Background you can feel free to skip: A visit to Kaaterskill Falls used to encompass my least favorite section of “trail” in the Hudson Valley: the walk along the busy, shoulderless stretch of Route 23A to get from the parking area to the trailhead.
“Well, I’m glad we’re all still alive,” we’d say as we reached the kiosk at the start of the actual trail, just off the road, as cars buzzed around the bend behind us.
That real-life game of Frogger (kids: ask your parents) used to be the only way to access the bottom of Kaaterskill Falls. Not anymore! In 2016, the NY DEC completed safety enhancements and other trail improvements at Kaaterskill Falls. Now, you can access all of the awesomeness at Kaaterskill Falls from the upper trailhead via some excellent new trails, including enough new steps to give the place an Incan vibe.
While I’ve seen some grumbling online about the changes here taking away from the natural beauty of the area, I found the opposite to be true – finally, we have proper trails that allow you to access all the beauty here without being tempted to tromp your own (potentially deadly, and definitely damaging) path. Now the trails don’t maddeningly end right at the bottom of the falls – like your favorite credit card, these new trails are everywhere you want to be. The new viewing platform gives you a breathtaking vantage point of the upper falls, too.
Best of all, the whole shebang can be accessed from the (also enhanced) upper parking area, making that trek along the road totally unnecessary (though it is still an option, if you prefer that route). Now you can start at the top, see all the sweetness up there, and then make your way down to the equally awesome view from the bottom. What’s not to like about that?
Several words of caution: My first Kaaterskill trail guide spent several paragraphs warning hikers not to wander off-trail here, due to the many deaths and injuries that regularly occurred (and still occur) at Kaaterskill Falls. That warning is still tragically relevant. Even after the improved signage and safety fencing was installed, several people have gotten killed or hurt here.
See these tragic headlines that occurred after the initial safety improvements (more fencing and signage were added in late 2017):
- 2016: Newburgh hiker falls to death at Kaaterskill Falls in Greene County
- 2016: New Jersey teen falls to his death at Kaaterskill Falls in Greene County
- 2017: Woman Falls, Suffers Head Injury at Kaaterskill Falls
- 2017: Two Hurt in Separate Incidents at Kaaterskill Falls
I do not know the individual circumstances in all of these incidents, but when you read many of these stories, a common thread emerges: almost all (maybe exactly all?) of the tragedies at Kaaterskill Falls begin with someone leaving the trail and/or ignoring fencing and warning signs.
The safety features here do NOT protect you if you choose to wander off-trail. If you wander off-trail, you are endangering your own life, the lives of those in your party, and the lives of the people who may have to try to rescue you. Please don’t do it.
If you stay on the marked trails, there is no greater danger here than you’ll find on your average staircase. Once you wander off-trail, though, all bets are off. Please stay on the trail. When I read about you in the paper, let it be because you won the Nobel Prize, not because you visited Kaaterskill Falls.
So we’re agreed, then? We’ll all be sticking to the trails and not making any headlines out there? Excellent!
I brought my kids (aged 5 and 8) here in December 2017, on a cloudy, 40-degree day. The conditions weren’t ideal, but the kids didn’t seem to notice. They loved everything about this hike, insisting that we do the entire 4.7-mile Full Monty version out to Inspiration Point, smashing my five-year-old’s previous longest-hike record by about 100%. (The cookie and Cheez-It bribes probably didn’t hurt, either.)
The improvements here have made this hike so much better, and the money spots so much more accessible. While my first Kaaterskill trail guide is still perfectly valid, the construction around the upper trailhead at Kaaterskill Falls have made that old route, in my opinion, totally obsolete.
One more note of caution: Kaaterskill Falls is not a well-kept secret. I was here on a junky December Saturday, and the parking lot was almost full (and the street leading into the parking lot is lined with more “No Parking” signs than trees). I can only imagine how crowded it must be on a beautiful weekend – that parking lot must fill up early and stayed filled up. I highly recommend you hit this hike at an off-time, if possible – weekdays or very early on weekends.
Whenever you visit Kaaterskill Falls, you should definitely make it a priority to get out here. An awesome Hudson Valley location has somehow managed to become even more awesome. No real-life “Frogger” skills required.
