Grunting and sweating your way to a summit is not the only way to take in the wilderness. Unpack some cool-weather outdoor gear, pack a lunch, and head out for a waterfall hike. No two visits to a waterfall are the same—with falls swelling in the spring melt and heavy rains, freezing in wintertime, or casting arched rainbows in refracted sunlight. People have shaped waterfalls, too. Take, for instance, the mighty Niagara Falls. In the winter and on summer nights—when fewer visitors are watching—additional water is diverted from the falls into canals that power Niagara's hydroelectric power stations. They're also woven in the personal and regional narratives of the region.
In the Hudson Valley, High Falls in Columbia County powered 17 separate mills at one time. Kaaterskill Falls inspired William Cullen Bryant to write of "a palace of ice." Read on for a few Hudson Valley waterfall hikes to check out. And, as always, whenever you hike follow the seven principles of Leave No Trace.
[Editor's Note: Due to heavy traffic and illegal parking on Route 23A, Kaaterskill is currently closed to the public. Here are some recommended alternative waterfall hikes in the Catskills.]
Kaaterskill Falls, perhaps the best-known Hudson Valley cataract, is a two-tiered, 260-foot waterfall that drops most of its height in the upper, 180-foot cascade (the longest in New York State). Heather Rolland, former president of the Catskills 3500 Club, calls it "a wilderness Gothic cathedral," gushing about the infrastructure updates completed in November 2016: increased parking, bluestone steps, and a cantilevered viewing platform. Much like the hard limestone caprock that resists the erosion of Niagara Falls upstream into Lake Erie, a sandstone shelf in between the upper and lower cascades of Kaaterskill acts as an erosion barrier—keeping the lower falls from being worn away and merging with the upper falls. The 2.6-mile out-and-back trail is an easy, dog-friendly route that is heavily trafficked in summer months.
Sam's Point in Minnewaska State Park Preserve, Cragsmoor
The Dutch name means, "the wrong stream," but hikers beg to differ. Verkeerderkill Falls is on an off-the-beaten path rewarding you with a classic layered, pale quartz conglomerate Shawangunk cliff—with the gentle spray of the falls cascading down its steep, step-like face. The moderately difficult 8.3-mile loop trail takes you through a rare dwarf pitch pine barren and offers stunning views of the Rondout Valley and the Catskills for the better part of the part of the trek. The trail is rocky, so be sure to bring sturdy shoes or boots. From the Sam's Point entry, follow the Road Loop trail to the Verkeerderkill Falls Trail. The Verkeerderkill is part of the Hudson Valley in a very immediate sense—flowing into the Wallkill Creek, one of the tributaries of the Hudson.
Stony Kill Falls
Minnewaska State Park Preserve, Kerhonkson
Minnewaska earns two entries here. The 90-foot-tall Stony Kill Falls is accessible via a 1.5-mile out-and-back hike from the oddly named Shaft 2A Road. The walk out to the falls is unusual—you will pass a helipad—but the trail has also recently been updated with new signage, footbridges, and stone steps ascending to the top of the falls. Visitors advise going after a heavy rain, for fuller falls. As with all waterfalls, exercise caution—even with the improvements, this is a wild area. Make sure everyone in your party feels ready and confident with their footing on steep steps and ledges.
The Town of Philmont once drew its economic might from waterfall- and upstream-dam-powered mills. The town's logo still features High Falls, and the towering 150-foot-high waterfall is now protected by a 47-acre parcel of land as part of the Columbia Land Conservancy. More of a jaunt than a hike, follow the green trail to a gallery overlooking the falls, or take the eastern part of the blue trail to the pool at the base of the falls. Swimming is not allowed, but leashed dogs are. Like the Kaaterskill and Verkeerderkill Falls, High Falls eventually supplies the Hudson River—flowing into the Claverack Creek, which is a tributary of the Hudson.
Indian Brook Falls
Constitution Marsh Sanctuary, Phillipstown
If you like to take in the power and majesty of falling water but aren't much for long treks, Indian Brook Falls is for you. Cross your fingers and hope to snag one of the eight parking spots at the Constitution Marsh Audubon Center, which is just a 0.3-mile stroll from the waterfall. Start by heading east from the parking area—in the opposite direction of the Hudson and the Marsh—and walk underneath the Route 9D bridge. Soon you will reach Indian Brook Falls, tumbling down slanted slabs of rock, pouring into a pool at its base. (Swimming at the Falls is forbidden). The same parking area also grants access to the well-loved wooden boardwalk of Constitution Marsh itself—an area criss-crossed with channels once dug by a would-be rice farmer, creating a playground for small watercraft. For the bold, follow up your waterfall hike with the trek up the inimitable Breakneck Ridge, and cap off your day of adventuring with a tasty meal at one of the many Cold Spring eateries.
Glens Falls and Ice Box Falls
Glen Falls House, Round Top
The grounds of the 47-acre resort Glen Falls House in Greene County are free and open to the public. They offer access to three waterfalls—the namesake Glen Falls, the Bridal Veil, and Icebox Falls—as well as miles of well-marked trails (maintained by the Round Top Mountain Biking Association) that can be used for hiking, jogging, or foraging. The cascades of water from Icebox Falls are punctuated by a flat, terrace-like rock formation that invites a careful amble amidst the falls. The frigid falls were once a source for harvesting large blocks of ice, which were floated downstream to the Hudson and then shipped all over this world to chill the cocktails of the wealthy. After you've tuckered yourself out ambling through the forest, stop in at the resort's onsite restaurant, Trotwood, for a hearty meal of farm-to-table fare.