When people think of “gal getaway” they generally think of a spa weekend or wine and food. For my former college roommate and me, our gal getaway is three days of hiking and exploring historic sites in the Catskill Mountains of the Hudson River Valley, midway between her home upstate and mine downstate. The “girlie” part came because the focus of our hiking is the art it inspired, the Hudson River School, considered America’s first art movement, founded here in 1825 by Thomas Cole.
We are here to follow the Hudson River School Art Trail (HRSAT) – literally walking in the artists’ footsteps to the sites from which they painted their glorious landscapes. Here in the Greene County area of mid-Hudson River Valley (perhaps better known for Hunter Mountain and Windham), there are eight sites and hikes of the 17 stops in the Hudson Valley Region. But so far, the HRSAT consists of 22 sites (and growing), extending into Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Wyoming, and even abroad.
Today, we get to retrace the steps of artists like Thomas Cole, the founder of the Hudson River School, who started painting these landscapes in 1825, and Frederic Edwin Church, who studied under Cole and then returned to this area to build his grand “Persian” estate, Olana, as a living canvas of landscape and architecture (how modern!).
It is very much like falling into a painting – you are struck by how the scenes have remained the same, at least those areas that are protected within 300,000 acres of the Catskill Preserve, while others have been enveloped by the very “progress” that Cole and the other artists were concerned about in the 1800s, as the Industrial Revolution, bringing railroads and factories, displaced the wilderness they found so glorious.
And you realize, we are fighting the same battle, today, between progress and preservation, conserving nature and swallowing it up.
Of the eight sites here in the mid-Hudson Valley, three of them are hikes. With an eye to the weather forecast – which is sunny this day but rain for the next – we cleverly alter our plans and meet up at the trailhead of the hikes (#4 and #5) and will go on to do the hikes at #6, #7, and #8, and leave the inside attractions – the Thomas Cole National Site (#1) and Frederick Edwin Church’s home, Olana (#2) – for the second day.
Trying to make up time, I drive passed site #3 on the art trail, Catskill Creek, arching my head around to catch the classic view of the creek with the mountains in the distance. You can see the view that Thomas Cole painted from the bridge or from the property of Tatiana’s Restaurant on the north side of the bridge.
Catskill Creek was one of Thomas Cole’s favorite painting subjects – he painted it at least ten times, with his first painting of the creek completed in 1827. I can understand it, though, it was relatively near his house.
But here, you see how much things have changed: the creek is still beautiful but there is development all around – railroad, the highway overpass, the restaurant – the very things that Cole was concerned about when he attempted to capture the wildness, preserve it on canvas, create an appreciation for nature and spark a preservation movement.
Catskill Creek is just a view, not a hike, so pressed for time, I travel on, and on, and on Route 23A, to get to #4 on the trail, Kaaterskill Clove. This is also where the parking lot is for the Kaaterskill Falls hike (#5).
You really need to do advance logistical planning for this trip – I am surprised by how far apart the sites are. The directions say to overshoot when you first see the sign – it turns out to be a tiny sign that does not even announce the trailhead, nor is there a break in the highway barrier to enter the trail.
I pull into the parking lot, where I meet up with Carol (who hasn’t gotten my calls updating my progress because there isn’t cell phone service; word of caution: no bathrooms anywhere in this vicinity; the guide, though, notes which sites have bathroom facilities).
We have a picnic lunch sitting on a rock by the Art Trail metal plaque for Kaaterskill Clove, one of the famous scenes of the Hudson River School artists, which lets you compare one of the paintings, Thomas Cole’s “The Clove, Catskills” a fall scene from 1827, to today. Each plaque features a QR code that can be scanned for more information and also a medallion with a relief (a raised design) of the view so that participants can easily capture the scene by placing a piece of paper over the medallion and rubbing it with a pencil, crayon or charcoal. There is also a place for a rubbing for a “passport” (there was a contest to win prizes when you get rubbings from all the sites, see www.hudsonriverschool.org).
The Hudson River School Art Trail Guide – which is extremely well done and enhances the visit immeasurably and supplements an indespensible Hudson River School Art Trail Map – explains that “the rugged terrain of the clove was created by glacial action and the erosive forces of the streams that cut into its depths and cascade down its sides. Palenville, at the foot of the clove, became America’s first art colony.
Thomas Cole painted the clove from the top of Haines Falls, Asher Durand from nearby Santa Cruz Falls, and Sanford Gifford from near Poet’s Ledge, the notes say.
And here’s why the Hudson River School was so significant: “Their paintings helped Americans form a sense of national identity. Here was a quality of nature wild, sublime, and distinctly different from anything known in Europe. The clove was of such importance to these painters that Durand chose it as the setting for the painting Kindred Spirits, his tribute to Thomas Cole with poet William Cullen Bryant [who had an estate in Roslyn, Long Island, now a 141-acre preserve and home to the Nassau County Museum of Art]. The clove today is largely as it was in the 19th century because of its inclusion in the Catskill Forest Preserve.”
The scenes are obviously dependent upon time of day, weather, atmosphere (which is why each encounter is so special) .
