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What are the Catskills?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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The Catskills, more formally known as the Catskill Mountains, are a mountain range in New York state. These mountains have been used for summer homes and resorts since the 1800s, and as a result, many people associate them with vacationing and nature, especially in the Jewish community, thanks to the famous "Borscht Belt" of Jewish resorts in the Catskills. Because the land of the Catskills is difficult to farm, they have been vulnerable to resort development, although several conservation organizations have worked to have sections of the mountains set aside as preserves so that future generations can enjoy the natural beauty of the Catskill Mountains.

These famous mountains lie North of New York City and South of Albany, the state capital. Many people consider the Catskills to be part of the Appalachian Range, as they do appear to form an extension of this notable mountain range, but in fact the Catskills are geologically separate from the Appalachians, and, actually, they aren't mountains at all.

Technically speaking, the Catskills are what is known as a "dissected plateau." A dissected plateau is a geological plateau which has been subjected to enough uplift to cause it to rise noticeably above the surrounding landscape, and then severely eroded. The erosion carves out deep valleys and gullies, creating a landscape which looks and feels mountainous. The Allegheny Plateau, which houses the Catskills, stretches back and down into the neighboring states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia.

For all practical purposes, however, the Catskills look like mountains, feel like mountains, and act like mountains, with a range of hiking trails which can be used in the summer, and skiing and snowshoeing spots enjoyed by people in the winter. Although the Catskills are famously rocky, they are also covered abundantly in local plant species, making them quite attractive in the eyes of many nature lovers, and the terrain is quite varied, climbing as high as 4,204 feet (1,282 meters) in places and proving sweeping views of the surrounding river valleys.

There is some debate as to the name of the Catskills, and in fact the name wasn't set in stone until the 19th century. While the origins of the name are undoubtedly Dutch, the precise translation is disputed. Some people say that "Catskill" should be translated as "cat creek," a reference to the abundant rivers in the area and the once abundant mountain lions. Others believe that the Dutch word in the name is actually a reference to Native American fortification, which would have lined the rivers of the region.

America Explained is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a America Explained researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon1007435 — On Jul 09, 2022

The Catskill Mountains hosted two of the three iconic Woodstock Music & Art Festivals - the original 1969 festival in Bethel, NY (Sullivan County), and Woodstock ‘94 held in Saugerties, NY (Ulster County).

Woodstock ‘99 was held in Rome NY, (Oneida County), further upstate, outside of the Catskills.

By ether — On Jul 15, 2010

Popular hippie-rock ground The Band was photographed in the Catskills for their first album, Music From Big Pink. The Catskills are also mentioned in one their songs called "Time to Kill."

By jwal33 — On Jul 15, 2010

Both the burning train scene and the ferry scene in War of the Worlds were filmed at the foot of the Catskills in Albany, New York.

By skinnylove — On Jul 15, 2010

My favorite bed and breakfast spot in the Catskills is called River Run. It received the 2009 Catskill Service Award for Best Bed and Breakfast. It has twenty rooms, stained glass windows, and an acre of sloping backyard that leads to the Bushkill Stream. The view is breathtaking and the service is excellent. I love the mushroom quiche served as the hot item for breakfast!

By mendocino — On Jul 11, 2010

The famous Catskill Mountains were the location of the movie Dirty Dancing.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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