Sullivan County (New York)

Sullivan County is in New York's Catskill region.

Cities

Understand

Geographically, Sullivan County isn't quite part of the two regions it's usually grouped in. While for many visitors it is synonymous with the Catskills, only two of the range's hundred highest peaks are in Sullivan, and it would be more accurately described as the southwestern foothills of those mountains. Other times, it's included as part of the Hudson Valley, although most of the county is in the drainage basin of the Delaware River, which forms its western border.

The county's main artery, New York State Route 17 (slowly being converted into Interstate 86), runs north-south through the center, with its two largest communities, Liberty and the county seat of Monticello, right along it. It also divides the county economically. Paradoxically, the half of the county to the east, more geared to tourism and in more wooded and mountainous terrain, is more developed and populous. West of Route 17, in the wider, sparsely populated valleys that flow down to the Delaware, the main business is dairy farming.

A little bit too far from the metropolitan area for a practical daily commute, the county's relationship to the city has been as a weekend and vacation spot. To talk about Sullivan County as a destination for travelers it's best to start by talking about its past, about the reasons people used to go there: the fabled Catskill Borscht Belt resorts. This era began in the early years of the 20th century, when Jewish emigrants from Eastern Europe looking for land to farm settled in this quiet rural backwater. In the summers, many of them started taking in fellow Jews who had settled in New York City as boarders. Shut out of other resorts of the era on account of their ethnicity, and wanting to keep kosher, these guests regularly returned to their mountain escapes from the crowded and hot tenements they called home.

Attendees at the Woodstock festival in 1969

Eventually some of these farms evolved into resorts, either by expanding their farmhouses into hotels, adding small bungalow colonies on the property or both. The resort owners strove to offer something for every member of the family. During the day there were games of "Simon Says" and mah-jongg, with Yiddish heard as often as English. At night, especially on weekends, there was the entertainment—many future stars of stage and screen honed their skills on this circuit, as tummlers on the stage telling jokes or musicians in the bands.

The Borscht Belt enjoyed its peak in the mid-20th century. The passage of the Civil Rights Act ended the discrimination that had fostered the resorts, and in an era of improved roads guests began staying for weekends rather than weeks at a time. The children and grandchildren of the early immigrants, more culturally assimilated than their parents and grandparents had been, preferred other ways of spending their leisure time. In 1969 they joined their fellow baby boomers at the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival, "3 Days of Peace, Love and Music", at Max Yasgur's dairy farm in Bethel, the largest gathering of people in the county's history.

Former site of the Concord

Today many of the larger resorts are in limbo—the Concord has been demolished, Grossinger's caught up between developers—and many of the smaller ones have vanished completely. That era is relived in movies like Dirty Dancing, Mr. Saturday Night and A Walk on the Moon. A summer Jewish presence remains in the Sullivan County Catskills, but it is primarily Orthodox Hasidim, as the hatted and wigged crowds on the streets of South Fallsburg and Woodbourne, the many small synagogues listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the Hebrew lettering on signs at those bungalow colonies that still operate attest.

Sullivan's glory days are behind it, all in the county agree. But hopes persist that they could return, and they may finally be bearing fruit. The Woodstock festival site is now home to the Bethel Woods Performing Arts Center, which hosts several major acts, including some that played the original festival, each year. Also coming up is the Veria / Z Living Wellness Center at the earlier Kutsher's Resort.

Gambling has been another attraction. Slot machines were recently installed at Monticello raceway, and in 2013 New York's voters approved a proposal to allow casino gambling off Indian reservations. Sullivan's voters supported it by a three-to-one margin, and in 2015 a state board set up to approve sites around the state chose Sullivan as one of three. Construction is underway for a project outside Monticello; by the time you get there, it could be finished.

Another group of visitors that began coming in the early 20th century has, however, never stopped. In the 1890s Theodore Gordon, a young man from Pittsburgh, came to the Catskills to seek relief from his tuberculosis in the mountain air. Sullivan County may not have the Catskills' highest mountains, but as a result it is filled with lakes, and the streams that drain them. Gordon began fishing for their abundant trout, and writing about those efforts for various magazines of the era.

He had used wet flies, which he tied himself from an 1860s manual, as a lure. In the 1900s a British angler with whom corresponded sent him a batch of dry flys, meant to be floated on the water rather than sunk in it. The first American dry fly was cast into Willowemoc Creek above Livingston Manor late that decade, and American angling has never been the same since. Gordon spent the remaining years of his life adapting the English patterns to Catskill waters and developing many of his own to mimic the insects the various trout species in the waters had come to know.

Gordon succumbed to his illness in 1915, but others carried on his work, and both patterns and sections of the streams bear their names today. Anglers kept coming, and gradually the Catskill trout streams became a mecca of American fly-fishers. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter and his wife flew up to Roscoe for some master classes with the late Lee Wulff. After Wulff's death, a fly-fishing museum and training center was established nearby.

