Highlights: Tallest two-tier waterfall in New York
Distance: 2.0 miles, up-and-back
Total ascent: 527 ft
Max elevation: 1,946 ft above sea level
Approximate roundtrip time: 1.5 hours
This hike is for you if: You want to take a short (but steep) hike to a huge waterfall. Also, you don’t mind when your nature comes served with large crowds.
Background you can feel free to skip: If you’re the kind of person who likes a good waterfall and you haven’t visited Kaaterskill Falls yet, you really should get in the car right now and just start driving toward the trailhead.
This is one of the most popular hikes in the area, in part because everyone likes waterfalls, and in part because it’s a relatively short hike to a huge, 260-foot payoff, divided over two drops.
Another highlight along the way is the smaller-but-still-awesome Bastion Falls, which flows past the trailhead and is easily visible from the road.
A major lowlight for this hike is that it encompasses perhaps my least favorite trail section in the entire Hudson Valley, which is the 5-minute walk from the parking area to the trailhead along Route 23A. There’s no good shoulder to walk along, and this road can be very busy. The last time I did this hike was with my wife and son, late on a Friday afternoon in November, and it was like I-95 out there. We hustled to get off the road as quick as we could, slightly harried and very surprised at the volume of traffic in a pretty remote area. Drivers here are generally respectful, and they expect to see hikers along this section, but to me, it’s not an ideal way to start and end a hike. Please be very careful here.
While you may feel like you’re starring in a live-action version of Frogger to get from the parking area to the trailhead, once you’re there, this hike is pure awesomeness, hugging the energetic Spruce Creek the entire way as it cascades down the hill. (If you visit in late summer, you might find things not nearly as energetic. The falls can slow to a trickle, so you’d be best to come here in a different season, or after there’s been some decent rain.)
People often underestimate this hike since it’s officially only a half-mile to the falls from the trailhead. But it is steep and rocky, and if you feel like you’re climbing a staircase along some of the sections, it’s probably because you are.
This is a quick hike, but it is not an easy one. Leave the flip-flops at home. But definitely bring the camera.
**UPDATE July 2015** The DEC is making improvements to Kaaterskill Falls this summer, adding a spur trail with a stone staircase to give access beyond the current trail’s end, and also adding more safety features. Cool! While construction is in progress, the hike detailed below will still be open, but access will be restricted beyond the end of the trail (which sounds like business as usual to me, since you were never supposed to go past that point anyway). The parking area above the falls (detailed in a footnote at the bottom of this trail guide) on Laurel House road will be closed this summer. See this article for more details, and happy adventuring!
1. From the parking area, carefully walk downhill along Route 23A, making sure traffic can easily see you. Cars will be expecting you to walk along the left side of the road, so that’s where you should try to be.
2. Walk over Spruce Creek on the Route 23A bridge, then find the trailhead kiosk on your left, at the base of Bastion Falls.
3. Follow the Yellow Trail as it ascends steeply, with the creek off to your left.
4. Whammo! In about 20 minutes, there it is. Or there they are? In any event, thar be Kaaterskill Falls: 260 feet of two-tiered awesomeness.
Important note: Perhaps the most-ignored sign in the universe is the one that advises visitors to stop hiking past the bottom of Kaaterskill Falls, where the Yellow Trail ends.
If you’re here on a warm weekend afternoon, you’ll see dozens of people ignoring that sign, clambering up the hill to get a better look at the upper falls.
You can’t entirely blame them – this is one of the more beautiful spots in the world, and it’s only natural that you’d want to get the best possible look at it.
Still, the best place to view these falls is from the bottom, right where the Yellow Trail ends. It seems like the trail should continue on to a higher viewing point, but it doesn’t, and continuing to climb past the end of the trail sends cascades of dirt and rocks down the hill. Erosion is a tough issue for most people to get too worked up about, but you can really see the damage that people’s footprints are doing here. Trees cling to the hillside with half of their roots exposed, showing you how much more hill there used to be here, before careless visitors kicked it all away.
More importantly, though, it’s extremely dangerous to go past the end of the Yellow Trail. Lest you get tempted by the siren call of the upper falls, before you go, please read this story and its comments, or the warnings in the final two paragraphs of this trail guide from an experienced Catskill mountaineer, or this forum thread (and Chicago Tribune article) about a death there in 2010, or this Albany Times Union story and its many comments about the deaths that seem to occur at Kaaterskill Falls every year.
- **UPDATE, July 2014:** Sadly, two more deaths here in 2014. So tragic.
- **UPDATE, July 2016** This title unfortunately says it all: Despite safety improvements, another death at Kaaterskill Falls. I really hope this is the last time I have to update this section.
