Swimming Holes, Small Creeks, Sandy Beaches and the River In Ulster County
Inside+Out Upstate NY sits down with local Ranger, Dave Holden to discuss the good, the bad and the ugly of our beloved Upstate NY waterways. With the sheer volume of visitors, which has forced local authorities to revamp policies (think Blue Hole Swimming Hole in Peekamoose), Dave shares what is working, what is not and suggestions for more water activities in the future.
Dave Holden: FEW LAKES AND PONDS – Lacking the number of lakes and ponds found further north, it’s always surprising to find that Ulster County still has many places to recreate on – and in – the water. These locations range widely – from large, well-known swimming holes on small creeks deep in the Catskills, to small beaches along major streams and large, sandy beaches on the Hudson River itself.
HISTORY – The history of public recreation in Ulster County really started in the early 1800s. It was at this time that New York City’s population started expanding outward in its quest for recreation opportunities. Most of this search was focused on the Hudson River, both as its own destination and as a gateway and travel route to cooler and less air-polluted points north. Part of this was due to the fact that wood was the only means of heating and because of that the air of Lower Manhattan (which was where most of the population was focused at that point) was becoming increasingly choked with soot and smoke. With the advent of Hudson River steamers that allowed passage for most upriver, many were able to escape – however temporarily – this situation and come up to the Hudson Valley to “get the air” as some called it. This was the era when large hotels were built in the mountains – the Kaaterskill Hotel, Catskill Mountain House, Overlook Mountain House – as well as many smaller ones like Mead Mountain House in Woodstock.
HISTORIC SWIMMING – I surmise that many New Yorkers, on traveling north to the Catskills in the late 1800s and early 20th century who expected to be able to swim locally were largely disappointed because at that time NYC had a wonderful reputation for providing swimming to its residents, starting in 1870 when the city built “floating baths” along the East- and Hudson Rivers which were immensely popular. Of course, as time went by, and the rivers got polluted, that era came to an end. In the ‘30s the Works Progress Agency (WPA) built 11 extraordinary large swimming pools. They were so well engineered and designed that they were able to be utilized year-round (after water was drained) for other purposes.
CONTEMPORARY SWIMMING – Not much has changed in our region except for the sheer volume of visitors, which has forced local authorities to revamp their policy. A noted example of what I’m referring to is the Peekamoose Blue Hole. Up until a few years ago, this beautiful spot was one of the area’s best-kept secrets. Thanks to a combination of the internet and the Pandemic this all changed – and for the worst. Suddenly, the number of visitors increased radically and left behind commensurate amounts of garbage – and worse. Finally, the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), coordinating with the Catskill Center (catskillcenter.org), came up with a brilliant way to control and repair this rapidly-deteriorating situation.
“Now, you can only visit Blue Hole with a permit which you have to have ahead of time (learn more here: ReserveAmerica.com) and it is staffed full-time by volunteer Stewards from the Center that educate the public and enforce the new rules. This has kept this wonderful spot from being closed – or ruined”
Now, you can only visit Blue Hole with a permit which you have to have ahead of time (learn more here: ReserveAmerica.com) and it is staffed full-time by volunteer Stewards from the Center that educate the public and enforce the new rules. This has kept this wonderful spot from being closed – or ruined. Kudos to DEC and Catskill Center! In my opinion, this multi-agency partnership is an example of how many of our complicated recreational issues can be solved (If Blue Hole is backed up, folks can contact catskillsvisitorcenter.org for alternatives).
Numerous small- and not-so-small towns along the region’s creeks that are trying to deal with similar issues can learn a lot from this joint effort. Woodstock (which has a long history of public swimming in the Sawkill, going back to Art Colony days) is an example of one local town trying to deal with swimming on public property along its streams. The only town I know of on the Esopus Creek that has a supervised beach is Saugerties. The only supervised swimming hole on the Upper Rondout Creek is the glorious Blue Hole and while the Wallkill River is gradually cleaning up, the preponderance of actual beaches is found along the Hudson (Kingston Point Beach, Sojourner Truth Park). The town of Pine Hill is to be greatly commended for its creation of Belleayre Beach to provide a wonderful place to swim, fish and boat. DECs Colgate Lake, up in Jewett, is a small, more rural lake also perfect for boating, fishing and swimming. In southern Ulster County, Minnewaska State Park offers swimming at Lake Minnewaska itself and is a popular destination. So much so that it is not unusual for its beach to be full, in which case the 3.5 miles hike slightly uphill to Lake Awosting (also in Minnewaska S.P.) is worth the walk and the hike will make these crystal-clear waters even more appreciated.
BOATING, FISHING & MIXED-USE – Swimming is certainly not the only form of water- recreation here. Obviously, boating in this area spans the full spectrum, from dealing with the powerful tides and currents on the Hudson in a kayak, motor- or sailboat, to paddling the more tranquil waters of Onteora Lake. The area also offers different types of fishing, ranging from famous fly-fishing for Brook-, Brown- and Rainbow Trout in the Upper Esopus to trolling for Lake Trout in the Ashokan Reservoir itself, fishing for panfish, Large- and Small-mouth Bass in the Lower Esopus and the seasonal Bluefish run on the Hudson.
“…with advances in modern water filtration, there is absolutely no logical reason that non-motorized, passive recreation (canoeing, kayaking, sailing and swimming) can’t be allowed in the numerous town- and City-owned reservoirs”
Keep in mind that many of these locations offer mixed-use – a combination of all of the above. For instance, with proper licensing, anyone who boats on the Hudson can fish there. Same with our lakes, ponds and streams, like Onteora Lake and Kenneth L. Wilson Park.
THE FUTURE – In the future, there is no reason we in Ulster County can’t add to our repertoire of watery recreational sites. The easiest and most logical way I see to do this is to “think out of the box”. We might ask ourselves “what incredible outdoor resource is right in front of us that is way under-utilized?”. One word (ok, two) – our reservoirs. I know this is controversial, but with advances in modern water filtration, there is absolutely no logical reason that non-motorized, passive recreation (canoeing, kayaking, sailing and swimming) can’t be allowed in the numerous town- and City-owned reservoirs. New York City already allows rowboats for fishing in all of its water bodies and kayaks and canoes are allowed in its Cannonsville, Neversink, Pepacton and Schoharie Reservoirs. I understand this comes with rules – rowboats have to stay where they are used and kayaks and canoes have to be steam-cleaned first. I think canoes and kayaks have been successful experiments and can be used at the Ashokan Reservoir. Kingston’s four reservoirs are another example of underutilized water bodies. Three of them are abandoned. Only Cooper Lake is used. They all present valid – and enjoyable – passive recreational potential.
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Article Written by “Ranger” Dave Holden