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