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Kaaterskill Falls

Kaaterskill Falls
Kaaterskill Falls from below
Location Catskill Mountains, Hunter (town), New York, USA
Type Tiered
Total height 260 feet (79 m)
Number of drops 2
Longest drop 180 feet (55 m)

Kaaterskill Falls is a two-drop waterfall located in the eastern Catskill Mountains of New York, on the north side of Kaaterskill Clove, between the hamlets of Haines Falls and Palenville in Greene County's Town of Hunter. The dual cascades total 260 feet (79 m) in height, making it one of the higher waterfalls in New York, and one of the Eastern United States' taller waterfalls.

The falls are one of America's oldest tourist attractions, with it appearing in some of the most prominent books, essays, poems and paintings of the early 19th century. Long before Alexis de Tocqueville's famous essay on America, Kaaterskill Falls was lauded as a place where a traveler could see a wilder image, a sort of primeval Eden. Beginning with Thomas Cole's first visit in 1825, they became an icon subject for painters of the Hudson River School, setting the wilderness ideal for American landscape painting. The Falls also inspired "Catterskill Falls", a poem by William Cullen Bryant.


  • History 1
    • Geological formation 1.1
    • Human history 1.2
      • Colonial era 1.2.1
      • Hudson River School 1.2.2
    • The Bayard of Dogs 1.3
    • Public ownership 1.4
  • Access 2
    • Safety issues 2.1
    • Visibility 2.2
  • References 3
  • External links 4


Geological formation

Winslow Homer - Under the Falls, Catskill Mountains - Brooklyn Museum

The falls, like the clove and creek with which they share a name, are a relatively recent addition to the Catskills in geologic time. They evolved through stream capture at the end of the Illinoian Stage, when runoff from the glacial melt that created North-South Lake began to flow away from the nearby headwaters of Schoharie Creek and down the steep slopes of the newly created clove. The rushing waters of what would become known as Spruce Creek eroded a natural amphitheater at roughly 2,000 feet (609 m) on the south slope of South Mountain.[1]

Most of the drop is accounted for by the upper cascade. The shelf breaking the two falls (and creating the huge pool) is the break between the Manorkill Sandstone formed in the Middle Devonian period and the Oneonta-Genesee sandstone-shale mix of the late Devonian period.[2]

Human history

Colonial era

While the falls' existence was known prior to European colonization, it had a minor role among the indigenous peoples of the Hudson Valley, who generally avoided the Catskills due to the limited agricultural possibilities of higher elevations and occasionally ventured into the mountains to hunt game. Thomas Cole populated the Falls with an occasional Indian in his earliest paintings [17].

The falls' name, like that of the features around it, probably came from a later corruption of "Catskill" by English-speaking colonists who had supplanted the Dutch by the early 18th century. Cat could mean Bobcat or Mountain Lion, while "kill" means stream in Dutch, the original language of the first European colonists in the 17th century.

Early American naturalist John Bartram and his son visited the falls on his famous 1753 expedition to the area. He wrote about it in "A Journey to Ye Cat Skill Mountains with Billy," one of the earliest Catskill travelogues, which became widely read not only in the colonies but back in Britain as well. He called it "the great gulf that swallowed all down" and estimated their height at approximately a hundred feet (31 m), in a somewhat hurried account. However, he may have written his patron Peter Collinson a more detailed version, and his son William may have included a sketch.[3]

Hudson River School

The falls' fame in America really began when Washington Irving mentioned them in his story published in 1819 "Rip Van Winkle." Prior to that time Americans tended to regard the mountains and valleys of upstate New York as an unsafe neighborhood populated by savage natives, aided and encouraged by the British. The famous painting, "The Murder of Jane McRea" [18] by Kingston, NY native John Vanderlyn, best illustrates this local attitude. It wasn't until after the War of 1812 when the frontier shifted far to the west, that attitudes changed and people began to look at the lofty heights around the Hudson River valley as something scenic rather than ominous or fearsome. About the same time local farmers were being put out of business by the cheap grain shipped east by an Erie Canal, usable in stages while under construction. Irving's story invited Cole and others to discover the valley when Irving introduced the Falls of the Kaaterskill in "Rip Van Winkle". Upon the reawakening from the twenty-year slumber, Irving wrote the following passage about Rip coming to his senses and heading home:

