A first-time guide to the Catskills

The Catskills mountains in southeastern New York state are perhaps best known for their vibrant arts scene, breathtaking natural beauty, and ghost stories galore. The mountainous region – which comprises primarily Ulster and Greene counties but also extends into Delaware, Sullivan, and Schoharie counties – has long been a draw for travelers, and its history is as compelling as its diverse contemporary culture. 

In his iconic 1819 ghost tale Rip Van Winkle, writer Washington Irving wrote that anyone who “has made a voyage up the Hudson must remember the Kaatskill mountains,” noting that “every change of season, every change of weather, indeed, every hour of the day, produces some change in the magical hues and shapes of these mountains.” 

Also in the 1800s, the Hudson River School painters flocked here to set up their easels. From the 1920s through the 1960s, many Jewish families from New York City headed to the Catskills for an annual summer escape, and the area became known fondly as the “The “Borscht Belt.” 

You’d likely recognize the most famous of the Catskills’ kosher hotels: the Catskill Resort Hotel, which inspired the 1987 film Dirty Dancing (the hotel sadly burned down in 2022). And, of course, a 1969 music festival that was meant to be held in Woodstock and was ultimately held in the neighboring Catskill town of Bethel, NY made headlines and history. You get the picture here: The Catskills’ cultural keystones are numerous. 

Why should you visit the region – and why now? 

Although the Catskills have clearly been a coveted travel destination for centuries, there’s never been a better time to see the region and explore everything it has to offer. From innovative foodie haunts to unique new music venues to U-Pick farms, food festivals, and forest mushroom tours, the Catskills are in the midst of their best renaissance yet. And you’ll want to be there to experience it all.

Here is the best of what this multifaceted part of New York state has to offer – plus tips for when to visit, what to pack, and more.

Visitors zip lining in the Catskill mountains at the Hunter Mountain Ski Resort.
Outside ski season you can go zip-lining at the Hunter Mountain Ski Resort © fdastudillo / Getty Images

When should I go the Catskills?

The most classic season to visit the Catskills is during the autumn, when the foliage erupts in color and “leaf peepers” flock to the flame-hued mountainsides. But the region’s towns and mountains also come alive in the summer, when travelers and locals alike take advantage of those long daylight hours for yet more hiking and swimming in the lakes. Summer and fall are also home to tons of Catskills festivals highlighting music and local produce (the Margaretville Cauliflower Festival is one for the ages). 

Unsurprisingly, these seasons are also the busiest times across the Catskills, so if you’re not a fan of dodging fellow foliage enthusiasts on the hiking trails and vying for dinner reservations, aim for a shoulder season such as early December. This way, you’ll avoid the autumnal and winter holiday crowds – and get some gorgeous trails all to yourself. 

You’ll also be more likely to nab accommodations on a budget during the off season, such as that early December window or during early spring, which locals know as “mud season.” (Note that the Catskills springtime mudfest also boasts some of the best fishing in the country at the same time, so don’t swear it off entirely.) Plus, winter in the Catskills offers its own magic, with cozy nights by the fire and days spent at nearby ski resorts such as Hunter Mountain, or Plattekill Mountain and Belleayre Mountain further out in Delaware County. 

How much time should I spend in the Catskills?

If you want to truly sink into all the Catskills have to offer, aim to spend four days to a week to leave ample time for sightseeing as well as relaxation in that fresh mountain air. That said, weekend warriors taking the bus or train up from New York City are the bread and butter of Catskills tourism, and you can certainly get a taste for Catskills life in just a short visit. 

If you have only two days, spend them getting to know one of the easy-to-access Catskills core towns like artsy Kingston, hippie hub Woodstock, or elegant Livingston Manor. In and around any of these charming towns you’ll be able to scope out excellent shopping, savor delicious meals at hidden-gem restaurants and enjoy outdoor activities like hiking, swimming, fishing, mountain biking, or even horseback riding. Stay at Callicoon Hills for a luxe yet accessible experience that feels very Catskills, and stop for a drink (or three) at nearby Catskill Provisions Distillery and Tasting Room. 

