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Robert Titus - page 27

Robert Titus has 328 articles published.

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.”


Visions of the past 6 – North and South Lakes

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Visions of an Art Trail past 6 – North and south Lakes

On the Rocks

The Woodstock Times

April 4, 2013

Robert and Johanna Titus


We continue to follow in the footsteps of the artists of the Hudson River School of Art. We have also been following the Art Trail which honors their memories. We have literally been standing where they stood when they sketched and painted our picturesque Catskill landscapes. In this chapter we are visiting site number six on the Art Trail. That is North and South Lakes.

The lakes were the property of the Catskill Mountain House Hotel when young Thomas Cole visited there in the early autumn of 1825. He must have spent a good bit of time exploring the visual possibilities of the surroundings, and that included the lakes.  He did his sketches for “Lake with Dead Trees” there and put it, along with two other canvases, up for sale – with an asking price of $20 each. It was the making of him as an artist. The three paintings sold quickly and received high praise in newspaper reviews. In short, Thomas Cole wowed the critics. It was, quite literally, the birth of the Hudson River School of Art. And it happened at the lakes.

When we visit South Lake it is quite easy to find our way to the site where Cole must have sat and sketched in preparation for painting “Lake with Dead Trees.” He did it on the north shore of the lake. Curiously, he made that body of water look a good bit smaller than it really is. We were also puzzled by the dead trees and guessed that the Hotel must have recently raised the lake’s dam in order to make it larger. That would have drowned all the trees along the old shoreline. In the far distance was High Point Mountain, looming above the lake. That craggy peak would be featured in countless paintings done in later time; artists cannot resist it. The site has been commemorated with a sign, part of the Art Trail.

Our working hypothesis, in this series, is that it was ice age events that made the landscapes that our famed artists painted. We are arguing that it was the glaciers that created the beauty that they painted and this is certainly true at both North and South Lakes. These basins were carved into the underlying sandstone bedrock by advancing glaciers. These were masses of ice that had risen up out of the Hudson Valley and flowed into the vicinity of the two lakes. To geologists, they are still easily imagined; we certainly “saw” them.

All glaciers are composed of ice and ice is a mineral, just like quartz or feldspar. But it is a very different sort of mineral. It’s silly to think of a quartz glacier advancing across a landscape, but ice can actually perform that nearly miraculous deed. All minerals melt, but ice melts at a very low temperature. That is one of the reasons that it is so dynamic. It does something that you won’t see in other minerals; it moves. At North Lake we see the effect of such movement. All along the eastern shore of the lake we find bedrock that displays the evidence of the motions of the glaciers. The evidence is in the form of westward trending scratches left by the advancing ice. The bottom of the glacier carried large amounts of sand, along with numerous cobbles and boulders. The sand ground and polished the bedrock, and then the cobbles and boulders gouged scratches into it. These scratches are called glacial striations. We see these striations all along the eastern shore of North Lake and also upon the bedrock that separate it from South Lake. If you visit the area, make sure to take a good look at those shoreline rocks; it won’t take you long to see what we have seen. If you have not done this before, you will find it to be quite a revelation. You are looking at the direct evidence of glaciation. The very motions of the ice are manifest before you; it is a marvel. We wonder if Thomas Cole ever noticed this. In 1825 it would have been nearly impossible to have explained these exotic features. Nobody truly understood the Ice Age back then.


The striations have compass directions and all the ones we see tell us the same thing; the glaciers rose out of the Hudson Valley and flowed westward and then southwestward into the vicinity of the two lakes. It was this advancing front of ice that scooped out these two basins and created the very landscape where Thomas Cole would begin his career.

The story gets better; there is at least some evidence of a colossal glacial collision in the South Lake vicinity. We find glacial striations that tell us of another mass of ice that flowed westward up Kaaterskill Clove and then turned north to cross over the Kaaterskill Falls site. That ice, we think, must have advanced until it collided with the ice coming in across North Lake from the east. What an image this gives us to imagine: two sizable glaciers colliding with each other, It’s Nature’s version of a train wreck.


We like to climb up the unmarked trail that runs east and parallel to the shore of South Lake. That trail affords us several locations where we can look down at today’s lake. In our mind’s eyes we can see into the past. Before us, from the northeast and from the southwest, two glaciers advance towards each other and then manifest a slow, grinding collision.

Nobody ever painted that scene.


  Note: most of Thomas Cole’s paintings are easily accessed online, including “Lake with Dead Trees.” Reach the authors at randjtitus@prodigy.net Join their facebook page “The Catskill Geologist.”


Visions of the past 5 – Kaaterskill Falls

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Visions of an Art Trail past – Kaaterskill Falls.