Today the fly-fishers still come, their tan waders and vests as distinctive an attire to Sullivan County as that of the Hasidim. They're joined by other outdoor recreationists, too. Whether casinos get built or not, consider checking out this county's many lakes, streams, and woodlands.

Talk

While the Hasidic visitors who throng the streets of some villages in the summertime often speak Yiddish amongst themselves, they're all native American English speakers as well. So don't be apprehensive about talking to them if you need or want to, unless you have problems understanding a heavy Brooklyn accent.

Get in

For decades every visitor to Sullivan County has come by road, in a car or bus. There are, for now, almost no other alternatives, befitting this backwoods vacation haven.

By air

By train

By bus

CoachUSA's Short Line bus service has a Catskill Mountain route, leaving New York City's Port Authority Bus Terminal several times a day for Sullivan County. Most trips terminate in Monticello, with a few going on to Liberty or Roscoe. Some routes also take short detours to popular destinations off the Route 17 corridor, like South Fallsburg, Sullivan County Community College or Monticello Raceway. If you're planning to get to Sullivan County without your own car, this is your best option.

By car

Route 17 near Liberty

New York State Route 17, referred to by older residents as the Quickway and slowly being upgraded into Interstate 86, is Sullivan County's principal connection to the rest of New York. Officially an east-west route, in Sullivan it runs more north-south, directly through the center of the county, serving as its spine and dividing east from west—Liberty, Monticello and Roscoe are right along the highway. Grade intersections in the northern areas are being eliminated as part of the interstate conversion, to the detriment of small towns like Parksville that depended on the pull-off traffic which now bypasses the town completely (nevertheless, the I-86 upgrade had been sought locally for years). Even so, there's an exit serving almost every community along its length and many nearby.

If you come up from Port Jervis or neighboring areas of Pennsylvania, though, you may find yourself on New York State Route 42. The southern segment of this two-lane runs more north-south across the county, intersecting Route 17 at Monticello, then becoming Sullivan's only commercial strip for a brief distance along the road to the Fallsburgs and Woodbourne, paralleling the Neversink River all the way up to its northern terminus at tiny Grahamsville.

A more direct approach from the east is New York State Route 52, another two-lane. From Ellenville, it heads through some relatively undeveloped woods to enter Sullivan County just east of Woodbourne, then climbs through Loch Sheldrake, past the community college campus to Route 17 at Liberty. In western Sullivan it loops to the north, taking traffic to White Sulphur Springs and Jeffersonville, the largest village on that side of the county, before crossing into Pennsylvania at Narrowsburg.

Route 55 at Neversink Reservoir

New York State Route 55 is the other east-west two-lane across the county. It follows the south shore of Rondout Reservoir into Sullivan County east of Grahamsville, then crosses the Neversink Reservoir spillway to the west. After meeting Route 17 and Route 52 at Liberty, Route 55 turns more due south, crossing some mostly rural areas and passing the hamlets of Bethel and White Lake on its way to Barryville on the Delaware River, with a crossing to neighboring Shohola, in Pennsylvania's Pike County.

Should you be starting from Port Jervis for a destination along the river, you will be taking New York State Route 97 through the scenic Hawk's Nest, site of too many car commercials, and then into Sullivan County where it serves every riverside community—Narrowsburg, Barryville, Cochecton and Callicoon, all the way up to Delaware County. Even if you're not going anywhere, it's a nice drive on a good day if you like the river scenery.

While it's really not a major part of the county's road network, slicing across its southern corner, U.S. Route 209 is a reasonably good shortcut to Sullivan County for travelers coming from far enough north to be able to get off the Thruway at Kingston. The expressway at that point soon ends, but traffic flows fairly quickly along the continuing two-lane past Rondout Creek to Route 55 at Kerhonkson and Route 52 at Ellenville, with the scenic Shawangunk Ridge a backdrop to the east. Route 209 enters Sullivan County proper just a few miles north of Wurtsboro, southern Sullivan's largest village, and its exit along Route 17. Should you be headed to that area from Port Jervis to the south, you'll also be following 209.

Get around

Just as there is no passenger rail service to Sullivan County, there is no passenger rail service in it. Nor does the county have anything like a public bus system, either; nor is there any private operator other than those discussed in "Get In" that serve locations in the county as part of their intercity service. So you'll likely be getting around the way you got here—by car or bicycle on the roads.

Route 17B

There are a couple of state highways located entirely within the county. New York State Route 17B connects Monticello with the hamlet of Callicoon along the Delaware. Near White Lake it provides the easiest access to Bethel Woods and the original Woodstock festival site. New York State Route 52A, located entirely within western Sullivan County, shortens the trip from Callicoon to Liberty between the small hamlets of Fosterdale and Kenoza Lake.

For most other conceivable routes, the county maintains an extensive numbered-route system of its own. Those roads are generally paved, signed and well-maintained regardless of where in the county they are. A local road map, such as those produced by Jimapco and sold in many convenience stores, will generally suffice to guide you around them.