Foodies, though, will likely want to spend a few more days in order to travel around the region and sample world-class cuisine in unexpected places; hit up Woodstock’s Silvia for the best dinner in the Catskills, hands down. 

If you have a whole week, rent a car and drive beyond the weekend go-tos into the lesser-known Great Western Catskills, which boast diverse food options of their own. Dine on the terrace at Binnekill Tavern in the village of Margaretville atop the Binnekill stream with epic mountain views; the restaurant has garnered accolades thanks to acclaimed chef Bryan Calvert at the helm. Then, stroll through one of the region’s many museums (the Hanford Mills Museum features mill tours of the working sawmill, gristmill and woodworking factory) and see what’s on at the historic 1914 Walton Theatre.

Diamond Notch Falls and the trail footbridge in the morning, Catskills
The best hikes in the Catskills will take you to waterfalls, like Diamond Notch Falls, as well as scenic lookouts © brandtbolding / Getty Images

Is it easy to get in and around the Catskills?

Yes and no. There are quite a few easily accessible bus options (including Megabus, Greyhound, and Trailways) and even a couple train routes that will get you to the Catskills from New York City. But once you’re there, unless you’re planning to stick to spots within walking distance from an urban hotel, you’ll likely need a car to get around. 

By far the easiest way to make the most of the varied attractions of the Catskills is by driving. If you’re road tripping to the destination or renting a car, you’ll have an easier time navigating between towns than if you’re wanting to forge your way via public transportation, which up here means the good-ol’ Trailways bus. That’s not to say the bus isn’t possible! It definitely is; it can just be a bit of an adventure. You’ll need to plan your routes in advance via the Trailways site and expect bus transfers – sometimes multiple. You can find more information about getting to the further-out Western Catskills towns by bus here.

If you’re looking to travel to the Catskills by air, your best bet is a flight to the Albany airport, which is about a 45-minute drive from the town of Catskill, a good central point for the region. If you’re heading to the Western Catskills, Binghamton can be an easy airport to move through, but it’s far: an hour and 45-minute drive from Margaretville, for example, which in turn is an hour’s drive from Kingston. For Kingston, Woodstock, Catskill, or Livingston Manor, look into flights to Stewart Airport in Newburgh, about an hour away from all three. 

Bottom line: make your airport selection based on availability of flights from your home airport as well as where in the Catskills you’re planning to spend much of your stay. 

Raspberries, plums and blueberries at fresh produce stand in the Catskills
Embrace farm-life picking berries, cherries, plums, peaches or apples – depending on the season © Dan Hallman / Lonely Planet

Top things to do in the Catskills

Even on a short weekend trip, you’ve got to take a hike. This holds true no matter the season (okay, you can sub in a snowshoe romp through the woods if it’s winter). The point is, the sublime landscapes of the Catskills are not to be missed. Here, surrounded by mountain views, there’s no better place to be than in the great outdoors, where there’s something for everyone, whether you’re into attempting the region’s longest hike or simply pitching a tent and chilling out. 

Did you know the Catskills are the American birthplace of fly fishing? Also hit up Rose Hill Farm for U-pick berries, cherries, plums, peaches and apples. Or, set up a guided tour with Catskill Fungi for a (non-psychedelic, sorry) mushroom walk to remember.

But the Catskills are as much about culture as they are forests and farms. And there’s perhaps no better place that exemplifies the region’s amalgam of creativity, impeccable design, and farm-first food scene than Ravenwood NY in Kerhonkson, Ulster County. Head here for the art, the barn gatherings, or just an excellent coffee by the backyard fire on a gray day. The pastries are incredible, and if you’re looking to take home a souvenir of your Catskills adventure, the shop items are out of this world. Plus, it’s right next door to Catskill Native Nursery, which is a vibe in and of itself – with super-knowledgeable staff and all local native plants. 

For evening entertainment, pop up to Woodstock to visit Levon Helm Studios. It’s BYO drinks, with casual tailgating in a woodsy parking lot before you take a seat on folding chairs to enjoy world-renowned musical artists in an offbeat venue unlike any other. Consider your perfect leisurely day in the Catskills planned. 