Today, the scene is closest to Asher B Durand’s 1866 painting, Kaaterskill Clove – the trees are higher, so you don’t see a clearly defined cleft, the distinctive feature in the Catskills, that so captivated the Hudson River School artists, and the lighting is dull today. But still.
To get to #5, the Kaaterskill Falls site, we walk back along the highway (there isn’t even a walkway), climbing over the highway barrier, and make our way, still on the road, to where we see Bastion Falls, quite spectacular.
A few steps beyond, we walk down to where the trail to Kaaterskill Falls begins.
Kaaterskill Falls is one of the most beautiful you will find anywhere – a double waterfall that combined reaches 260 feet, the highest waterfall in New York State. It’s a half- mile up, rising some 300 feet in elevation (one-mile roundtrip), with the steepest scramble at the beginning (the trail is designated as “D” or moderate difficulty and takes about 60 minutes at a leisurely pace) Hiking sticks really help and someone has left one which I pick up.
The hike is magnificent from the first steps. It is as if the years in between when we hitch-hiked, backpacked and hosteled through England, Scotland and Wales back in college had never been, though we each now have grown children. It was like stepping back into that comfortable conversation, punctuated with her expertise as a biologist who led student naturalist trips to Costa Rica and (I guess) mine in sociology gained in the intervening years.
She stops to pick a red berry, giving it to me to eat – it tastes starchy and bland. This is partridgeberry (Mitchella repens), edible but not especially tasty.
A little further on, Carol plucks a green plant (zesty!) – wood sorrel (Oxalis corniculata) – which, she tells me, contains oxalic acid that gives it a pleasant tart taste. “Nice to put on salads but should not be eaten in large quantities” she advises.
The hike makes me extraordinarily happy – the cool, freshness and sounds of the forest and rushing water, the endorphins surging through because of the exertion.
It is breathtakingly beautiful tiered waterfall and even 200 years ago drew people during era when grand hotels were just being established in the Catskills. These falls were already well known and popular by the time Thomas Cole came here in 1825 (imagine that!).
The hike to Kaaterskill Falls is one of the most magnificent anywhere. It is easy to see what so entranced the artist Thomas Cole, who emigrated from England, that he relocated here from Pittsburgh.
I wonder how many times would the artists have made the trip to see the light, the scene the way they do. I subsequently learn more at the Thomas Cole House: before photography, before tube paints, even, Cole would hike from his home miles away, come here with sketchbook and pencil, and make sketches with copious notes describing the color, the light, the atmosphere, and then, months later, during winter in his New York City studio, after he was able to “process” the scene in his mind, he would recreate the scene, first with charcoal and finally, the oil painting at which point he would show an idealized scene. taking out the evidence of man for example… take out the elements of the scene that distracted from what he wanted to say).
In fact, we later get to see how “Double Waterfall-Kaaterskill Falls, 1826” is used to show his artistic process – taking out the evidence of man (there used to be a pavilion on top of the waterfall that distracted from what he wanted to say) and instead putting in the figure of an Indian on the ledge.
It’s a half-mile to the end of the “official trail” and a warning sign: “Climbing the ledges beside Kaaterskill Falls is extremely dangerous, and has resulted in numerous injuries and deaths. Admire the falls from the base.” But some young people did, and sit on the ledge right under the highest falls, making it seem to us below that they can be swept up.
We tell ourselves that we have three more trails to hike to get through this afternoon before dark, so we do not have to be convinced not to go higher (I promise myself I will do it next time).
We get back in our cars and travel a further 15 or 20 minutes to the small town of Haines Falls, stopping first at the visitor center on 23A for more maps and brochures and just a bit of confirmation of where we are going, and then make our way just a bit further west on 23A to the turn into the North-South Lake Campground, so popular for camping and hiking.
Three of the art-trail sites are located in the campground. Here you realize that there is a bit of a disconnect between the existing trails and the art trail (which gives you enough information to get to where the trail starts, but not the actual trail). We pay the $8 entrance fee and pick up the park’s trail map.
I am trying to arrange our hikes around the best time of day for the light and color with an aim of being able to capture with my camera what these artists created on canvas. But I have to be mindful about making sure we are back before dark.
Fortunately, this is mid-June and we have a long day. But with an eye to the time of day we go straight to Site #7, the hiking trail to Sunset Rock, bypassing the #6 site which is around the North-South lake.
It is interesting, when Thomas Cole began painting these scenes, that photography was just in its infancy – for most people, the only way to see places they did not personally visit was through these paintings, which is why they commanded such attention.
By this point, I am in awe of the artists, realizing what they must have gone through in the early and mid-1800s to get to these spots. They tell me at the Thomas Cole house that he hiked here – which means he must have had his camping gear with him as well as his sketch pads, and been away for days at a time. You certainly couldn’t hike up to Sunset Rock (where we are headed now), a 2 1/2 hour hike, roundtrip, at sunset and made his way back in the dark, so he must have camped up there.
The Sunset Rock is the longest of the hikes (2.4 miles). I abandon any idea of getting to Sunset Rock at sunset (how would we get down in the dark?), but want to make sure we are able to see what is sure to be the most spectacular views.
