The groundbreaking American conservation movement originated in the Catskill Mountains, 6,000 square miles of mountains, rivers, forests, and parkland considered America's First Wilderness. Though just 100 miles north of New York City, the region's natural state has been remarkably preserved, thanks to the state constitution that designated a quarter of a million acres of "forever wild" forest and the region's importance as the watershed for New York City and almost half the state. Yet natural beauty may not what most people have come to know the region for. Mention "the Catskills" and most Americans of a certain age still conjure either nostalgic or dreaded notions of resort vacations from another era.
Famous (or infamous) to many Americans through Hollywood movies like Dirty Dancing and A Walk on the Moon, the Catskill Mountain region is an area in transition. For most of a century, it was the summer vacation area for New Yorkers, beginning in the late 19th century, when steam trains deposited elegantly dressed vacationers at stations for their horse-drawn carriage rides to massive mountain lodges and boarding houses. That trend continued through the 1960s, when it became popular for the kind of resorts -- many of them ethnic enclaves where family men from the city joined their wives, kids, and neighbors on weekends in the mountains and engaged in 9-to-5 schedules of planned activities -- that earned it a perhaps unwelcome sobriquet, the "Borscht Belt."
Today, that type of vacationing has fallen wholly out of favor. The Catskill region, still boldly beautiful if less remote, is being transformed into a different kind of Catskills, open to younger and new types of visitors and residents, and new forms of leisure activities. The new Catskill Mountain region not only has conspicuously renamed itself, but also has set about recapturing its essence, the great outdoors, while holding onto an easygoing, rural lifestyle.
And so it should. The spiritual and natural heart of the region remains the 700,000-acre Catskill Park and Forest Preserve, a dense area with 35 peaks soaring to elevations of 3,500 feet. This scenic area overflows with lush hills and valleys, forests, farmland, waterfalls, trout streams, reservoirs, and six major river systems. It is regarded as one of the world's greatest fly-fishing areas, and anglers make pilgrimages from across the globe to wade in its trout streams. The Catskill Mountains practically beg for outdoors enthusiasts to sample the incredible variety of hiking and biking trails, sheer cliffs for rock climbing, and peaks for skiing. But you don't have to be a fleece-clad extreme-sports fan to enjoy the region, which is also home to a great number of historic homesteads, out-of-the-way antiques shops, pick-your-own co-ops and dairy farms, and nostalgic attractions like old trains and vintage "base ball" (yes, it was two words originally) teams.
Locals are anxious for visitors to know that this is no longer your granddad's Catskills. Today, mountain bikers plunge down Plattekill Mountain caked in mud, and luxury inns and spas have sprouted, offering individualized rather than mass service and hoary entertainment. City refugees are being reawakened to the natural beauty, small towns, and tranquil pleasures of the Catskill region. Young couples and artists are moving in and starting up small businesses, galleries, and inns. Chefs trained at the Hudson Valley's Culinary Institute of America are enticed by the region's proximity to local farms and the opportunity to gain a foothold for their restaurants and bars. Weekenders weary of overdone destinations are finding what amount to second-home bargains in the area. Most of the region has a revitalized feel that is far removed from the old Catskills; indeed, many new arrivals have little interest in, or perhaps even knowledge of, its less cool past. Or maybe what they know of the Catskills is, instead, drenched in cool: that it played host to the 1969 Woodstock Festival, where 400,000 hippies reveled in drug- and rain-soaked concerts by Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and The Who.
Amazingly, a few old-school resorts hang on, in what can only be described as a nostalgic time warp, charmingly resistant to change. If you want a trip down a musty memory lane, you can still find a megaresort where you play shuffleboard at 11:30am, attend pool games at 1pm, and get your hair set before a bland buffet dinner and the night's entertainment of Rocco singing Italian love songs. But happening upon a yesteryear place today is more a novelty than an expectation in the new Catskill region -- one that is proudly returning to its progressive, outdoors roots even while transforming itself in anticipation of a more dynamic future.