By Francesca Furey, Samantha Garbarini, Jessica Kelly, Paul Post, Kathryn Walsh
From Sullivan County’s Dove Trail, whose 50 colorful pop art-style locations pay homage to the world changing 1969 Woodstock Music Festival in Bethel, to North America’s highest, fastest, and longest zipline at Hunter Mountain, the Catskills offer an endless array of historic, cultural and outdoor recreation attractions set against the backdrop of pristine wilderness beauty.
Spanning four counties — Delaware, Greene, Sullivan, and Ulster — within or close to the 700,000-acre Catskill Forest Preserve, it’s no wonder that the region is an outdoor enthusiast’s dream. “There’s always something to do whether it’s skiing, whitewater rafting, fishing, biking, or horseback riding,” says Manhattan restaurateur Nicole Arcari, who recently purchased a home in Narrowsburg. “You have everything and it’s only two hours from the city, which is ideal. There’s so many great places to dine, to shop; there’s tons of activities going on. It’s unbelievable.”
Metro New Yorkers have flocked to the Catskills since the 19th century, when massive steamboats resembling floating palaces carried them to river towns where they’d take mountain railroads to magnificent, grand hotels high up on lofty peaks. From the 1920s to 1960s, world-famous comedians such as Milton Berle, Rodney Dangerfield, and Mel Brooks either got their start or performed regularly at large Jewish resorts in the Southern Catskills, the likes of which are immortalized in films and TV shows such as Dirty Dancing and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
These days, the Catskills are drawing a different crowd. Named a Top 10 Region on Lonely Planet’s Best of Travel List in 2019, the area’s distinctive, rustic, back-to-nature atmosphere is in line with what Millennials are looking for, says Jennifer Grimes, who owns Red Cottage Inc., which offers 52 vacation rentals including rustic cabins and country estates, and Country House Realty in Grahamsville.
Dubbed “Hicksters” by Eater (as in hipsters who move or visit upstate for country living), these new Catskills denizens, often from trendy parts of Brooklyn or Manhattan, are breathing creative energy into the region. And business owners are rising to meet their demands for rural takes on metro-quality shopping, dining, and lodging with farm-to-table restaurants; craft breweries, distilleries, and cideries; fashionable boutiques; Instagrammable Airbnbs; and hipster-chic boutique hotels.
The COVID exodus from NYC has only increased the Catskills popularity, as claustrophobic city dwellers discover they can work remotely at long-term rentals or newly purchased homes, while still enjoying the relaxing lifestyle. “You can act like a local, cook outside, hang out by your own fire pit under the stars,” says Grimes. “It’s an exciting place to be.”
Located at the National Register Historic of Historic Places site of the 1969 Woodstock festival, Bethel Woods Center for the Arts is a must-visit for music lovers of all ages. New to 2020 was augmented reality tours that let you explore the grounds with a tablet to experience the sounds and sites of the festival. The museum — filled with music memorabilia, oral histories, and a theater which shows a Woodstock film — just re-opened and outdoor festivals are planned for spring and summer. At press time, there was no word on the popular concert series.
The Great Northern Catskills of Greene County has an awesome list of waterfall hikes for all skill levels. Among the recommendations are: Kaaterskill Falls and Old Mills Falls in Hunter and Diamond Notch Falls in Lanesville. (Be sure to check websites for closures and parking restrictions.) In Ulster County, the historic Red Hill Fire Tower became easier to access in 2021 with a newly opened trailhead parking lot and hiking trail in the Catskill Forest Preserve. It is one of five fire towers in the Catskills, with the others in Hunter Mountain, Tremper Mountain, Balsam Lake, and Overlook Mountain.
Whether you love casinos or not, Resorts World Catskills (RWC) is a great getaway. Its 100,000 sq. ft. of gaming action (including Vegas-style gaming tables) features expansive windows with mountain views. The resort has an 18-story all-suite hotel; 10 bar and restaurant experiences (including fine dining at Cellaio); and year-round live entertainment at the 2,500-seat RW Epicenter. The campus also includes The Alder boutique hotel, home to Dos Gatos, a cantina-style Mexican eatery, and Topgolf Swing Suite.
Just down the road from RWC is The Kartrite Resort & Indoor Waterpark, a practically new all-suite resort, which is currently closed, but worth putting on your bucket list. It features luxury one-, two-, and three-bedroom suites; a waterpark with slides and rides for all ages (plus cabanas with bar and restaurant service); activities galore indoors and in The Backyard area; and fine and casual dining and drinking options.
This “Small Town with Big Ideas” is growing as a cultural hub with the Hurleyville Performing Arts Centre as its nucleus. The art and event center has performances, classes, family events, and more. While movies are on pause, HPAC’s theater is available to rent for small groups. It will also soon be home to the Tango Café, curated by Tom Valante as chef and instructor. Hurleyville is also home to the Sullivan County Historical Society.
The bridges of Madison County have nothing on the historic covered bridges of Sullivan County. Add these to your itinerary: Halls Mills Covered Bridge in Claryville, Chestnut Creek in Grahamsville, Bendo and Van Tran Flat in Livingston Manor, and Beaverkill in Roscoe.
The many creeks and rivers of the Catskills provide an excellent opportunity for water adventures like rafting, kayaking, tubing, and canoeing. Some vendors and guides to check out include Lander’s River Trips in Narrowsburg, Indian Head Canoes (three locations), and The Town Tinker Tube Rental in Phoenicia. The Delaware River and its tributaries are fun for scenic drives and eagle spotting.
The Forestburgh Playhouse, a theater and a professional theater company, is gearing up for its 75th season of programming.
