"I will never kick a rock"

The View from Sunset Rock 11-2-17

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On The Rocks

The view from Sunset Rock

Robert Titus

The Woodstock Times

Oct. 3, 1996


Autumn is a gift, especially in the Catskills. This season of leaves is the time of the year to get out and enjoy a farewell to the warm weather. The heart of this scenic season extends from the middle of September to the middle of October. These are times when the first winter high pressure systems come billowing out of Canada. They bring clear, dry, but still warm air masses to the Catskills. With them comes a clarity of the atmosphere and a scenery unmatched the rest of the year. Within an hour’s drive or so from Woodstock there are a great number of wonderful fall landscapes well worth a visit. It is a terrible shame to let this time pass by without getting out. Take advantage of the autumn; winter is so long!

There are some scenic views which stand out, literally above others. Some of the truly great Catskill views can be found at North Lake State Park. From the edge of the escarpment on the Catskill Front there is a 70 mile panorama of the Hudson Valley. Turn around and there is a view of the neighboring Catskill peaks. People have been drawn to North Lake since the early 19th century when the first road was cut up the mountain. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries this was the site of the famed Catskill Mountain House Hotel, once the premier resort hotel of America. Today the location is part of the Catskill Forest Preserve.

After entering the park, drive to North Lake itself and hike north on the Blue Trail. It’s an easy walk for most people, young and old. You are following in the paths of thousands of hikers who have visited here over the past two centuries. Almost all these people have been greatly affected by the scenery here.

The trail takes you along the very edge of the Catskill Escarpment. At some places it passes within a few feet of a sheer cliff. Along the way you will pass Artist’s Rock and eventually you will reach the Yellow Trail turnoff. Follow this to its end and there you will reach a ledge named “Sunset Rock” after a great boulder there. Before you is one the single grandest views in all of the Catskill Mountains. To the east is that 70 mile view of the Hudson Valley with the Taconic Mountains beyond. To the south is the view of North and South Lakes, and to their east is South Mountain. Beyond them you can just make out the upper reaches of Kaaterskill Clove and still farther away are Roundtop Mountain and High Peak.

It’s an impressive sight to say the least, and it’s one which has played a role in the development of American art. Virtually all of the great 19th century landscape artists, beginning with Thomas Cole, came here. They set up their easels or sketched here and turned out canvases portraying the site at different times of the year and different times of the day. Watch for work by Cole, Sanford Robinson Gifford, Jasper Cropsey, William Henry Bartlett and others. Most of their many works are easily found online.

But I am a geologist and, while I greatly admire those artists and their work, I see other things from this site. I sit on Sunset Rock and look north, and soon I can see it as it was 23,000 years ago. As I watch, the years and decades pass by rapidly. The climate slowly turns cold and soon it is becoming Arctic. As the decades and centuries elapse the forests turn sickly gray and then die. The skies are usually blue and sunny, but cold dry gale winds blow out of the northeast. They shatter the brittle old tree limbs.

To the north a low whiteness appears in the Hudson Valley. It is dark blue in the morning, radiantly white at noon and aquamarine just before dark. As the years continue this white advances south and its image focuses into that of an advancing glacier. It passes beneath the Sunset Rock ledge and continues down the Hudson. Slowly the swell of ice thickens. Like a stream in flood, the ice slowly rises and fills the valley. It laps up onto the Catskill Front and soon a stream of white overflows the valley and advances southwestward across what someday will be North and South Lakes. The moving ice is very erosive and it’s beginning to scour out these basins.

Now even more ice pours down the Hudson. All along the Catskill Front ice is overflowing the valley and still it continues to thicken. Next comes the great swell of the main glacier, an ice sheet at least 3,000 feet thick. The white soon overwhelms all of this region. It continues to advance southwestward until all of the Catskills are entombed. The whole region becomes a great white, high Arctic plain.

That’s a somber vision to have on a beautiful autumn afternoon, but that is what I see from Sunset Rock.


