Updated: Feb 25, 2020
Paige and I had never been to a waterfall, except a rather unremarkable one in her New Jersey hometown that was man-made, perhaps three feet high and really more a drainage ditch than anything else. With the obvious exception of Niagara Falls, the northeast appears rather drained of spectacular waterfalls, most relegated to the West Coast. Because of this, we decided to hike the Kaaterskill Falls trail to see one of the Northeast’s best falls. Keep in mind that we get winded by the walk-up to Paige’s apartment, so since we completed this hike, it’s not exactly an athletic benchmark. I would say apart from the occasional bouldering, it is really quite a gentle walk.
Perhaps the scariest part of the hike is getting to the trailhead - the parking lot is around the corner, perhaps a quarter mile down the highway. There is no sidewalk, although you can snake along safely behind the guardrail most of the way. The end requires a risky dash across the street, but after the cross Paige and I were standing at the trailhead, next to what we assumed to be Kaaterskill falls (mostly because we routinely go places with no advance research or planning). The waterfall at the trailhead is pleasant, if unremarkable, and we were about to call it a day when we noticed a number of people scaling a steep boulder pile into the surrounding woods. On closer inspection, we noticed the beginnings of a trail marked by yellow tags along the path. Because of our minimal research, Paige was wearing heeled cowboy boots: stylish but certainly not ideal for the alarmingly vertical boulders ahead. However, there seemed to be a number of families with children and dogs who were braving the slope, so we decided to give it a shot.
The initial climb started rocky (in both the figurative and literal sense), scrambling up mostly on foot but with plenty of steadying hands placed on nearby boulders as well. A woman coming down the other way, bounding dog in one hand and toddler in the other, assured us that it leveled out in a moment and wasn’t bad after that. She was right - after only a couple minutes of bouldering, the path flattened out into an easily walkable (if occasionally unclear) trail. We skimmed a hiking article, which made it clear that the options were stick to the yellow trail or certain death. It should be noted that much of the area is left in its rugged natural state and that it can get very dangerous if you venture from the path for a scenic photograph. We saw a group of particularly bold hikers decide to venture off down to the river and one extra special Lewis and Clark began to high-wire across a naturally felled and rotting log that spanned the width of the icy river. The log began to tremble violently as if it too was afraid for the hiker’s safety and thankfully he jumped off onto the embankment before slipping into the water. In short, please do be careful when you visit: we’d love to see your beautiful selfies on Instagram and not as part of an in memoriam.
The trail itself felt safe as we wandered along - it is about a half mile long and slopes gently up for the most part. It takes about a half hour to walk at a leisurely pace, so make sure to allow enough time back before the sun starts to set. Most of the trail is straightforward paths, although it gets a little vague at times. When we went, there was a point where we had to virtually belly slide under a fallen branch to stay on path - just keep your eyes out for the yellow tags along route and it’s simple enough. The gentle 20 minute hike gave us plenty of time for pleasant gossip and speculation on where the trail would lead (at this point we still thought we’d seen the waterfall), but even with no expectations it was a beautiful walk.
We also began to notice the temperature lowering (it was cold already as we made the foolhardy decision to visit at the tail end of November), but as we went along we saw the first freckles of snow appearing along the route. After stopping to drop an obligatory signature on a lightly dusted tree trunk, we began to notice an upswing in the roar of the nearby stream. A couple more bends in the trail revealed that we had not in fact seen Kaaterskill Falls already because there it was, looming majestically in front of us. It puts the falls at the beginning of the trail to shame - the water here drops angelically over a total of 260 feet, split in the middle by a basin shelved high in the cliffs. It’s hard to even capture a sense of how serene and beautiful the area is and our photos just cannot do it justice.
