Driveable Getaways: Hiking the Hudson River School Art Trail in the Great Northern Catskills

The view from Sunset Rock, one of 8 sites along the Hudson River School Art Trail in the mid-Hudson Valley region, is very much as Thomas Cole saw it in the 1820s © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com


by Karen Rubin
Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
My getaway in the Great Northern Catskills of New York exploring the Hudson River School Art Trail starts at the trailhead to Kaaterskill Falls, where you get an amazing view of Kaaterskill Clove (HRSAT Site #4). You gaze out over the gorge where mountain peaks seem to thread together and compare the scene today to the way it is depicted by Hudson River School artist Asher B. Durand’s 1866 painting.
It’s a short walk along 23A (watch out for cars on the winding narrow road) to the trailhead for one of my favorite hikes, Kaaterskill Falls (HRSAT Site #5), a stunning scene that looks remarkably just as depicted in an 1835 painting by Thomas Cole, known as the father of the Hudson River School. “It is the voice of the landscape for it strikes its own chords, and rocks and mountains re-echo in rich unison,” Cole (who was also a poet and essayist) wrote.

Kaaterskill Falls, a 260-foot high double waterfall, the highest in New York State, captivated Thomas Cole and the Hudson River School artists © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com


The Kaaterskill Falls were a favorite subject of many of the Hudson River School painters and for me, is the quintessential combination of stunning scenery plus the physical pleasure of the hike – half-mile up to the base of the double-falls, then another half-mile to the top.
The two-tiered Kaaterskill Falls, 175 and 85 feet, is the highest in New York State and was described by James Fenimore Cooper in “The Pioneers” which Thomas Cole, a friend of Cooper’s illustrated.
There is a small trail through the woods to the very top of the falls. Signs admonish hikers that climbing the ledges beside Kaaterskill Falls is extremely dangerous, and has resulted in numerous injuries and deaths. But the falls are not flowing when I come, so I get to walk on the ledges, giving me a really nervous view straight down and beyond, to the Valley and letting me look at the carved initials and graffiti from the 1920s and 30s, some even from the 1800s. You feel a sense of kindred spirit with those who have passed through and passed on. You feel the height and the proximity to the drop off, and it makes your heart flutter.
Later, I will recognize the view in Thomas Cole’s paintings and imagine how he must have stood in this precise place where you are standing.
It is a half-mile to the base, and another half- mile to the top of the falls, for a total of 2 miles roundtrip. There are some scrambles and it is uphill almost all the way (walking sticks are really recommended), and is thoroughly fantastic.
(The parking lot is just west of the trailhead and across 23A, so you park and walk back along the road, being very careful. Haines Falls NY 12436, 518-589-5058, 800-456-2267).
HRSAT Hikes in North-South Campground
For my second day, after an amazing breakfast at the Fairlawn Inn, I head to North-South Campground, where there are several of the Hudson River School of Art Trail hikes (as well as many other hiking trails) – the lake itself depicted in paintings such as Thomas Cole’s “Lake with Dead Trees,” 1825 (HRSAT Site #6).
The Escarpment Trail to Sunset Rock (HRSAT Trail Site #7) begins along the well-marked blue trail (you cut off to the yellow trail to Sunset Rock) that mostly wraps around the ledges, with the amazing views that so enthralled the artists of the Hudson River Valley. Close to the beginning is a fairly interesting scramble, then the trail winds through the woods along side fabulous rock formations before coming out again to the ledges. You reach Artists Rock at about .4 miles. Continuing on, you look for the yellow trail marker to Sunset Rock and from there, to Newman’s Point.

Taking in the spectacular view along the hike along the Escarpment Trail in the North-South Lake Campground, one of eight Hudson River School Art Trail sites in the mid-Hudson Valley of New York © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com


You can either reverse and come back on the Escarpment Trail, or make a loop, coming down the Mary’s Glen trail, passing Ashley’s Falls.
Mary’s Glen trail can also be the entrance to a difficult hike, to North Point, a distance of 3.2 miles with 840 feet ascent. It is a mostly moderate climb but has some short, steep scrambles over rock, but you come to large open slabs and expansive vistas at North Point, a 3,000 ft. elevation with some of the most distant views.)
Back at the North-South Lake (it’s taken me about three hours taking my time), people are swimming in the hot (near 90) weather.

North-South Lake © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com


From here, you can follow around the lake to see the same views that inspired Hudson River School paintings.
You can also take the trail to the site of the Catskill Mountain House (HRSAT Site #8), one of the earliest tourist hotels. The majestic hotel, which was opened in 1823 and accommodated 400 guests a night (Presidents Arthur and Grant were among those who stayed here), burned down in 1963 but the view that attracted visitors still remains as one of the most magnificent panoramas in the region, and can be compared to Frederic Church’s “Above the Clouds at Sunrise” (1849).
It is fun to see the initials carved into the stone ledges from more than a century ago. The Mountain House began drawing thousands of guests each season from all over the country as well as from abroad, who came not just for the cooler, healthier climate but for what had already become one of the most renowned natural panoramas in the young nation: the valley 1,600 feet below, stretching east to the Taconic Mountains and the Berkshires, with the silvery thread of the Hudson visible for 60 miles from north to south. On a clear day, you can see five states – Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and New York. The hike is just a half-mile with only an 80-foot ascent.
There is a $10/car day use fee for the NYS DEC’s North-South Lake Campground from early May through late October, however the fee is waived for NYS residents 62 years or older midweek. The campground is open for camping from May through October; 518-589-5058 or call DEC Regional Office year-round at 518-357-2234, www.greatnortherncatskills.com/outdoors/north-south-lake-campground.
The Hudson River School Art Trail also features Olana, the magnificent and whimsical mansion home of artist Frederick Edwin Church. At this writing, the entrancing mansion was not yet reopened to visits, but the 250 acre-grounds and the first-ever “viewshed” to the Hudson River are open (5720 Route 9G, Hudson, NY 12534, 518-828-0135, olana.org.)

Olana, the home of Hudson River School artist Frederick Edwin Church © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com


Also, you can walk the grounds Thomas Cole Historic Site (the home has yet to be reopened, but is marvelous to visit, especially Cole’s studio). (218 Spring Street, Catskill, NY 12414, 518-943-7465, www.thomasscole.org)
Get maps, directions and background on the Hudson River School Art Trail at www.hudsonriverschool.org/hudsonriverschoolarttrail.
Also, walk on the Hudson River Skywalk along the Rip Van Winkle Bridge to find incredible river views.
In Tannersvill:e Explore outside at the Mountain Top Arboretum, home to 178 acres of trails, wetlands, gardens, and native plants; go on a mountain biking adventure at the Tannersville Bike Park, part of the Tannersville-Hathaway Trail System.
In Athens: Rent a kayak or paddleboard at Screaming Eagle Outdoor Adventures; explore along the Hudson River at the Athens Riverfront Park and look for the Hudson-Athens Lighthouse.
More information from Greene County Tourism, 800-355 CATS, 518-943-3223, discovergreene.com.
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