"I will never kick a rock"

The glaciers of Overlook 10-19-17

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The Glaciers of Overlook

The Woodstock Times

Aug 22, 1996

Robert Titus


Mountaintops develop over millions of years and they show all the scars of those great lengths of time. If you know what to look for, you can read a lot of the history that those scars record. Such is certainly the case with Overlook Mountain. The mountain is virtually a history book, recording the events of the great glaciations that once buried the Woodstock area in thousands of feet of ice.

Overlook has long been a popular goal for day hikers. The final stretch of trail leads to the old fire tower at the mountain’s summit. As you round the last turn and approach the tower you will find considerable bedrock at your feet and that is where the story begins. Bedrock is common on the mountain but here it is different; it has a polished look. Also there are long straight gouges, called glacial striations, on its surface. These are the unmistakable signs of the great ice sheet that once covered Overlook.


Glaciers move slowly, but they do move. A great thick glacier, as it passes across a knob of rock, will act like a sheet of sandpaper; it will grind the rock down. The bottom of the glacier is dirty with sand, gravel, cobbles and boulders. The sand causes the polishing. The last few cobbles to be dragged across the rock leave the striations. Hence, the features at the top of Overlook.

The fire tower site thus conjures up quite an image. This location is more than 3,100 feet above sea level and more than 2,500 feet above the floor of the Hudson Valley. The glacier must have been a half mile thick  . . . or more. This is known to science as the Woodfordian advance of the Wisconsin glaciation of about 23,000 years ago. With the possible exception of Slide Mountain, it seems likely that all the Catskill Mountains were covered by the Wisconsin ice sheet. The Catskills then resembled Antarctica or Greenland of today.

We can read the nature of the ice’s movement. There is a compass direction to the striations, a little west of south. The ice sheet must have been relatively thin at first. It seems to have been channeled southward down the Hudson Valley. Then, as it thickened, it swelled up out of the valley and flowed southwest across Overlook Mountain.

The fire tower site is only the first stop in an exploration of the Overlook glaciation. From the fire tower, head east to the ledge which looms over the Hudson Valley with Lewis Hollow immediately below. The site was a popular one during the hotel days. The drop-off is an impressive one and this is a fine example of sheer cliff. The cliff faces a little west of south. And so it is oriented with flow of the ice. That betrays its glacial origins.

The cliff is an example of what is called “glacial plucking.” Ice tends to stick to rock, and so as the ice passed across the south end of the Mountain, this adherence caused it to yank or pluck loose large mases of rock. After enough of this plucking a cliff developed.

You will find the occasional boulder on top of Overlook; I found an especially large one right on the brink of the cliff. These are called glacial erratics. They had been plucked off somewhere to the north and dragged south to this site. They were left behind when the ice melted. Once there were probably a lot more erratics near the edge of the cliff. Alf Evers, in his history of the Catskills, records that all the smaller ones were, long ago, pushed over the edge. The sport was called “boulder rolling.”

Still, there are a lot of erratics on Overlook – away from the cliff. Take the trail back down the hill. To the right, just past the ruins of the old Overlook Mountain House Hotel, is another plucked ledge. Below it the woods are littered with an abundance of erratics. There is no cliff here to push them over.

Before leaving Overlook it is worth returning to the ledge. Gaze out into the valley and with your mind’s eye you can visualize the time when it was filled with a stream of ice flowing south. The ice gleamed white with an abundance of dark blue curved crevasses. Its tide slowly rose up the valley walls and eventually overtopped the mountain. All the Catskills were soon a vast Arctic wasteland. It’s quite a scene to imagine, a scene now only recorded in the rooks.

Contact the author at titusr@hartwick.edu.

Poet’s Ledge 10-13-17

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A hike to Poet’s Ledge

Windows Through Time

Oct. 4, 2012

Robert Titus


I wonder how many of you understand just how philosophical we geologists can be. We tend to find ourselves drawn to some fine geological location; then we come to a pause in our rambles, and we drift, insensibly, into deep trance-like thoughts, usually involving thoughts of the immensity of time.

Well, it happens to me – all the time. One of my favorite locations for rambling into the past is a trek to “Poet’s Ledge” in Kaaterskill Clove. If that sounds like a nice place to hike to, then you are right. It’s a gorgeous ledge of sandstone, perched near the top of the eastern end of the clove. It has a spectacular view of this spectacular chasm. You gaze west and you take it in – in its entirety. It can become a profoundly philosophical experience, an almost dangerous one.

From up there, the clove is almost unblemished. You can see the highway that ascends it, but very little of anything else “civilized.” It’s almost pure raw wilderness from up there. We geologists gaze into the clove and see it as it developed, probably over the past 120,000 years. Much of the clove was eroded towards the end of the Wisconsin phase of the Ice Age. That was a time, between 10,000 and 18,000 years ago when the glaciers that had over-ridden the Catskills were in full retreat. They were melting away and enormous cascades of water must have been coming down the canyon of Kaaterskill Clove.

When I find myself at the top of Poet’s Ledge, it is impossible for me not to ponder such moments. I look up the clove and I see glaciers in the highlands. In my mind’s eye it is always an overcast day. The weather is unusually warm for the Ice Age, but this is the end of that time and warm is okay. The glaciers up there are gray on this cloudy day. They are totally disintegrating in the warmth. I always pick the day when the melting is at its all-time peak. Actually I pick the very hour when the flow hits its maximum. When I am in a mind’s eye mood I can do this sort of thing.

