Renowned for his short stories, Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, American author Washington Irving is regarded as the Father of the American Ghost Story. Born in Manhattan in 1783, Irving was also a historian, essayist, and biographer.
Both of the ghostly tales mentioned above appear in Irving’s collection, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent (more commonly known as The Sketch Book), published in the 1819-1820 time frame. Although the story of Rip Van Winkle is set in New York during the pre-Revolutionary War era, the tale is based on a German folktale.
According to Catskills Greene County – a tourism information center in Leeds, “the region was settled in the 17th century by Dutch and English colonists who were enticed by its fertile ground. Industry along the river flourished and the Catskills became the most important cultural center outside of Albany and New York City. By the time construction of the Erie Canal was underway in 1817, an influx of Germans, Italians, and Ukrainians had settled in the area.”
As the region became more developed, the Great Northern Catskills was transformed into a getaway destination for affluent New Yorkers. Perched atop scenic bluffs, tucked away in the majestic mountains of New York State, the hotels in the region prospered.
Life imitating art, imitating stories
The scenic vistas and serene landscapes of the area also lured artists to the region. The Hudson River School was a group of New York City-based landscape artists that emerged around 1850 under the influence of artist Thomas Cole. He was the artist who taught Frederic Edwin Church – perhaps the best-known representative of the Hudson River School, as well as one its most traveled artists.
The Hudson River School of painters is what inspired Irving to set Rip Van Winkle in the Catskill Mountains. The Catskills Greene County cites that Rip Van Winkle is one of the region’s best-loved figureheads – a link to the past and a reminder of the region’s unique place in American history.
According to the tourism center, the tale goes something like this: “Set in pre-Revolutionary New York, Rip Van Winkle lives a life of ease – much to the chagrin of his wife, Dame Van Winkle. Rip’s passions include wandering through the Catskill Mountains and old-growth forests, being idle, and enjoying life. He doesn’t work for long however, and though itinerant, he is well loved by all in town. The children especially love the fanciful stories he tells.”
“One day, Rip wanders off into the woods to escape his nagging wife. Hearing thunder, he unwittingly follows the ghosts of Henry Hudson’s men deep into the wilderness. As the men play nine-pins, Rip imbibes a ‘magic potion’ – quietly falling into a deep sleep. He wakens 20 years later, his beard grown long and his beloved dog, Wolf, nowhere to be found. Rip makes his way back into the village and discovers that the American Revolution has taken place. He is no longer recognizable, nor does he know any of the townspeople who greet him.”
“Rip’s luck holds out and it isn’t long before he finds his place among his grown children – though much of his family has passed on – and resumes his habitual idleness. His tale is repeated and solemnly taken to heart by hen-pecked husbands who wish they could have shared in Rip’s good fortune and slept through the atrocities of war.”
In the Great Northern Catskills, Rip Van Winkle’s legend continues to live on. There are events such as the 16th Annual Rip Van Winkle Wine, Brew & Beverage Festival (May 13, 2023 ) that honor this fictional great. Luckily, fans of the character don’t have to wait until spring to experience the Catskills and all that the area has to offer.
People are welcome to visit the Rip Van Winkle Bridge – a 5,041-foot bridge that spans the Hudson River between the towns of Hudson and Catskill. It opened to the public on July 2, 1935. The bridge towers 145 feet over the river and offers a walking path for strollers who yearn to take in vistas of the Hudson River, Catskill Mountains, and colorful foliage while embarking on this trek.
Known as the Hudson River Skywalk, the walkway connects the major Hudson River School artists Cole and Church. The six mile out-and-back pedestrian path unites the Thomas Cole Site and Frederic Church’s Olana (both National Historic Landmarks), via the Rip Van Winkle Bridge. Located at 27-16 NY-23, Catskill, NY, or visit online at www.hudsonriverskywalk.org (those who are just walking the bridge have a nearly-mile journey to trek).
