Ashokan Rail Trail, Photo: Ulster County Planning Department

Things to do in the Catskills

Three Ways to See the Catskill Mountains: Bike, Hike & Paddle

The Catskill Mountains in southeast New York state are among the most extensive and ecologically diverse areas in the eastern United States. Within the state park's 700,000 acres, nearly 300,000 are designated forest preserve. And part of the park's land is owned by New York City to protect reservoirs that provide drinking water for the city. Streams and rivers feed the reservoirs of a stunning landscape defined by forested mountains and rolling hills, meadows and valleys.

Known for its 33 mountains that stand 3,500 feet tall, it’s surprising that the Catskills aren't actually mountains at all, geologically speaking. Rather, the mountain-like cliffs are parts of a plateau dissected by sediment deposits and erosion from flowing waterways.

The rugged natural spaces are ideal for outdoor recreation. It's the birthplace of American fly fishing. There are mountain trails and fire towers to climb, routes to hike and bike, and waterfalls to find. The area has a foothold in cultural history, too—best known for 1969’s Woodstock music festival, and also the film location for the 1987 hit Dirty Dancing. 

All these attributes also mean a whole lot of visitors each year. The most popular sites like Kaaterskill Falls, Pratt Rock, and Hunter Mountain are spectacular but also busy in peak tourism season. Even so, there are ways to get into nature and explore the wilderness without the crowds. So if you want a quiet experience, this is your guide to three surprising ways to see the Catskills.

Balsam Lake Mountain Fire Tower , Photo: Ulster County Tourism

Bike the Ashokan Rail Trail 

While Ashokan Reservoir is closed to swimming to protect the unfiltered, fresh drinking water, the Ashokan Rail Trail runs along the shore and provides a picturesque cycling route. The path is paved, flat and wide, and runs 11.5 miles along the north shore. There are three different access points on RTE 28 where you can start your ride. Rent a bike or bring your own and pick up a map with info on scenic viewpoints and interpretive panels. You’ll be pedaling on the edge of wetland restoration areas, through red maple trees with mountain and lake views. Keep your eyes peeled for bald eagles fishing in the reservoir. 

Hike to the Balsam Lake Mountain Fire Tower 

In the 1800s, there were hundreds of fire towers in the Catskills to watch for wildfires. Only six remain today. The towers provide unobstructed viewpoints, making them magnets for park visitors. Avoid the more popular Overlook and Hunter Mountain towers and head to Balsam Lake Mountain’s, which is less frequented and just as spectacular. The summit is one of Catskills’ 33 peaks that stand over 3,500 feet, and its fire tower was the first ever placed on a New York mountaintop in 1887. It’s a long drive, but worth it as one of the park’s more scenic roads. From Mill Brook Road, take the Dry Brook Trail to the Balsam Lake Mountain Trail. The hike is a six-mile round trip with 1,200 feet of elevation gain. The trail climbs gradually through a balsam fir forest. When you get to the tower, top the stairs for the impressive payoff.

Boating Pepacton Reservoir

Many of the Catskills’ reservoirs are privately owned by New York City and closed for recreation. But four of the municipal water supply reservoirs are open for boating. A quiet paddle offers a much less crowded way to see the region. You’ll be glad you did; Pepacton Reservoir is the headwaters of the East Branch Delaware River and the largest of the reservoirs. It is narrow but 15 miles long and 160 feet deep. Non-motorized boats, including kayaks and canoes, are required to be steam-cleaned before launch, and you’ll need an access permit. But if you rent from one of the vendors, they will take care of all of those logistics. Once you’re on the water, just focus on paddling the shore, watching for birds, or casting a line for trout. Then, have a picnic lunch on a remote beach before returning to the marina. 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.