Contact the author at randjtitus@prodigy.net. Read Robert and Johanna Titus in the Woodstock Times, Kaatskill Life magazine, Upstate Life magazine and the Mountain Eagle.

The Ravine 10-26-17

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The Ravine”

Windows Through Time

Columbia/Greene Media

July 29, 2009

Robert and Johanna Titus


When one of us (Robert) was a boy of about ten, one of his absolutely favorite places to go with his friends was a place simply called “the ravine.” It was a pretty decent canyon cutting through a sequence of Triassic age red sandstones. Boys would hike up and down it, scramble beneath overhanging ledges of rock, and just have a good time. As a grownup geologist his life hasn’t changed much. The one exception being that now he now explores ravines with his writing partner and wife.

To the two of us the word ravine still conjures up images of damp recesses and moss covered rocks, with fern forests, whitewater brooks and plenty of rapids. Ravines are still nice places to go, and hike, and explore.

But, as you can probably guess, there is a lot more. We’d like to take you to a ravine in the Hudson Valley and take a look at it and learn something of its marvelous history. That would be the ravine found along something called Doove Kill. We’d like you to visit it with us, take a good look at it, and then, most importantly, think about what a ravine really is.



To get there we would like you to find your way to the village of Blue Store, along Rte. 9 in Columbia County. From there, take County Rte. 8 east and uphill. Travel just about three miles and watch for Black Bridge Road. Turn left there and you will very quickly encounter a bridge. The bridge passes across Doove Kill, and you can park near it, get out and take a look. Here you can get your first glimpse of the ravine and actually think about ravines in general.

The features that most identify a ravine are the walls of rock that make up their steep slopes. You can see them here. Typically, the creek is forced to pass across ledges of bedrock and they break up its flow and produce whitewater which helps the scenery considerably. Turn around and continue east on Rte. 8 for just about a half mile more. You will soon enter the village of Snyderville and there you will find Taghkanic Road. Turn left onto Taghkanic and watch, again to your left, as you continue down that road; you will soon see more of Doove Kill.

For a short distance the road passes parallel and very close to the Kill. Here it is a very real ravine; it meets all of the criteria. It is deep, steep-sloped, and has plenty of exposed bedrock. There are two small waterfalls here, but unfortunately they are on private property, and we would like it if you did not disturb the residents. But there are places where you can pull over, park, and gaze into the gorge, without bothering anybody. It’s a nice place, except for the poison ivy!

But, we have been promising to do some thinking about what exactly a ravine might be, so we had better get going on that. We can learn more by returning to Rte. 8 and driving farther east, and finding our way into Lake Taghkanic State Park. As you can guess the park is named after the lake that is there. If you drive to the northwestern corner of Lake Taghkanic you will find the source of Doove Kill.

We have to go back into time about 14,000 years. Back then the Lake was a great deal larger than it is today; and a lot deeper. The lake was swollen with the water melting off of retreating glaciers.  Flowing out of that ice age version of the lake was an enormous volume of water. In short Doove Kill had a very different personality back then. It was a raging, foaming, pounding, thundering, whitewater and ice age torrent.

Now you must rethink everything that you have just seen along Doove Kill. In your mind’s eye, we would like you take those stretches of ravine that you just saw on Black Bridge and Taghkanic Roads and fill them, almost to the top, with that powerful whitewater flow. That makes Doove Kill something that you might call a Category Six whitewater stream, or at least is was back at the end of the Ice Age.

Changes your impression of Doove Kill, doesn’t it?

You might even say that it rearranges your whole sense of reality. All of a sudden your image of the Kill has been dramatically altered. It has become a far more exciting place, one with a real ice age heritage.

And that is the whole point. We all started out with an appreciation for the scenic beauty of something that we called “the ravine.” Probably all of us have been to our own ravines and enjoyed the experience immensely. But now we have learned something very different. There is the notion that such a landscape feature has a geological heritage. And it can be a very rewarding experience to come to understand that heritage.


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.



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