On Route 23A, between Palenville and Hunter, we traverse the “Mountain Road,” home to the legendary Kaaterskill Falls: a majestic waterfall that attracts a multitude of visitors in rain, snow, and shine. Though there are some mentions of this site in earlier written works, the waterfall’s fame is often credited to Washington Irving, who used it in his popular 1819 tale, “Rip Van Winkle.” In the years following its publication, many famous Hudson River School artists, such as Thomas Cole and Frederic Church, ventured up the mountain to capture the earliest painted images of this extraordinary cascade, as well as the magical landscape that encased it.
In response to the region’s growing popularity, the Ulster Delaware Railroad had extended its line to include a Catskill Mountain Branch in the 1880s. Though used mostly for tourism, the rail also transported freight, such as ice and blue stone, into the major cities. Much like a precursor to a rollercoaster, the rail would elevate the traveler through the steep woods and around sharp curves, entrenching them in the wild and surreal surroundings. The presence of this rail, helped to facilitate an era of increased prosperity for the mountain top, and resulted in the development of many hotels and resorts, as well as enhanced enterprise.
Throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, traveling by rail grew increasingly antiquated in the wake of the car and airline travel. Consequently, the Ulster Delaware Railroad had been diced up and divided, while ownership of the Catskill Mountain Branch had switched hands on numerous occasions, until its subsequent closing in 1976.
Today, this rail line, which once served as a vein for commerce and discovery, is only evident in disjointed strands. In recent years, there has been a local effort to restore part of this legacy through the establishment of the Kaaterskill Rail Trail. The trail begins at the Mountain Top Historical Society; whose Haines Falls headquarters is the former site of the Ulster Delaware Train Station, and leads the hiker through the woods and ultimately to the top of Kaaterskill Falls. In the future, the trail will be connected to the popular Escarpment Trail, which serves as a path to many renowned hiking destinations, including North / South Lake and Blackhead Mountain. On October 8th, the Mountain Top Historical Society is hosting a Rail Trail Tour, which will include a guided tour of the waterfall, as well as a discussion of even more changes and expansions to come. If you do plan on driving up the Mountain Road any time soon, we suggest you break the mold a little bit and take the road less traveled, all the way to the top. A little patience will earn you a bird’s eye view of some of the most breathtaking landscapes the region has to offer. But if you can’t wait that long, we’ll understand.