I look up the clove at that great high-elevation ice once again. Then I notice that, exactly where Haines Falls is today, there is a break in the ice. A roof has caved in right there, and I can see an enormous current of water. It is an absolutely enormous fire hose of ice water. The flow comes from a hidden sub-glacial Kaaterskill Creek. It reached where the falls are today and then momentum carries it forward so that it could bore its way through the ice and create a great cavity. I gaze at the flow of water passing through that cavity.

Below, there is, once again, a roof of ice. Much of Kaaterskill Clove is still filled with ice. The creek is confined to a tunnel passing down the canyon beneath that ice. It is a very erosive flow of water and much of what we know as the clove today is being carved down there.

Across the clove is another flow of water. It pours off the mountaintop, just west of Indian Head. The water, up there, is visible, but it quickly disappears into another hole in the ice. There are two sub-glacial torrents in Kaaterskill Clove and now, for the first time, I notice – and appreciate – and understand the terrible muffled roar that I hear.

The two sub-glacial flows form a confluence immediately below, almost a thousand feet down. All downstream from here the roof of ice has entirely caved in. The torrent of water continues rushing down the lower canyon. Right now the “Red Chasm” of Kaaterskill Clove is being given birth to by these powerful, raging, foaming, pounding, thundering, whitewater torrents. From here echo’s a thundering roar; nothing is muffled about this sound. It deafens the ears.

This panorama from Poet’s Ledge is a horrifying scene of nature’s rawest power. The sights, the sounds, and the pounding vibrations all combine to make a jarringly terrifying scene. The pounding meltwaters are cascading, crashing, coming down the canyon with the power of a small asteroid. Never before has there been so much power here; never again will there be this much.

And then it all ends; I am not alone; I am with a group of hikers. We have been sitting on the ledge, having lunch. They are talking and laughing; I have drifted away. Reach the author at titusr@hartwick.edu


A night on Overlook Mountain 10-5-17

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A Night on Overlook Mountain

Robert Titus

Kaatskiill Life, 1994

THE ROAD to Overlook Mountain used to be important. It served two main functions: It brought resort tourists up to the mountain’s hotels. Several were built there in succession; they all burned. Also it brought downhill lumbering wagons loaded with Catskill bluestone from the area quarries. Today the road is no longer important. It can’t even be called a road anymore; it is just a hiking trail.

The trip to the top of Overlook is well worth the effort as the peak offers one of the best views in all of the Catskills. To visit this mountain in the early fall, just as the leaves are turning, and to spend the night there under a rising full moon is one of the great experiences of our Catskills. The climb up the path is a bit tedious, however. The trail has none of the interesting steep, rocky stretches that you usually encounter on Catskill trails, just a steady, grinding incline. You know that the long climb is nearly over when you reach the old walls of the last of the Overlook Mountain House hotels. The ruin is a gem. Four stories tall and composed of poured cement, it has the look of something that will be there for an eternity. It won’t.

Beyond the hotel is the mountaintop itself and a state fire tower with its panoramic view. The peak is windswept, and large knobs of rock poke through the thin soils. The strata speak to the geologist and tell of the ancient Acadian Mountains which once lay to the east, but are now nearly entirely eroded away. The rocks we see here were once coarse sands, sediment which accumulated on the slopes of those long ago mountains. These are not sediments anymore; time has hardened them into rock.

Sunset is subtle: The afternoon light dims imperceptibly and then the sky darkens rapidly. This location has been here for four and one half billion years and the site has witnessed all of the sunsets that such a length of time brings. To the east, exactly as the sun descends, a full moon rises; it is the fabled, harvest moon. The first lights to join the moon are the brightest stars; they are soon joined by the lesser lights of the full moon’s sky.

I will have no fire at this night’s camp. I would enjoy the heat, as it is no longer warm out. I wish instead to be alone in time here and I do not want any bright lights to distract me from participating in this particular cycle of time.

Off to the east are the Berkshire Mountains. These beautiful and serene hills are the remnants of the much older Acadian Mountains which once towered over this horizon. It grows fully dark now and the Berkshire landscapes stand in sharp contrast under the rising moonlight. As the moon continues its ascent, it draws away from the mountains and they fade into the darkness. With an evening mist, the lights of civilization in the valley below also disappear.

The Berkshires were not always here, but it has now been four hundred million years that the moon has been rising above their silhouettes. Before then the view was not that of New England but of an ancient ocean, the Iapetus Sea, unblemished by any land masses, let alone mountains. Back then it must have seemed as if that sea’s stretch extended forever into the east. But that was false and there were clues of something going on out there beyond the eastern horizon. From time to time, dark clouds of smoke rose above the horizon. First they were only low, dim and distant, but later they appeared larger and darker than ever before. There had to have been a day, a moment in time, when a single pinnacle of land first emerged upon that horizon. During the lifetime of any Devonian age creature, no change would have been noticed, but as many lifetimes passed, that pinnacle was transformed from an occasional glimpse to a permanent fixture upon the seascape, growing larger and broader. Occasionally great, thunderous roars would emanate from that eastern monolith and sometimes even lightning could be seen within the billowing black masses of soot. It was the nighttime and moonlit eruptions which were the most spectacular. The immense, rising clouds of dense smoke, sharply outlined in moonlight, would have been unforgettable – had anyone been there to remember.

In between these more and more frequent volcanic episodes, the peaks of the now great mountain range became white with snow. Even here in the tropics they had grown tall enough. Beneath the snowy fringe, the mountains were a desolate brown and lifeless gray. But as they loomed taller and closer, a thin low red horizon competed with those elevated but more somber colors. Then finally, joining the red, was a very low wisp of green.