Note of caution on wheelchair accessibility: While I have tagged this hike with “wheelchair accessibility” in the highlights section of this trail guide, that doesn’t tell the whole story. The section of trail that is officially accessible (from the Laurel House Road parking lot to the viewing platform) is made of crushed stone, with over 100 feet in elevation change down to the platform. Attempting this trail section with a standard wheelchair would be quite difficult, bordering on impossible for some. Please see MG’s comment below for further details on the harrowing experience with bringing their mother here in a transport wheelchair, and requiring help from strangers to get her safely back to the parking lot (without ever seeing the falls). This trail was created with accessibility in mind (“…in the fall of 2015, the DEC completed a fully accessible trail leading to a new accessible overlook platform at the top of the falls”), but please keep the trail surface and elevation changes in mind as you’re planning your trip here. I hope this update will help others to avoid a similar to experience to MG’s mom. (If there is further information that would be helpful to adventurers in wheelchairs who would like to visit this spot, please share it in the comments and I’ll update this section accordingly. Thanks!)
1. From the parking lot on Laurel House Road (see “Directions to the trailhead” below), follow the wide gravel path to the kiosk with educational signage posted. Might as well learn something while we’re here.
2. When you’re done educating yourself, proceed past the kiosk. In just a moment, at a well-marked fork, take the Yellow Trail to the left.
3. Enjoy the meandering path as it slopes gently downhill.
In less than five minutes, you’ll arrive at a well-marked fork where the Blue Trail splits off to the left (don’t go that way – yet). We’ll come back here soon, but for the moment, turn right to follow the Yellow Trail toward the viewing platform (took us about three minutes to get to the platform from here, heading straight and ignoring unmarked side trails).
4. The wide gravel trail continues sloping gently downhill. You may start to hear the falls through the trees.
And in just a couple minutes, boom! Here you are. What an awesome spot.
“You go first, Daddy,” my sons said.
“Why?” I asked.
“In case it falls down,” they replied. It’s good to feel loved.
Once I got out there, they said, “Now jump up and down, Daddy!”
I never should have told my kids about that life insurance policy.
But in all seriousness: Duuuude. What a great view. Prior to this platform being here, you couldn’t get a vantage point like this. And to get anything like it at all, you had to risk life and limb. No more. How cool is this spot? (Also, the platform doesn’t fall down if you jump up and down on it – you can thank my kids for that research.)
5. When you’re done ogling the view, return to the Yellow/Blue junction, just up the hill.
Safety note: Along the way back to that junction, you may notice a wide, unmarked trail splitting off to your right. Now that you’ve visited the platform, you might even be tempted to check out whatever’s down there.
The answer is that there’s nothing to see down there, except fencing and warning signs. I wasted five minutes checking it out so you wouldn’t have to. Really, nothing to see here.
Of course, you can see a well-worn footpath going right around those warning signs. And people hanging out beyond the fencing, too. Sigh.
If you’re going to die today, this is most likely how it will start: By ignoring warning signs and circumventing fencing. Please, PLEASE, don’t do that. The best views at Kaaterskill Falls are now, thankfully, accessible via proper, well-marked trails. No need to go rogue and put yourself (and others) in danger.
6. Now that you’re back at the Yellow/Blue intersection, it’s choose your own adventure time!
If you just came here to check out the platform and now you want to go home, simply turn left (assuming you’re coming up the hill from the platform) and retrace your steps back to your car. Hope you had fun! Enjoy not reading any more of this trail guide, you lucky duck!
If you’re going to venture to the bottom of the falls, or to Inspiration Point (or both!), you’ll need to turn right to hop on the Blue Trail and cross that awesome bridge right there. You’ll probably want to stop and check things out. And maybe play a very quick game of Poohsticks?
7. Immediately after crossing the bridge, you’ll arrive at another well-marked junction.
Turn right to hop up the embankment and follow the Blue Trail toward Lower Falls, Layman’s Monument, and Inspiration Point.
8. No more wide gravel paths for you! The trail turns into a proper, bumpy affair (the way nature intended) in this stretch.
From the bridge, it’s .16 miles (took us less than five minutes) to your next decision point: the trail junction that lets you choose between the lower falls and Inspiration Point. See you there in a few!
9. At the signpost where the Yellow Trail heads downhill to your right and the Blue Trail motors on straight ahead, it’s choose your own adventure time again!
Yellow Trail to lower Kaaterskill Falls: 1.08 miles roundtrip back to this spot, approx. 374 ft. vertical ascent (starting with a big fat descent). (The estimate on the sign suggests .8 miles roundtrip, but that estimate does not include chasing after my kids at the bottom.) Took us about 45 minutes to get back to this spot (though we were hustling more than usual, on account of the sun going down).
