, a commercial enterprise back in the 19th century. Take a look at our second photo and see a view of it taken along where today’s Kaaterskill Rail Trail is located. Today’s rail trail was, back then, a rail line. Trains brought tourists to the vicinity; they filled the several grand hotels there. The falls lie in the right distance and, looming above them, was the Laurel House Hotel. The hotel was a real success and attracted large numbers of tourists to it. If you look carefully, you can just make out something that was called “Spray House.” It’s the white square just left and above the falls. It was a tourist facility with a porch that had a fine and safe view of the canyon below the falls. Out of sight in this photo, was a wooden staircase that took visitors down to the bottom of the falls and back. Also unseen was a location called Prospect Rock, a large ledge where the trees had been cleared away to open up an especially good view of the falls (see our third photo). Most of the natural beauty was conserved but the area was fully adapted for commercial tourism.

This commercial stage ended after the Department of Environmental Conservation took possession of the land here. Commercial interests were replaced by a philosophy committed to preservation as Kaaterskill Falls entered its second stage. The Laurel House Hotel was burned down and Spray House was gone. Prospect Rock was let to grow over and its view was lost. The goal was to let Nature restore the landscape to a primeval and natural state. We think it was a little overdone. The question is always where the line should be drawn, balancing Nature and human use. We think that, with recent changes, the line has been redrawn and we think this has been wise. That’s the third stage, the current one, and we would like to call it a conservation stage.

Our goal in this series is to take a fresh look at the Kaaterskill Falls canyon in light of what has been going on. This is the first installment in a series of columns describing what we found. We want to follow the renovated trails and describe what is new, how it has affected the canyon, and also, of course, to see how much very interesting geology is here.

Read other columns in this series. 

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