The Overlook Mountain vicinity had once gazed out upon the unbroken blue of the Iapetus Sea, but now it would witness the disappearance of that sea. The red and green horizon grew closer and the image sharpened into that of a low tropical foliage growing upon the brick red soils of a coastal delta. These were the world’s most primitive forests, dominated by twins of the great tree ferns. Crawling the soils were the first land animals, primitive insects, millipedes and spiders. These were the pioneers of forest ecology, and forest ecology is the chief claim to fame of the great Catskill Delta.

The delta advanced slowly, but it could not be stopped; time cannot be stopped. The waters went from salt to fresh; they suddenly grew murky and brown, and the Overlook vicinity was buried. The shrouds of burial were the sediments of the rivers, lakes and swamps of the great delta. These soft, warm sediments encased and preserved much of the delta forests.

Millions of years, then tens of millions of years of blackness followed. The pressure of the thickening sediment intensified. The great delta became a petrifaction, its soft warm sediments hardened into cold stone sculptures of rivers, lakes, marshes and forests. After about one hundred and fifty million years of increasing pressure, the weight of the overburden stopped growing. And, after a long pause, the pressure, ever so slowly, began to lessen.

If it was possible for light to penetrate rock, even a little, then, over the next 200 million years the Overlook vicinity would have become dimly and then brightly illuminated. But this does not happen; light does not pass through rock and Overlook lay, for all of this time, in complete blackness.

The sleep of Overlook was dreamless and darker than anything humans can know. It was deepest and coldest just before the dawn. Above there were thick and heavy glaciers grinding their way southward. The full moon, now low in the western sky, brightly illuminated a plain of arctic desolation, extending in all directions as far as could be seen. Only in the west were there peaks that rose above this crystalline sea. These appeared as silhouettes of black against the radiant moonlit horizon.

The processes of weathering and erosion do their work slowly but they never quit. Glaciers do speed up the process and the inevitable results are sudden: the breakthrough occurred and sunlight, for the first time in 400 million years, warmed the strata of Overlook.

*      *      *

Just exactly as the harvest moon sinks beneath the horizon, the new day’s sun breaks above the cloud banks of the Hudson below. This view, a Frederic Church masterpiece, has returned once again as it has for millions of years, and as it will for millions more.

I sleepily watch the sunrise above the low fogs of the Hudson Valley. Beyond there is neither an Iapetus Sea nor an Acadian Mountain Range to be seen, only the low blue hills of the Taconics. I am stiff and cold and in need of coffee. That can be found in the lowlands below, where I will soon return.

Time, the English geologist James Hutton observed, gives us no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end.


Visions of the past – Molly Smith’s parking lot

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The Hudson River Art Trail: Site four, Kaaterskill Clove

Windows Through Time

Feb. 26, 2015

Robert and Johanna Titus


Today we continue our journey following the Hudson River Art Trail. Conceived and implemented by Cedar Grove, the Thomas Cole Historic Site, the Art Trail takes visitors to sites where they can view the scenery first painted by members of the Hudson River School of Art. Today we visit site number four. That is Kaaterskill Clove. Windows Through Time has visited the Clove frequently to describe the geology that is there in abundance. Today is no exception, but we will view the geology in terms of the landscape it produced and the landscape art that it inspired.

The art trail guide will lead you to the Molly Smith parking lot. That’s a bit more than halfway up the mountain along Rte. 23A. It’s the most substantial parking lot in Kaaterskill Clove. If you get there before 10:00 on most weekdays you will probably find a space to park. If you come on a summer weekend, then we wish you good luck. If you can park, you will be drawn toward the back of the lot where you will find an art trail poster. These are to be found at all sites. They explain what was painted at each particular location.


Beyond the Molly Smith poster is a fine view of Kaaterskill Clove. It shows the deep chasm that is there. It is a yawning gulf that stretches out far downstream and almost as far upstream. The dimensions are impressive. From Haines Falls where it begins, down to Palenville where it ends, it stretches almost five miles. It’s a mile across and, at its deepest, it’s roughly 1,500 feet from top to bottom. We think that it is the best scenery east of the Rocky Mountains!

The artists of the Hudson River School surely thought so as well. They visited here and frequently painted it. There are good vantage points at Haines and Kaaterskill Falls. More views can be obtained from the cliffs rising above Rte. 23A. We love the view from Poet’s Ledge.

That one offers the best vista looking west and up the canyon. Wonderful views can also be seen from the trails which follow the north and south rims of the Clove.

Thomas Cole painted it in 1825. The Clove was visited and painted by Asher Brown Durand, and Frederic Church. What landscape artist could resist such a place? But, although we are geologists, we believe we are inspired much as they were. But, more to the point, we see this landscape as they could not, and we paint it with words. Our views and our word paintings are rooted in the distant ice age past.

Our vantage point requires the challenging hike to Poet’s Ledge. You take the Blue Trail up from Palenville and turn right onto the Yellow Trail. Soon you descend onto a fine bluestone ledge which rewards your efforts with a sweeping and truly breathtaking panorama of the whole clove. It must be the best clove view that can be found. Make this hike at the peak of the leaf season and see if you can ever forget this scene.

But we see it as it was toward the end of the Ice Age, and, not just any moment, but a very special one. The closing chapters of that glacial epoch witnessed the melting of the ice that had covered the Catskills. Stand on Poet’s Ledge and look up. Once a full 2,000 feet of ice lay above. Think about that for a moment, and then imagine what happened when it all melted.  Our journey into the late ice age past will take us to see that.

