The Catskills: Rediscovering Nature with Painter Thomas Cole
By Rachel Siden
I’ve noticed how living in an environmentally-friendly way has become almost second nature. We take the extra step past the trashcan to throw our plastic bottles into the blue bin, we lean towards the cars with the eco-friendly features when choosing a new vehicle, and we buy those environmentally-friendly lightbulbs despite their inferior luminescence.
We do a lot to protect the health of our environment, but how thoroughly do we actually enjoy its rewards? How often do we drive to the wilderness to submerge our feet in a mountain stream and savor nature? My trip to New York’s Catskill Mountains gave me an interesting new (old) perspective on these things.
I feel like some of us have taken “living” out of “living environmentally friendly.” Nature should be protected, but it should also be admired, enjoyed, and most of all, experienced.
I learned this on my trip to New York from a man named Thomas Cole.
For those who do not know Thomas Cole, he was an American artist of the early 1800s who is most known for his beautiful landscapes, and for starting an art movement called the Hudson River School. His house, which can now be toured, is located on the Hudson River in the shadow of the Catskill Mountains.
The Thomas Cole House educates visitors on the life and work of Thomas Cole, was the perfect place to start my orientation of the Catskills. I had never known that this location was the inspiration for so many works of art.
The house and property itself was absolutely beautiful. Cole’s home was situated on a hilltop overlooking a valley with a view of the mountains, and the surrounding yard was spotted with giant trees, flowery gardens, and soft, green lawns. The inside of the house also made a great tour for art connoisseurs and history geeks. The interior featured furniture and decor that was accurate for the time, and has many works of art by Cole and others on display.
A Love of Nature
Cole himself had a deep passion for nature at its wildest, and absolutely detested local urban development and expansion. He believed that the wilderness was something to be explored, painted, and admired, but the rest of his world viewed it as something to be conquered. He lamented the building of railroads and the destruction of trees and local wildlife, and often painted such scenes of expansion with a satirical bent.
After hearing about his passion for nature, and seeing first-hand his reverent portrayal of nature in his art, I decided to really make this a trip that was devoted to exploring and experiencing the natural beauty of the Catskills.
Excited to begin exploring the world of Thomas Cole, I first asked my Cole House tour guide, Alice Tunison, what the best
part of the Catskills was. “The views.” She said immediately. “They are some of the best in the country if not the world.” She then recommended several hikes– another feature that attracts many visitors– and said that the views on some of these hikes simply cannot be missed.
Unfortunately, I was unable to go on all of them, but one hike I was able to make was one that was repeatedly recommended to me throughout my trip: the hike to Kaaterskill Falls.
My experience at the Falls was so awestruck that I feel that written words can’t do it justice. Who knew that water’s simple obedience to the laws of gravity could be so beautiful?
It is the tallest waterfall in New York State, bigger even than Niagra Falls, and pours down two levels of cliffs to create a double waterfall. I could understand why Cole painted this scene several times! Even though there were many visitors walking the paths and sitting on the banks to admire the falls, I was so captivated by the site I felt like I was the only one present.
There are two short hikes visitors can make, one for the top of the falls and one for the bottom, and I recommend that visitors do both. The walk for the top places you at the peak of the giant cliff, and gives you the best opportunity to be dazzled by the waterfall’s sheer height and size. The view from the bottom, however, is the best place to appreciate the beauty of the falls in all its glory.
The falls can be as deadly as they are beautiful if visitors are not careful. If you visit the falls, be sure to be safe and use common sense.
-DO NOT enter the water if you visit the top of the falls. The rocks are very slippery when wet and can send you over the top if you slip too close to the edge.
-DO NOT hike to the top of the falls from the bottom. The terrain beyond the trail is steep, s
lippery, and unstable. Many have fallen trying to hike this way. Stay on the marked trail and be safe.-Be careful of pedestrians if you visit by car. All parking for the bottom of the falls is limited to two small lots on the side of the road some distance away, so all visitors need to walk along the narrow highway to reach the start of the path.ZipliningOne activity I absolutely must mention is the ziplining adventure I had through Hunter Mountain’s New York Zipline Adventure Tour. Not only is it the longest and highest ziplining course in North America, but it is also one of the most unique ways to experience the beauty of the Catskills.
