Traversing The Catskills

Within easy driving distance of major cities like New York and Boston, this Northeast jewel is a photographer’s haven

Mink Hollow Trail sunrise, New York. Michael Tischler is an avid landscape photographer based in upstate New York, and he has focused on the beauty of the Catskills for most of his life. The region, which is located close to several major metropolitan centers, offers nature shooters a broad variety of subjects.

The Catskills are a hidden gem that offers a combination of geographic, seasonal and lighting diversity. The proximity of the Catskills to the major metropolitan areas of Boston and New York City make this mountain range a perfect day trip for the nature photographer. It’s just an easy two-hour drive out of midtown Manhattan or three hours out of Boston.

The 300,000-acre Catskill Forest Preserve set up by the state of New York provides the photographer with plenty of undisturbed land. The Catskill region is located right off New York State Thruway exits 19, 20 or 21, and within 20 minutes you’re in the thick of the Catskills. Choosing where to head out for a shoot depends on many factors, including time of year, weather, subject matter and the accessibility of the location.

In the fall, I spend a lot of time in the Northern Catskills: Hunter Mountain, North Lake and the West Saugerties area. I like the Northern Catskills in the fall, due to the dramatic changes in foliage color that can be seen in these higher peaks. Hunter Mountain and the Lexington area off of Route 42 offer unique diversity, with streams, fields, lakes and mountains all in close proximity.

A great spot to explore photographically during the fall season is reached via Route 214 off of Route 28, leading to an area called the Notch, which can be found at Devil’s Tombstone Campground. The Notch features a unique narrow lake surrounded by dramatic inclines. The colorful fallen leaves in the water make great images because of the steep terrain in the background. There are miles of hiking trails that start from the campground and go deep into the Catskill Mountain Preserve.

A trip up Platte Cove Road (County Road 33) is another must during autumn. This sloping road is closed in the winter, but is accessible by car in the fall. Known as “Devil’s Kitchen,” the area features deep ravines at the summit that provide striking views. Near the parking area at the top of the Platte Cove Road are trailheads with incredible terrain that lead to the bottom of the ravine. A good photo backpack, sturdy hiking boots and moderate hiking skills will get you to the bottom of the trail where you can find some amazing waterfalls to photograph.

Zena, New York

One of my most favorite images is one of snow falling from trees after a snowstorm in Woodstock, N.Y., at a place called Big Deep. I photographed the scene at 1/60 sec., at ƒ/2.8 with a Canon 24-70mm ƒ/2.8L lens at 24mm. In a situation like this, the most difficult thing is keeping the lens clear from snow so the image won’t get blurred. (The town of Woodstock is a famous artist’s colony, and also was made famous by the 1969 Woodstock Festival.) Big Deep is located off of Route 212, about two miles east of the town. The timing of this image was crucial—I created the composition when the sun was peeking out as the snow was falling. The tall, dark pine trunks with green undergrowth allow for great contrast for this kind of image. The ever-changing Catskill weather allows for such images in these easily accessed locations.

It’s always a major advantage as a photographer to capture many different scenes in one outing. The North-South Lake State Campground near Tannersville has many hiking trails offering vistas to East, West and North Lakes. The nearby Kaaterskill Falls has one of the highest waterfalls in the area. All of these areas in the Northern Catskills are within 20 minutes of each other and can be captured in one day.

The North Lake Campground is located off of Route 23A in Tannersville and is a great base camp from which to venture out to these Northern Catskills locales. Its lakes not only are scenic, but also can be used recreationally for boating and swimming. Artist’s Ledge is a short hike from North Lake and yields great sunrise images facing the east toward Connecticut. The fog in the morning off of North Lake also makes for spectacular images.

Bare tree in a blizzard, Woodstock, New York

During the spring and summer seasons, one of my favorite places to take photos is at the base of Peekamoose Mountain on Peekamoose Road near the town of Sundown. Its heavily wooded land is out of the way, but has incredible waterfalls and streams. The diversity and abundance of waterfalls next to the roadway make it easily accessible for capturing images.