There must have been day and an hour when more meltwater passed down this clove than ever had before and ever would again. We stand atop Poet’s Ledge and we see the very moment all this was happening. We look up and see a thunderous fountain of water emerging from the top of a nearly hidden Haines Falls. The speed of this monumental jet is so great that momentum carries the water out far above the canyon before gravity can pull it down. This peculiar ancient Haines Falls makes the modern falls pale in significance. That great spout drops to the bottom of the canyon and its flow is soon joined by a rush of water almost as powerful. This one is emerging from the canyon below Kaaterskill Falls.

Now the two flows combine to make a single powerful torrent, flowing on down the gorge. The roars echo off its steep walls. These are the reverberations of the surges that carved the chasm those artists painted. We have been watching the actual formation of Kaaterskill Clove.

Contact the authors at randjtitus@prodigy.net. Join their facebook page ”The Catskill Geologist.”


Visions of the past -Mountain House

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The Hudson River Art Trail: Part Eight, the Mountain House ledge

Windows Through Time

Robert and Johanna Titus

Columbia Greene Newspapers

March 26, 2015


We have been traveling along the first nine sites of the Hudson River School of Art Trail. This has been taking us to various locations where the great 19th Century landscape artists once stood and conceived many of their works.  The trail was sponsored and implemented by Cedar Grove, the Thomas Cole National Historic Site. Our goal has been to demonstrate that each of these sites, renowned for its scenic beauty, was the direct result of ice age events that occurred perhaps 20,000 years ago. We have been arguing that it was the ice that sculpted the beauty that those artists painted.

Today we have arrived at site number eight, the great ledge where the famed Catskill Mountain House Hotel once stood.  Thomas Cole stayed there on his first visit to the Catskills in the autumn of 1825. From the hotel he went exploring the wilderness of South Mountain. He sketched what he saw, and turned those sketches into canvases that began the Hudson River School of Art. If you visit the site today, you will find that the hotel is long gone, burned to the ground about a half century ago: arson by agents of the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).  The ledge remains, and it must look much as it did before the Hotel was built. It forms a massive cliff of Catskill bluestone that commands a 70 mile panorama of the Hudson Valley.

What did the Ice Age have to do with this mass of rock? We must find out. We take a mind’s eye journey into the deep past. We travel through time until we arrive at the very moment when the glaciers were just about ready to overwhelm the Mountain House ledge.  We are now standing on the very same sandstones, but we have gone roughly 20,000 years into the past. The Ice Age has been underway for several millennia now, and a great glacier has almost filled the Hudson Valley. Surprisingly, the ledge sticks out perhaps 15 feet farther into the valley than it did when we left modern times. We walk out those extra 15 feet and stand on what is for us a new edge of the cliff.

Immediately before us is the glacier. It is past sunset on an April 3rd and so it’s now completely dark. We can’t see very far out onto the ice. But we can hear it. This ice age version of spring has been relatively warm and that has accelerated the southward flow of the ice. As the brittle ice lurches forward, it generates quite a racket of groans, cracks, and pops. It is tonight, a very active and noisy glacier.

Now a dim glow appears across the valley. It’s a nearly full moon, about to rise above the Taconic Mountains. Its brilliant sheen creates a silhouette above the profile of those otherwise black mountains.  The moon bursts above the highest peak and shines down upon the now moonlit valley glacier.

We turn around and look up toward the slopes of an equally illuminated South Mountain. They are blanketed with new snow. Poking through that snow are the stumps of ancient trees. There had been a forest here before the ice age. Those trees all died and only these stumps remain as a testament of the dense woodland that was once here.

We look up and see snow covered slopes shimmering with a silvery luster, created by the moonlight. It is a most impressive vision; we recognize how fortunate we are to witness this. We are drawn upwards; we start an ascent of South Mountain. After climbing a few hundred feet, we turn around and look down into the valley again. Now we really can survey all that is before us. An ice age midnight approaches, and the moon is high in the sky. Its brilliance lights up the ice all across the valley.

The silvery gleam of the glacier is broken by great jet black fractures. These are the enormous crevasses that form in a valley glacier while, like tonight, it is actively moving.  The brittle ice cannot bend; any stresses within it result in great fractures. These occur from time to time, and they generate the very loud cracking sounds that sporadically echo off the mountain slopes.

But suddenly we hear something far louder. The advancing ice has formed a tight bond with the Mountain House ledge bedrock. That has generated stresses that eventually cannot be resisted. The moving ice has just ripped loose an enormous mass of rock, 15 feet of it. We have witnessed the violent formation of the modern Mountain House ledge, the ledge that attracted so many artists.

But, none of them ever painted this scene.

Contact the authors at randjtitus@prodigy.net. Join their facebook page “The Catskill Geologist.”



Visions of distant past – The boulder rock ledge 9-15-17

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Visions of a distant past: The ledge at Boulder Rock

Robert and Johanna Titus

Never before published


If we are wearing the right shoes, we can climb to the top of Boulder Rock and get a much better view. Looking south, we can see Kaaterskill Clove; looking southeast, we see the southern Hudson Valley; looking east, we see the Taconic Mountains and, finally, looking north, we can see much more of the Hudson, stretching almost to Albany.

