By Matthew Young
Stony Kill Falls
1.1 Mile round trip
Tucked away down a narrow gravel road, not far from the small town of Kerhonkson, is a hidden gem. A pair of drastically different, yet beautifully tranquil waterfalls sit carved into the hillside. The hike is easy by trail standards, but does include a somewhat steep portion of stone steps leading up to, and above, the lower falls.
The designated parking area is no longer open to the public, so the best place to park is along the shoulder of the gravel road (Shaft Road) leading up to the locked gate. From the gate on Shaft Road to the trail head is an easy .3 mile walk. You’ll pass through an open area that was once used for parking. On your right you’ll see a fenced off area, belonging to the City Of New York Water Supply. An old helicopter landing pad sits cracked and fading off to the left.
In the distance you can make out the white-hued cliffs of the Shawangunk ridge. A Rattlesnake habitat warning sign may cause some concern, though a sighting is still rare. Just be vigilant around rock crevices.
As you get closer to the edge of the forest, stay to the right and follow the narrower path into the tree line. The trail is well maintained throughout the entire 1.1 miles. The air is crisp and fresh, and the trail is shaded on sunny days. The terrain quickly changes from the open gravel lot to dense forest. Purple, blue, and yellow goldenrod wildflowers line the trail.
You can hear the sound of running water after only a short time into the hike. It doesn’t take long to be transported into a completely different space and environment. The branches of the pine trees block out the sun to the side of the trails, and the calming sound of the water relaxes you as you head towards the source.
To your left is a small water fall, (more like a set of rapids) cascading over some smoothed stones, as Stony Kill flows towards Rondout Creek and ultimately empties into the Hudson River. During the late summer months, the bed of the kill can be pretty dry. You’ll encounter a few different sets of stone steps leading up the mountainside, as well a couple of wooden bridges. Both the stone steps and the bridges are in great condition and make the trail experience convenient and enjoyable. Unlike some trails, these additions have a very natural look that doesn’t subtract from the overall experience. The stone staircase, with portions covered in moss, has an almost mythical feel. Something out of a fairy tale, or fantasy story. The stone steps gradually get steeper and the trail curves and switchbacks up to the base of the falls.
At 87 feet in height, the larger of the two falls is one of the tallest in the area. Large slabs of fallen granite litter the stream bed. The bright green plants that grow around the base of the falls contrasts the brown and grey stone. A peaceful light reflects off the shallow pool. As with the stream itself, the flow of the falls varies depending on the season and recent rains. There is a good lookout area next to a wooden fence near the base, a great place to soak in the view before continuing up more stone steps to the top of the falls. The trail begins to veer away from the falls before wrapping back around. A little further up you will come across some metal rails drilled directly into the rock itself, creating a small wrung ladder up some sections of slick rock scramble. In my opinion this adds to the adventurous aspect of this otherwise short and sweet hike.
On the trek up to the top set of falls, be sure to look back out towards the valley. Through the gaps in the leaves you can make out the bluish silhouette of the Catskill Range, looming hazy and prominent in the distance. You can also make out the parking area on the valley floor. For such a short distance, the trail manages to wind through a variety of terrain.
Once at the top, you can peer off the edge and look down at the lower falls as they tumble down into the U-shaped valley carved out of the ridge. However, there are no hand rails so use caution when getting close to the near 100 foot drop.
The view from the top is not overly expansive, but on clear days you can see for miles towards the Hudson Valley and Catskills. The top falls are much shorter, but also much wider than the lower falls. They are arguably more tranquil and peaceful, as the calm Stony Kill flows gently over the tiered slabs of rock before making the nine-story plunge.
The stream bed levels off and the large smooth sections of rock allow you to walk along the water’s edge deep into the forest. The air here is cool with a slight breeze, and the gentle rustling of the leaves only adds to the flowing water soundtrack. There are shallow pools where you can dip your hands or feet on warmer summer days.
In the surrounding forest, mushrooms line the banks, popping up from moss covered logs, decaying and rotting away, as millipedes wind their way in and out of the crevices. There are signs of the coming autumn everywhere. From the dry air to the scattered red leaves, the season’s first to fall.
The return route is the same way back down the mountain. Being a short hike, there is more time for reflection and mindfulness. There are so many details to take in, so many sounds, sights, and smells, in just a little over a mile. The Japanese idea of Shinrin Yoku (forest bathing) is gaining in popularity and for good reason. This quick peaceful getaway is the ideal place to escape from everyday stresses and return to a calm state of mind. There are serene places like Stony Kill falls tucked away all over Upstate New York. All you need to do is get out and find them.