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‘Is it a hard hike?’ 5 things to know about Kaaterskill Falls

Kaaterskill Falls, New York State’s highest cascading waterfall, is a magnet for tourists, hikers and artists alike.

Located in the Catskill Mountains between the hamlets of Haines Falls and Palenville in Greene County, the 260-foot, two-stage waterfall is one of the Catskills biggest natural attractions, drawing an estimated 100,000 visitors per year. It has been captured in a 19th century painting by Thomas Cole, the founder of the Hudson River School, and by other notable artists.

A hotspot for years, Kaaterskill Falls became particularly popular in the pandemic as an influx of visitors to the Hudson Valley sought an outdoors escape. A mobile data service that tracks the number of visitors to the three different parking lots for Kaaterskill Falls shows that there was a four-fold increase in visitors in 2020 from the previous year. The dramatic increase reflects the overall trend during the pandemic of overcrowded hiking trails in New York.

The crush of visitors to the falls has prompted some changes in how to see, access and hike there. Here’s what to know about visiting Kaaterskill Falls.

Kaaterskill Falls is a two-tiered waterfall in Greene County, NY and the site of nine fatalities since 1988, according to the DEC.

Sharan Singh / Getty Images

1. Is Kaaterskill Falls closed?


Kaaterskill Falls is open year-round to visitors, with only a temporary closure in 2020 in an effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

2.  Is Kaaterskill Falls a hard hike?

The hike to Kaaterskill Falls isn’t necessarily hard, but caution is needed. After a series of trail changes made by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to improve safety, hikers can now access the falls from the upper trailhead at Laurel House Road. The 1.6 mile out-and-back trail leads to a viewing platform as well as a moderately steep slope down to the lower pools at the base of the falls.

Stick to the marked signs and avoid going off trail, which can lead to slippery rocks and increase chances of getting lost or injured. Similarly, definitely leave the flip-flops at home and wear sturdy shoes.

A short, half-mile long trailhead that starts below the falls along Spruce Creek is extremely steep and dangerous; the DEC closed the Molly Smith parking lot near that lower trailhead to discourage easy access.

Trail details from the DEC.

3. How long of a hike is Kaaterskill Falls?

Two parking lots offer trail access Kaaterskill Falls, as well as the North-South Lake Campground. The Molly Smith parking lot (marked in red) is now closed. A pull-off near the trailhead on 23A accommodates a few cars but any illegally parked cars along 23A will be ticketed and towed.

Two parking lots offer trail access Kaaterskill Falls, as well as the North-South Lake Campground. The Molly Smith parking lot (marked in red) is now closed. A pull-off near the trailhead on 23A accommodates a few cars but any illegally parked cars along 23A will be ticketed and towed.

DEC

The hike to Kaaterskill Falls differs slightly depending on which parking lot you use. The DEC recommends the following three parking lots as starting points:

  • From the Laurel House lot, the out-and-back hike to the base of the falls is 1.6 miles and passes the viewing platform;
  • The Scutt Road lot (sometimes spelled Schutt) adds about a mile to the out-and-back hike;
  • Additionally, hikers can park at the North-South Lake State Campground to the northeast, and hike the Escarpment Trail, crossing a 115-foot hiking bridge spanning Spruce Creek to get to the falls.

4. Is there a fee for Kaaterskill Falls?

Water rushes over the Kaaterskill Falls in Haines Falls, N.Y. on Sept. 8, 2011. (Lori Van Buren / Times Union)
Water rushes over the Kaaterskill Falls in Haines Falls, N.Y. on Sept. 8, 2011. (Lori Van Buren / Times Union)Lori Van Buren

There is no fee to hike or visit Kaaterskill Falls. However, due to an increase in visitors in 2020 and a surge in illegally parked vehicles along busy Route 23A, the Town of Hunter will tow all illegally parked vehicles at the owners’ expense. This impacted the old Molly Smith parking area above the trailhead to the falls, in an effort to enhance safety.

Visitors are instructed to drive to parking areas on Laurel House Road and Scutt Road, or they can go to the North-South Lake State Campground nearby.

5. How many people have died at Kaaterskill Falls?

At least nine people have died in the area since 1992 as visitors underestimate the terrain leading to the base of the falls, or as they attempt to climb up along the falls themselves.

The most recent death was in May 2021 when divers found the body of a 36-year-old Yonkers man in the water below the falls. In 2016, a Newburgh man died when he slipped on ice and moss at the top of Kaaterskill Falls. That same year, a 60-year-old woman and a 17-year-old boy from New Jersey were killed in falls.

Since then, the state has completed $750,000 in safety improvements at the Kaaterskill Wild Forest to remind visitors to the Greene County attraction to follow designated trails and obey posted signs. The agency also installed a 115-foot hiking bridge spanning Spruce Creek and connected the hamlet of Haines Falls to the Escarpment trail and North-South Lake campground.

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