Long before the Catskill Mountains of New York State became known as the Borscht Belt, glacial snowmelt from the Ice Age was carving streams and canyons through the region. Numerous waterfalls were created as a result of this activity. This edition of Beyond L.A. spotlights Kaaterskill Fallls, the highest waterfall in the state (including Niagara) and two less known but also exciting destinations: Vernooy Kill Falls and Stony Kill Falls. (“Kill” means “creek” in Dutch). Kaaterskill Falls and Vernooy Kill Falls are located in Catskills Park, an area thought of as one entity but in fact overseen by multiple agencies (similar to the Santa Monica Mountains). Stony Kill Falls is located in Minnewaska State Park Preserve.
TIPS FOR L.A. HIKERS
Getting to the Catskills: These hikes are located between 110 and 140 miles north of New York City; a 2.5-3 hour drive depending on traffic. JFK International Airport in Queens (JFK) will have the most options for flights in and out. Newark, NJ (EWR) and New York LaGuardia (LGA) are also options. The hikes are slightly closer to Albany (between 50-80 miles south, or a 1.5-2 hour drive) but the airport (ALB) has fewer options for flights.
Weather: The weather in the Catskills ranges from an average daily low of 19 degrees F/-8 degrees C in January to an average daily high of 82 degrees F/29 degrees C in July. Average annual precipitation is 48 inches, about three times that of Los Angeles. In the winter months, these trails may close due to hazardous conditions from snow and ice.
Cell phone reception: Cell phone reception is weak to fair on the Vernooy Kill Falls and Stony Kill Falls hike. There is no reception at the Kaaterskill Falls trail head or on the hike itself. If you are coming from the east, the last reliable cell phone reception will likely be in the town of Palenville, about five miles away; from the west, it will be Haines Falls, about three miles away.
Dogs are allowed on leash on these hikes. Some dogs might have difficulty with the steep stair climbs and extra caution should be taken both in summer heat and in winter conditions. All three of these trails, especially Kaaterskill Falls, are popular, so expect to see other dogs, especially on summer weekends. Kaaterskill Falls begins and ends with a quarter mile walk along the side of Route 23A (no sidewalk or shoulder).
2.8 miles, approximately 800 feet of elevation gain; allow 2 hours
While it might not be one of the most popular destinations in the United States as it once was, Kaaterskill Falls still sees many visitors. This write-up assumes a start from the lower and most popular trail head on Route 23A, but the falls can also be visited by starting above from Laurel House or Scutt Road. For a map of all of the trail heads and trails in the area of Kaaterskill Wild Forest, click here.
From the parking area, head downhill on route 23A. There is no sidewalk or shoulder, although a metal railing on the north side of the road provides a buffer. Many of the cars are likely to be hikers heading to or from the trailhead, so they will go slowly and give a wide berth.
The official trail begins one quarter mile from the parking lot. You are greeted by Bastion Falls, itself an impressive cascade that would probably considered a worthy hiking destination were it located more remotely. The trail climbs steeply, picking up almost 200 feet in the first 0.2 mile, before leveling out. The next 0.2 mile climb more gradually, ascending about 100 feet. Downed trees may block the route in some spots; look for the yellow trail blazes for the route, which closely follows the banks of the creek.
Soon the lower tier comes into view. Hikers with small kids might be content to work their way across the rocks to the base of the falls, where both tiers are visible but for those with the energy for a steep climb, the ascent to the viewing deck at the top of the falls is well worth it. Begin the next leg of the hike by following the stairs up the side of the canyon, gaining almost 200 feet in only 0.1 mile. On the way up, a spur leads to the base of the upper tier.
After making the steep ascent, the trail becomes level, heading southwest and away from the falls before doubling back. After reaching an intersection with the trail from Scutt Road, turn left and cross the creek on a footbridge. On the opposite side, the trail from Laurel House comes in on the right. Continue straight ahead and follow the signs to the viewing platform. If you are looking to overcome a fear of heights, you have come to the right place.
From the small wooden deck, you can see the length of Kaaterskill’s 167-foot upper tier plus an excellent view of the distant mountains. After enjoying the vistas, retrace your steps, exercising caution on the steep descent.
1.6 miles, approximately 250 feet of elevation gain; allow 1 hour
Located in Minnewaska State Park Preserve, 87-foot Stony Kill falls is another essential Catskills hike. The base of the waterfall can be reached via an easy half-mile stroll. Hikers who want more of a challenge – and an outstanding view – can climb to a viewing area at the top of the falls.
The hike starts rather anonymously with 0.3 miles of walking along Shaft Road to the official start of the trail. The trail dips into the woods, following the creek for a quarter mile to arrive at the base of Stony Kill Falls. A footbridge provides the best vantage point for legally viewing the falls from below.
The red-blazed trail climbs steeply from the base of the falls. At one point, metal rungs are embedded in the rocks to provide hand and footholds. At the top of the stairs, your efforts are rewarded with an outstanding view of the valley below and of the upper end of the falls. There is no guard rail.
This spot, about 0.7 mile from the trail head, is a good turnaround point, but for those who like to see things to their completion, the trail continues another tenth of a mile along Stony Kill. Since most people stop at the view point, this last stretch will give you some solitude. At the end, you can wander down to the creek bank and enjoy the peacefulness before retracing your steps.
3.2 miles, approximately 650 feet of elevation gain; allow 2 hours
Though it doesn’t have the height of Stony Kills or Kaaterskill, Vernooy Kill Falls is an enjoyable hiking destination. The trail is more lightly visited than the other two and travels through some attractive woodlands en route to the stair steps-shaped waterfall, which drops about 20 feet over multiple tiers. Vernooy Kill Falls is located in the Sundown Wild Forest area of Catskills Park.
From the parking area, cross the street and begin hiking on the blue-blazed trail (signed as the Long Path on some maps). You cross a creek on a footbridge at about a quarter mile and begin a steady but moderate ascent through mixed forest. Half a mile from the start, your route merges with another trail; continue straight and follow the blue blazes. At 1.2 miles, you reach the high point of the hike and begin a slow descent. Just before you reach the falls, look for the remains of a campsite on your left.
At 1.6 miles, you reach a junction. The routes to the right and straight ahead lead deeper into Sundown Wild Forest, options if you want to extend the hike. The left fork leads to a footbridge overlooking Vernooy Kill Falls. It is possible to scramble down to the bank of the creek for a closer look, although caution is essential on the slippery rocks. The trail continues another 2 miles to county road 46 near the town of Greenville.
Text and photography copyright 2019 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities. By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail. Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.