There’s also the Rip Van Winkle Monument – a larger-than-life blue sandstone carving of the legendary character. The monument on Hunter Mountain can be reached via the Hunter Mountain Scenic SkyRide when it’s open (it closes mid-October). Visitors can enjoy the panoramic views of the surrounding Catskill Mountains, so pack a lunch and enjoy a picnic with Rip Van Winkle. Locarted at Rte. 23 A, Hunter, NY. Call (518) 263-4223, or visit online at www.greatnortherncatskills.
Beyond the monument, many area businesses honor Rip Van Winkle. There’s the Rip Van Winkle Brewing Company – a restaurant and brewery in Catskill. The story’s setting takes place in the mountain range that lies just beyond the restaurant and award-winning craft brewery. The eatery and drinking destination nabbed the “Best in New York State” title. Visit them at 4545 NY Route 32, Catskill, NY. Call them at (518) 678-9275, or visit online at www.ripvanwinklebrewery.com.
The great outdoors
Outdoor recreational guide company, Rip Van Winkle Adventure Guides operates mainly in Catskill Park, which boasts more than 300 miles of trails. Fully licensed and certified by the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, the company, headed by Greg Calabrese, can customize just about any adventure outdoor enthusiasts can dream up – from hikes to hunting and fishing trips, and backcountry camping. All levels are welcome – from beginners to those seeking a relaxing nature walk while taking in some attractions.
Rip Van Winkle Adventure Guides’ name was inspired by clues in writer James Hashian’s reworked version of the original Rip Van Winkle story. It is based off a 9” round stone, which is hidden in Catskills and features the initials “RVW” chiseled into it.
Calabrese’s father yearned to locate the stone. He scoured the books in search of clues. On the weekends, Greg’s father took he and his brother along with him. Although they never found the stone, that was the start of Calabrese’s love for the Catskills region.
Calabrese spent the rest of his teenage years exploring the area until he relocated to the Southwest. He then spent 20-plus years honing his backcountry skills. Eventually Calabrese’s vast appreciation of the Catskills and his desire to live a simpler life brought him back to New York. Located at 30 Liberty St., Catskill, NY. Call them at (480) 381-9405, or visit online at www.
If snowmobiling, all-terrain vehicle rentals, fly fishing, or camping are your game, explore the Catskills region through one of its guides. Let the experts at Rip Van Winkle Ranch guide you through the trails. Snowmobile rentals run from November through April and ATV rentals from April through November (both are weather permitting). Rip Van Winkle Ranch is located at 5305 Rte. 23A, Haines Falls, NY. Call them at (518) 589-6215, or visit them online at www.greatnortherncatskills.
Fishing enthusiasts can hook up with Mark W. Klein – a licensed fishing guide based in Phoenicia at 52 Main St. You can call them at (914) 810-6923, or visit online at www.ripvanwinkleflyfishing.net
Other autumn fetes
Autumn is one of the best times to discover the Great Northern Catskills when fall foliage transforms the mountain’s vistas with blazing gold, orange, and red hues. While leaf peeping season varies in New York State, fall foliage peaks in the Catskills around early- to mid-October. Attend one of the fall festivals, which includes the 16th Annual Gavin’s Guinness Oktoberfest. This free-admission event is being held at Gavin’s Irish Country Inn – an authentic Irish pub in Cornwallville. The festivity will be held October 7 through October 9 and will include live Irish music, dancing, and pipes, as well as a beer truck. Beyond the indoor celebration, the Oktoberfest will host an outdoor heated tent. Located at 118 Golden Hill Rd., Cornwallville, NY. Visit them online at www.greatnortherncatskills.
On October 8 and 9, there’s also Windham’s 27th Annual Autumn Affair. The two-day event is a popular fave that unites friends, neighbors, and visitors. More than 50 vendors will line both sides of Main Street with local crafts, and tasty eats in addition to the many sidewalk sales and food specials that will be offered by Main Street businesses. Live music will fill the autumn air on both days from 1–5pm. Grab the family and enjoy the festivities. Visit www.greatnortherncatskills.
While exploring the region, maybe you’ll find the highly coveted 9” round stone mentioned in James Hashian’s reworked version of the original Rip Van Winkle story. Regardless of which adventures you choose, there’s always some fun and folklore to enjoy in Catskills.