On the Rocks

Robert and Johanna Titus

Woodstock Times

Mar, 28, 2013


We continue our tour of the Hudson River Art Trail. This week we are at stop five, Kaaterskill Falls. It’s a location where a small stream, some people call it Lake Creek, has created a large waterfall. We come here as the strangest of tourists; we come to see the sites the great landscape artists painted, and they are wondrous. We find our way to the very top of Kaaterskill Falls and we stand and stare at the beauty of this location. We gaze down the canyon below us and see as far as the great clove that lies beyond. But we are not here just to drink in the beauty of the scenes, marvelous as they may be; we are here to discover the ice age past that created what is here. Our theme, all along in this series, has been to argue that it was the Ice Age that shaped the landscapes that the great Hudson River artists painted.

At Kaaterskill Falls we are very conscious that we stand in the very footsteps of those many artists. We know that Thomas Cole visited in the 1820’s. He painted here and that was the making of the man. But there were so many others; they all came here and many of them also painted the spot. Asher Brown Durand, Sanford Robinson Gifford, William Henry Bartlett, Winslow Homer and many others worked at these falls. Currier and Ives also produced several views. Gifford even carved his name into the enormous boulder at the very top of the falls. To stand at the top of Kaaterskill Falls is to be closely crowded by spirits all around you. This is the exact site where the Hudson River School began; it is historic.

But there are several ways to enjoy these falls. The view from the top is the easiest to access and it is quite scenic. You take Rte. 23A to County Rte. 16 and follow that to Laurel House Road. Turn onto that road and park at its end. Take the short hike down the old dirt path and you have arrived at the top of the falls. That is a dangerous place; people have fallen to their deaths here so be careful. A well-marked new trail will take you to very safe platform that overlooks the falls. In the long ago past there was another good viewpoint nearby. It was a location called “Prospect Rock.” That was where you could look back at the falls from a high up perch. That view was quite nearly obscured by the trees which had grown back over time. You take the long abandoned railroad line south from the Laurel House parking area, and if you know somebody who can show you where to climb down a bit, you can find your way to that very spot. Recently, those trees have been cut down so the view has been restored.

Another way of enjoying the falls, and one which all area residents should make sure to pursue, is to hike up the yellow trail from below the falls. You drive up Rte. 23A from Palenville, pass by Bastion Falls, and park at the lot just up the road. Hike back down and begin an ascent just to the right of the stream. About a half hour later you will arrive at the bottom of the falls. It’s a grand scene to view from below. Thomas Cole and many others painted this outlook of Kaaterskill Falls.

A geologist looks up and sees several great ledges of sandstone. These are the cross sections of ancient Devonian age river channels up there. Those sands traveled out of the rising Appalachians, perhaps 380 million years ago, and were deposited in stream channels which eventually hardened into the rock that makes up the falls. Sandstone is very resistant to weathering and erosion and that’s one reason why there even is a Kaaterskill Falls. The ledge at the very top is called the “capstone” of the falls.

There is a lot more to the geological story, and that gets us to the falls’ glacial history. That takes us back to some of the latest chapters of the Ice Age. It was late in a time when the glaciers were still melting. Vast amounts of meltwater were pouring out of the high peaks of the Catskills and that includes Lake Creek. For a while, it would be a very busy little stream. There must have been times when the flow of meltwater over the falls would have been truly awesome.

Kaaterskill Falls has been frequently compared to Niagara Falls. The two are almost the same heights. Niagara is just a little bit wider, but they do share some other important similarities. Both lie at the upstream ends of distinct, relatively narrow canyons and that is a clue to their origins. These two canyons are the product of something that might be called waterfall retreat. Each is topped with rugged horizons of stratified rock, their “lips” or capstones. The flows of the two rivers drop off the lips of the two falls. The pounding that occurs at the bottoms of each creates something called a plunge pool. With time the capstone horizon hangs so far over the plunge pool that a collapse in inevitable. With such a collapse the top of the falls has retreated; the process continues and has continued since the end of the Ice Age. Both Niagara and Kaaterskill Falls have thus been retreating, Niagara for almost eight miles; the smaller Kaaterskill for only a little less than one. You can see a similar falls/canyon complex at High Falls in the town of Philmont across the Hudson in Columbia County.

All this is pretty typical waterfall behavior.  But at Kaaterskill Falls there is an unexpected wrinkle. There are features called glacial striations in the canyon, and they appear almost all the way up to the base of the falls. These are scratches that were gouged into the bedrock by an advancing glacier. That suggests that the retreat of Kaaterskill Falls occurred very late in the Ice Age and it was followed by one last re-advance of the ice. A glacier moved up the canyon and added the striations to it. No such thing is likely to have happened at Niagara.

We become time travelers; we stand at the very top of Kaaterskill Falls and look down to see a glacier immediately below us. It is a cloudy day and the ice below has a cold gray look to it. Immense crevasses break up the ice. These fractures formed as the ice made its last advance up the canyon. It is warm now, this late in the Ice Age, and the ice has stopped moving forward; it is melting. We can’t see the meltwater up here; we can only hear it as it drains downslope toward the main body of Kaaterskill Clove. It is a very loud sound that we hear.

