Those of us who look at today’s looming environmental disasters with a sense of dread can, perhaps, take heart from the Catskills. The magical landscape that enchanted and inspired authors, artists, and tourists in the 19th century was denuded and largely abandoned by century’s end. Nearly all the great hemlocks had been felled, their bark used to tan hides into leather, the wood left to rot where it dropped. The remaining hardwood trees were turned into lumber, charcoal, furniture, even ladles. Deer were so rare people gawked at the few that were left, penned in as an attraction at local hotels. Farmers picked up the deforested land for 50 cents an acre, but the boulder-studded soil provided a hardscrabble existence at best.
Out of that unpromising start came the Catskill Forest Preserve — nearly 300,000 magnificent state-owned acres protected as “forever wild” in Ulster, Sullivan, Delaware, and Greene counties. Another 160,000 acres around the reservoirs are owned by New York City, moving the number close to the half-million acre mark. “That’s bigger than some national parks,” says Alan White, executive director of the nonprofit Catskills Center for Conservation and Development.
Considered by scholars to be the birthplace of the American environmental movement due to the influence of naturalist John Burroughs, today’s Catskills are richly forested, studded with reservoirs and streams, and laced with 300 miles of hiking trails. The pleasures offered range from a gentle stroll along the Ashokan Reservoir to climbing all 35 mountains with an elevation above 3,500 feet, which earns you a place in the 3500 Club. The reservoirs that supply New York City with pristine water are also available for sailing, kayaking, canoeing, and fishing. Devoted fly fishermen wade into world-renowned trout streams, and everyone from beginners to back-country hikers can find something to inspire them along the trails.
And in a display of the regenerative power of nature, the trees are back. “It’s 60-70 percent forested again,” White claims. Without much help — except to leave it alone — the lands are regaining the characteristics of an old-growth forest. “It takes 150 years to develop, and the forest preserve is getting to that stage,” says White. That means the trees are larger, and the understory is healthier, more diverse — and capable of supporting a thriving array of wildlife in a more complex ecosystem.
Have you ever walked into a forest that feels like a cathedral — hushed, magnificent, awe-inspiring? That is what is happening in parts of the Catskill Forest Preserve right now.
Did you know: Technically, the Catskills aren’t mountains. They are an eroded plateau, the uplifted remains of what was once a shallow inland sea covering most of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois
We can enjoy this beauty today due to some crafty political wrangling by 19th-century Ulster County legislators, who were left with massive unpaid taxes after the land was ruined and abandoned. In the 1880s, the state legislature was considering the bill that created a forest preserve in the Adirondacks, to keep soil run-off from silting up the Erie Canal and Hudson River. Ulster County interests managed to get the Catskills slipped in as part of the plan — with the state picking up the tab.
Since then, the Catskills have been through a number of permutations. In the 19th century, wealthy travelers came by steamboat, stagecoach, or railroad to stay at the Catskill Mountain House, an 1824 Greek Revival hotel perched at the edge of the mountain’s eastern flank that offered a magnificent view of Massachusetts, Vermont, and Connecticut. Witnessing dawn break over the Berkshires was de rigueur, as was a trip to Kaaterskill Falls, making the region the nation’s first great tourist attraction.
“The Catskills were the original American frontier,” explains Michael Drillinger, a licensed guide and owner of Catskill Country Walks. “In colonial times, this was the wilderness.” But the Catskills’ lofty reputation began a downward drift once the wilderness was mostly gone and inexpensive farm-based boarding houses popped up along the rail lines. Later it revived as a destination with the Borscht Belt resorts of the southern Catskills, but fell out of favor with the rise of air travel in the 1960s.
Now, however, the Catskills are becoming a destination of choice. Tourists are visiting in ever-greater numbers — even the Dutch, who originally settled these parts. Drillinger took a group from the Netherlands to see Kaaterskill Falls, still one of the most popular places to visit. “They’re putting together tours for Dutch people who will come to the U.S. to explore Dutch history in the Hudson Valley,” he says. A group of young men from New York City chose the Catskills for an unusual bachelor party — a backwoods experience making fires without matches, using camp knives, and chopping wood. “If you follow the rules, you can camp anywhere you want,” says Drillinger, who led the group. (State law prohibits any camping within 150 feet of a trail, road or any body of water, and never over 3,500 feet.)
Another sign that the Catskills are coming on strong is the ground-breaking this summer of the Maurice D. Hinchey Catskill Interpretive Center, located on a 62-acre site on Route 28 in Mount Tremper. The site will offer comprehensive information on the Catskills’ outdoor activities, cultural riches, and natural history, says White. “We will make it easier to learn what is here. If you want to visit 18 waterfalls, we will have maps and downloadable information for your phone.”
With its unparalleled natural beauty restored — and strong measures in place to keep it that way — the allure of the Catskills Forest Preserve is once again on the rise. “We’re close by, unique, and unexploited,” says White. “And people are coming back.”