In Town for the Weekend: The Catskill Mountains
The Catskill Mountains is a difficult place to pin down in a single description. A region roughly the size of the state of Connecticut, the mountains’ easternmost escarpment is a vista familiar to visitors to Hudson — dramatic sunsets over the range can be viewed from Parade Hill at the bottom of Warren Street, or from Henry Hudson Riverfront Park. While most of the area known as the Catskills falls within Catskill Park, the boundaries extend culturally beyond that, from the borders of Albany County to the north, the Hudson River and the Shawangunk Range in the east, Interstate 88 in the west, and Route 17 to the south, comprising all or parts of five counties. In a place so diverse and sprawling, there are many itineraries that will fill the weekend calendar of visitors of all interests.
Once the central gathering place for families looking to escape New York City’s summer heat, this area was the heart of the Borscht Belt. In the heyday of the ‘Jewish Alps’ between 1920 and 1970, bungalow colonies, resorts, summer camps, and kohn aleyns. Noted for its nightlife, many comedians of the day got their start on the stages and in the dining rooms of these vaunted resorts, including Woody Allen, Sid Caesar, Jack Benny, and Milton Berle. With the rise of airline travel, the Borscht Belt declined and its many vacation retreats were largely shuttered and abandoned. To drive around the former sites of The Concord, Grossingers, Kutsher’s and others, is to get a glimpse of the past.
In the heart of the area is the old site of Max Yasgur’s farm in Bethel, where the organizers of Woodstock eventually set up shop (and closed down the New York State Thruway, snarling traffic on Route 17 for miles) when the town of Woodstock itself rejected the music festival’s permit application. Now known as Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, the outdoor amphitheater and museum hosts big name performers and offers arts and music education on-site.
In Sullivan and Delaware Counties, fly fishing is king. Towns along the Delaware River like Hancock, Deposit, Roscoe, and Liberty are world-renowned fly fishing destinations — Roscoe goes by the nickname Trout Town USA, in fact, as the Willowemoc and Beaverkill Creeks teem with trout all summer long. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has all the information fish-happy travelers are looking for on local flies, permitting, best spots to set up for the day, and more at its website. And if you’re hungry for a local delicacy, make the pilgrimage to Ray Turner’s Delaware Delicacies Smokehouse on the East Branch of the Delaware River (pro tip: if you find yourself on an unpaved road following signs that read “EEL” asking yourself if you’re lost, you’re getting close). Turner rebuilds his eel weir by hand in the river each year and is somewhat of a local celebrity, lauded by the likes of Anthony Bourdain. His smokehouse sells smoked eel, several varieties of fish, and other selected treats.
Central & East
The center of the Catskills is the home of outdoor life, and no cell service (so bring a map and plan ahead). With opportunities to get outdoors for every ability, visitors can walk the Ashokan Reservoir, the largest of the waters serving the city of New York, hike the moderate trail up Giant Ledge, conquer the tallest mountain in the Catskill range, Slide Mountain, or take a dip in Blue Hole. The New York-New Jersey Trail Conference serves the Catskill region and is a great resource for trail information. Winter offers skiing at Belleayre in the town of Highmount; the ski area has lake swimming in the summer.
Food and farms are just as important to the Catskills as they are to the Hudson Valley and great restaurants are in heavy supply. Breakfast, lunch, and brunch are polished to a shine at the revamped hipster paradise, Phoenicia Diner. Peekamoose Restaurant and Tap Room in the town of Big Indian (west of Phoenicia on Route 28) is a gem in the middle of the woods. Woodstock hosts everything from vegetarian spots, Mexican restaurants, noodle bars, and coffee shops — quite literally, a town with something for every taste.
Speaking of Phoenicia, the little village on the Esopus Creek is a sweetheart of a town, home to restaurants and shopping, including the Catskill Mountain Storehouse outdoor shop, and the Mystery Spot, a noted antique/vintage/fabulous junk shop.
A great spot to check out is the Route 212 corridor west of Woodstock where local favorite Sunfrost Farms serves smoothies, gourmet groceries, breakfast and lunch. Further up the road is the complex of Bearsville Studios, where Bob Dylan’s long-time manager Albert Grossman operated the recording studio on his property for many years. Located streamside on the Sawkill, Bearsville has a theater, bar, and the Bear Cafe, a full-service restaurant.
In the summer, take a drive up the scenic, seasonal Kaaterskill Clove Road for stunning views of the Clove itself. The road ends in Tannersville, a town named for the leather tanneries that once dotted Kaaterskill Creek. Today’s Tannersville is known for food, music, and culture, and is a great stop on a day spent in the northern part of the region. Mama’s Boy Burgers, Last Chance Cheese, and the Tannersville General store are among the dining highlights.
A trip directly north from Tannersville will bring visitors through the mountains and to the next major town, Windham. A four-season town, Windham has one of the biggest ski areas in the region in the winter, and golf, hiking, swimming, and bars and restaurants for the rest of the year. Further west is the town of Hunter, home to another large ski area. In the summertime, Hunter Mountain offers ziplining and hosts festivals from Mountain Jam to a German Alps festival.
Connecting Windham to the Tannersville area is the blue-blazed Catskill Escarpment Trail, which runs roughly from Route 23 in the north through to North-South Lake State Campground with unbelievable views of the Hudson River, Taconic Highlands, and Berkshire Mountains beyond. One of the largest campgrounds in the state, North-South has swimming, boating, a playground, and other facilities that make it a great place to spend the day. Just outside the park boundaries is the top of the well-known attraction Kaaterskill Falls. In early 2016 a viewing platform for the falls opened for visitors to easily take in the kill’s spectacular falls. Below, on route 23A, there is a parking area where the intrepid can hike a mile-long trail to the base of the waterfall. Be sure to obey all posted signs and keep off the rock faces — the area is notorious for injuring (or worse) those who take those warning too lightly.
The bucolic western Catskills open up to farms and small towns, perfect for an escape from the bustle of the west. Towns in the region include Margaretville, Andes, Bovina, Walton and Delhi, the latter which is 70 miles from Kingston, and 20 miles from Oneonta. The region feels more remote, and more rural than the other sections of the Catskills, and that lends its towns a real hidden gem feel.
A comprehensive guide to the food and farms of the Catskills, but in particular these Delaware County towns that deserve mention, is released annually by the Watershed Post, the region’s hyperlocal news source. The site also releases a guide to outdoor activities in the area.
And it is in the western Catskills that one of the more unique outdoor experiences can be had: New York State has opened some of its reservoirs to non-motorized boating, meaning you can spend the day out in the quiet of the middle of the Downsville or Pepacton Reservoirs. Mongaup Pond is a popular hike for hikers of all ages and abilities, as are the fire tower climbs at the top of Balsam Lake Mountain, and Red Hill.
This is to say nothing of the areas flanking the Catskills proper: the Shawangunk Range in the southeast, with its world-famous rock climbing and Mohonk Mountain House; the bustling arts and food scenes of Kingston and Saugerties in eastern Ulster County; Albany County and the Helderberg escarpment to the north, and the beginnings of central New York including Oneonta and Cooperstown to the west. There’s too much to do, see, and experience for a single weekend, and just enough for a lifetime of visits to the Catskills.
Driving time from Hudson to Tannersville is 38 minutes; to Windham, 37 minutes; to Bethel, 1 hour, 54 minutes; to Woodstock, 39 minutes; to Margaretville, 1 hour, 23 minutes.