Chasing Waterfalls & Fall Foliage in New York's Catskill Mountains

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Photographer

Graham Hiemstra

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Fujifilm GA645, Canon EOS 1

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120 & 35mm Kodak Portra 160, 400, 800

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Chasing Waterfalls & Fall Foliage in New York's Catskill Mountains

Trading the daily grind for cabin time, leaf peeping, and waterfall gazing during a rare midweek escape from NYC

Chasing Waterfalls & Fall Foliage in New York's Catskill Mountains

Author

Field Mag

Photographer

Graham Hiemstra

Camera

Fujifilm GA645, Canon EOS 1

Film

120 & 35mm Kodak Portra 160, 400, 800

https://www.fieldmag.com/articles/catskills-ny-fall-hiking-kaaterskill-falls

Endless emails. Slack pings. Early morning alarms. Car horns, always honking. Fall foliage. Muddy trails. Cushy boots. Cozy cabins. Trading the former or the latter is what this story is about.

New York City is home. And a damn fine one at that. But as any desk jockey knows by now, shaking up the daily rhythm is the key to sustained creativity. To do just that, we recently gathered a few friends of Field Mag for a mid-week escape to the Catskill Mountains, ditching studio apartments in Brooklyn for an A-Frame cabin, aging lodge, and modernist cottage—and some hiking, of course.

With a trunk full of old gear, tasty snacks, and new Salomon boots we hit the road with sights set on the humble town of Hunter, some two to three hours north.

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Colloquially, "the Catskills" is a broad swath of forest land stretching from the Hudson River Valley north of New York City, west to the Delaware River, which divides New York State and Pennsylvania. When folks say they're "going upstate," this where they often mean (unless they're fancy, then it's the Hudson Valley for them).

Over 700,000 acres of wilderness make up the Catskill Park, with 287,000 acres of it falling within the Catskill Forest Preserve, creating just one of only two protected natural areas in New York State designated “Forever Wild.” (The other being the Adirondack Park, farther north.) As the state constitution, amended in 1885, so importantly puts it, the land “shall be forever kept as wild forest lands. They shall not be leased, sold or exchanged, or be taken by any corporation, public or private, nor shall the timber thereon be sold, removed or destroyed.”

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Once hunting grounds for Mohican and Esopus Native American tribes, the vast area still today features rocky, forested mountains worn round by years (the Catskill Mountains are themselves a sub range of the Appalachians, known to be some of the oldest mountains in North America), ample remote lakes and rivers, and over 300 miles of multi-use trails. Black bears, bobcats, deer, cougars, coyotes, porcupines, and too many types of birds to mention make their home in the Catskills. And they are active—being bear aware in the Catskills is rule number one, whether hiking, camping, or even simply chilling at a vacation rental cabin.

As a state park, and not a national park, the Catskills are free of gates and entry fees, making its trails, lakes, rivers, and waterfalls open to all the public to enjoy. As such, the area holds some of the best hiking, camping, fly fishing, mountain biking, horseback riding, wildlife spotting, and general outdooring within reach of New York City, Boston, and Philadelphia. It also contains four massive reservoirs that provide all of New York City’s drinking water—why our tap water is some of the best in the country.

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A crown jewel of the Catskills is Kaaterskill Falls, a stunning two-tiered waterfall totaling over 260 feet in height. One of the highest waterfalls in all of the Eastern U.S., the falls is a real beaut—and our main destination for the trip. Located anywhere from one to 10 miles from any number of trailheads, the falls is impressively accessible—the main viewing platform is even wheelchair accessible.

At a time when gatekeeping in the outdoors continues to deter underrepresented groups, seeing one of the state's most impressive and inspiring natural areas be so readily accessible is genuinely uplifting. Seeing the joy of visitors of all ages and all abilities at viewing platforms was a relevant reminder that not every nature visit needs to be an adventure. That not every reward requires risk.

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That said, it wouldn’t be a hiking trip without some hiking, so we stuck to the long route and logged some miles to the top and from bottom of the falls itself. This offered a textbook taste of Catskill hiking—lots of rock, a good amount of mud, and beautiful fall foliage in every direction. Each in our own stylish colorway of Salomon Predict Hike Mid GTX boots, we blazed on through.

Gore-Tex made puddles a non-issue, the ultra cushy Energy Surge technology rendered rogue rocks barely noticeable, while the mid height and Contragrip outsole delivered stability and traction. Fresh out of the box with a dozen miles down, it's safe to say these handsome boots have earned a permanent place in the FM HQ gear closet.

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Post hike, before heading back to our home base for the week—a modern off-grid cabin built by the founders of Den—we did as any city dweller worth their weight in IOUs would—we called that one friend who recently moved upstate full time to invite ourselves over and make good use of their fireplace (which happens to be located in a retired ski lodge, no less). Big shout out Cortina Valley for the absolutely immaculate après vibes.

Winding down the day in front of a roaring fire with blazing fall foliage outside felt like the perfect way to cap off a classic Catskill getaway. Not a whole lot better than cold beverages next to a hot fire with good friends. Cliche? Sure. But I'd double down on it any day nonetheless.

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