We’re Working for Better, Safer Trail Options at Kaaterskill Falls

By Jeff Senterman, Senior Program Coordinator and Director of the Catskill Conservation Corps

Kaaterskill Falls

Kaaterskill Falls

I had the opportunity recently to hike the half-mile long trail from Route 23A to the base of the Kaaterskill Falls with New York State Senator Cecilia Tkaczyk, local officials, and representatives of the Dept. of Environmental Conservation (DEC). The falls are an iconic natural feature of the Catskill Park and the Hudson River School of art. and have attracted generations of tourists.

Unfortunately, with increasing popularity have come problems, and the trails and terrain leading to the falls are literally and figuratively being loved to death. Accidents, too frequently fatal, occur when visitors hike, climb, and get their feet wet in very unsafe areas. Already this summer two young people have fallen to their deaths, one just days after our visit. The narrow, winding mountain road is ill suited to the heavy traffic it supports, especially in summer, and pedestrians heading to and from the trail head compete with cars for the narrow pavement.

Our group was there to look at ways to improve safety and access at the falls while protecting the natural resources.

Jeff Senterman, right, with  State Senator Cynthia Tkaczek

Jeff Senterman, right, with State Senator Cecelia Tkaczyk at Kaaterskill Falls.

We parked at the lower lot, below Bastion Falls on Route 23A, and walked up to the Kaaterskill Falls trailhead, experiencing first-hand the perils of the busy road walk.  As we hiked up the Kaaterskill Falls Trail we encountered people ill-equipped for a mountain hike—no water, inappropriate footwear, one person even barefoot.

At the base of the falls we watched many people hike beyond the end-of-trail sign, some slipping and falling on the eroded slope.  We saw people swimming in the tiers of pools, where the rocks are very slippery and a fall would cause very bad injuries if not death.

Trail Conference Recommendations for Protecting Kaaterskill Falls and the Public

The Trail Conference recommends a comprehensive and collaborative approach to managing public access at Kaaterskill Falls, with the goals being to increase safety and access while protecting and improving this unique and popular natural resource in the Catskill Park.  We believe that the best method for this comprehensive approach is to address the issues of Kaaterskill Falls and vicinity in a Catskill Park-wide recreation plan.  This type of plan would allow for both local and regional solutions to issues such as access, safety, trail development and natural resource protection.

All solutions in the Kaaterskill Falls area will require the cooperation of the Town of Hunter, the DEC, DOT, nearby landowners, non-profit organizations like the Trail Conference, and local businesses.  The Trail Conference supports:

  • Safety improvements to the current Kaaterskill Falls Trail and the development of a new trail that connects the existing Escarpment Trail and the Kaaterskill Falls Trail in a safe and efficient manner (without bringing hikers closer to Kaaterskill Falls);
  • The completion of the Kaaterskill Rail Trail (KRT) near the top of the Kaaterskill Falls through the construction of a pedestrian bridge over Lake Creek, which will provide a safe crossing for visitors above Kaaterskill Falls and facilitate hiker traffic along the KRT, the Escarpment Trail, and any future Escarpment/Kaaterskill Falls Trails connections;
  • pedestrians walk on road

    Improving pedestrian access is a priority.

    The creation of a weekend shuttle service to reduce parking pressure in the clove;

  • Improvements to pedestrian safety along Route 23A;
  • The deployment by the Trail Conference and the Catskill Conservation Corps of a combination of paid and volunteer trail and resource stewards in the area to educate visitors, help protect natural resources, and help to ensure the safety of hikers and visitors.  Paid stewards require identifying funding sources.
  • Providing DEC more resources to increase public education and patrols in the area by Forest Rangers, Assistant Forest Rangers and Student Conservation Corps Backcountry Stewards

The Trail Conference does not support the development of a new trail that would bring visitors to the upper level of Kaaterskill Falls, nor do we support the development of a short, steep connector trail between the top of the falls and the end of the existing Kaaterskill Falls Trail.  The trail’s current end, before the base of the lower falls, provides the public with a safe viewing area of the falls.  Site conditions make the construction of a safe, sustainable and environmentally friendly trail from this location to the upper falls difficult, if not impossible.