At this point in the hike you are reminded for the first time that people have been here before by a set of steep, basic stairs that wind up the side of the falls. Determined to get a closer look, we began to ascend the stairs. As we climbed, we saw the patches of flurried snow on the ground thickening. The stairs take you initially to the first basin, where a separate path meanders closer to the falls for a better view. Paige, because she’s the intelligent half of our relationship, outright refused to walk along the ledge, because the waterfall’s spray had solidified into a dense sheen of ice that coated the entire walkway. It was less the fear of embarrassment and more the steep 60 foot drop-off beside the ledge that had put her off. As the foolish half of our relationship however, I had a duty to fulfill and promised to be back momentarily after snapping some closer photographs of the falls for her.
I began to step cautiously across the icy shelf. There was a rope fence between me and the chasm to which I held tight, but it seemed to offer more the suggestion of safety than a promise. Pretty soon the ground was entirely ice, but I managed to edge far enough around the path to get a clear view of the falls, which looked spectacular this close up. The main drop of the falls stretched out above me, spraying a fine mist that had crystallized on every surface. After snapping ample photographs, all of which failed to capture the scope of the frosted falls, I made my way carefully back around the ledge to Paige. She was standing there petrified, looking whiter than the surrounding ice sheets. “I was calling for you” she said timidly “I thought you’d died”. Apparently I’d gotten so carried away taking pictures that she assumed I must have slipped over the falls and had started calling out to see if I was ok, which I hadn’t heard over the rush of the falls (although she did confess she’d been calling only loudly enough so that other people wouldn’t think there was a problem). Apparently in the time I was gone, three separate groups slipped and fell over on the ice. Considering how clumsy I am on dry land, it’s a wonder I’m not currently floating down the Kaaterskill Creek.
From where we stood, we spied the viewing platform lofted high over us above the falls. Later research confirmed there is a separate, newer way onto the trail (apparently a much easier hike along flat ground) that enters from the upper trailhead, starting you at the viewing platform. As we’d entered from the bottom and are useless at hiking, we were already out of breath and noticed the skies darkening, so we decided to call it quits there and make our way back down. The lower and upper trailheads do connect however and you can hike all the way from the bottom to the viewing platform or vice versa if you’d like (although the full trail clocks in at 4.7 miles of steep uphill, so likely it takes forever).
Paige and I stood for a while huddled over the photos until a blur passing us caught our eye. From the top of the mountain we saw a man running down who must have been mid-decathlon. He sprinted past us and out across the ice shelf, sliding around and bouncing off of stuff like a rogue hockey puck. He made no effort to attend to the handrail and soon disappeared around the corner. Paige and I stood for a moment, deeply concerned that we’d just seen an obituary in the making, but after a few minutes with no bodies dropping over the falls, we began to gingerly make our way back down the stairs. We took is slow as they were both narrow and slightly frosted, not to mention that the closest thing to a rail available is a good prayer. After several timid steps we were brushed aside by our marathon friend, taking the iced stairs two at a time with his hands in his pockets, apparently trying to race the water to the bottom.
We made it down safe and fully intact, very pleased with the beautiful walk and spectacular views. At the bottom of the lower trailhead there is a guest book you can sign - supposedly it can help them locate you in the case of an emergency, but other than giving the park ranger a name to yell, I can’t imagine how. Most people seemed to just be using it as a way to check the waterfall off their bucket list, so we dropped our names there and headed off. Hopefully you will get a chance to visit and leave behind your stamp as well - just make sure to allow plenty of time because there’s only one man who can run the trail and Kaaterskill is far behind him.
If you're looking for Kaaterskill Falls, the lower trailhead is landmarked on Google. The parking lot however, is not. To find it, you can apply these GPS coordinates into Google Maps: 42.189910, -74.074041. It's about a quarter mile down the road from the trailhead. When we went, parking was sparse and apparently this is quite common - the falls are a popular hiking destination. The upper trailhead parking lot starts at the Laurel House Trail (also landmarked on Google) - this parking lot is only a short walk from the upper viewing platform. We can't vouch for how crowded this lot is, but I would assume a similar popularity.
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