Pioneering Hudson River School artist Thomas Cole was drawn by the story, and took a steamboat ride up the Hudson, stopping at West Point then going north to Catskill, NY where he ventured into Kaaterskill Clove in October 1825 [19]. The resulting paintings made the front page of the New York Evening Post and in an era of Erie Canal boom wealth made the Hudson River valley, and scenic locations like Kaaterskill Falls, some of the foremost and famous tourist destinations in the rapidly expanding United States. Cole's highly influential paintings from that trip inspired the first real generation of truly American artists for whom a trip to the Clove, Kaaterskill Falls and Charles Beach's Catskill Mountain House became something of a pilgrimage. The earliest known view of the front of the Falls by Thomas Cole is dated 1826 is in the Westervelt Warner Museum in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.[20][21] Nearby Palenville, New York is considered to be the first art colony in the United States as a result (noted by Dr. Roland Van Zandt, author of The Catskill Mountain House, pages 175-178). Other artists who painted the falls included Frederic Edwin Church[22], Sanford Gifford[23], Winslow Homer[24], Max Eglau, Richard William Hubbard and John Frederick Kensett. Their work in turn attracted affluent visitors to the Catskill Mountain House and the other hotels established near it later.

Durand's Kindred Spirits, with the falls in the background.

One of the best-known depiction of the falls popularized by recent news [25], is Asher Durand's Kindred Spirits (1849), a highly stylized rendition. It eulogized the recently deceased Thomas Cole by depicting him and William Cullen Bryant standing on Fawn's Leap [26][27] looking out over a landscape that synthesized the falls and parts of the surrounding clove, including Haines Falls, into a landscape that, while visually striking, is really an imagined view of the falls. Prior to the painting's execution, in 1836, Bryant had complemented Cole's visualizations with versification when he wrote "Catterskill Falls", which described a wintertime encounter:

The phenomenon he described — the erection of an ice column by the falls during particularly cold stretches of winter — was well known to frequent visitors.

At some time in the 19th century the falls were used as a mill to power a tannery [28]. The Laurel House [29], a nearby hotel, acquired the water rights to Spruce Creek and dammed it during tourist season, charging spectators [30] below the falls a fee to watch as the waters were unleashed and the falls "turned on". Like the nearby Catskill Mountain House, the Laurel House was also razed by the state [31].

The Bayard of Dogs

On the left side of the falls, halfway between the middle and top level there is a worn engraving that is dated 1868. It is dedicated to the "Bayard of Dogs" "A tragic story of a dog's devotion to his master, even unto death, is graven deep on a tablet hewn in the face of a rock beside the Kaaterskill Falls at the time of its occurrence."[4] Local legend suggests that on June 19 of every year, the spaniel haunts the vicinity of the falls and "as the hands of the clock mark the witching hour, a succession of short, sharp barks is heard followed by the flight of the apparition through the air over the falls into the precipice, whence arises a prolonged howl which echoes and re-echoes among the Cimmerian recesses of Sunset Gorge and the forest clad slope of High Peak Mountain"[4]

Public ownership

In 1885 New York State established the Forest Preserve, which later became part of the New York State Constitution. The "forever wild" requirement helped protect the area from logging and commercial development, once the falls property came into state ownership during the early 20th century. They are today part of the North Mountain Wild Forest, a Forest Preserve Unit owned and managed by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).

The Kaaterskill Hotel was never rebuilt after a 1920s fire, and the Mountain House itself was burned to the ground by the State Conservation Department (the forerunner to DEC) at 6:00am on January 25, 1963, after having fallen into severe disrepair. The Falls and the surrounding area were prominently featured in a 2002 PBS documentary, "America's First River, Bill Moyers on the Hudson."[32]


The sign on Route 23A that leads people to a hiking trail to Kaaterskill Falls

While the falls are on public land, they can only be reached via the Kaaterskill Falls Trail, a state-maintained yellow-blazed path running 0.4 mile (650 m) uphill from NY 23A, the only road through the clove. This has presented two safety issues.

