The Catskills are one of the highlights of visiting Upstate New York – from nature & hiking to art & history, find out the top 6 things to do in the Catskills.
Top 6 Things to do in the Catskills
#1. Kaaterskill Falls
Hiking in the Catskills is a must & Kaaterskill Falls is the cat’s meow! It cascades over two tiers & at 260 feet tall, it’s higher than Niagara Falls.
The falls are located within Kaaterskill Wild Forest & there are several different trails & viewing platforms.
The trailhead starts from Route 32A, about a 5 minute walk from the parking lot. Follow the yellow trail from the base of Bastion Falls.
Note that there’s a lack of signage in the area. Here at DIY Travel HQ our GPS actually ended up taking us to the top of the falls, so plan ahead.
From the parking lot here, the main trail took us to a couple of different viewpoints at the top of Kaaterskill Falls.
Take care as even though it’s one of the top things to do in the Catskills, there have been a number of deaths in the park over the past few years alone.
The green mountains of the Northern Catskills seemed to stretch on endlessly…
We then hiked to the bottom of Kaaterskill falls where we were rewarded with a spectacular view.
From here you could really see the two tiers of the waterfall cascading over the rocky cliff face.
Erik went jumping & clamouring over the rocks with the camera to get us some shots from different perspectives.
Then we headed back up to the 1st tier – for us, this was the best view of all! It’s up-close & personal and you can feel the power of the Kaaterskills Falls, literally!
If a few sprays aren’t enough for you, you can swim in the little pool, right up to the base of the waterfall. Unfortunately we didn’t think to bring our swimmers but the water seemed a little too refreshing for me anyway 🙂
The weather had been overcast during our hike in the Catskills but suddenly there was a burst of sun.
The skies turned bright blue, we felt the rays & a rainbow even appeared. That confirmed to us what we were already feeling – that there’s magic in the air in the Catskills.
* Don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before any trip to New York. We’ve been using World Nomads for over 10 years – it’s the best-value provider we’ve found but there are important things to consider. Check out our post & find out which of our claims were successful or denied.
Kaaterskill Falls Entrance Fee: Free
#2. Thomas Cole Historic Site
One of the surprises of the Northern Catskills was discovering the life & art of Thomas Cole at the Thomas Cole Historic Site.
He was the pioneer of the Hudson River School, recognise as the 1st true movement in American Art.
Born in England in 1801, Thomas Cole emigrated with his family to the United State in 1818. Largely self-taught, he started painting portraits before turning to landscapes when he discovered the Catskills in 1825.
Guided tours of the Thomas Cole National Historic Site are available but we chose to explore at our own pace. We started in the Visitor Centre where we watched a short video on Thomas Cole’s life.
Then we moved into his old studio where his original art supplies are on display.
Thomas Cole many of his most important works in this barn-like building, as the high ceilings could accommodate the large canvasses.
Next we walked over to Cedar Grove, the main house where the artist lived.
The 3 storey building was built in 1815 and has been beautifully restored, inside & out.
The front porch is gorgeous, with views of the Catskill mountains.
It’s a nice feeling to think that this is where Thomas Cole stood & painted images of the same view.
Stepping inside the house, the parlor room on the features a wonderful multi-media exhibition with large-scale moving images on the walls. The presentation tells Cole’s story in his own words (from letters & journals), narrated over his paintings.
The other parlor room is beautifully decorated with antique furnishings, as it would’ve been in the early 19th century. We felt like we we back at our guesthouse, The DeWitt Oak Hill! There are also reproductions on the walls of some of Thomas Cole’s most impressive works.
Upstairs is the private rooms used by Thomas Cole & his family – he had a wife & 5 children. There’s a sitting room, children’s room & the matrimonial room.
Finally there’s also a gallery of original Thomas Cole sketches & paintings along with books & objects that inspired him.
Leaving the main house, we took a short walk to the New Studio. It was originally built in 1846 according to Thomas Cole’s own design but torn down in 1973 after falling into disrepair. Newly reconstructed, the New Studio now features changing art exhibitions.
Before visiting the Catskills, we knew nothing about the artist or the Hudson River School so we found the Thomas Cole Historic Site really interesting & informative.
What makes the attraction stand out is that there are guides at each site, including in every room of the Cedar Grove house. It was a lot more interactive & personable to be able to ask questions, rather than simply reading signs as you do in most museums.
