By WILLIAM SHANNON
Kaaterskill Falls has been one of the region’s most popular natural destinations for close to two hundred years, since it was first popularized by the Hudson River School painters.
And since the official trail from the Route 23A side has always stopped at the bottom of the falls, the two-tiered waterfall—with a combined 260 feet of drops—has entranced countless people over the years up a steep and unofficial trail of loose stone to reach the paradisiacal swimming hole between the two tiers.
This unofficial trail section and other small unofficial trails surrounding Kaaterskill Falls have claimed several lives in recent years, including two people in 2014.
In response to the tragedies, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation limited access to the falls in 2015 as they began $450,000 worth of safety improvements.
The largest project is the installation of more than two hundred steps that will connect all three levels of the falls. The steps—solid slabs of rock a foot or so thick, each about four-feet-by-two-feet—are still being installed as of this week.
Signs warning visitors have also been put up.
“Danger!” reads one sign at the bottom of the lower tier. “Numerous FATALITIES and injuries have occurred at Kaaterskill Falls. There is no maintained trail from here to the upper portions of the falls. It is unsafe to hike any further.”
Aside from the rocky scramble, another perilous part of the Kaaterskill Falls experience has been the journey from the main parking area on Route 23A down to the trailhead. That danger should be mitigated if not outright cured by the Laurel House Road entrance. From the improved back entrance (right in the vicinity of other beautiful trails and adventures at North Lake and the Kaaterskill Rail Trail), you can access a brand new viewing platform overlooking the falls.
A representative from the state DEC didn’t return calls Friday, but, by the looks of it, the installation of the staircases connecting the levels will continue through much or all of the summer. Right now, they seem somewhat close to completing the steps from the bottom of the lower tier to the middle tier and have carved out part of the route between the middle and the top.
So, with another summer of improvements taking place at one of the most popular destinations in the Catskills, here is a brief guide on visiting the falls amid the changes:
WHAT TO BRING:
Don’t be one of the first-timers the locals cringe at—which is to say, don’t wear flip flops or dress shoes for your Kaaterskill Falls expedition. If you go off the official trail, that suggestion becomes way more important. But even when the staircase taming the rocky scramble between the falls’ levels opens up, it’s still enough of a hike to merit sneakers or hiking boots. Also take water and consider backpacking in food for a picnic on a rock.
WHICH WAY TO GO:
Until the stone staircase is open, the swimming hole between the two tiers at Kaaterskill Falls is off limits. You can hike from Route 23A (a few miles’ drive west of Palenville) for a steep and at times challenging mile or so to the bottom of the lower falls. This way is still the most popular at the moment and you can stop and explore Bastion Falls on the way. But it also includes the nerve-racking walk from the small parking lot along stone walls that force pedestrians for two stretches onto the curvy and narrow roadway before they reach the trailhead.
If you’d like to avoid that and go to the top of the falls, drive past the 23A trailhead (if you’re coming from the east) for a couple miles into the village of Haines Falls; take a right onto North Lake Road/County Route 18 and, after about two miles, take another right onto Laurel House Road. The parking lot is at the end of the road. From there, in a matter of five-to-ten minutes on a wheelchair-accessible trail, you’ll get to the new viewing platform overlooking the top tier of the falls and the swimming hole below.
An unofficial offshoot trail near the platform can take you to the trickling waters of Spruce Creek before they ease over the falls. Near the brink is where people through the ages have carved their names into stone.
It’s also where a plot twist occurs in a rock-bottom-budget indie film called Kaaterskill Falls (trailer: https://vimeo.com/10385862).
Extreme caution should be employed here and at all portions of the Kaaterskill Falls trails and even more so, naturally, if you’ve got pets or small children. Once the stairs are completed to all three levels, everyone going to Kaaterskill Falls might be directed to this Laurel House Road entrance, since the DEC plans to build a bridge over Spruce Creek a couple hundred feet upstream of the falls, connecting a trail to the staircase.
WHEN TO GO:
If you’re able, it’s best to go on a weekday other than Friday unless you don’t mind very crowded trails. If you go on a hot summer weekend and especially if you go from the Route 23A side, you might feel more like you’re lining up for a concert than walking to a waterfall.
SOMETHING TO KEEP IN MIND:
If you don’t think you can go to Kaaterskill Falls without being lured by the siren call of the swimming hole between the tiers, it might be best to stay away until the stairs are completed. Workers are installing the steps right where the main unofficial trail to the middle level was and it’s entirely blocked off now. The other unofficial scramble trail to the middle is even more dangerous.