The groundbreaking American conservation movement originated in the Catskill Mountains, 6,000 square miles of mountains, rivers, forests, and parkland considered America's First Wilderness. Though just 100 miles north of New York City, the region's natural state has been remarkably preserved, thanks to the state constitution that designated a quarter of a million acres "forever wild" forest and the region's importance as the watershed for New York City and almost half the state. Yet natural beauty is not what many people know the region for: Mention "The Catskills" and most Americans of a certain age conjure either nostalgic or dreaded notions of resort vacations from another era.
Infamous to many Americans through Hollywood movies like Dirty Dancing and A Walk on the Moon, the Catskill region is an area in transition, if not a full-blown identity crisis. For most of a century it was the summer vacation area for New Yorkers, beginning in the late 19th century, when steam trains deposited elegantly dressed vacationers at stations for their horse-drawn carriage rides to massive mountain lodges and boarding houses, and continuing through the 1960s, when it became famous for the kind of resorts -- many of them ethnic enclaves where family men from the city joined their wives, kids, and neighbors on weekends in the mountains and engaged in 9-to-5 schedules of planned activities -- that earned it the sobriquet the "Borscht Belt."
Today that type of vacationing has fallen out of favor. The Catskill region, still boldly beautiful and remote, is busy addressing its fall from grace in the latter half of the 20th century and repositioning itself as a new kind of Catskills, open to new types of visitors and new forms of leisure activities. The new Catskill Mountain Region has not only renamed itself but set about recapturing its essence, the Great Outdoors, and holding on to an easygoing, rural lifestyle.
And so it should. The spiritual and natural heart of the region is the 700,000-acre Catskill Park and Forest Preserve, a dense area with 35 peaks soaring to elevations of 3,500 feet. This scenic area overflows with lush hills and valleys, forests, farmland, waterfalls, trout streams, reservoirs, and six major river systems. It is regarded as one of the world's greatest fly-fishing areas, and anglers make pilgrimages from across the globe to wade in its trout streams. The Catskill Mountains practically beg for outdoors enthusiasts to sample the incredible variety of hiking and biking trails, sheer cliffs for rock climbing, and peaks for skiing. But you don't have to be a fleece-clad extreme-sports fan to enjoy the region, which is also home to a great number of historic homesteads, out-of-the-way antiques shops, and nostalgic attractions like old trains, vintage "base ball" (yes, it was two words originally) teams, and pick-your-own co-ops and dairy farms.
Locals are anxious for visitors to know that this is no longer your Granddad's Catskills. Today mountain bikers plunge down Plattekill Mountain caked in mud, and luxury inns and spas have sprouted, offering individual rather than massified service. Refugees from New York City and elsewhere are being newly awakened to the natural beauty, small towns, and tranquil pleasures of the Catskill region. Young couples are moving in and starting up small businesses and inns, while chefs trained at the Hudson Valley's Culinary Institute have taken to the region to gain a foothold for their restaurants and bars. And though prices have been steadily skyrocketing, weekenders weary of the Hamptons and other chic destinations are finding what amount to second-home bargains in the area.
Of course, this remains the Catskills, and a handful of old-school resorts still exist in what can only be described as a nostalgic time warp, charmingly resistant to change. If you want a trip down a musty memory lane, you can still find megaresorts where you can play shuffleboard at 11:30am, attend pool games at 1pm, and get your hair set before a bland buffet dinner and the night's entertainment of Rocco singing Italian love songs. But those yesteryear places are quickly being outnumbered in the new Catskill region -- one that is returning to its progressive, outdoors roots.
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