While the Thomas Cole Historic Site is not large, it’s one of the best things to do in the Catskills with excellent customer service. Combine a visit with a meal or drinks at Gracie’s Luncheonette, one of the top 5 restaurants in the Catskills.
We also recommend Lonely Planet’s New York Travel Guide to help you plan your trip.
Thomas Cole National Historic Site Entrance Fee: $14.00
#3. Hunter Mountain
Hunter Mountain is a true 4 seasons resort in the Northern Catskills. It’s New York’s top ski spot in the winter with year round activities when the snow stops falling.
In addition to fly fishing & 4×4 adventure tours, let’s take a look at some of the popular summertime activities on Hunter Mountain:
Reach the top of Hunter Mountain in speed & style on the state of the art six-passenger chairlift! You may be lucky like us & have it all to yourselves!
It’s takes just 11 minutes to get to the summit.
On a clear day, you can see all the way across to the surrounding mountains of Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts & Connecticut. That makes it one of the top things to do in the Catskills.
From the top of Hunter Mountain, New York Zipline Canopy Tours operate the longest, fastest & highest zipline in North America.
Across over 4.6 miles of ziplines you can reach speeds of 50 miles an hour – 600 feet off the ground!
We took a canopy tour in La Fortuna, Costa Rica and it was a blast.
We’d recommend ziplining to everyone of all ages & there aren’t many better places than Hunter Mountain to tick it off the bucket list.
Price: $119.00 weekdays, $129.00 weekends
From the top of Hunter Mountain, you can follow the trails to the Fire Tower, the highest in New York State.
There are no distance markers so be aware that it’s a moderate 4 mile hike in the Catskills – allow 3 hours round trip.
The Fire Tower has just undergone $48,000 in improvements. A new plaque to commemorate its 100 year anniversary has also been unveiled.
Rip Van Winkle monument
Explore the summit of Hunter Mountain for the Rip Van Winkle monument, carved out of blue stone.
From breweries to street signs, you’ll see his name everywhere.
So who is Rip Van Winkle? He’s the main character in a short story of the same name, written by Washington Irving in 1819.
The story is set in the Catskill Mountains though Irving was living in England at the time & had never actually been to the Catskills.
Nevertheless, the legend lives on, even on the top of Hunter Mountain…
#4. Hudson-Athens Lighthouse
The Hudson-Athens Lighthouse was put into service in 1874 & it still aids in navigation today, along with being one of the top things to do in the Catskills.
As the name suggests, it’s located between the towns of Hudson & Athens – one of the few remaining lighthouses on the Hudson River.
The Hudson-Athens Lighthouse is only open for tours on a few select days over the summer, one of which happened to be the weekend we were visiting.
The meeting point wasn’t clear when we booked the tour so we ended up arriving on the Hudson side rather than in Athens.
We had to wait half an hour for the next tour, which began with a short pontoon boat right to the lighthouse.
After disembarking, we climbed up the ladder to the base of the lighthouse.
A volunteer gave us a briefing of the site & then we were free to explore on our own.
The 2 floors of the lighthouse have documents, artifacts & videos on its history.
Different live-in keepers & their families have managed the lighthouse over the years so this was an interesting insight.
I was reminded of this quote by Alice Wellington Rollins:
“The lighthouse does great service to humanity; yet it is the slave of those who trim the lamps.”
It would’ve been pretty lonely out there on your own but hopefully with many moments of contentment too.
We then climbed the spiral staircase to the lantern room at the top. It was nice to walk all around & enjoy the 360 degree views of the Hudson river.
If you are on a tight schedule, be sure to keep an eye out for the return boat. We missed it & had to wait an hour for the next one.
If the tour is not running, we’d still recommend driving down to the riverfront – taking a look at the Hudson-Athens Lighthouse should be on every Catskills itinerary.
Standing all 14m tall, it’s very quaint & charming and an important historical monument in the Northern Catskills.
Hudson-Athens Lighthouse Tour: $25.00
#5. Zadock Pratt Museum & Pratt Rock
The town of Prattsville in the Northern Catskills is named after Zadock Pratt, a banker, soldier & US Congressman in the 19th century.
He was also a successful entrepreneur, establishing the largest tannery of its time in Prattsville. While the tannery is no longer operating, Pratt left his mark in more ways that one…
We visited the Zadock Pratt Museum just in time for a tour.
