Kaaterskill Falls is New York’s tallest two-stage waterfall and one of America’s oldest tourist attractions. Located on the Kaaterskill Creek in the eastern Catskill Mountins, the falls cascades over 260 feet and has been depicted by renowned painters of the Hudson River School and featured in Washington Irving’s classic story, Rip Van Winkle. This 1.3-mile round-trip journey is one of the most popular hikes in the Catskills, and it traverses a 620-foot steep and rocky accent.
The parking area is off of Scenic Byway Route 23A. Going west, it’s just past the trailhead and an unmistakable bend in the road that crosses in front of Bastion Falls. While there is a pleasant lookout and memorial at the lot, the downhill walk along the narrow roadside isn’t favorable. Once you reach the kiosk, yellow markers will line the path to the falls, and the rest of the trail is bound to be a beautiful experience.
Much of the path is manicured with rock steps, but it is still a challenge, even for experienced visitors. Continue along Spruce Creek and you’ll eventually be greeted by the sounds of this massive waterfall and the natural amphitheater it has created over several millennia. Visits in the winter can offer magnificent displays of icicles and frozen snow mounds, while spring can provide an exhilarating presentation of water splashing and heavy mists.
Looking above, you may see more visitors peeking over an observation deck built at the top of the falls. Previously, this was only accessible via a trail at the end of County Route 18 (North Lake Road) and Laurel House Road. However, as of 2016, the DEC made improvements to the yellow trail with the addition of a stone staircase and marked path to the top. From this upper plateau, the North South Lake Campground and North Point trail are relatively close by.
The formation of the falls is relatively recent on the geological timeline. By the end of the Illinoian Stage, runoff from the glacial melt flowed from the headwaters of the nearby Schoharie Creek, filling North-South Lake, and carving out the steep cove that extends down Spruce Creek and Route 23A. The shelf and large pool dividing the two waterfalls represent the break between the Manorkill Sandstone and Oneonta-Genesee sandstone-shale, formed in the middle Devonian period and the late Devonian period, respectively.
BE VERY CAREFUL OF STEEP LEDGES AND SLIPPERY ROCKS. There is an unfortunate history of several deaths here due to over-zealous tourists. Please heed all signs and warnings, stay away from ledges, and remain on the designated path. The Kaaterskill Wild forest is a place of beauty that requires a high level of respect.
Winter backcountry adventures can be dangerous outdoor activities that pose significant risks as conditions affecting safety (i.e. weather, snowpack stability, avalanche hazard) are constantly changing. Prior to engaging in these activities each individual should get the proper training to make safe decisions and be equipped to use avalanche safety resources and tools. Please visit our Backcountry Skiing and Avalanche Safety post to learn more.