But it is not today’s scenery that captivates us; it is an image from the distant past. We geologists are like that. When we are standing atop Boulder Rock we can transport ourselves into the past of some 14,000 years ago. We stand upon the boulder again, but now in a different moment of time, and before us lies the Hudson Valley as it was during the latter stages of the Ice Age. We have arrived here just a few minutes before dawn on a cloudy day. The cloud cover is thin and so a lot of defused sunlight manages to penetrate it. This Ice Age Hudson Valley is cloudy but well lit.


The climate has, in recent times, warmed considerably and the glacier has begun vacating the valley. But there is still a lot of ice out there. An enormous glacier had once been advancing down the Hudson and, at its peak, it had risen up well


above the Boulder Rock ledge. In fact it had overridden all of South Mountain, and North Point too. But, recent centuries have seen it melting away.

Still, the valley remains almost filled with ice. The glacier is almost 2,000 feet thick out there, just a short distance to the east. And, stretching beyond that, the ice reaches all the way to the Taconic Mountains on the other side of the valley, a distance of many miles. Those mountains rise above the glacier. They lack much in the way of color. They can, this morning, only muster a darker shade of gray, enough to contrast with the glacier. The ice is also gray, but mostly a lighter tint of that dull “color.” As it has melted away, soot has been brought to the surface to discolor it.

The surface of the glacier is irregular; here and there we can see shallow pools of water. These never get very big; they always find a way to drain down into the ice below. The bottom of the glacier cannot be seen, but it is very wet down there. The glacier is broken by great fissures; these originally formed as crevasses, back when the ice was still advancing to the south. The brittle ice could not stand the strain of movement and it gave way and fractured. But that was long ago; now the old cracks have lost their once sharp edges. These have gradually melted away. Warming climates have taken a toll. The glacier has an aged look to it.

Time passes and the rising sun has broken through the thin cloud cover and now sunshine radiates across the entire vista. As the sun continues its ascent, the ledge all around basks in its warmth. Even in these cold times the sun can warm things up. Some of that radiation is reflected downwards. That is probably why there is a great gap between the boulder rock ledge and the ice below it. Sunshine has melted away the nearby ice to open up this yawning chasm. The hours pass by and soon it is midday. Now it can be seen that the sunlight is shining directly into the gap and its walls of ice have become shiny with fresh meltwater.

But this day will last no longer than any other; the sun continues its inevitable traverse off to the west. Near the end of the afternoon it disappears into another bank of clouds, much thicker this time. Now the weather changes quickly; it grows windy and cold. Soon a heavy snowfall begins. By early evening a thin bank of snow has drifted up against the western side of Boulder Rock.

Past midnight the skies clear, the winds die down, and it grows truly frigid. The stars are bright, even in this night’s full moon. For long hours before the next day’s dawn, the Hudson Valley is illuminated in the moon’s spooky silvery light. Cold, silent and dead, it is a wondrous sight to behold. Contact the authors at randjtitus@prodigy.net. Join their facebook page “The Catskill Geologist.”

Visions 9 – view from Sunset Rock – 9-8-17

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Visions of an Ice Age past – Sunset Rock

On the Rocks   

The Woodstock Times

August 1, 2013

Robert and Johanna Titus


We have been following the Hudson River Art Trail in our recent “On the Rocks” columns. The Art Trail project has been under the primary sponsorship of Cedar Grove, the Thomas Cole National Historic Site. That’s Thomas Cole’s old home, located near the Rip Van Winkle Bridge in the Village of Catskill. The two of us have been associated with Cedar Grove since its founding, a little more than ten years ago. We have taken great pride in watching as this historic site has blossomed into a center for the study of America’s great landscape art of the 19th Century. Our role in all these columns has been to bring an understanding of the geological history that lies just beneath the surface of those landscapes. This is almost all a story of the Ice Age and we continue that today. We have arrived at site seven on the Art Trail: Sunset Rock.

Sunset Rock is a sizable boulder, lying at the top of a sizable ledge of sandstone which overlooks North Lake and one of the Catskills most memorable views. It’s another one of those locations where all the personalities of the Hudson River School came to look and often to paint. Not surprisingly Thomas Cole got there first and, not surprisingly, all of the rest of them followed. We like Cole’s view done in 1843. Jasper Cropsey followed suit in 1855, and we are very fond of the canvas he did there. You will have no trouble finding these and many more online. Sanford Robinson Gifford’s version is currently (summer, autumn 2017) on display at Cedar Grove.

The view here is grand, even by standards set in the Catskills. You stand next to Sunset Rock, or better still, climb up on it and gaze to the south. To your left is the expanse of the Hudson Valley. Out there you can see the Shawangunks as well. More immediately, in front of you are North and South Lakes. South Mountain rises above them. You have to imagine what is lost: the Mountain House Hotel and the Hotel Kaaterskill once were both clearly visible from here. In the far distance you can sense the presence of Kaaterskill Clove far more than actually see it. Above the Clove you can observe both High Mountain and Round Top. Hikers come to Sunset Rock at all times of the year and they are always rewarded with a variety of scenic images. Everybody’s favorite season is at the height of the fall colors but every time of the year pays dividends to the avid hiker. In short, if you have not gone there – you must!

Our very first visit, together, brought us a strong sense of what the glaciers had done to shape this view. Earlier chapters in this series have described the formation of the two lakes down below; this visit will focus on the glaciers descending and flooding in from the north. Are you interested? If so you are likely to take the yellow trail when you are coming to Sunset Rock. You need to have a sharp eye and you need to know exactly what to look for, but the signs of glaciation are to be found on this trail. What those signs speak of is the immense weight and power of the glaciers that were once here.

