It has been noted by a number of historians that the 19th century tourism boom that occurred in the Catskill mountains was strongly supported by a desire to seek the true wilderness. Painters such as Thomas Cole and others of the Hudson River School were essential in drawing in the masses, painting landscapes that expressed (and frequently embellished) the yet untamed nature that survived in the mountains just north of New York City. The mountains provided New York’s more privileged residents an escape from the cramped and dismal confines of the quickly expanding city.
Having found nothing in the way of China to write about over the last few weeks, I had begun to grow a bit stir crazy, and with the limitless natural surrounding I decided to document a hike that I took with my girlfriend to the top of Balsam mountain, situated just north of Slide, the highest peak in the Catskills. Although Balsam, considered to be one of the Catskill high peaks, lies south of the region made famous during the pre-civil war era, its inaccessibility has helped it to retain some of the true wilderness feel that was lost to the timber and fur industries during the 1840s.
Almost every acre of the Catskills were once covered with the great Eastern Hemlock, a large coniferous tree. The bark of this particular pine contains tannic acid, an chemical that was used to release the fur from animal skins that were harvested in the region. With such a high demand for the pre-war production of leather products, the region was completely clear-cut, resulting in a collapse of the tanning industry. Despite the near deforestation, certain landscapes were too difficult to negotiate for the loggers to bother cutting. Deep cloves and the ravines created by rivers were too steep to harvest, thus protecting small areas. While hiking through these mountains, one periodically comes upon dark, dense stands of these wonderful trees and can still feel a bit of the famed wilderness that inspired so many stories among early travelers.
I have heard a number of hikers say that the Catskills do not offer much challenge nor much scenery. If you are looking for a great challenge, you are probably in the wrong region, try heading west. As for the scenery, I can think of no place more amazing. The beauty in the Catskills comes from their stubborn nature. They are hard to navigate, due to a lack of visibility or distinct features within most mountains. Beyond this, the plant life, at first glance, tends to look featureless. As far as I am concerned, however, these only exist as a quick first image.
After spending some time in these mountains, you begin to look for the subtle differences. A change in altitude provides an amazing shift in the plant life. Spend time looking at the base of trees and under other plants, and a world of fungus and creatures await. Unlike the expansive and well established vistas found in the Adirondacks and the Rockies, the Catskills ask a bit more from visitors before divulging any such reward. It is the tiny differences between one region and the next that give this place its magical nature.