Some of early-America’s greatest painters and writers called this one of the most beautiful spots in the world. On the map, it’s only two hours north of Manhattan. But it may as well be a world away.
The Kaaterskill Clove is a Catskill Mountain ravine of stunning beauty, with dense forest and thundering waterfalls. And the biggest of those waterfalls — Kaaterskill — is higher than Niagara.
This region is a place of Technicolor surprises at every bend in the road, with quaint villages like Woodstock and stunning highland panoramas. It’s a place of red barns and country-craft shops and fruit stands and old bookshops and B&Bs with little bells that ring when you open the door. It’s a place of small towns where everybody still knows everybody else, where people still say hello to strangers, and where time seems (happily) stuck in the past.
“This area of the Catskill Mountains attracted Thomas Cole, the first of the so-called Hudson River School of Painters,” said Bob Malkin, a local historian and owner of an aptly named vacation cottage called The Waterfall House. “In 1825, Cole completed one of three known paintings he did of the Kaaterskill Falls.”
Thomas Cole was soon followed by well-known artists such as Frederic Church, Jasper Cropsey, Sanford Gifford and Asher B. Durand. This Hudson River Painters “movement,” lasting until 1875, is considered the first genuinely American “school” of painting.
Today, on the Hudson River Painters’ Hiking Trail, we can follow in the footsteps of these artists. And, as a result, we can now stand on the spots where the artists first sketched the ideas for their paintings. And we can look out at the same vistas they painted.
If you stand at a spot called Sunset Rock, looking down into the Kaaterskill Clove, you can see the views first sketched by Thomas Cole. On the Painters’ Trail, you can see the spot where Cole painted his majestic “Autumn in the Catskills,” (circa 1836), with a distant figure standing in the midst of mountains and forest. You can stand where Frederic Church stood when he sketched the outline of “Looking West From Olana” (1864), which became a visual feast of forest, mountain, mist-shrouded waters and setting sun. And you can compare Catskill Creek to Church’s painting, “Scene on Catskill Creek,” with its brilliant colors and its distant lakes and clouds.
If you head up North Mountain, you can see where Cole and Church, who became Cole’s student at the age of 18, sketched the Catskill Mountain House Hotel. From a bit higher, you can see one of Cole’s favorite views, a spot from which he could see his house (called Cedar Grove) in the town of Catskill — 12 miles away. On the nearby hilltop where Frederic Church first sketched the Catskills is Olana, the whimsical Persian-style home he built, with ornately carved red doors and arched windows with fluted tops.
Both Olana and Cedar Grove are open to visitors. Here, you can see the workspaces of these two famed artists … along with some of their work.
There are a variety of great hikes here. The 24-mile Escarpment Trail, for example, was America’s very first hiking trail. The actual Hudson River Painters Trail is a more-modest six miles, starting at Bastion Falls in the Kaaterskill Clove. But the views are spectacular. From certain vantage points on the Trail, you can see not only the Hudson River, but also into Connecticut and Massachusetts.
Painters weren’t the only artists who came here, though. Many of America’s most treasured writers, such as James Fenimore Cooper, Washington Irving, Herman Melville and Mark Twain, also considered the Kaaterskill Clove one of the most beautiful spots in the world.
“In James Fenimore Cooper’s ‘The Pioneers,’ ” Bob Malkin says, “Leatherstocking remarked that you could ‘see all of creation’ from the top of the falls. And the sleepy little hamlet of Palenville became the setting for Washington Irving’s ‘Rip Van Winkle.’ ”
On the Hudson River Painters’ Trail, you’ll see more wild turkeys and deer and rabbits than people. And, if you listen, you’ll hear the footsteps of the legendary pioneers and scoundrels and heroes who swept through here, on their way to immortality either in the history books or in the famous novels of the day.
And, of course, there’s Bob Malkin’s “Waterfall House” — perhaps the only vacation rental in the continental U.S. with a major waterfall in its backyard.
When you’re sitting outside on the deck, overlooking Niobe Falls (an arm of Kaaterskill Falls), you just may find yourself agreeing with all those early painters and writers … that this may be the most beautiful spot in the world.
RESOURCES: www.travelhudsonvalley.org; www.americantrails.org; www.waterfallrental.com;