I always thought that if I wanted to have a real ziplining experience, I would have to take a trip to a South American rain forst. But apparently, I had a genuine (and possibly better!) ziplining experience two hours away from my New England home!
“I’ve done ziplining in Costa Rica,” Says Kelly Coughlin, a local, and inkeeper of the Rosehaven Inn. “The thing about ziplining there is, its in the trees and you can’t really see. But at Hunter Mountain, its out in the open and you can get a view of the mountains.” Once again, here was a reference to those views of the Catskills.
My fiancé and I went on the SkyTop Tour and had an amazing time. The first zip from the top looked pretty terrifying– at 3200 ft. long and 600 ft. high, the thin cable stretching over a valley between two mountains was more than a little intimidating.
There really is no need to fear though, for the harnesses are equipped with numerous safety features, everyone is checked before each zip, and our guides were there for direction and encouragement every step of the way. “A lot of people usually get scared on the first one,” our guides Doug, Christian, and Matt explained, “But once they make it across they are always glad they went through with it. No one ever gives up once they reach the other side.”
And once I took off, what an adrenaline rush! The wind rushed past me, the ground disappeared far below, and the only thing that made me remember I wasn’t flying was the embrace of the harness at my waist. It was an amazing way to enjoy the sights. At 600 feet in the air, you have a pretty good view of the surrounding landscape: green trees carpeting the ground in every direction, and hills rising from the valley floor. It was a scene worthy of one of Cole’s paintings– if he hadn’t painted it already!
The rest of the tour was spent flying back and forth between the mountains, and then finished with zipping down the slope to the landing near the bottom. The zipline was the most exciting activity I had on this trip.
I got to experience flight, feel like a professional adventurer, and enjoy the camaraderie of our guides as they turned fears into fun. Even if you tend to be afraid of heights, I encourage you to give it a try; It was an experience of a lifetime, and you will be in good hands.
“The best part of the job for me is when you get someone who is too scared to do it.” Says Doug. “Working as a team to help them make it through to where they are having fun is what the job is about. It’s why I do it.”
I had an incredible time enjoying the beauty of the Catskills. I had an outdoor adventure where I put the “living” back into “living environmentally friendly,” and was motivated to remember Cole and enjoy the outdoors a little more often.
If you also do a lot for the environment, I encourage you to also spend more time enjoying nature if you don’t do so already. The next time you find yourself on a wilderness adventure (hopefully to the Catskills!), remember the philosophy of Thomas Cole: Protecting the environment is important, but enjoying it is what its here for!
Lodging and Food
49 County Road 65
Hensonville, NY 12439
If you like gourmet Italian, visit Vesuvio’s. The food may be a little pricey, but the quality of the entrees and their superior service may make this stop worth your while. If you drop by, introduce yourselves to Sue or Amanda, a mother-daughter team at Vesuvio’s. They took care of us when we came in to eat and turned my night into the best meal out I’ve ever had– no lie.
The Thompson House
19 Route 296
Windham, NY 12496
For a relaxing place to stay on your trip to the mountains, visit the The Thomson House in Windham, NY. The small-town location will make you feel isolated, yet still close to civilization. I enjoyed the sophisticated-country feel as well as the coziness of my room. It was the perfect place to start transitioning from life at home to a New York adventure.
147 Sunset Park Road
Haines Falls, NY 12436
For a more romantic night out, I definitely recommend the Rosehaven Inn. The inn is a large B&B with a mountain view and amazing hospitality. The only problem with this place is that you may not want to leave your room! After a day of hiking, it was wonderful to have this place to come back to. I was able to unwind with a game of chess and a drink on a porch with a view of the mountain.
Rachel Siden is a former editorial assistant for GoNomad.com. She is a graduate of UMass Amherst with a B.A. in Philosophy and is a freelance travel writer from central Massachusetts.