You watch the trail carefully and you begin to notice that the sandstones beneath your feet frequently display cobbles, rocks long ago buried with the surrounding Devonian age sands. What happened is that, with the advance of the ice, some of these were literally cut through and planed off. The ice contained a lot of sand at its bottom and the weight of the glacier pressed down on the sand and turned the ice into a sheet of sandpaper. That ground into many of those cobbles and planed them off. What you see today are shiny, flat surfaces at the top of all such cobbles, surfaces that are level with the ground all around.

                                                                                                                   Planed off cobble

All of this speaks of the advance of a glacier, but there is more: there is Sunset Rock itself. That scenic boulder is what geologists call a glacial erratic. That’s a boulder that was transported within the ice of that same moving glacier. It was picked up, somewhere to the north, and dragged to where it is found today. We have located erratics that appear to have arrived in the Catskills after journeys from as far away as the Adirondack Mountains. This one probably only came a mile or so; it is a local rock type. But it does speak to us of the enormous power of the glacier that brought it here, and it also speaks to us of glaciers that were once this high up in the mountains. That goes to the heart of our story.

Sunset Rock begins its story at a time just as the Ice Age was approaching its peak. We stand there and see thick glaciers filling the Hudson Valley below and then rising up to overflow the very Wall of Manitou, the Catskill Front. The story continues right before us. Glaciers are now advancing out of the Hudson Valley and flooding across the sites of North and South Lakes. Nothing seems able to stop or even slow the rising tide of ice. We watch as South Mountain is first encircled by the glaciers and then entirely submerged by them. Across the valley, the Taconics and Berkshires are disappearing beneath the frozen white, engulfed by the vast swelling of the eastern flank of the Hudson Valley glacier. We turn and look north in time to see more ice advancing south, crossing the crest of North Point. All of the Catskill Front is soon enshrouded in ice. It’s the weight and power of that ice which has produced almost all of the scenery here. It accomplished the planing off of those cobbles and brought that erratic to where it is today. How big and thick was this glacier? We can’t tell for sure, but this ice will not stop rising until it has covered virtually all of the Catskills. Right now, it has another 2,000 feet to go.

But when we stand atop the ledge at Sunset Rock we gaze ahead of us, and our mind’s eyes take us into the another important moment in the past. Now the climate has changed; it has warmed and the ice is melting. We stand upon the great ledge just when the Sunset Rock boulder is emerging from the snow and ice. All the lowlands beyond are still encased in thick ice; both lakes and even South Mountain are still invisible. It’s all a blinding white in the noonday sun.

Nobody ever painted this scene.

The pedestal rock at Mink Hollow

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Putting You on to a Pedestal

On The Rocks

Robert Titus titusr@hartwick.edu

August 19, 1999


If you live in Woodstock then one of the most accessible of the Catskill hiking trails is the one at Mink Hollow. Head west on Rt. 212 and then, just past Cooper Lake, turn north on Mink Hollow Road. At the end of the road you will find parking and the trail head. Soon you can begin your day on the blue trail. The hike will take you up what was once actually a highway of some importance. Vehicles, loaded with people and goods from as far away as Prattsville traveled on it with destinations in Woodstock and beyond. There are still paved Mink Hollow Roads both north and south, but here in between, the trail stopped being a public road long ago. Today the path takes you up to Mink Hollow itself. That’s a deep, narrow gap in the mountains, mostly cut during the ice age. Beyond Mink Hollow the trail veers off to the northeast and takes you along Roaring Kill to another trail head on Elka Park Road. It’s a nice easy walk in the woods, and that’s nice in the summer. It stops being easy if you want to climb Sugarloaf or Plateau Mountains. Those are tough climbs, but well worth the effort. They are, however, another story for another day.


There is one very nice geological feature to see here, however, and that is my subject for today. In Mink Hollow itself there is a lean-to, built to give hikers a place to spend the night. Just south of this lean-to there is a wonderful example of what glacial geologists call pedestal rocks. You can’t miss them. They are immediately east of the trail, just about 100 yards short of the lean-to. They make a most striking feature. There are three good-sized boulders. Two of them are next to each at the bottom of the heap, while the third is a cross bar, lying atop the others and bridging the two.

                                                                                         The Mink Hollow pedestal rock

Just how on earth could such natural Stonehenge happen? First of all, nobody stacked them here; there were never any Druids in the Catskills and the boulders are far too large and isolated for any other people to have bothered with them. Nature did this, and geologists long ago figured out how. Our story takes us back to the end of the ice age. At that time, probably about 16,000 years ago, there was a large glacier, filling all of the Schoharie Creek Valley to the north. A large tongue of that glacier poked through Mink Hollow, and pushed on a short distance to the south.


This was a dynamic tongue of ice and it was actively advancing through Mink Hollow. If the leaves are not too thick, you can look upward from the lean-to and see a number of rough ledges on the western slope of Sugarloaf Mountain. These formed when large masses of rock were plucked from the mountain by the moving ice. And that gets us to the heart of our story.


That huge tongue of ice passing through Mink Hollow had a great number of boulders in it. These were routinely being broken loose from the ledges above and carried through the hollow. Most were dragged off to the south by the currents of moving ice and deposited at the south end of the glacier. But eventually the climate warmed and the glaciers began melting. At that time blocks of rock would have been lowered through the melting ice until they made a soft “landing.” As luck would have it, some boulders would land next to each other, while on rarer occasions, a boulder would end up lowered onto one or two others, forming a pedestal. That’s what happened along the Mink Hollow Trail.