The guide was very welcoming & knowledgeable but no introduction was given about who Zadock Pratt was. The other guests seemed to be locals but as tourists, we were clueless & made an early exit.
We informed the group that we were going to Pratt Rock & everyone was very enthusiastic & helpful with directions.
Once at Pratt Rock, there was a lot of information about Zadock Pratt & his achievements. That was fantastic but it was the carvings & views to come that makes it one of the best things to do in the Catskills!
Pratt Rock features cliff side carvings commemorating the man himself.
Legend has it that one day in 1843, a jobless man asked Pratt for a handout. Pratt didn’t believe in welfare so he asked the man what he could do. He replied that he was a stonecutter so Pratt pointed to some cliffs overlooking his farm & put him to work.
The stonecutter was tasked with carving Pratt’s life story. It was a job that he carried out for 28 years, until Pratt died in 1871.
The result is an eclectic mix of carved images featuring:
- Horse & tree
- Bas-relief of his son who was killed in the Civil War
- Pratt coat of arms
- Raised arm holding a hammer and another arm holding a scroll
- Pratt’s hand with the words “This hand for my country”
There is also a sculpture of Pratt’s head that we somehow missed or maybe is no longer there. This was the spot in which he planned to be buried, in a tomb carved into the cliff. However when it was discovered that the site leaked water, the plan was abandoned.
There are no signs or markers on the way up from the car park to Pratt Rock – if in doubt, stick to your right or you’ll be on a longer hike in the Catskills…
When you reach a large space at the end of the carvings, go left & continue straight up the hill.
There are a couple of great lookout spots here that offer some of the best views in the Northern Catskills.
Pratt Rock is considered to be one of the 1st monuments of the American Civil War (1861-65). Ripley’s Believe in or Not calls it “New York’s Mount Rushmore” – what do you think?!
Zadock Pratt Museum Entrance Fee: Free, donations welcome
Pratt Rock Entrance Fee: Free
#6. Hudson-Chatham Winery
Established in 2006, Hudson-Chatham Winery has been winning awards & high scores since its inception.
The vineyard is in Columbia County but the retail store is located in Tannerville, Greene County.
We popped in to the Tannersviille store for a tasting – it’s great value at $7.00 for 5 tastings so it has to make our ist of the top things to do in the Catskills!
We had trouble with our choices as there were so many wines to choose from. We ended up picking one from each category: Sparkling, Reds x 2, White & Dessert wines.
All wines are produced using New York grapes, mostly grown in the two counties. As such, many of the varieties like Baco Noir & Chelois were unknown to us – we should spend more time reading wine travel guides!
But as a South Australian with many wineries in my backyard, I prefer strong, full-bodied reds from regions like the Barossa Valley.
So my favourite wines at Hudson-Chatham Winery were the whites & dessert wines. The Lindernwald was sweet & fruity, it went down too well! I also really liked the Rasberry Ruby which was a port wine with hints of rasberry.
We enjoyed our tasting at the bar, our host Lindsay knew everything about the wines & production. The cheese board was a pleasant surprise too!
If you prefer a sit-down tasting, head over to The Vinter’s Café on the other side of the store.
Here, you can also enjoy cheese plates, charcuterie & tapas in a casual dining space.
Hudson-Chatham Winery also produce a small line of products, in collaboration with local artisans & farms. These include chocolate, nuts, condiments, sauces, spreads & jams and are for sale in the store.
Hudson-Chatham Winery Tasting: $7 for 5 tastings
Hudson-Chatham Winery is located in the town of Tannersville, which was our favourite small town in the Northern Catskills.
The main street is lined with restaurants, cafes & shops with a fresh coat of paint. After all, Tannersville is known as The Painted Village in the Sky!
Just a short drive from the town centre is the Mountain Top Arboretum. It’s a public garden with an elevation of 2,400 feet, hence its name.
We weren’t too impressed but it’s nice to have so much green, open space close to town.
Mountain Top Arboretum Entrance Fee: Free
*** The Final Word – From nature to history, there’s something for everyone in the Catskills! ***
Which of these Catskills attractions would you be most interested in visiting?
We were guests of the Great Northern Catskills & we thank Greene County, New York for hosting us.
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Visited in August 2017