My wife and I were standing on a bridge by the side of Route 23A, outside of Catskill, N.Y., a bit more than a hundred miles up the Hudson River from New York City. Cars were whizzing by us in both directions. On the right bank of Catskill Creek was Tatiana’s Italian Restaurant; on the left were some dilapidated houses with “For Sale” signs in front of them.
But when I directed my gaze straight ahead out over the creek, I saw much the same landscape that Thomas Cole did when he painted “View on Catskill Creek” in 1833. In my view the distant North Mountain was obscured by clouds, while Cole painted on a sunny afternoon, and the kayaker I spied was way at the back of the creek, as opposed to his boater in the foreground. Otherwise, it was the identical scene, 185 years apart.
My journey to that spot had started about 10 months earlier. My wife, Gigi, and I were on our way back to our home outside of Philadelphia from a trip to Lake George in New York’s Adirondack Mountains. On the New York State Thruway I spotted a sign for the Thomas Cole National Historic Site in Catskill. I took the exit because a) it was time for a break, and b), I am a major fanboy of the Hudson River School of American landscape painting, of which Cole (1801-1848) is considered the founder.
The historic site consists of Cole’s house, his barnlike original studio, and a “New Studio,” demolished in the 1970s and rebuilt in 2015 as a small museum space. It’s well worth visiting, especially since there is always a Hudson River School-related exhibition in the New Studio.
On the way out, I picked up a brochure that intrigued me. It described something called the Hudson River School Art Trail, which, according to the brochure, “takes you to the sites that inspired America’s first great landscape artists.” Specifically, it listed eight spots — some reachable by car, some by a short hike — that Cole and his followers used as vantage points to create some of their notable paintings. That is, you could stand where they stood and see what they saw. We needed to get back home for dog pickup and other duties, but I determined that I would venture onto the art trail at the first available opportunity.
That turned out to be a weekend in late May. When we set out from home first thing Saturday morning, it was raining. And when we arrived at the Cole Historic Site — which is the unofficial starting point for the art trail — at about 11, it was still raining. So rather than hit the trail, we strolled to the New Studio and took in “Picturesque and Sublime.”
That exhibit, which runs through Nov. 4, was compact but enlightening. It explores in works from England (including paintings by John Constable and J.M.W. Turner) and then the Hudson River School the two ideas named in its title. The picturesque can be seen in pictures that show (usually benign) human influence on the landscape: photogenic ruins, orderly farmland, tiny men and women out enjoying themselves. The sublime, by contrast, depicts nature as transfixing and sometimes scary in its power and majesty. Part of the genius of the Hudson River School was to take inspiration from the river and the Catskill Mountains, just to the west, and combine the two modes in a new way of looking, the American Sublime. So, while “View on Catskill Creek” is mostly picturesque — the creek is so calm that the boater can turn and peer at the reflected clouds in the creek and a deer at the back, gently sipping — the splendid sunset and cloud-piercing mountain hint at the sublime.
When we walked out of the New Studio, it was raining even harder — too hard to embark, for the time being, on the art trail. But it was coming up on lunchtime, so we got in the car and drove via the Rip Van Winkle Bridge to the town of Hudson, which, I had read, has become a weekend destination for New Yorkers who aren’t interested in or can’t afford the Hamptons.
Maybe it was the pouring rain, but Hudson’s reputation seemed to overstate its cuteness, and we walked for several blocks before finding a place to eat — Wm. Farmer and Sons, an inn, restaurant and bar in a restored 19th-century building on Front Street. We scored a table and shared a country ham board and a bowl of split pea soup. On the way back to the car, we happened on a shop called Verdigris Tea & Chocolate, which advertised, and delivered, a cup of superb hot chocolate.
With the rain still coming down hard, we decided to head to stop No. 2 on the art trail — nearby Olana, Frederic Church’s home and now a museum. But when I looked on my phone for directions, I learned that it closed at 3 p.m. — just 20 minutes away.
So we put Plan B, or maybe it was Plan C, into effect: Drive the scenic route back to our hotel and see where it took us.
The scenic route was fairly long: I’d waited too late to book accommodations and had ended up with a room in Lenox in Massachusetts’s Berkshires, a little more than 30 miles away. About halfway there, next to a small lake outside Chatham, N.Y., I spotted a small parking area and pulled in. It turned out we were in the Ooms Conservation Area at Sutherland Pond. An inviting trail to our right went alongside the pond. The rain had pretty much subsided; we took it.
Other than wishing we had Wellingtons on instead of hiking shoes, it was a lovely two-mile walk. The trail circled partway around the water and then ascended to a gazebo, where there was a view of meadowlands, the pond and the Catskills in the distance. A lot of birds were out and about and making noise. My avian identification skills are lacking, but a brochure we picked up said the meadow provides habitat for bobolinks, eastern meadowlarks and northern harriers.