- **UPDATE, August 2016** Tragically, another death this year in the exact same spot. PLEASE be careful here.
- **UPDATE, January 2017** Another death on November 13, 2016, and another fall with injuries on January 27, 2017. The new safety improvements here only protect hikers who stay on the trail. If you wander off the trail, all bets are off. Please, STAY ON THE TRAIL!
Please, please, please, stay on the very safe Yellow Trail, and when I read about you in the paper, let it be because you won the Nobel Prize, not because you visited Kaaterskill Falls. The signs at the end of the Yellow Trail should do a better job of warning visitors about the peril of continuing to climb, but they don’t, and if you decide to give it a go anyway, you will be endangering your own life, the lives of anyone in your party and the lives of the people who may have to rescue you. Please don’t do it. **Update, October 16 2014:** Looks like new fencing and signs are going up, and a new viewing platform at the top of the falls. Some people might complain about them, but something had to be done, and hopefully these additions will help. (Update: They only help if you stay on the trail. Otherwise, you can most certainly die here. Please stay on the trail.)
5. Whew, that was heavy. Sorry for being such a downer.
6. When you’re done basking in the mist of the falls from the awesome vantage point at the end of the Yellow Trail, retrace your steps back to your car, once again exercising caution on the section along Route 23A.
7. After you get back to your car, don’t even bother looking for a taller two-tier waterfall in New York. You just visited the awesomest one of all.
Directions to the trailhead: From Palenville, take Route 23A west as it climbs into the Catskills beside Kaaterskill Creek. In about 3.5 miles, you’ll come around a hairpin turn with Bastion Falls and the trailhead to your right. Continue up the hill another .3 miles to find the large parking area on your left.
You can also get directions by checking out the Kaaterskill Falls entry on the HiketheHudsonValley.com Google map.
Sorta nearby address for your GPS: The intersection of Wingate Road and Route 23A in Haines Falls, New York, is about a mile west of the trailhead parking. My old-ish Garmin Nuvi lets me put in an intersection as a destination, so hopefully yours does, too.
GPS coordinates of parking area: 42.18983, -74.07401 (Clicking will open in Google Maps or the Apple Maps app, depending on your browser/device.)
Additional information: There is another less-than-half-mile-roundtrip hike that visits the top of the falls, requiring a 3-mile drive to get to the trailhead from the hike described above. It is extremely dangerous, and requires you to stand right on the edge of a precipice (with no railings) to get a view of the upper falls. I wouldn’t recommend it, and you’d be insane to bring young kids to this spot. The view is nice, but the view/danger ratio is very poor.
From the bottom of the falls, I always used to see people up at the top, and I wondered how they got there. The answer is the parking area at the end of Laurel House Road (from the lower trailhead, just keep climbing Route 23A west towards Haines Falls – make a right onto County Route 18 (North Lake Road), then follow it to Laurel House Road on your right in about two miles). At the end of Laurel House Road, you’ll come to a gate. Just stroll down the road from there and you can’t miss the falls off to your right in just a few minutes. **UPDATE July 2015** In case you missed it above, the access via Laurel House Road will be closed during 2015 as the DEC makes improvements to the trail system at Kaaterskill Falls. See this article for details.
If you do check this place out, please be very, very careful. My buddy Jered was crouching to take a picture here, and as I stood next to him to take my own picture, I realized that if he stood up and bumped into me, I was a dead man. You have to stand right next to the edge to get a good look at the falls, and just thinking about leaning out so close to that huge drop – where other people have fallen – still gives me the heebie jeebies.
Please give this area the respect it deserves, and make good decisions if you pay a visit.
Related resources: If you’re looking for actual facts and/or useful information, visit these excellent resources:
- The very informative Kaaterskill Falls Wikipedia page
- Another nice write-up (with user comments) on LocalHikes.com
- A nice description from another person who obviously appreciates a good waterfall
- An epinions.com review of the falls
- This crazy HDR picture of the falls
- A vertigo-inducing 360-degree image of Bastion Falls
- A nice trail guide from Catskillmountaineer.com
And some links regarding the danger that abounds if you wander off the trail:
- Man falls to death at Kaaterskill Falls
- Another death at Kaaterskill Falls
- Death in the Catskills – Should this trail be closed?
- Chicago teen Abraham Mendoza dies in fall from N.Y. waterfall
- Dutchess County woman, 23, falls 180 feet to her death in Greene County; 2nd fatal accident on trail this summer
More Kaaterskill Falls pictures from the hike’s Picasa album:
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