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Catskills Escape: Curves and Coolness in New York’s Reservoir Valleys

The Catskill Mountain region of New York State is home to green mountains, blue water and great motorcycle riding.

The Catskill Mountain region of New York State is home to green mountains, blue water and great motorcycle riding.

Photo Credit: Mike Koplen

Mike Koplen
November 7, 2012
Filed under Favorite Rides: Motorcycle Rides from Rider Readers, Motorcycle Rides, Roads and Self-Guided Travel

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Say “New York” and people think of Manhattan with its skyscrapers. But most of New York State is rural, with excellent motorcycle roads throughout. From my home in the lower Hudson Valley, I can ride 25 minutes south across the George Washington Bridge into the Big Apple, or head north and cruise over beautiful Bear Mountain with its woods, rivers and lake views. On this ride, I aimed for the legendary Catskill Mountains to tour the dairy farms, meadows and blue water reservoirs that provide New York City’s drinking water.

From my home in the lower Hudson Valley, I can ride 25 minutes south across the George Washington Bridge into the Big Apple, or head north and cruise over beautiful Bear Mountain with its woods, rivers and lake views. On this ride, I aimed for the legendary Catskill Mountains to tour the dairy farms, meadows and blue water reservoirs that provide New York City’s drinking water.

The Catskill Mountain Railroad still operates freight and passenger trains along historic routes.

The Catskill Mountain Railroad still operates freight and passenger trains along historic routes.

I began my adventure at 5 a.m., firing up the Ducati just as the first gray light illuminated the treetops. I am sure my neighbors appreciated the sonorous rumble of the Termignoni exhaust as I roared out of sleepy suburbia and streaked northward on the deserted Palisades. My biggest worry at this hour was deer. I scanned the roadsides for signs of grazing creatures. They were there all right, along with flocks of amorous wild turkeys. Suddenly a deranged turkey as tall as a stepladder zipped across the highway, playing chicken with the SportClassic. I missed him, but spotted several deer carcasses and red stains on the roadway—a sobering sight.

From the Palisades north of Harriman State Park, I picked up Route 6 and headed west across the highest mountains in the area. At the apex of Turkey Hill, I exited north onto Route 293. This is a lightly-traveled modern highway with magnificent open views. It leads to the U.S. military academy at West Point. Since the 9/11 attacks you can no longer just ride in, though you can take a bus tour. When I reached the guardhouse, I waved to the sentries, made a U-turn and headed back to Route 6, descended the mountain and then merged to the west onto Route 17. No security clearance for me today.

The Cannonsville Reservoir in the Catskill Mountains is one of several fresh water repositories of drinking water for the Big Apple.

The Cannonsville Reservoir in the Catskill Mountains is one of several fresh water repositories of drinking water for the Big Apple.

Route 17 is the main escape route of New Yorkers to the Catskills, but at 5:45 a.m. on this Sunday, I had the road to myself. The GT1000 was focused as it streamed north on this long, empty, rolling ribbon of concrete.

In an hour I was deep in rural New York. There were signs for mulch products, tractor dealers and fly fishing camps. I rode north of the now ghostly Borscht Belt, where Sinatra sang and Marciano trained. It is all crumbled away now, deserted in favor of more hip vacation spots. The air was fresh and cool. On all sides of me, the green Catskill Mountains beckoned, the early sunlight piercing the morning mist.

At 7 a.m., I exited the superslab and took the ramp at Exit 84 onto Rural Route 10 at the village of Deposit, New York. Route 10 is a great motorcycle road. It runs alongside and across the Cannonsville Reservoir, past dairy farms, meadows and woodlands, and then 155 miles north up into the Adirondacks. It leads to a whole network of winding two-lane roads that traverse the mountains and valleys of northern New York State and has superb views. Best of all, it is virtually deserted, traveled only by a few locals and other bikes. It’s the kind of road that you can happily ride in both directions in a day.

I had traveled 127 miles to get to this point, where the great riding begins. But as I eagerly rode up a crest, preparing for the descent into the valley, a wall of fog suddenly appeared ahead of me. It was so thick it looked like a gray woolen blanket spread over the valley. I may be an eager fool, but I was not about to ride my bike into that soup. After two hours on Route 17, this was disappointing! But it was only 7 a.m., so I had plenty of time to wait for the fog to burn off in the valley.

