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By Michael Hill, Associated Press
A heavy haze blankets the valleys. Neighboring Catskill peaks poke through, looking green and gauzy. Nothing but trees are visible all around. Yet a spry hiker with a car at the trailhead could be ordering a cup of coffee within 90 minutes.
A century after its creation, the Catskill Park offers a wilderness experience at arm's length from civilization. Hiking paths wind by the ruins of mountain hotels. Crystalline creeks that run like Yoo-hoo after heavy rains flow by old bluestone quarries. Trailheads are just down the road from a decent sandwich.
A lot of it has to do with New York City, which is a few hours south. The Catskills have been a traditional respite for city residents, from 19th century couples taking in the mountain air to snowboarders today.
Harry Jameson of Town Tinker Tube Rental says the attraction has remained constant throughout — the Catskills are a unique patch of wilderness close by the urban hubbub.
"There is an interesting magnetism to the area — one of those things you really can't explain, like dowsing or metaphysical things that we know work but we can't put a finger on it," Jameson said.
The Catskill Park was established by state officials in 1904. About 40% of the park's 1,100 square miles is forest preserve; the rest is privately owned.
In some respects, the Catskills might seem like a little brother to the Adirondacks, which are a few hours north. The Adirondacks are bigger, higher, more rugged and more remote. But the Catskills are arguably more fixed in lore and social history.
Every schoolchild knows the Catskills are the mystical mountains where Rip Van Winkle took his 20-year snooze. Washington Irving's tale of Rip and other Hudson Valley characters made him a sort of early publicist for the area. Hudson River School painters provided the same service later in the 19th century, portraying the mountains majestically in the background of their pictures.
A guided hike tracing the footsteps of the great Hudson Valley painters is one of the centennial events planned this summer. Also scheduled is a performance of "Ashokan Farewell" (made famous in the soundtrack for Ken Burns' "Civil War" series) at Belleayre Mountain, and a visit by Rip Van Winkle to Haines Falls.
But any sunny day will do for a visit to the Catskills.
As daunting as the mountains look in old paintings, most Catskill climbs are doable for fit adults. Hikes can be strenuous, but they are not extreme. Even the highest peak in the Catskills — Slide Mountain at 4,180 feet — has a trail that is less than three miles to the peak.
Mount Tremper can be conquered and descended in a morning and offers a bonus at the top: an 87-year-old fire tower refurbished for climbers. The stairs are always accessible and the closed-in cab atop is open when volunteers are on duty.
Overlook Mountain is another Catskill mountain with a fire tower, this one offering a picturesque view of the Hudson Valley. From the trailhead in Woodstock, the top of Overlook is about 2 1/2 miles up a dirt road that winds past old hotel ruins. Since Woodstock is, literally, down the road from the trailhead, hikers can reward themselves with a nosh — name it: pizza, tofu chili, Cuban sandwiches — after the hike.
There are other ways to see the Catskills wilderness this summer. One popular alternative to hiking is sitting in an oversized inner tube and riding the Esopus Creek. Phoenicia is a good place to begin, as it is home to Jameson's business, The Town Tinker, and FS Tube & Raft Rental.
Want something slower? Flyfishing is another popular pastime in the Catskills. The woods are laced with trout streams, including the Beaverkill River and the Willowemoc Creek, which runs right by the Catskill Flyfishing Center in Livingston Manor.
For those who don't want to sweat or get wet, visitors barely need to get out of the car to take in the view. Take a trip up, and then down, Ohayo Mountain Road from Woodstock for a scenic drive. The shore of the Ashokan Reservoir off of Route 28A is worthy of a Hudson River School painting.
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