Pause here for a moment and imagine Mink Hollow filled with ice. Look around and you will see all the boulders here. Each one was once the baggage of a glacier. It’s a nice story and just one of those many interesting phenomena that remind us of the influence glaciers have had on our landscape. And it is nice not only to appreciate the beauty of a landscape, but to understand it as well.



Visions of the past – Pt. 8 – Ice age tunnels at Newman’s Ledge.

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Visions of a distant past: Part 8 – Newman’s Ledge

On the Rocks Woodstock Times – July, 2013

Robert Titus


One of the most popular hiking routes of the North Lake vicinity is the Blue Trail heading north from the North Lake parking lot. You follow the trail along the edge of the Catskill Escarpment and, here and there along the way, are a number of wondrous views. Most vistas allow you to gaze out across the Hudson Valley. In the far distance are the modern Taconic Mountains, mere remnants of the towering range that once dominated our eastern horizon.  Some views allow you to look back toward North Lake itself. Beyond that is South Mountain and then the Shawangunk Mountains. The Blue Trail offers a grand series of scenes, always worth the effort, no matter how many times you make the trek.

But to a geologist there is an altogether different set of views. These are mind’s eye journeys into the geological past of North Lake. Some of these journeys can take us back to a time when glaciers reigned over the landscape, up and down the Hudson Valley and east and west into the Taconics and Catskills. A geologist is treated to a choice of moments that can be visited. You can, if you wish, pick that exact time when the glaciers had reached their peak and loomed high upon all the horizons. Then you can choose to view these great masses of ice at a noontime hour when they shined a brilliant white. Or you can visit on a night when the full moon has reached its highest. The glacial ice all around basks in the ghostly moonlight, reflecting it with a silvery sheen, producing a luminous aura all around a 360 degree sweep of the horizon.

Perhaps a better time to visit the Ice Age past is to pick a moment near the end of that epoch, a time when the ice was enduring a destructive melting.  We start out in today’s world and hike north. Our goal is the first sheer cliff that can be called Newman’s Ledge. It’s just short of where the Yellow Trail peels off from the Blue Trail. The Yellow Trail takes hikers out to Sunset Rock where they receive, even by Catskills standards, a most remarkable sweeping panorama of all of the Hudson Valley and all of North Lake State Park.

But our journey is not out onto the Yellow Trail, it is into the past. Right below Newman’s Ledge we perceive a canyon carved into raw rock. It’s a completely dry canyon, but evidence reveals a complex history. There was once water here – and much more. Subtle striations in the canyon bedrock betray the passage of glacial ice. A stream of ice had peeled off of the Hudson Valley glacier and pushed westward into the North Lake vicinity, creeping past the base of today’s Newman’s Ledge. It was later, while that glacier was melting, that the canyon was carved. We climb up to the very top of the canyon, right where the Yellow Trail begins and we watch the powerful currents that once passed this way. Now we have left our own time and journeyed into a late ice age past.

The canyon below Newman’s Ledge

A horrendous torrent of ice water cascades out of the melting Hudson Valley glacier and it has been carving our canyon as it has flowed west and downhill. We look back east and see the top of the Hudson Valley glacier, spread out all across the Hudson Valley. We turn west again and watch that flow of water pass by and then disappear into a great dark tunnel of ice. Beyond, all of what we have known as North Lake is buried in ice.  Another, even greater branch of the Hudson Valley glacier has advanced up Kaaterskill Clove and into the North Lake basin. But, at the moment of our visit, this ice, like the Hudson Valley glacier, is melting.

Our stream of whitewater has cut its way into the melting ice and created the sub-glacial tunnel. We cannot resist. We are the mind’s eye; we can travel anywhere and do anything. We are compelled; we are absolutely drawn into that tunnel. Before complete darkness envelops us we look left and right and we see shining walls of ice; the flow of the water has polished these.

We rapidly drift down the passageway and into the dark. It is loud; the din of the pounding flow of water reverberates off the walls. That magnifies what would have been a terribly noisy flow and makes it quite painfully loud. The next part of our journey will be heard and felt but not seen; it is just too dark. We suddenly tumble over the edge of a 50 foot waterfall. We fall to its bottom and get caught up in the swirling chaos of its plunge pool. Next we bob to the surface and are returned to the downhill flow and experience a bumpity-bump ride down this sub-glacial surge. Soon we feel the slope level out and sense that we have reached what will someday be the North Lake basin. Our ride becomes a little less noisy and a little less rough, but we are picking up speed. Quickly, we reach what will someday be South Lake. The tunnel’s ceiling is higher here, but we cannot see that in the blackness.

Now we feel our speed picking up considerably, and we can sense that we are now being sucked farther along to the southwest. We recognize that our tunnel has been drawing us towards Kaaterskill Falls, but these are not the falls we have known from modern times. This ancient version is completely under the ice.

We tumble over the lip of the falls and plunge down more than two hundred feet. The drop is not completely vertical, but it is very steep and very rough. It is a good thing that we are the mind’s eye; otherwise we would have already suffered a hundred deaths.

Next we are being funneled down an ancient version of Kaaterskill Clove. Fully clogged with ice, it is still completely black all around, but we can sense that the bottom of this canyon is very narrow. The very compressed and very powerful flow of meltwater has cut, no sliced into the bedrock, creating walls of rock close to us on either side. That compacted flow has been forced to become even faster than it had been previously; it is an extraordinary torrent of water, a gigantic fire hose.