First, the trail itself climbs rather steeply from the road, along the sometimes steep and rocky slopes alongside the creek. Challenging enough for experienced hikers, as the most-hiked trail in the Catskill Park it is used heavily by casual visitors who may be ill-prepared for the terrain between the road and the falls. The heavy traffic has compounded the trail's problems through erosion.

Second, the trail is served by two parking lots along 23A, both of which require a walk of at least 0.2 mile (400 m) to reach the trailhead at Bastion Falls, just above 23A at a bend in the road. Due to both the rugged surrounding terrain and the limitations placed on Forest Preserve land by the state constitution, New York's Department of Transportation (DOT) has been unable to expand the narrow shoulder on either side of the road, requiring that visitors walk very close to high-speed traffic, including trucks, some of which are in the middle of descending a pronounced grade. The risk of serious accidents is very high. Both DOT and DEC have indicated a willingness to sit down and work out a solution that will accommodate their concerns, however this has not happened as of 2006. Some hikers try to avoid this by parking near the Laurel House site or at North-South Lake and following the closed route of the former Escarpment Trail; this is equally risky as it runs very near the edge of the falls.

Safety issues

Hikers swim in the upper falls pool

The Kaaterskill Falls Trail was built in 1967 as the southern terminus of the popular Escarpment Trail,[5] which runs along the ridge that bounds the Catskills to the northeast. In the late 1980s, DEC had to close the trail above the falls and build a new southern section along Schutt Road to limit the state's liability for injuries and fatalities that were occurring at the falls.[5]

View to Hunter Mountain from the top of the falls, an area officially closed to hiking.

Today, the trail officially ends, and is blocked off at, the lower of the two falls. However, the former treadway is still usable, and many visitors continue past the brush pile to get closer to the falls. Some venture into the natural amphitheater behind the falls, and it is here and from the ledge above the falls that more than one hiker has fallen to death. The height of the upper interior rim of the upper falls amphitheater is deceptively high and the footing is tenuous. In 2004 a Putnam County woman sued the state over injuries sustained in her fall into the pool from the top of the falls, arguing the state had a responsibility to put a barrier there. Four years later a state Court of Claims judge ruled against her, saying the danger "was open and obvious to anyone employing the reasonable use of her senses".[6] The trail's junction with the current Escarpment Trail route just past the Laurel House site is also readily apparent due to the rock pile used to block it off and the wood pole that once held mileage signs. It, too, is still used unofficially to reach the falls.


For those not able to get too close to it, the falls can be seen in their entirety in the distance from the northern approach to the summit of Kaaterskill High Peak, across the clove, and sometimes even from the fire tower on Hunter Mountain.


  1. ^ Titus, Robert; The Catskills: A Geological Guide; Purple Mountain Press, Fleischmanns, New York, 1993, ISBN 0-935796-40-1, 134-5, illustrated by Figure 6-2 at 137.
  2. ^ United States Geological Survey, Kaaterskill Falls at Geology of the New York City region; retrieved October 7, 2006.
  3. ^ Evers, Alf; The Catskills: From Wilderness to Woodstock; Overlook Press; Woodstock, New York, ISBN 0-87951-162-1, 1982, 92.
  4. ^ a b New York Times: September 1, 1901.
  5. ^ a b Kudish, Michael; The Catskill Forest: A History, ISBN 1-930098-02-2, 2000, Purple Mountain Press, Fleischmanns, New York, 136.
  6. ^ Nelson, Paul (2008-09-07). "Court rules against fall victim".  

External links

  • Kaaterskill Falls 360 Degree Panoramic Tour
  • USGS description of falls
  • Kaaterskill Falls Photo Gallery
  • Guide to where the Hudson River School artists painted in the Kaaterskill Falls area
  • "Catterskill Falls"
  • History of the Town of Hunter: The town where Kaaterskill Falls is located

  • Kaaterskill Falls Hiking Trail Photo

The Catskill Mountain House and The World Around documentary contains many scenes of the waterfall as well as Hudson River School Art depictions, postcards and drawings of the waterfall.

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