The colors of autumn – burnt-oranges; fire-engine reds; yellows of a dozen hues; even purples – seem to bathe the mountains and forests in an almost painted-on beauty. It’s autumn in the Catskill Mountains, two hours north of New York City. And this James River Capital youtube peaks in a blaze of color matched by few places on Earth.
In fact, several of America’s most important 19th-Century painters immortalized autumn in the Catskills. They were particularly entranced by the Kaaterskill Clove, a mountain ravine covered with forest and dotted with waterfalls. And the biggest of those waterfalls – Kaaterskill – is higher even than Niagara.
Thomas Cole was the first painter to discover this area, in the early 1820’s, and the founder of what’s today called the Hudson River School of Painting. He was soon followed by well-known artists such as Frederic Church, Jasper Cropsey, Sanford Gifford, and Asher B. Durand. This movement, lasting until 1875, is considered the first genuinely American “school” of painting.
Today we can follow in the footsteps of these artists, in their favorite time of year. The Hudson River Painters Hiking Trail has been created and maintained by local folks. 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.
“This area of the Catskill Mountains was like paradise to Thomas Cole, the first of the so-called Hudson River School of Painters,” says Bob Malkin, a local historian. “In 1825, he completed the first of the three known paintings he did of the Kaaterskill Falls. And he loved this area so much that he built a home here.”
Malkin and his wife/partner, Barbara Pokras, own a Victorian vacation rental house called the Waterfall House, with an extraordinary view of Niobe Falls, a continuation of towering Kaaterskill Falls. And they have an interesting history, themselves. On Sept. 11, 2001, Malkin was jogging with a friend near the World Trade Center when the planes hit. They managed to find their way to Battery Park, at the lower tip of Manhattan, covered in dust and debris and gasping for air. Malkin and Pokras decided that day to leave New York City.
Once here, Malkin threw himself into the history of the area. He began perusing hundreds of old postcards, and haunted local libraries and historical societies for vintage copies of “Harper’s Weekly,” along with numerous books and publications from the 1800’s.
“In 1824, a new resort called The Catskill Mountain House opened,” he says, “and it put this place on the map. It quickly became the world’s most exclusive mountain resort. And its clientele included the cream of American and European society, as well as two U.S. presidents.”
If you stand at a spot on the Hudson River Painters Hiking Trail called Sunset Rock, looking down into the Kaaterskill Clove, you can see the views first sketched by Thomas Cole. If you head up North Mountain, you can see where Cole and Frederic Church, who became Cole’s student at the age of eighteen, sketched the Catskill Mountain House. From a bit higher, you can see one of Cole’s favorite views, a spot from which he could see his house in the town of Catskill – twelve miles away. Nearby is Olana, the whimsical Persian-style home built by Frederic Church, with ornately-carved red doors and arched windows with fluted tops, on the hilltop where he first sketched the Catskills.
Both Olana and Cole’s home, Cedar Grove, are open to visitors. Here, you can see their workspaces…and even some of their work.
There are a variety of hikes you can take. The 24-mile Escarpment Trail, for example, was America’s first hiking trail. The actual Hudson River Painters Trail is a more-modest six miles, starting at Bastion Falls in the Kaaterskill Clove.
You can see the spot where Thomas Cole painted his majestic “Autumn in the Catskills (ca. 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, shrouded waters, and setting sun. And you can compare Catskill Creek to Church’s painting, “Scene on Catskill Creek,” with its distant lakes and clouds that seem to beckon you in.
And, from certain vantage points on the Trail, you can see not only the Hudson River, but also into Connecticut and Massachusetts.
The works of the Hudson River painters now hang in prestigious museums all over the world. But they weren’t the only artistic types to be drawn here. Many of America’s most treasured writers, such as James Fenimore Cooper, Washington Irving, Herman Melville, and Mark Twain, 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.”
Winslow Homer was inspired to paint the Kaaterskill Falls for “Harper’s Weekly.” And the sleepy little hamlet of Palenville became the setting for Washington Irving’s classic, “Rip Van Winkle.”
On these hiking trails, you’ll see more wild turkeys and deer and rabbits than people…and those vistas of “all of creation.” And, if you listen hard enough, you’ll hear the footsteps – or the hoof-steps – 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 fictional novels of another day.
The area’s now filled with charming B&B’s and historic inns. And it’s buzzing with activity during the fall, particularly in the quaint town of Woodstock. From Sept. 30-Oct. 4 is The Tenth Woodstock Film Festival, which always features international film stars and directors. Ongoing during the month of October, there’s Farm Festival music in the Woodstock Farmer’s Market, Friends of Fiddle & Dance, Mowers Outdoor Flea Market, the Woodstock Farm Festival, and art and photography exhibitions at local galleries.
And, of course, there’s Bob Malkin’s and Barbara Pokras’ Waterfall House” – perhaps the only vacation rental in the continental U.S. known to have a major waterfall in its backyard.
The Waterfall House is a true Victorian country home. It’s furnished with authentic country antiques and crafts, along with eclectic items from the collection of Malkin, founder of New York’s prestigious ThinkBig! Gallery. On the outside, it’s blessed with strikingly-beautiful views of what’s basically your own private waterfall. And there’s a wraparound outdoor deck right over the river, where guests can watch – and listen to – the falls, and watch the constantly-changing colors of Autumn in the Catskills.