Blue Trail to Inspiration Point: 2.3 miles roundtrip back to this spot, approx.. 641 ft. vertical ascent (mostly rolling hills with a few steep spots). Took us about two hours and fifteen minutes to get back to this spot, allowing plenty of time to stop for ogling views and/or consuming Cheez-Its.
If you have enough gas in the tank, they are both awesome places. I recommend doing them both, whether it’s today or on your next visit. We did Inspiration Point first, then the lower falls, so that’s how I’ll write it up below.
If you’re skipping Inspiration Point, then hop on down to Step 18 below. Otherwise, see you at the next step!
10. Next stop, Inspiration Point! Let’s do this thing. Keep left/straight at the junction to continue on the Blue Trail. Be sure to stop to check out the cool rocks along the way. And feel free to just sit down in the middle of the trail if you get tired.
Your next landmark is Layman’s Monument. (It took us just under 20 minutes to get there, going at sometimes-crawling little-kid pace.)
11. As you approach Layman’s Monument from behind, take a look off to your right to see the parking lot for the lower trailhead of Kaaterskill Falls through the trees.
Take a moment to read the inscription in memory of Frank Layman, who gave his life fighting a fire at this spot in 1900.
The trail wraps around the monument and heads to the right (assuming you’re looking straight at the inscription). Just keep following those blue blazes.
12. Five minutes past the monument, you’ll arrive at the steepest spot on this hike, where you’ll need your hands to clamber up and over. (It also apparently helps if you yell, “Don’t help me, Daddy!” while you negotiate this trail feature.)
13. Immediately after that steep climb, blammo! Your first clifftop view of Kaaterskill Clove. Off to the right, you can see the ski slopes at Hunter Mountain peeking (and peaking?) over the horizon.
This view is the first of many along this stretch of trail. Each has its own unique charms, but the vantage point doesn’t wildly change (the view from Inspiration Point is awesome, but it’s similar to this one – just wanted to get your expectations in check, in case you’re picturing a sweeping view of the entire Hudson Valley).
14. The trail offers many more interesting spots to explore in the next section.
And in less than ten minutes, another view! We’re really racking them up now.
After that view, prepare to gain some altitude.
About five minutes beyond that view, you’ll arrive at your next landmark, the well-marked junction with the Yellow Trail to Schutt Road. Ignore the Yellow Trail and keep heading straight on the Blue Trail. Only .27 miles to Inspiration Point from here! (My GPS clocked it at .43 miles, but what’s a baker’s tenth of a mile among friends?)
15. From the junction, it took us about 15 minutes to reach Inspiration Point. Along this stretch, my kids started referring to it as “Inspiration Station,” which is objectively more fun to say. Feel free to make the switch like we did.
During that 15 minutes, you’ll pass another nice view, then you’ll drop about 120 feet in altitude. Try not to think about how you’re going to earn it back later. Also, in hiking, as in life, there’s no shame in sliding on your butt when you need to.
16. You’ll know you’ve arrived at Inspiration Station when you come down that steep hill and emerge onto a long, rocky section of cliff.
I’ve seen pictures of an old “Inspiration Point” sign here, but as of our visit in December 2017, that sign was nowhere to be found. No worries. You notice all that inspiration coursing through your being? That means you’re here.
If you’re anything like my kids, you’ll also feel inspired to eat some cookies here.
Take one last look at Inspiration Station, take any final selfies, and prepare for the return trip.
**UPDATE July 2019** According to two quite credible comments below (here and here), this spot is actually Sunset Rock, and the current REAL Inspiration Point is another five minutes down the trail. According to Mike Conmy’s comment (complete with a quite convincing picture from the map at the trailhead), it’s only another 150 steps or so to the next view, and well worth the few extra calories. You should check it out and tell me how awesome the view is that we never saw! (Don’t worry, I won’t tell my kids.)
17. Retrace your steps back to the junction with the trail to the lower falls. It took us just over an hour to get back there:
12 minutes back to the trail junction where you’ll go straight to continue on the Blue Trail.
Another 29 minutes back to Layman’s Monument. Whew, gotta hydrate.
And another 20 minutes back to the trail junction with the yellow-blazed trail to the lower falls.
You can continue straight from here if you’re inspired to go back to your car, following the trail back to the junction by the bridge (then over the bridge, past the platform trail, and back to the parking lot). If you choose to end your adventure that way, hope you enjoyed the day, and kept a little inspiration to bring home with you! If you’re knocking out the Full Monty and visiting the lower falls (highly recommended), proceed to the next step, and let’s do this like Brutus!