There’s also a trailhead here that leads to many miles of hiking trails. When climbing around the waterfalls, waterproof boots are mandatory because of the slippery moss. The detail of the beautiful green moss found in each waterfall and stream area is best captured in low light. This is truly one of my favorite places to take pictures in the Catskills. Peekamoose Road also can be navigated in the winter for some icy waterfall images.

One morning last fall, I ventured on County Road 6 off of Route 42 near the town of Westkill and discovered an undertraveled road with foggy valleys and farm fields. I had noticed on a map that County Road 6 ended at a state forest trailhead area and had a feeling there might be some undiscovered territory. As I ventured down the 12-mile paved road, I captured unique fall scenes of streams, barns and fog-laden valleys that I had never seen before, after living here for 35 years.

This is just one example of the undiscovered nature of the region and what a little planning and a sense of adventure can produce. This foggy fall morning also yielded the correct lighting that provided me with many images. At the end of Route 6, you’ll find mostly undiscovered State Forest Preserve land with a pristine stream that’s worth exploring.

Peekamoose Road, near Peekamoose Mountain, New York

For spectacular hiking in the Catskill Forest Preserve, there are many marked trails that lead up to the peaks. If you choose to photograph sunrise in the fall, you have to leave while it’s dark, and it’s often cold at that time of year. Some trails, such as Slide Mountain (4,198-foot elevation), one of the highest peaks in the region, can be a challenging hike for catching sunrise. The trail itself up to Slide Mountain is a moderate-to-difficult trek and should only be attempted by experienced hikers—it takes an hour and a half to reach the summit.

When you love photography, and you live in a naturally beautiful area, it’s as if you’ve won the lottery. Every day, there’s a variety of material to shoot. I made a decision many years ago that photography would be my secondary career and dentistry would be my first. I’m fortunate that I can do two things that I truly enjoy, and that I live in such a geographically diverse region full of photographic possibilities like the Catskill Mountains.

About The Catskills

catskillsThe Catskill Mountains are located roughly 100 miles north of New York City and 50 miles southwest of the state capital, Albany. Some consider the Catskills an extension of the Appalachian Mountains but, in fact, they’re not. Geologically, the Catskills are a dissected plateau, an uplifted region eroded by glaciers thousands of years ago into a sharp relief. This historic mountain range is deep with an ever-changing light that reflects on streams, forests, fields and rock formations. Each season brings different extremes, and each day brings a unique weather pattern that can change from one week to the next.

Mid-19th-century Hudson River School landscape painters like Thomas Cole famously depicted the adjacent Hudson River Valley. These paintings are characterized by their realistic, detailed and sometimes idealized portrayal of nature that the artists used as their inspiration. I believe this rich history of geology and art lends itself to a photographer, offering a limitless source for material.

This glacially carved range consists of 98 peaks at over 3,000-foot elevations, with dramatic views that change each season. Throughout this beautiful country, there are many unique regions. I’ve shot in many different mountain ranges, including the Rockies, the Appalachians and the Smokies, but there’s a uniqueness to the Catskills due to its proximity to the Hudson River Valley. The abrupt transition between river valley and mountains seems to transmit a special light that makes the Catskills a truly magnificent jewel in the Northeast deserving of its share of photographic exploration.


What I Use In The Catskills

I use Canon EOS-1D Mark II or Mark III D-SLRs. Digital can be unforgiving when you get blown-out highlights, and the window of light in the mountains is limited. This necessitates being in the right place at the right time and the ability to move quickly. Knowing your equipment, knowing the weather, having a planned route and a general idea of subject matter helps.

A well-organized, heavy-duty photo backpack is another key for me. In my backpack, I have extra charged batteries, memory cards, lenses and maintenance items. I almost always shoot in aperture priority, and stay at larger ƒ-stops for increased depth of field. Of course, higher apertures and low light mean longer exposures.

catskillsI use a tripod with legs that retract without levers, enabling me to move faster. I utilize a heavy-duty grip ballhead that allows quick movements. The grip ballhead also is crucial in colder weather when I have gloves on. To minimize movement with longer exposures, I use the EOS-1D mirror lockup function and its two-second timer. The weather sealing of the camera and the sealed “L” series lenses allow me to go out in unforgiving conditions.

Canon EOS-1D Mark III

Michael Tischler is a photographer and dentist living in Woodstock, N.Y. To see more of his photography, visit his website at