Further west, Delaware County retains a sense of unspoiled beauty and undiscovered treasures – with the added bonus of fewer crowds and a more laid-back atmosphere. Here, summers are home to quite a few fantastic festivals: I love the family-friendly Catskill Mountain Yoga Festival in Roxbury, and I’m pretty sure anyone who doesn’t love the Deposit Lumberjack Festival doesn’t have a pulse. This raucous red-plaid-laden jamboree has been attracting visitors for 48 years with delightful weirdness such as lumberjack competitions, a raft race, tractor pulls, and a lumberjack parade. It’s straight out of the Virgin River TV series in a way only the Catskills could create.

My favorite thing to do in the Catskills

Aside from the Lumberjack Festival, my favorite trip (and as a native New Yorker I have made many!) to the Catskills was nothing fancy, but it was perfect. I took the bus for less than $50 from NYC’s Port Authority just 2.5 hours up to Phoenicia, and stayed at The Graham & Co, a chic renovated old motel without any cell service. I powered up on pancakes at the Phoenicia Diner and trekked around; I recommend the Wittenberg and Cornell Mountains Trail as well as the Mount Tremper Trail, which brings you to one of the Catskills’ five fire towers that offer sweeping 360-degree views over the treetops. If it’s hot out, try tubing down the Esopus Creek (warning: there are rapids!) or just posting up by the Graham’s pool. Then, grab pizza at Brio’s and catch a show at the Phoenicia Playhouse; I saw an iteration of Dracula there that was an absolute delight. When you’re among the great beauty and quirkiness of the Catskills, sometimes the simplest itineraries are the ones that make your heart sing – and stick with you for years to come.

Afternoon sun on sunset rock during Autumn, overlooking North-South Lake in the Catskills Mountains of New York.
While accommodation and dining will set you back, spend your days on hiking trails for free © lightphoto / Getty Images

How much money do I need for the Catskills?

In general, when it comes to the Catskills, the further away you get from NYC, the better the bang for your buck. Although it can be slim pickin’s further out, virtually every area of the Catskills will have an excellent and extremely wide range of accommodation options and prices, from the super-basic (we love a Best Western when in need!) to the awe-inspiring and ultra-luxe (one word: Inness). The most recommended hotels in the area tend to be $200 per night (or more in the summertime). No matter where in the Catskills you’re planning to stay, prices will vary greatly depending on location, amenities, and seasonality. 

Average daily costs you could expect in the Catskills:

  • basic room for two: $80-$120 (off season), $108-$230 (peak season)
  • one-bedroom self-catering apartment: $100-500 
  • public transport ticket: $20 for a Trailways ticket between towns
  • coffee: $1 from a gas station to $6 for an artisan mocha
  • sandwich: $4-14 (Subway vs. Phoenicia Diner)
  • dinner for two: $40-$60 (budget), $200 (fine-dining with drinks) 
  • pint: $8
  • skis or snowboard rental, plus boots and poles: $50

Beware of bears! 

The forests of the Catskills are indeed home to beautiful but dangerous black bears – along with coyotes and even the occasional mountain lion. If you see any of these wildlife while hiking, it’s important not to approach the animal, nor run from it. Instead, act large and intimidating by sticking your arms out. Find more tips on Catskills wildlife and safety here.

Check the weather and trail conditions in advance

This is the most important thing you can do to maintain safety while hiking or skiing – that, and buddy up! If you’re planning to ski Hunter or another Catskills mountain, check the resort’s website before you go to ensure that trail conditions are snowy but still safe. Similarly, if you’re hiking in spring, it’s best to go it slowly, with a friend, and bring trekking poles – see “mud season” above. 

Observe forest etiquette: Pack out what you pack in

Whether you’re heading out on a hike or taking a dip in one of the Catskills’ many lakes, swimming holes, and waterfalls, take whatever you brought back with you. That includes trash (yep, even biodegradable stuff like banana peels, which can beckon wildlife where they don’t belong) and any dog droppings if you brought your pup.  

Pack lots of layers and some rain gear

In the Catskills – as in Scotland and plenty of other hilly places around the globe – the saying goes, “if you don’t like the weather, wait a minute.” Don’t get caught unprepared in a mid-hike rainstorm or a swift afternoon temperature spike.

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