Definitely, a picturesque scene.
Sunday morning dawned cloudy but dry. Studying our Art Trail brochure over an early breakfast at the Lenox Hampton Inn, we decided to save Olana for another trip as we wouldn’t be able to give it the time it deserved today. So we headed directly to the Catskill Creek site, stop No. 3 on the trail. From there we drove due west into the Catskills. After about 15 miles, the brochure directed us to a parking area at the side of the road. At the back of the lot was Art Trail Stop 4, Kaaterskill Clove.
It was a well-known spot even in 1828, when dictionary maker Noah Webster name-checked it in his definition of the Dutch-derived “clove”: “a cleft; a fissure; a gap; a ravine. This word, though properly an appellative, is not often used as such in English; but it is appropriated to particular places . . . as, the Clove of Kaaterskill.” The view was nice but not dramatic, which may be why at least two of the several notable paintings of the Clove contained significant inventions by the artists. My favorite is Asher Durand’s “Kindred Spirits,” which plops an imaginary waterfall at the bottom of the Clove and depicts a fictional meeting between the recently deceased Cole and his friend the writer William Cullen Bryant.
For a real waterfall, we had to walk a mere quarter of a mile back down Route 23A to the foot of Bastion Falls. And for real drama, we had to hike a half-mile, almost all of it up, to the foot of the 271-foot Kaaterskill Falls, Art Trail Stop 5. There was already a good selfie-taking crowd there — catskillmountaineer.com describes the trail as the most popular in the Catskills — but if we squinted them out, we could replicate the sublimity Cole expressed in a painting such as “Falls of the Kaaterskill” (1826).
A couple of miles away, in the town of Haines Falls, we stopped at Selena’s Diner for a very decent Reuben sandwich (me) and veggie burger (Gigi). We proceeded into the North-South Lake Public Campground, paid our $10 daily fee and drove to the north bank of North Lake, from which Cole painted “Lake with Dead Trees” (1825). Frankly speaking, I wasn’t much inspired by the scene or (when I looked at it online later) the painting.
Site 7, Sunset Rock, was a two-hour hike, which we would have to save for another visit. That left one more stop on the trail, the Catskill Mountain House site, described as a fifth of a mile away. I suggested passing it by and heading home, but Gigi insisted that, having come this far, we give it a look.
The Mountain House, built in 1823 on the edge of a cliff known as the Escarpment, was a popular resort in its day and a favorite of the Hudson River School — views both of it and from it. It ceased operation in 1941 and (oddly) was burned down by the state in 1961. The path was more like a service road, but after five minutes we arrived at the spacious, grassy Escarpment. We strolled to the edge and looked out to the east. The skies had cleared enough so that we could see, as advertised, the Hudson and parts of three states — Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont.
It was sublime.
More from Travel:
41 Cross St., Hudson
The 55-room boutique hotel — built in a converted candle factory — opened in May 2018. It’s only a few steps away from Hudson’s Amtrak station. Rooms from $99.
Catskill Motor Court
5100 Route 32, Catskill
Located about 10 miles west of the Thomas Cole National Historic Site, this old-fashioned motel is situated in a pine forest at the base of the Catskill Mountains. Rooms from $70.
Wm. Farmer and Sons
20 S. Front St., Hudson
A converted 19th-century building located at the center of Hudson that has been operating as a restaurant, bar and inn since 2015. The eatery specializes in country ham, oysters and local produce. Happy hour and dinner service offered daily excepts Mondays. Lunch entrees from $10; dinner entrees from about $29.
Verdigris Tea & Chocolate Bar
135 Warren St., Hudson
This coffee bar has dozens of teas, six varieties of hot chocolate and a wide assortment of house-made baked goods on menu. Tea and coffee from $2.25, and hot chocolate starts at $5.75. Baked goods from $1 to $5.
Thomas Cole National Historic Site
218 Spring St., Catskill
Explore Cole’s house, studio and a museum that specializes in Hudson River School-related exhibitions. Hours vary; check website. Admission $16; seniors and students $14. Tickets include a guided tour (reservations recommended) or self-guided options. Hudson River School Art Trail brochures and guides are available here, as well as Olana.
Olana State Historic Site
5720 Route 9G, Hudson
Olana, the estate of painter Frederic Church, was restored in the 1960s. Admission to the museum is only by guided tour; reservations are highly recommended. Open 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Tuesday-Sunday, through Oct. 28. Admission $12; seniors and students, $10. The grounds are free and open 8 a.m.-sunset daily. The website offers a streamable audio tour.