The Catskill Mountains are located in the southeastern part of New York State, about a two and a half hour drive north of New York City, four hours west of Boston, and four hours south of Montreal. With 12 million visitors per year, the region is a popular destination for camping, hiking, backpacking, fly fishing, and skiing, but still maintains its rural charm and character.
The region is home to New York State’s 700,000 acre Catskill Park, a mixture of public and private land set aside for outdoor recreation and conservation. With over 425 miles of hiking trails and 98 mountains over 3000′ in elevation, the park features forested mountains, narrow, winding valleys, and rushing streams and rivers making it one of the most complex natural areas in the Eastern United States.
A car is very helpful for getting around to and around the Catskills, since many of the hiking trailheads are located on twisty backroads. If you will not be driving, Amtrak and the Trailways Bus line stop in Kingston, Saugerties, and the town of Catskill. Local buses, taxi services, and hiker shuttles can be arranged to take you from these towns to hiking trailheads. This is far more common than you might expect since many of the people who backpack in the Catskills come from New York City and often don’t have automobiles because of the expense of garaging them in the city.
Hotels, motels, B&B’s, and campgrounds abound for lodging, with many good restaurants to choose from. Going west from Kingston are Mt. Tremper, Phoenicia, Shandaken, Big Indian, and Margaretville; from Saugerties: Tannersville and Hunter; and from the town of Catskill: Cairo, South Durham, and Windham.
Most trailheads have designated parking areas, but some may be inaccessible in winter. “Seasonal, limited-use roads” can be impassable, and you may have to hike in to reach the trailhead. Be flexible. It’s often simple enough to choose a different trailhead to start (or finish) your hike.
As in any well-known recreation area, it is wise to avoid leaving valuables in your parked car. Where the trailhead is near private property, please be sensitive to homeowner privacy and park well away from driveways. If you are going to leave a car for several days, try to avoid road-side parking. The local sheriff, or residents, may help you find a safe and legal parking spot.
The Catskill trail system and shelters are managed by the Department of Environmental Conservation, or DEC for short. Hiking trails are marked with colored plastic discs and well signed. The trail system is interconnected permitting, multi-trail loops, or trips that start and end at different locations if you have multiple vehicles to run a trail shuttle.
Several long-distance hiking routes pass through the Catskill trail system including the Finger Lakes Trail and the New York Long Path.
Maps and Apps
The Appalachian Mountain Club, National Geographic, and NY/NJ Trail conference publish trail maps with roads and topographic features. The Trail Conference has interactive maps on its website where you can select hikes according to their difficulty rating, and follow links to descriptions. DeLorme Gazeteers’ atlases are excellent references for back roads and handy to have for shortcuts to remote areas. You can’t expect cell phone access in many parts of the Catskills, so don’t rely on Google Maps to find your way.
- The New York / New Jersey Trail Conference Catskills Trails Map is a 6 map waterproof map set that features all 400 miles of designated trails in the Catskill Park as well as all 35 of the peaks over 3,500 feet in height.
- National Geographic Trail Illustrated Map: Catskill Park is a waterproof map has a handy trail chart showing the location, mileage, trail use, and difficulty levels for dozens of trails. Mileages between intersections are shown and the map base includes contour lines and elevations for summits, passes and many lakes. Public fishing easements, footbridges, swimming areas, snowmobile parking areas, boat launches, covered bridges, waterfalls, ski areas, and other points of interest are clearly marked
- Appalachian Mountain Club Catskill Preserve Map Set is a 2 map set depicting the east and west sides of the Catskill Park. The comprehensive trail listings cover all public trails in the Catskill mountains. GPS-rendered topography, mileage markers, elevation profiles, peak indicators, campground markers, lean-tos, road routes, and a guide to the Catskill 3500 Footers are all included.
- Delorme’s New York Atlas and Gazetteer lists all of the roads in New York State including comprehensive maps of all of the backroads in the Catskills that lead to campgrounds and trailheads. It is a must-have road map in an area where cell phone coverage is quite spotty and unreliable.
- Avenza Maps has the highest quality and most up to date Catskill maps of any GPS app available, published by the NY/NJ Trail Conference, for sale and download from within the app ($17.99). These maps have more than 425 miles of trails, including all designated trails within the Catskill Park. They are really good and I highly recommend them.
- AllTrails will give you detailed information about many mapped hikes but its focus is primarily on done-in-a-day hikes and not backpacking routes.
- The DRYT Tent and RV Campground App has a good list of seasonal state-run and commercial campgrounds, including visitor reviews.
Backcountry Shelters and Primitive Camping Rules
Appalachian style lean-tos and tent sites are available for camping on a first come-first serve basis. Their locations are marked in the NY/NJ Trail Conference Catskill Maps available in print or within the Avenza Map GPS app.
Here’s a synopsis of the DEC’s Catskill camping rules:
- Primitive tent sites and lean-tos are available on a first-come, first-serve basis and cannot be reserved.
- In general, you can camp anywhere on Forest Preserve lands in the and Catskills, but your tent must be at least 150 feet from a water body, road, or trail. Do not camp in areas posted with “Camping Prohibited.”
- Check the regulations for the area you plan to camp. Camping is allowed at designated sites only on some areas of Forest Preserve and Conservation Easement lands, and overnight use is prohibited in other areas. DEC’s website provides information on camping regulations for specific areas.
- Tents are not allowed inside lean-tos and must be at least 150 feet from the lean-to or on a designated tent site with a “Camp Here” marker.
- Camping for more than three nights or with ten or more people requires a permit from a Forest Ranger. Call 518-897-1300 to get the name and contact information for the local ranger.
- Black bears are present throughout the Catskills. Campers should store all food, garbage, and toiletries in a bear-resistant canister, Ursack, or food hang.