18. Turn downhill (a left, if you’re coming from Layman’s Monument; a right, if you cheated and skipped here from Step 9) onto the Yellow Trail to visit the lower falls. I love that this trail exists – getting between the lower and upper falls used to be dangerous, unsustainable, and illegal. Now it’s just a pleasant stroll. A pleasant stroll with a million steps. But we’ll never complain, because a million steps is far better than no steps at all.
Follow the Yellow Trail down, down, down.
As you get close to the falls, you’ll descend some very long, curvy staircases. Once again, no shame in sliding on your butt. (And to the trail crews who installed these steps: Awesome job! Thank you!!)
As you approach the falls, when you see a side trail venturing off to your right, go check it out.
In just a few feet, BOOM! Kaaterskill Falls in your face!
The trail to this spot also didn’t used to exist (at least not in any official, safe capacity). Now you can feel the mist of the falls on your face without risking the rest of you. Take a moment to soak it in, and soak in it.
19. When you’re done reveling in this spot, return to the fork and turn right/downhill to continue descending those steps. Do your best to suppress the urge to think about what it’s going to be like to traverse these steps going the other way. Carefully plunk your way down – nature didn’t provide any railings here. More butt sliding? Absolutely, fire it up.
Once you pick your way down to the bottom, you can see both tiers of Kaaterskill Falls in all their glory.
This is one of the best vantage points in the Hudson Valley, or anywhere else. Let your eyeballs feast on this two-tier beauty sandwich.
20. Once you’re done appreciating the grandeur of Kaaterskill Falls and communing with your fellow waterfall oglers, retrace your many, many steps back up those stairs. (Don’t worry about the lack of daylight, kids – Daddy has this under control, even though he may have accidentally left the flashlight in the car.)
It took us 17 minutes to reach the junction with the Blue Trail, all the way back up above the falls. (And really, always keep a small flashlight in your pack. If only someone had made that their tenth hiking tip!)
21. Turn left onto the Blue Trail to head back toward the cool footbridge.
22. In less than five minutes, you’ll arrive at the Blue/Yellow junction right before the footbridge. Turn left/straight here to hop back on the Yellow Trail and head across the bridge.
23. From the bridge, continue straight all the way back to your car.
Awesome day out there? Indeed. Whatever adventure you chose for yourself today, I hope you give it an enthusiastic thumbs up.
Also, I hope you saved some Cheez-Its for the drive home. You saved some Cheez-Its, right?
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 pass the parking area for the lower trailhead (not where we’re headed) on your left. Keep climbing Route 23A west towards Haines Falls. Just a couple minutes past the lower trailhead parking, take a right onto County Route 18 (North Lake Road), then follow it to Laurel House Road on your right in about two miles, which is also marked for “Kaaterskill Falls Laurel House Parking.”
Arrive at the large parking area on your right.
Hop out and let the adventure begin!
You can also get directions by checking out the Kaaterskill Falls II (upper trailhead) entry on the HiketheHudsonValley.com Google map.
Sorta nearby address for your GPS: You can just type “Kaaterskill Falls Viewing Platform” into Google Maps and it’ll pull up the correct spot. (Don’t do “Kaaterskill Falls trailhead,” or it’ll take you to the lower trailhead.)
GPS coordinates of parking area: 42.19577, -74.06303 (Clicking will open in Google Maps or the Apple Maps app, depending on your browser/device.)
Google Terrain Map of hike route:
Super-cool Google Earth flyover of hike route:
Related resources: If you’re looking for actual facts and/or useful information, visit these resources:
- A great write-up on the new trailwork on HudsonValleyOne: On the rocks: The new Kaaterskill Falls Overlook
- My original trail guide for Kaaterskill Falls (lower trailhead)
- The very informative Kaaterskill Falls Wikipedia page
- A two-minute local ABC news clip on the falls and safety improvements
- This beautiful HDR picture of Kaaterskill in all its glory
- A nice trail guide for the lower trailhead from Catskillmountaineer.com
- A Facebook post about overcrowding (and irresponsible behavior) at Kaaterskill Falls from the informative Kaaterskill Falls page
And some more links regarding the danger that abounds if you wander off-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
- Newburgh hiker falls to death at Kaaterskill Falls in Greene County
- New Jersey teen falls to his death at Kaaterskill Falls in Greene County
- Woman Falls, Suffers Head Injury at Kaaterskill Falls
- Two Hurt in Separate Incidents at Kaaterskill Falls
More Kaaterskill Falls pictures from the hike’s Flickr album:
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