Nobody ever painted this scene.

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



Visions of an ice age past 4 – Kaaterskill Clove

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Visions of an Art Trail past – Kaaterskill Clove

On The Rocks

The Woodstock Times

Feb. 28, 2013

Robert and Johanna Titus


We have been touring the new Hudson River School Art Trail, visiting those sites where so many of those paintings were inspired. We admire the great artists of the Hudson Valley. We revere the canvases that they painted and the creativity that they brought to our country. We are proud that they worked here, where we have chosen to live.  It is a thrill for us to stand where they stood and see what they saw as we travel though the landscapes of our Catskills and Hudson Valley. But, is it arrogance when we claim that we can see what they couldn’t? Or is it the privilege that comes with gaining a hard earned knowledge of our region’s ice age history? Whatever, we believe that all those who share our pleasure in the great art that was painted here would benefit greatly from understanding the ice age history that preceded it and, we think, made it all possible. Today we visit Kaaterskill Clove, site number four on the Art Trail.


The clove has long invited visitors; there has, it would seem, always been a path ascending it, probably stretching back well into human prehistory. This massive canyon has always been a magnet for artists; Thomas Cole painted it in the 1820s and established his reputation here. Palenville came to be an artist colony long before Woodstock. There was so much to paint.

This great canyon surely belongs somewhere in the American West; it seems too grand to be an eastern landscape. Its measurements are worthy of the Rockies; it is four miles long, almost two miles wide and roughly 2000 feet deep. Its many trails have, for generations, carried hikers to an abundance of scenic views, some wide and awesome, others intimate and of delicate beauty.

It is, every inch of it, the product of the Ice Age. Whole episodes of glaciation have passed by here and each culminated in powerful rushes of water from melting ice. Masses of glacial meltwater provided torrents of erosive might that pounded down the growing canyon and sculpted its awesome landscape. There must have been many days when the flows from high above competed to set new standards for a watery violence as they thundered down the canyon. Such days, warm by ice age standards, generated raging cascades of frightening power. The canyon must have frequently echoed with a truly resounding, hammering, violent cacophony of ear-splitting noise. Hollywood could not have portrayed what must have passed down this canyon. But are we guilty of an excessive and sensational exercise of purple prose? No, we are not exaggerating; this was the unrestrained Nature that carved Kaaterskill Clove.

But we choose to visit the clove during what may have been its quietest moment ever.

We visit it at the peak of one of the last advances of the ice, about 16,000 years ago. We are geologists; we get to pick all the exact dates and the exact times for our journeys. After all, we can sort through thousands of calendar dates and moments, looking for just the right one. After much pondering we have selected a 2:00 AM on a late January night, towards the end of one of the last advances of the ice. We are the mind’s eye and we can do this sort of thing. Our trek begins with us drifting down the Hudson Valley. High above is a full moon. Below is the ice of the glacier that presently fills that valley.

The moon, reflecting off the ice, provides a brilliance of illumination that is rarely matched in our modern world. We look down and see an almost luminous ice, broken by jet black crevasses. The curved nature of those fractures betrays recent movements of the glacier, but there is no such motion tonight. The temperature is a minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s been cold like that for weeks and the ice has frozen solid and ground to a complete halt. We did, after all, get to pick the time and the date, and we aimed for extremes.

We drift down the valley to where, someday, there will be a Palenville and we turn west and enter this ice age version of Kaaterskill Clove. It has reached midnight and the full moon hangs high in the sky. It again illuminates an ice age scene; now we can see a stream of ice that has turned west and entered the clove. It actually rises up the clove; ice can flow uphill when pushed from behind. We too drift westward and we decide to come to a halt and hang in the air, only a few hundred feet above the glacier.

It is a perfectly still night, with not the slightest breath of air. We hang in the sky and we can feel the cold. But we can, it would seem, also feel the complete silence as well. On some other less frigid night the ice would be moving and making all sorts of a racket, but not on this night; it is so completely hushed.

Above the glacier, cliffs rise up toward the top of the clove. There had been some warmer weather in earlier months and water melted out of the fractured rocks and then briefly drenched those cliffs. But tonight all that lies frozen into immense icicles. The moonlight now illuminates these hangings; they form ghostly draperies all around the walls of the canyon.

We are the mind’s eye; we can go anywhere and do anything. Now we choose to rocket high up into this Arctic sky. As we ascend, a great glacial landscape opens up all around. To the west all of the Catskills lie blanketed in thick ice. It catches the moonlight and reflects it with a brilliant sheen. Behind us, the Hudson Valley is not quite filled with ice. Numerous depressions and crevasses break up its image into a blocky mix of gray and black. Beyond we see the skyline of the Taconic Mountains, shining, almost silvery, against the starry black night. We slowly turn a full 360 degrees in this glacial nocturne. We are not arrogant; we are humbled and privileged by what we see.

Nobody painted this scene.


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


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