- Except in an emergency or between December 21st and March 21st, camping is prohibited above an elevation of 3,500 feet in the Catskills.
- Only emergency fires are permitted above 3,500 feet in the Catskills.
- For more information, visit: https://www.dec.ny.gov/outdoor/41282.html
The most popular peakbagging list in the Catskills is the 3500 footers. There are 35 of these peaks including many that require bushwhacking to reach. The Catskills 3500 club recognizes hikers who have completed the list but requires that some of the peaks be climbed during calendar winter to qualify. So far, 3000 people have finished it. For more information, read the Catskill 3500 club rules.
|Slide 4180’||Sugarloaf (Mink) 3800’||Fir 3620’|
|Hunter 4040'||Wittenberg 3780’||North Dome 3610’|
|Black Dome 3980’||Southwest Hunter 3740’||Eagle 3600’|
|Thomas Cole 3940’||Lone 3721’||Balsam 3600’|
|Blackhead 3940’||Panther 3720’||Bearpen 3600’|
|West Kill 3880'||Balsam Lake 3720’||Indian Head 3573’|
|Graham 3868’||Big Indian 3700’||Sherrill 3540’|
|Cornell 3860’||Friday 3694’||Vly 3529’|
|Doubletop 3860’||Rusk 3680’||Windham High Peak 3524’|
|Table 3847’||High Peak Kaaterskill 3655’||Halcott 3520’|
|Peekamoose 3843’||Twin 3640’||Rocky 3508’|
|Plateau 3840’||Balsam Cap 3623’|
Backpacking permits are not required to hike or backpack in the Catskill Mountains.
The Catskill Region is heavily forested and mountainous and with 98 mountains exceeding 3000′ in height, there are plenty of opportunities to climb a few. Treeline begins at about 3500′ feet of elevation, with a resulting increase in weather exposure. Many of the peaks require rock scrambling over exposed ledge above 3000′. After rainfall, streams in the deep valleys and gullies can become hazardous to cross when water levels rise. There are also many waterfalls in the Catskill Region, some of which can be very dangerous if you get too close to the edge.
Weather can be unpredictable and highly localized in this mountainous region due to the influence of terrain. The best source of weather forecasting information is NOAA’s Weather.gov website, which provides pinpoint forecasts on specific locations in the park. Nevertheless, it’s important to be prepared for hazardous weather and to carry proper rain gear and the 10 essentials whenever you venture on a hike or backpacking trip.
In all seasons, temperatures on summits are usually around 10 degrees cooler than at trailheads. You may also encounter ice and deep snow at higher elevations when the snow has left the valleys in the spring. Winter can bring blizzard conditions, adding enough snow to cover trails and tracks quickly.
Search and Rescue
DEC Forest Rangers direct search and rescue missions in the Catskills. Each ranger has a geographic territory in which they live and is responsible for the preservation, protection, enhancement of the state’s forest resources as well as the safety and well-being of the public using these resources.
In an emergency, call the DEC Emergency Search, Rescue and Fire Hotline at 518-408-5850. Enter this number into your phone so you’ll always have it with you if needed. Always tell someone where you plan on hiking, where you parked your vehicle, and when you expect to return. Make sure they have the local DEC Emergency Hotline number listed above and give them clear instructions about when to contact DEC if you are overdue.
Note: Cell phone reception can be very poor in the Catskill region. Your best alternative is often self-reliance, proper gear, and preparation.
There are numerous black bears in the Catskills and you should be prepared to hang your food with a bear bag, use a bear-proof Ursack, or a bear canister (though not yet required by law) when camping at primitive backcountry campsites. Most lean-tos and campsites DO NOT have metal bear boxes for storing food at this time.
Water is generally abundant in the Catskill Mountains, although you may need to drop down side trails to resupply. Many trails have spring fed pipes sticking out of the ground that are generally safe to drink from and to refill water bottles or reservoirs. These pipes are marked on the New York / New Jersey Trail Conference map set, which we recommend you use. All natural water sources including streams, rivers, ponds, and lakes should be filtered or purified before use. The most common waterborne disease is Giardia which causes severe intestinal issues.
The Catskills are a wonderful place to backpack with well-marked and maintained trails with a rich history of environmental activism and conservation. This quick and dirty guide provides all the information you need to get started in planning your next adventure including camping, trail system information, recommended maps, regulations, travel, weather, and more.
Here are a few additional resources that I’ve found helpful in planning backpacking trips in the region and which I can recommend.
- ADK Catskill Trail Guide
- AMC Catskill Mountain Guide
- Views from On High: Fire Tower Trails in the Catskills and Adirondacks
- The Long Path information pages from the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference (the Long Path travels 100 miles through the Catskill Park)
- Finger Lakes Trail Website
- The Escarpment Trail
- The Devils Path
About the authorFrance Menk has hiked and backpacked in the USA and abroad. Some hikes include: a solo trek along the spine of the Pyrenees, from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean; an aborted trek from Kathmandu to Everest base camp (Pleurisy curtailed the trek just beyond Jiri); a successful solo trek from Kathmandu to Annapurna base camp; all 35 of the Catskills over 3500,’ in summer, and all but 8 in winter; 81 of the New England 100 highest; AT sections in the Shenandoah, Vermont, New Hampshire, and the 100 Mile Wilderness in ME. The numbers are for those who care. They are inconsequential. The importance of immersion in the outdoors is to reaffirm to ourselves: our being, as a part of everything else. A former Outward Bound instructor, France also climbs (buildings, boulders, and trad), canoes, kayaks, skis, sleeps, and brews manually ground coffee - which she drinks. In between these activities, she exchanges her photography and illustrations for money to buy gear and transport.
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