Once again we sense that we are slowing down. The flow of water is widening and spreading out.  We have reached what today is Palenville. A great cavern opens up above and all around us. It has been carved into the Hudson Valley glacier by the meltwater flow. At the top of this icy cavern the glacier is thin enough that a faint glow of light is penetrating it. The image is a dim one but we can see the full expanse of this cavern. It is breathtaking, hundreds of yards across and a hundred yards tall.

Our journey is finished; it has been extraordinary. It has carried us along a flow of water which began back north at the top of the glacier. We plunged under the ice and were swept along through a tunnel that carried us across the future North and South Lakes and then down Kaaterskill Falls. Then we careened down Kaaterskill Clove and then drifted into one of history’s greatest ice caverns.

Reach the author at titusr@hartwick.edu. Join his facebook page “The Catskill Geologist.”

Visions of the past 7 – The Mountain House ledge

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Visions of an Art Trail past – The Catskill Mountain House site.

On the Rocks

May 23, 2013

Robert and Johanna Titus


There is one single location in the Catskills that fully deserves the word “legendary.” Many of you, we hope most of you, will guess correctly that this is the Catskill Mountain House Hotel site. It is site eight on the Hudson River Art trail. The Mountain House was first constructed in 1824 at a location that had long been known as Pine Orchard, high atop the Catskill Front. The ledge the hotel sat upon had long attracted visitors, lured by the sweeping view of the Hudson Valley. It was thus a natural choice as a place to build a resort hotel. But the very notion of a resort hotel was a novel idea back then. Not surprisingly the hotel was a big success and it became a legendary hotel on a legendary site.

It was not long before artists were attracted to the hotel. Thomas Cole came late in the season of 1825. A soon to be legendary artist was at the legendary hotel. It was all fated to be. Cole would produce a painting of the hotel, but that canvas has been reported as lost. His sister, Sarah Cole, did one too, possibly a copy of Thomas’ work, and it survives. You can easily find images of it online. Our favorite image of the hotel in its early years is a picture by William Henry Bartlett. As a mass produced print, it is something that we could not only find, but also afford to buy – and it is a nice picture.

Curiously the great view always defied efforts to paint it. It is simply too sweeping to place on one canvas. We only like one effort: Frederic Church’s Above the clouds at sunrise, 1849. We think that when it comes to “painting” the Catskill Front, it is the writer who can do best.

When we visit the Mountain House site, which is frequently, we gaze out at the view and fully appreciate that everything we see out there, absolutely everything, was shaped by the glaciers. It is a notion that is almost overwhelming for its impact. We are looking at something that James Fennimore Cooper’s old leatherstocking, Hawkeye, called “all creation” and all that creation was at the hands of the glaciers.

When we stand in front of the Mountain House site we can look about and still trace the outline of the hotel from where its foundation stones had been placed. We can feel the presence of history here and that can be overwhelming. But, when we face north, into the Hudson Valley, our mind’s eyes take us into the deep past of the early Ice Age:


We have gone back more than 20,000 years and we have arrived at a moment in time just before the effects of the Ice Age will be manifest. The valley in front of us is filled with dense primeval forests. All of those tree species are familiar to us; they are oaks and maples and birch. There are a lot of chestnut trees too, and we wish they were still around today, but there is nothing unfamiliar about them.

We are the mind’s eyes and we can drift forward through time. Centuries pass and we begin to sense that things have been changing. The summers seem cooler; we just don’t see those blistering hot days that we used to. Oddly, the winters seem warmer and always very cloudy. It seems to always be about 30 degrees out and snowing, always snowing.

Summers don’t bring all the warm weather birds that they used to, and when they do arrive, it is later in the spring. They disappear earlier in the autumn. We are puzzled and disquieted. Had we kept records we would have found out that we were right. Summers are cooler, bird migrations have changed. But . . . why?

The years and decades pass by and now we notice that the trees up above look unhealthy. Even in August their leaves look pale and small. We climb up and see that they are. Next, we notice that the snow is melting later and later in the spring; the snows are arriving earlier in the autumn. We are perplexed; what is causing all this?

We notice changes in the type of weather; there are stretches of days when the blue skies stay completely free of clouds. A cold dry wind blows, continuously, out of the northeast. We look in that direction and we begin to guess that there is something out there. It must be cold and dry – but what could it be?

Now the forests up above begin to die. Worse, the malady of small pale leaves has spread downhill and the trees below us are turning sick. What is going on? We look up above and now the forests at the top of the Catskills appear to be dead. Even in August it looks like November up there. Our fears and our confusion turn into near panic. We have ancestors in Europe who actually did see this sort of thing. Did they ask the shamans what was going on? What answers were they given?

The cold dry winds continue. The dead trees suffer further indignities. First the twigs dry out and fall. Then the branches and even the limbs do the same and the heavy winds rip them to the ground. The Catskills forests are now dead; nothing but naked trunks still stand. Soon all the birds and insects are gone; it becomes so quiet – so desolate.

Now we look up the Hudson Valley to the north. There, as far away as we can see, there is something. It is dark blue in the morning; it turns green and then yellow as the morning sun rises, and it is brilliantly white at noon. In the afternoon the colors are reversed. What is going on? Months and perhaps years go by, we really can’t tell, and that object, or that material seems closer. Eventually it is close enough; we see what it is and, in a flash, all our questions are suddenly answered.

It is a glacier that has been moving south and starting to fill the whole expanse of the Hudson Valley. An ice age has arrived.

Nobody ever painted this scene.

Contact the authors at randjtitus@prodigy.net  Join their facebook page “The Catskill Geologist.”


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