Some haze clings to the hills near the western shore of the Cannonsville Reservoir, which extends over 16 miles of the West Branch of the Delaware River.

Some haze clings to the hills near the western shore of the Cannonsville Reservoir, which extends over 16 miles of the West Branch of the Delaware River.

I pulled over into the lot of a little country store with a gas pump, filled the Ducati’s tank and went inside, taking my place at a little plastic table in back with a cup of mud-flavored coffee, a rubbery bagel and a courtesy copy of The Catskill Daily Mail. According to its masthead it was first published in 1792. This issue featured a particularly fascinating article about the stray cat problem in Athens, New York.

At about 8 a.m., the fog suddenly vanished as if vacuumed up by some officious maid in the sky. I leapt on the bike and headed down to the Cannonsville Reservoir between the green mountains. I was relieved to figure out that the odor I suddenly smelled was a dairy farm and not the inside of my helmet. The road is nicely paved and level, with nice long sweepers and wide shoulders. No need for high speed on this pastoral route. Yeah, right.

Some say the Catskills are named after the wildcats that live here, but no one is really sure. The legacy of these hills reaches way back into American pre-history. Native Americans hunted and fished here from time immemorial, followed in the 1600s by Dutch settlers, who smoked long clay pipes, played ninepins and built farming villages. This is where Rip Van Winkle met the ghosts of Henry Hudson’s crew, stole a drink from their bottle and took a 20-year nap.

The town of Granton is one of 23 old towns submerged under the Cannonsville Reservoir waters.

The town of Granton is one of 23 old towns submerged under the Cannonsville Reservoir waters.

Route 10 follows the reservoir, sometimes along the shore and other times crossing the water with concrete bridges. Along the way, the tiny villages of Walton, Delhi and Hobart, the Book Village, sport weathered, hand-painted welcome signs reminding visitors of their pre-Revolutionary War roots.

But I was most struck by the signs posted in tribute to the towns that lie under the reservoir waters. Placed on the shoreline, they read, “Former Site of Cannonsville,” “Former Site of Olive Bridge,” “Former Site of Brown’s Station.” Altogether, 23 towns were obliterated more than a century ago when New York City dammed the Delaware River and its tributaries and flooded the valleys. The rising waters swallowed homes, farms, gardens, schools and stores. Thousands of people were relocated, and hundreds of bodies and skeletons, many dating back to the 1600s, were dug and up and reburied before the waters wiped away the towns of their interment. On eBay, you can find antique postcards featuring picturesque scenes from the vanished mountain towns, such as Cannonsville and Gilboa, now submerged Atlantis-like under the waters of the 19 reservoirs. Each day, more than a billion gallons of fresh, clean Catskill Mountain water flows by the force of gravity through aqueducts to the sinks, glasses, bathtubs and bars of 10 million thirsty New York City denizens nearly 200 miles to the south.

After taking this all in, it was time to focus on the riding on the way home. These roads are some of the best-kept secrets of New York. The air-cooled Desmo just loved zinging around the curves and opening up on the long, empty straightaways, and I was really glad to be out there riding in the gorgeous reservoir valleys of the Catskill Mountains.

(This Favorite Ride article was published in the November 2012 issue of Rider magazine.)

Route 10 is nearly empty of traffic and passes through the green Catskill Mountains and along the shores of blue water reservoirs.

Route 10 is nearly empty of traffic and passes through the green Catskill Mountains and along the shores of blue water reservoirs.

Dairy farms dot the Catskill landscape.

Dairy farms dot the Catskill landscape.

A map of the route taken by Bill Tipton, compartmaps.com.

A map of the route taken by Bill Tipton, compartmaps.com.

Cannonsville was one of 23 towns that were forever lost when the Delaware River was dammed to create reservoirs for thirsty New Yorkers 200 miles to the south.

Cannonsville was one of 23 towns that were forever lost when the Delaware River was dammed to create reservoirs for thirsty New Yorkers 200 miles to the south.

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