The summer season includes five musicals, two plays, cabarets, children’s theater, concerts, and special events. Shows take place outdoors and, when permitted, indoors in The Barn, The Tavern (which has food and cocktails), and The Church.
Operating since 1948, The Callicoon Theater is the oldest continually operated cinema in Sullivan County, with the exception of the pandemic pause. Its lineup of new releases, alternative and foreign films, and classics is surely missed by locals and visitors, alike.
The Shandlee Music Festival has brought internationally acclaimed classical artists to the Catskills since 1993. Attend the Summer Concert Series on the festival’s 75-acre grounds in Livingston Manor or see a performance at P.L.A.Y. The Concert Series at partner Bethel Woods Center for the Arts’ Event Gallery. The Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice has been bringing opera superstars to its annual event in early August since its 2010 launch.
Frost Valley YMCA’s all-inclusive group and family retreats — featuring meals in the dining hall, a stay at the many lodging options, and camp activities such as archery, arts & crafts, and guided hikes — will surely make you feel like a kid again. Retreats run from Labor Day through Father’s Day; in other words, when the popular summer camp is not in session.
For premiere skiing, head north to Belleayre Ski Center, Windham Mountain, and Hunter Mountain. Belleyare has the highest skiable peak in the Catskills; Windham has 54 trails over two peaks and an adventure park with tubing and ice skating; and Hunter, the closest to NYC, has a luxury resort property. For skiing and tubing for families and beginners, try Plattekill Mountain in Roxbury and Holiday Mountain Ski and Fun Park in Monticello.
Step onto the porch of Cedar Grove, Thomas Cole’s 200-year-old home, and see the same view of the Catskill Mountains as the Hudson River School of Art founder once did. A guided tour of the home, studio, and grounds (currently on pause) at Thomas Cole National Historic Site features immersive storytelling installations with Cole’s own words and images. Outdoors you’ll find exhibitions like the current Pollinator Pavilion (through fall) and Spring Lights (April 16–May 9).
In the spring, Hunter Mountain’s New York Zipline Adventures (the highest, fastest, and longest in North America) reopens, as does Windham Mountain Bike Park. Other mountain bike trails to check out in the Northern Catskills include Elm Ridge Trail System, The Huckleberry Trail, Roundtop Trail Network, and Tannersville-Hathaway Trail System. In the Sullivan Catskills, try Walnut Mountain Park and the Liberty O&W Rail Trail.
At Rail Explorers in Phoenicia, hop on pedal-powered vehicles and ride the railroad tracks that run alongside Esopus Creek. It’s a great way to get some exercise, but not burn too many calories, as the steel wheels on steel tracks and hydraulic disc brakes make it a pretty comfy ride. Two- and four-seaters are available, as are rail bikes.
Known as the Irish Alps, the town of East Durham and the surrounding areas were a vacationland for families of Irish descent in the ’50s and ’60s. Today, East Durham still hosts an annual Irish Festival (May 29–30) and is home to several charming, Irish-themed inns such as Gavin’s Irish Country Inn (an original Irish immigrant hotel), Blackthorne Resort, and The Shamrock House. Other popular annual events in East Durham include Diamondback Motocross of East Durham (six dates, May–July), Catskills Irish Arts Week in July, and Catskill Mountain Thunder Motorcycle Festival in September.
Sullivan County’s Catskills are the birthplace of American dry fly fishing and remain one of the sport’s premier destinations on the East Coast.
Tom Roberts discovered his passion for the sport there and is now one of its biggest promoters as co-founder of the Livingston Manor Fly Fishing Club, which offers lessons as part of overnight, outdoor adventures. “Living a busy life in the city, fly fishing was a great sport to force myself to slow down and immerse in nature, which I really appreciated,” he says.
The club is based on Willowemoc Creek, which along with the Beaverkill, Delaware, Neversink, and Esopus rivers, attract anglers from around the world. “Fly Fishing is an incredibly inefficient way of catching fish, which is why I love it,” Roberts says. “There’s a real skill and art to it. But it’s not just technique. It’s knowledge of the river, analyzing flows and ripples, looking at the bugs and vegetation. You can learn something new your entire life.”
Livingston Manor is also home to the Catskill Fly Fishing Center and Museum and its Fly Fishing Hall of Fame; Dette Flies, the world’s oldest family-run fly fishing shop (founded in 1928); licensed guide Bruce Pollock’s firm, Inside The Blue Line LLC; and Wulff School of Fly Fishing for novices and pros alike, founded by national casting champion Joan Wulff and her late husband, Lee. Several miles upstream from Livingston Manor, Willowemoc Creek, and the Beaverkill meet in the legendary Junction Pool, just west of Roscoe, whose reputation as “Trout Town USA” is well-deserved.
“Women are the sport’s fastest growing demographic,” says Kelly E. Buchta, who leads the Diversity and Inclusion Workgroup for Trout Unlimited, the nation’s oldest cold water conservation organization. “They are finding their own place on the river. You can fish solo or enjoy group camaraderie. It’s brought many women together. For some people, fly fishing has become the outdoor version of the gym workout club or sewing circles.”
Amy Kirsty, a nurse from Saratoga Springs, echoes that sentiment. She enjoys the peace and relaxation fly fishing affords from her highly demanding job, and has found a good mentor in Anita Coulton (above, right), of Cross Current Guide Service & Outfitters. “The bow of her boat is my favorite place to be,” Kirsty says. “In summer, we’ll fish for eight or nine hours ’til it’s dark.” On one of her first trips, Kirsty hooked a big, fish-of-a-lifetime, only to have it get free and swim away. “Now it’s personal,” she says, smiling. “It’s become a running joke that each time I come back I have to find him.”