To get to Sunset Rock, you park at the lot (you can stop at the bathroom here), then walk north (left) on the Escarpment Trail for one mile, looking for the yellow-blazed side trail on the right, normally with a sign for Sunset Rock posted. You take this trail 0.2 miles to the edge of Sunset Rock, where all of the terrain in Cole’s painting—minus the long-gone Catskill Mountain House (which burned down in the 1960s)—come into view.
The trail to Sunset Rock is not particularly strenuous but you should wear sturdy footwear. There is one steep section in the beginning that requires some scrambling.
The Sunset Rock hike is extraordinary – every step is a delight for the senses, either in the scenery, the vegetation which changes so rapidly, the crisp air, the sweet smell of the forest, sound of a variety of birdsong.
You follow the dizzying heights of the Escarpment Trail, with views that encompass a big stretch of the Hudson River and (on a clear day) three states. The best view on the eastern side is at the aptly named Artists Rock (It is vitally important to remember that the Escarpment Trail continues on for miles after – because there is no sign of direction when you return to the trail from Artists Rock, and may be tempted to continue north on the Escarpment Trail. Fortunately, Carol remembers this because I am disoriented.)
On the hike to Sunset Rock, Carol points out witch hazel, pitch pine, rock tripe (a brown lichen, which is edible in a pinch, she says) and a fantastic display of conglomerate rock – massive boulders that strike me as the mother of all pebbles and stones – and begins to name the birds we are hearing (but not seeing) from their calls: oven bird (it’s call sounds like “teacher, teacher”), peewee bird – birds I had never heard of before.
Finally we are at Sunset Rock looking down toward Twin Lakes – spectacular – where we easily re-create Thomas Cole’s “A View of Twin Lakes and Mountain House, Catskill Mountains, Morning, 1844,” – minus the Mountain House (which no longer exists).
The view is gorgeous in summer, but I can only imagine how spectacular this must be in fall (in fact, the paintings show it, and the video we see the next day at the Thomas Cole House and Frederick Church’s Olana confirm it, even without the artist’s embellishments). And for that matter, covered in ice and snow or winter, or the new buds of spring. This is New York State!
Catskill Mountain House
Coming down, we reach the point where we entered the blue trail, but by continuing the hike in this direction, we get to the entrance to the carriage trail that would have led to the Pine Orchard, where the Catskill Mountain House, stood from 1824-1963. “The view before you was for many years the most famous in America.”
As a aficionado of tourism, this is like peering into the very dawn of the tourism industry – the Catskill Mountain House has to be among the very first resorts in America, a testimony to the sociological changes of the Industrial Revolution, a rising middle class, urbanization, improvements in transportation.
Today, it is a clearing (it burned down), with yet another spectacular view of the valley floor 1,600 feet below, stretching east to the Taconic Mountains and the Berkshires in Massachusetts, with the silvery thread of the Hudson visible for 60 miles, north to south, farmland and small communities with their web of roads. It is even more spectacular in this golden light of late afternoon.
James Fenimore Cooper described this panorama exactly in his 1823 novel, “The Pioneers,” and the year after the novel was published, in 1824, the Catskill Mountain House hotel opened. But though the Hudson River School artists sometimes stayed here (and occasionally sold their paintings to the guests), and seemed to paint the Mountain House into their scenes (like the painting offered here, Thomas Cole’s Catskill Mountain House: The Four Elements. 1843-44, which depicts the hotel from afar), few of them painted this view from the hotel grounds. The exception was Frederic Edwin Church who painted “Above the Clouds at Sunrise,” 1848.
We look for the pale rocks along the ledge to read the names and dates carved by hotel guests going back to the early 1800s.
We continue down and now follow the trail to the other side of the lake, essentially stumbling upon what we believe is #6 site on the art trail, the North-South Lake, where Thomas Cole painted “Lake with Dead Trees, 1825. This part looks just the same – there is even a dead tree, like a white skeleton, poking up for my benefit, a reminder of the ravages this area suffered during Hurricane Irene.
By now, the sun is lower in the sky and warmer in color, and the views are breathtaking.
We’re on the road after our hiking, headed to Windham, through Hunter – so popular in winter but equally so in summer, with a major zipline adventure park (www.ziplinenewyork.com) and music festivals.
As we drive north on Rte. 296 toward Windham, a black bear obliviously crosses the road right in front of Carol’s car.
We’re on our way to The Thompson House, a classic traditional inn/resort that dates back to 1880. (The Thompson House, 19 Route 296 Windham NY 12496, 518-734-4510, firstname.lastname@example.org, 518-734-4510, www.thompsonhouse.com).
Get maps, directions and photographs of all the sites on the Hudson River School Art Trail at www.hudsonriverschool.org. There is a map showing the overall trail sites, as well as directions to each individual site on www.hudsonriverschool.org/trails/1
Learn more about Catskills packages and events at www.GreatNorthernCatskills.com.
The Thompson House is in best tradition of New York’s Catskill Mountains resorts and slideshow
Karen Rubin, National Eclectic Travel Examiner
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