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 May 2018** The DEC has made several recent trail and safety improvements at Kaaterskill Falls. While the trail guide below is still perfectly valid, I recommend you check out my updated trail guide for Kaaterskill Falls II (upper trailhead), which is, in my opinion, a much better route. It takes advantage of all the new awesomeness at Kaaterskill Falls, and saves you the road walk detailed below. Whatever route you choose, happy adventuring out there!
**UPDATE August 2018** The DEC has adopted some new common-sense safety regulations at Kaaterskill Falls that shouldn’t at all affect the behavior of responsible hikers, including staying six feet from cliffs edges, not entering the water within 150 feet and the top of the falls, and not being allowed to play music except with earbuds (thanks especially for that one, DEC!). The New York Times also covered these new regulations in this article: “The Deadly Waterfall in the Instagram Age.“
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.
Several words of caution (updated May 2018): The trail used to end right here, and I devoted several paragraphs warning hikers not to wander off-trail, due to the many deaths and injuries that regularly occurred (and still occur) at Kaaterskill Falls when people try to create their own trails. That warning is still tragically relevant. Even after the improved signage, trail extensions, and safety fencing were 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.
5. Whew, that was heavy. Sorry for being such a downer.
6. **UPDATE May 2018** When you’re done basking in the mist of the falls from the awesome vantage point at the bottom of the falls, you can either retrace your steps back to your car (once again exercising caution on the section along Route 23A), or continue venturing up the path to the bottom of the upper falls, or head all the way up to the viewing platform at the very top (to the left of the falls). If you go all the way up to the viewing platform, you’ll add about 1.6 miles and 400 vertical ft of ascent to your day. It’s an awesome spot if you’re up for it! These choices didn’t exist prior to the recent enhancements at this site — nice to have choices in life! (You can see my trail guide for Kaaterskill’s upper trailhead for more details on the platform and scenery at the top.)
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: You can just type “Kaaterskill Falls trailhead,” into Google Maps and it’ll pull up the correct spot on Route 23A. (Don’t do “Kaaterskill Falls Viewing Platform” or it’ll take you to the upper trailhead on Laurel House Rd.)
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.)
Related resources: If you’re looking for actual facts and/or useful information, visit these excellent resources:
- The very informative Kaaterskill Falls Wikipedia page
- My updated guide for Kaaterskill Falls II (upper trailhead)
- 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
- 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
Want to support trails in the Hudson Valley? Here’s one great way: Visit the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference homepage and click on Volunteer, Donate, or Shop! (Then you can volunteer, donate, or shop, depending on your mood.)