Little-Known Fact: Early Dutch and German settlers told legends that the devil built the Catskills and made the valleys with his tail.
I awake at 2 a.m. to the sound of snow falling lightly on the roof of the tent. My sleeping bag has twisted around me and as I roll over to straighten it, I hear a sharp cry off in the forest. I listen intently and can’t decide if I really heard something or was only imagining it. Here in the heart of New York State’s Catskill Mountains, when you camp alone it’s easy to let your mind run wild.
The Catskills are old, haunted mountains, and the land is thick with legend. The Native American tribes that lived here were fearful of evil spirits lurking in certain parts of the forest. Even the early Dutch and German settlers had superstitions about the Catskills. According to one of their legends, the devil built the Catskills and made the valleys with his tail. Although the dark hemlock forests that once flourished have thinned, there is still a mystical feeling that permeates the area, and it is easy to imagine what the Catskills must have looked like to the settlers.
I doze uneasily for a few more hours, then get up. The ground is covered with two inches of clean, new snow, and the tree trunks stand out darkly in silhouette. I had hiked until almost dark the night before, and my tent occupies the only level ground I could find — a tiny flat spot on the steep side of a mountain. Across the trail an ancient hemlock has sheltered the ground beneath it from the snowfall, and I move there for breakfast. The woods are quiet. All I can hear are the sounds of the wind and somewhere water running under the snow.
The Catskills lie only 100 miles from New York City, yet they offer solitude, if not wide-open spaces. The wilderness of any accessible area like the Catskills exists in small scale, but for this reason it is easy to experience. Like the Adirondacks to the north, the Catskills region is a protected park established by the state of New York in the late 1800s. Today, Catskill Park encompasses some 705,000 acres of public and private lands, with 39 percent state-owned forest preserve. The park has numerous trail systems maintained by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).
The wind is blowing as I cross over the summit of Panther Mountain, and the trail is once again slick with ice and snow. Through breaks in the trees I can see a line of hills. Suddenly I’m on the sheer cliff face of Giant Ledge, a 100-foot dropoff that runs south for a half mile. The views are sweeping, and I stop to rest and take in the scenery. Off in the distance, the hills seem to run on forever, rising up gradually to meet the low-lying clouds. A hawk soars, riding the wind that blows against the cliff.
You can sense the great age of the Catskills while hiking through them; in fact, you can almost see it in the rocks. The particular way that Catskill creeks have eroded the hillsides, cutting straight down into the rock, gives the hiker a feeling of walking down through time, back to another era. The marvelous incongruity of such a place existing only a two hours’ drive from the largest city in the U.S. makes the Catskills seem all the more special.