For a connector trail between the Kaaterskill Falls Trail and the Escarpment Trail, we suggest a trail connection that brings hikers from the Kaaterskill Falls area to Layman’s Monument on the Escarpment Trail.  A trail between these two points can be designed and constructed to be more enjoyable and  safer for visitors than current access permits, as well as more sustainable and environmentally friendly.  It would also draw visitors away from the dangerous upper areas of Kaaterskill Falls. In conjunction with the Escarpment Trail and the Kaaterskill Rail Trail, such a trail would allow hikers to enjoy multiple vistas of Kaaterskill Falls and Kaaterskill Clove and utilize the shuttle service.

Another option is to include a second new trail from the area of Layman’s Monument that travels back down to Route 23A in the vicinity of the lower Kaaterskill Falls parking area.  This would allow hikers to complete a loop, hiking to the Falls, traveling to the Escarpment Trail and its vistas and then back down to Route 23A without the need for shuttle service.

The Trail Conference will continue to work with our partners to improve the public’s experience at Kaaterskill Falls and to preserve the quality of that experience for future generations. Click here and support our work in the Catskills.

About Trail Walker

Since 1920, the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference has partnered with parks to create, protect, and promote a network of more than 2,100 miles of public trails in the New York-New Jersey metropolitan region. The Trail Conference organizes volunteer service projects that keep these trails open, safe, and enjoyable for the public. We publish maps and books that guide public use of these trails. The Trail Conference is a volunteer-driven nonprofit organization with a membership of 10,000 individuals and 100 clubs with a combined membership of 100,000 active, outdoor-loving people.
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15 Responses to We’re Working for Better, Safer Trail Options at Kaaterskill Falls

  1. Kevin says:

    “The Trail Conference does not support the development of a new trail that would bring visitors to the upper level of Kaaterskill Falls, nor do we support the development of a short, steep connector trail between the top of the falls and the end of the existing Kaaterskill Falls Trail. The trail’s current end, before the base of the lower falls, provides the public with a safe viewing area of the falls. Site conditions make the construction of a safe, sustainable and environmentally friendly trail from this location to the upper falls difficult, if not impossible”.Herein lies the problem.

    Ok, no one wants some steel stairway, or lots of concrete, but what if a worker or 2 goes in there, roped, and gives the walkers a good 10 inch wide area all the way along that is not tipping towards the abyss? That would be 10 times better than what it is now. It would just move a slight amount of shale out of the way. There are a couple of tools that might be helpful towards this end. A gas-powered rock saw and a gas-powered jack hammer, depending really on how hard that shale is. Maybe a pick ax would even do something. .

  2. Ellen Schorsch says:

    As I would expect, given your knowledge and experience, your suggestions sound very reasonable! Please keep me updated on plans — I’d love to help!

  3. Kevin says:

    To be clear, earlier, I was referring to a bit of needed maintenance on the unmarked trail from the top of the rope, across the mostly level section to the bottom of the upper falls. This unmarked trail is used A LOT and unfortunately the pedestrians are counting on friction with the shale to avoid falling 70 feet, because the trail is usually tipped towards the abyss. At times there is a steady train of people using this trail. This is the most important safety consideration in the area since there is nothing to hold onto in places if a slip occurs. No one can help you either because there is no room, so it is every man, woman, and child for themselves, and they usually don’t even realize the extent of the danger. .Unfortunately, a lot of people have to agree with this for anything to move forward, because now it is just an unmarked trail that is warned about at the bottom with a simple DANGER sign.

  4. Marc says:

    Kevin is right . They just need a safe trail from the bottom to under the top falls. Anyone can safely get all the way from the base of the falls to the top , its a climb but not dangerous. Anyone who falls at the top is just careless or stupid .
    A shuttle from North-South Lake or Palenville to the trailhead makes sense too.

  5. Rex says:

    a trail from the bottom of the Falls to what’s known as the amphitheater, is NOT needed; people are always going to feel adventurous hiking in this area. Yes there are many ill equipped people hiking this trail, but i wouldn’t go calling anyone who falls or slips ‘stupid’.. then again, i guess there are stupid people everywhere lol…especially those that leave trash behind.

  6. Erik Donaldson says:

    Most people cross the road from the parking area and cross the guard rail to walk behind it where possible. It seems to me that safe trails could be constructed up and over the two or three areas where one currently has to go back on the road, next to a cliff. A shuttle might be a good idea, too, but I doubt that would operate except on the busiest weekend days. The walk from parking to trail head is probably even more dangerous on light use days, when only one or two people often have to walk right on the edge of the narrow two lane road.

