Take the short, steep, mildly treacherous hike up to Kaaterskill Falls, and you’ll find a rushing cataract that plunges 260 feet in two lacy drops. You’ll also see one of the most painted views of the nineteenth century, a favored subject of the Hudson River School, an art movement that ruled American visual culture for several decades.
Most art-minded people already know the Catskills and its environs as a day-trip destination: Ride the Metro-North to Dia: Beacon, a former Nabisco box printing factory reimagined as a series of swashbuckling installations by the likes of Andy Warhol and Richard Serra, or take a bus from Port Authority and roam the hills of the Storm King Art Center, with its dick-swinging sculptures and smaller, more playful interventions.
But beyond these better-known attractions are a wealth of sites, homes, and galleries that both look back to the origins of an American style of landscape — swoony, luminous — and speak invitingly to contemporary artists and artisans.
To get acquainted with the Hudson River School and get some exercise as well, hit some of the spots on the Hudson River School Art Trail, which includes Kaaterskill Falls, Sunset Rock, and the ruins of the Catskill Mountain House, an old hotel that boasted sublime views from its porch. The latter site is accessible via the North South Lake Campground, which has a comfortable swimming and boating beach, if you feel like canoeing between spectacular vistas.
A couple of the choicest sites are indoors, at the historic homes of Thomas Cole, who founded the movement, and Fredric Church, his student. Church’s Olana, near Hudson, a town in Columbia County on the Hudson River’s eastern shore, is an Arabian Nights pastiche and hoarder’s paradise, crammed with exotic trinkets and kitsch replicas from Church’s travels. The paintings on display are arguably lousy — Church’s best are in museum collections — but the house and gardens and views are a wonder. There are better paintings at Cole’s cozier site, Cedar Grove, in Catskill, a town just across the Hudson River. A tour includes a visit to Cole’s reconstructed painting studio, where many of his materials are preserved.
If small rooms cramp your style, unwind at the enchanting Opus 40, an accidental sculpture garden near Saugerties, a town in Ulster County a few miles from Woodstock. In the 1930s, Harvey Fite purchased a bluestone quarry here and began to carve out slabs for his sculpture. But he became interested in the voids those slabs left, and set about sculpting the quarry itself, creating a fanciful landscape adorned with towers and dotted with bathing pools. A predecessor of the Earthworks movement, which uses the materials of a landscape to create art, it has a dreamy fairytale quality.
Thomas H. Hahn/docuimages
For a sample of more contemporary craft and art, head back to Catskill and Hudson. Catskill is the site of the Catskill Mill, founded in an attempt to transform several factory buildings into workshops for furniture makers, ceramicists, leatherworkers, and fiber artists. (There are future plans for a storefront and crafts classes.) And in nearby Hudson, a town to which many a Brooklyn artist has decamped, a few blocks on Warren Street boast nearly twenty art galleries, with more spilling out onto Columbia Street and Front Street. The offerings — experimental and familiar, exquisite and tacky — are too diverse to label, but if another Hudson River School gets going, it will probably launch here.
How to get there
The Amtrak stops at Hudson, and Trailways services most other towns, but you’ll want a car to get around.
Where to stay
Airbnb offers the most variety, but The Graham & Co. is a stylish option in Phoenicia and The Barlow is a ritzy choice in Hudson.
Where to eat and drink
Hudson teems with great restaurants and bars, including Club Helsinki, the Crimson Sparrow, and Baba Louie’s. In Saugerties, try Miss Lucy’s Kitchen, and in Catskill, Captain Kidd’s Inn, a pirate-themed bar for your marauding needs.
What to see
Visit the Hudson River School Art Trail, Olana, Cedar Grove, Opus 40, Catskill Mill, and Hudson Galleries.