See

Roebling's Delaware Aqueduct

Do

Eat

Drink

If you're looking for a place to drink in Sullivan County outside the major settlements, be forewarned that the town of Neversink in the county's northeastern corner, where the hamlets of Grahamsville and Neversink are located, is one of New York's few remaining dry towns, with no bars or alcoholic beverage sales of any kind.

Stay safe

Driving on the county's back roads in the wintertime can be hazardous. The county maintains a more extensive portion of its surface road network than most other counties in the state, including parts of some of the highways designated as state roads. They are thus not always as regularly maintained or plowed as thoroughly as the major roads, and so you should be careful on them. Some local roads that go deep into the mountains or hills, offering spectacular vistas to those who know where to look or have studied maps carefully, are unpaved and (in some cases) signed as "seasonal limited maintenance"—in other words, not plowed or cleared between mid-November and mid-April. If you venture there in winter it is advisable to do so in a vehicle with four-wheel drive. Be advised, too, that some of these roads may also be allowed to carry snowmobile traffic.

In summertime, much of Sullivan County's recreational activities involve water. While most of the popular fly fishing streams of the county are not deep or fast enough to be potentially dangerous, anglers should take care in the main stem of the Delaware, where sometimes the riverbed can drop from wading to swimming depth without warning. If you are wearing waders there, be sure to secure the belt. This is even more important in the early and late season when the colder water poses a greater risk of hypothermia and it would be a good idea to have layers of wicking fabric on underneath.

Boaters should also remember to wear life jackets no matter what. As noted above, most of the area's annual drowning deaths take place on the Delaware, where visitors from the city and elsewhere with little or no boating experience underestimate the depth and swiftness of the river. But the county's inland portion is also rich with lakes, some of which are rather large and abut commercial areas where bar owners have built decks allowing easy access to patrons' watercraft. This hazard speaks for itself, so if you find yourself on one of these waterbodies on a weekend night, it is not enough just to make sure your life jacket is secure—you will want to keep an eye out for possibly intoxicated boaters elsewhere on the lake (And, just like on land, taking the wheel of a boat if you've a had a few can result in your arrest).

The woodlands of Sullivan County abound with deer, which draws hunters from many other areas, in addition to locals, during the late fall season. It's generally not the best time to go hiking, especially since there are very few publicly accessible protected areas in the county where hunting is not allowed. If you must, remember during those times of year to wear blaze orange or other bright colors that distinguish you from any large game that may come into hunters' sights, and make noise while you do so to remove all doubt as to your humanity.

Go next

To the west of Sullivan County, just across the Delaware, are Pennsylvania's Pocono Mountains (geologically a lower-elevation continuation of the Catskills). Pike County, to the southwest of Sullivan, has higher-profile visitor destinations along or near I-84, such as the charming county seat of Milford, nearby Grey Towers National Historic Site, Promised Land State Park, and Lake Wallenpaupack. Wayne County, to Sullivan's immediate west, occupies Pennsylvania's northeast corner. It's even quieter and less developed than the adjacent portions of Sullivan County, if you really want to go somewhere out of the way for a while.

If you're looking for an equally quiet getaway but want to stay in New York, Delaware County, Sullivan's northern neighbor, is the place for you. The fly fishing remains superb on the lower Beaverkill, most of which flows through Delaware County, and the upper branches of the Delaware, both which drain two of New York City's larger reservoirs. Continuing northward you will find plenty of space to stretch out and relax in New York's least densely populated county outside of the Adirondacks.

East and northeast of Sullivan is Ulster County. The portions that border Sullivan are home to many of the Catskills' higher peaks and larger tracts of wilderness. Water sports enthusiasts can also find things to do at Ashokan Reservoir, the first the city built in the region. It's fed by Esopus Creek, which offers anglers a bigger-water experience than the Sullivan streams, along with the native wild rainbow population to go with it and large tracts of public access. Eastern Ulster is characterized by a belt of funky towns along or near the Hudson River—New Paltz, a college town used as a base for rock climbing trips in the nearby Shawangunks; Kingston, the county seat, where Dutch colonial stone buildings abut the state's oldest four-way intersection; and Saugerties, where expatriates from the city have brought a funky Brooklyn vibe to its resurgent downtown.

On the way down from Sullivan to the city, if that's where you're headed next, you'll pass through Orange County to the south and southeast. Generally flatter and more arable than Sullivan (with the exception of the Hudson Highlands region near the river), it's historically been more developed, which today means an increasing amount of exurbanization and subdivisions as commuters look for the best of both worlds (and cheaper housing) within a short drive of the outermost train stations that offer daily service to the city. Most traffic from Sullivan to Orange is headed for its shopping malls, particularly the Woodbury Commons outlet mall at the junction of NY 17/I-86 and the Thruway, a big draw for international visitors to the city as well. But you may also find the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and the outdoor sculptures at Cornwall's Storm King Arts Center, worth a detour on the way.

Routes through Sullivan County

Elmira Binghamton  W  E  Middletown Ends at
Elmira Binghamton  W  E  Middletown Ends at
Port Jervis Milford  S  N  Ellenville Kingston


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