    As far as the slope above the end of the marked trail, I agree with Kevin. A safe trail can be constructed to the base of the upper falls, which will also help alleviate the erosion of the slope there. People are not going to stop going there, but with a trail they will stop scrambling all over the place. Almost nobody tries to go any higher than the base of the upper falls.

    I don’t see barefoot hiking or swimming in mountain streams as being especially dangerous activities, by the way (two sisters recently hiked the entire Appalachian trail barefoot twice) and I doubt that scrambling the shale slope is either. I understand that the fatal accidents at Katerskill falls happen falling from the top, not below. The top of the falls is a funny spot, as I recall. Somehow near the little stream there you don’t get the same awareness of being on top of a huge cliff as you do at most view points. Obviously to go wading or swimming there is extremely dangerous.

  7. ken L says:

    I was there recently and saw the memorial for the young lady that fell to her death, she was wearing flip flips! On another occasion i saw a man digging up rare lady slippers, when i asked him what he was doing he gave me some BS story, I reminded him that it was illegal to take plants from the park. You definitely need some type of patrol in the area because of the easy access. I call these people coffee cup hikers, hiking ill equipped with coffee cup in hand, and then discarding cup with trash on the trail.

  8. Thanks Jeff, wonderful recommendations. Thanks for walking Senator Tkaczyk and others through the trails. Would love to see the trail improvements you suggest. It’s also vital that live staff be present to help visitors stay safe. All of the major peeks in the ADKs have stewards posted from May 15 to October 15 each year and many rangers to help folks on the trail.

  9. Jim McArdle says:

    The unmarked trail leading from base of falls to the Escarpment Trail was a marked and maintained trail that was closed by the early 1980’s safety considerations and erosion .I have always found the shale in that area to be very slick when combined with moss and dampness. A few years ago, a student leader from Princeton fell to her death from the top of the falls during Freshman orientation.
    Where would a proposed shuttle drop off passengers? If at the parking lots the passengers would still have to walk on the road.
    If at the hairpin turn, the shuttle would have to close Route 23A while loading and unloading passengers. Large 18 wheelers have to use both lanes to pass through that spot.

  10. Brian says:

    Not building a trail to the base of the upper falls is a huge mistake. People will continue to make their own way and some will slip, fall, and die. At least if a trail is carved out people will follow it, and lessen the errosion in the surrounding area. Nothing short of a 24/7 Law Enforcement Ranger posted at the sign will prevent people from going up and nobody wants that. I have seen trails built in some pretty difficult areas including trails with iron hand holds drilled into the rock and cables strung for support. Even just replacing the current piece of rope towards the top with a properly anchored cable and a few well placed hand holds would improve the safety of the area greatly. I understand its definitely not an easy spot to build a trail, but without it people will make their own no matter how many signs or volunteers tell them its too dangerous….its just too beautiful of a spot not to hike.

  11. I think all the parking lots and pulloffs on 23A should be closed. NO ONE SHOULD BE WALKING ON THAT ROAD. A new trail should come from North Lake, and lead to the bottom of the falls, perhaps switchbaking from Layman’s Monument, bypassing 23A altogether. Money charged to use it or to get into the North Lake area can be used to post someone at the bottom to prevent further travel. The hike should be long and arduous to weed out the folly. Hardy hikers, no shuttle. Maybe Kaaterskill Falls will recover in due time and then we can consider a staircase to the second level. I’d hate to see this natural phenomenon further desecrated. And the situation on the road is INTOLERABLE.

  12. LIHiker says:

    The problem is the “short, steep connector trail between the top of the falls and the end of the existing Kaaterskill Falls Trail”. Appropriate hiking shoes or not, this is the part where the fatalities happen. It’s steep and full of loose shale with nothing to grab onto. I tried it with hiking boots on, following several families with children with flip flops on thinking, how bad can it be? I am not from the area so had no idea how dangerous it was but I had to turn around I was scared to death.

    I think a FENCE is all you need with a very clear sign that says STOP! PEOPLE DIED HERE! The sign that is currently there (at least when I was there several years ago) does not spell out how very dangerous it is.

    Really close the thing off once and for all – like with some sort of barrier that really stops people from going up there – before someone else gets killed. Please.

    • paddykevin says:

      I fear that the proposal is far beyond what should be done. There are parks a plenty where people can safely walk to enjoy views, including waterfalls. I go back to the days when the Escarpment Trail continued from the top of the falls down to Route 23A. Danger is inherent in hiking. It is one thing to respond to problems caused by site specific overuse, and quite a different notion to try to negate Darwin

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