Ashley Falls is a delightful three-tier waterfall located in the North-South Lake area of the northern Catskills. Ashley Creek, which originates from North Mountain, flows into North Lake, from which the waters of the lake continue its journey to Kaaterskill Falls, through Kaaterskill Clove and ultimately to the Hudson River.
Ashley Falls is reached via the red-blazed Mary’s Glen trail, to a short yellow-blazed spur trail. The roundtrip hike is approximately 1/2 mile. The trailhead is located along the main road between the North Lake entrance and the North Lake parking area. Given its easy access, short hiking distance and beautiful scenery, Ashley Falls is popular for families with children and for those looking for a quick walk.
The Mary’s Glen trail is named for Mary (Saxe) Scribner (1807-1889) who, along with her husband Ira Scribner (1800-1890), owned a sawmill and boarding house called the Glen Mary on the creek in the 1840s and 1850s.
Mary Saxe was the daughter of Catharina Irene Layman Saxe (1786-1853) and Frederick William Saxe (1780-1854), a noted member of the Kiskatom community. Mary and Ira Scribner were married on March 1, 1829. Mary passed away at Kiskatom on February 22, 1889 and Ira passed away at 89 years of age at Kiskatom on September 12, 1890. Both Mary and Ira are buried at the Linzey Family Cemetery on the grounds of the old Catskill Game Farm in Catskill, New York. Ashley Falls has sometimes been referred to as Mary’s Glen Falls.
Famous American author Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), along with his friend William Ellery Channing (1817-1901), stayed at the Glen Mary in July 1844, where he found “the inspiration for his momentous experiment at Walden Pond”. Thoreau, in beginning his daily journal at Walden on July 5th of the following year, wrote of his time at Mary’s Glen.
“Yesterday, I came here to live. My house makes me think of some mountain houses I have seen, which seemed to have a fresher auroral atmosphere about them, as I fancy of the halls of Olympus. I lodged at the house of a saw-miller last summer, on the Catskill Mountains, high up as Pine Orchard, in the blueberry and raspberry region, where the quiet and cleanliness and coolness seemed to be all one, – which had their ambrosial character.
He was the miller of the Kaaterskill Falls. They were a clean and wholesome family, inside and out, like their house. The latter was not plastered, only lathed and the inner doors were not hung. The house seemed high-placed, airy, and perfumed, fit to entertain a travelling god. It was so high, indeed, that all the music, the broken strains, the waifs and accompaniments of tunes, that swept over the ridge of the Catskills, passed through its aisles. Could not man be man in such an abode? And would he ever find out this groveling life? It was the very light and atmosphere in which the works of Grecian art were composed, and in which they rest. They have appropriated to themselves a loftier hall than mortals ever occupy, at least on a level with the mountain-brows of the world. There was wanting a little of the glare of the lower vales, and in its place a pure twilight as become the precincts of heaven. Yet so equable and calm was the season there that you could not tell whether it was morning or noon or evening. Always there was the sound of the morning cricket.”
“For Thoreau, Scribner’s house offered the instant revelation of a rustic architectural ideal; rough, unplastered, open to nature, clean, and healthful. It even resonated with the extraordinary virtues of the Parthenon, as he hints by calling it “high placed, airy, and perfumed, fit to entertain a travelling God” and by referring to its “aisles.” For the classically inspired young writer with an enthusiasm for the primitive hut, Scribner’s evidently seemed a latter-day Doric cabin . . . The origin of Thoreau’s Walden idea, it seems, was to join Scribner’s “airy and unplastered cabin” and the South Lake “tarn” into the conception of a rustic lakeshore retreat of his own, one that would allow him to live the vigorous Catskills life not only in summer but all year long.” (Maynard, W. Barksdale. “Thoreau’s House at Walden.” The Art Bulletin, vol. 81, no. 2, 1999, pp. 303–25, https://doi.org/10.2307/3050694. Accessed 21 Apr. 2022.)
In his “experiment”, Thoreau would live for two years in a cabin near Walden Pond in Massachusetts removed but not isolated from others with minimal material goods to “live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Walden would become a classic American book noted for its themes of individualism, simplification and self-reliance.
Noted American landscape painter Sanford Gifford (1823-1880), a leading member of the Hudson River School of Art, was a regular guest at the Glen Mary during the late 1840s and the early 1850s. The Autobiography of Worthington Whittredge details some of Gifford’s time at Scribner’s Boarding House.
“Many years ago he [Gifford] hunted up a little house in Kaaterskill Clove, in which lived a family of plain country folk, and, as the place was secluded an there were no boarders, he liked it and managed to obtain quarters there. This house, scarcely enough to hold the family, was, nevertheless, for many summers the abiding place of a congregation of artists. The beds were few and it may truly be said that the best were the cheapest, for the most expensive were composed of straw, while the cheapest were of feathers.
As may well be imagined, the table at this house was not very good. Gifford was no gourmet, but he had a commendable ambition to improve the cooking of the Catskills. To this end, he urged the immigration of some of the wives and sisters of those present, whose culinary gifts he was acquainted with. In due time they appeared upon the scene and, by their adroit direction, new dishes were served and coffee was improved.
But this experiment proved fatal in the end. Boarders came in flocks from the city, and Scribner’s Boarding House had to be abandoned by the artists and new quarters found further on.” (Bauer, John I. H. “The Autobiography of Worthington Whittredge, 1820-1910.” Brooklyn Museum Journal, 1942. Brooklyn, NY: Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences, 1942. p. 59.)
Famed author and historian Alf Evers, writing in his classic The Catskills: From Wilderness to Woodstock, noted the name origins of Ashley Falls and Ashley’s Creek.
“One man found an unusual way to use one of the kinds of trees which grew in the Catskills. He was John Ashley. Hardly had the Schohariekill Road been opened when Ashley was traveling it in order to set up on the shore of North Lake two log buildings in which he manufactured from the tips of the branches of spruce trees a substance known as the essence of spruce. This John Ashley was a man worth knowing, for he emerges from the old records seeming even yet to bounce and quiver with acquisitive energy and ingenuity. Of Yankee origin, he had come from the city of Hudson to serve as the town baker of Catskill. Years after Ashley was gone, old-timers recalled that he had advertised with a vigor worthy of more recent times. The signboard attached to his shop was actually bigger than the shop. On it were shown in natural colors monumental loaves of bread and giant barrels of overflowing with crackers. Surmounting these appeals to the public appetite was a slogan reading, “May our County never want for Bread.” But baking could not absorb all of John Ashley’s energy. He was ever on the alert for new ways of laying his hands on dollars. As a baker he supplied the people of Catskill with bread to eat. Sometime in the 1790s he proposed supplying them, as well as more distant Americans, with something to drink.
The tips of the spruce trees to be found beside North Lake were the raw materials of Ashley’s method of quenching Americans’ thirst. In Ashley’s day, the artificially carbonated drinks daily consumed by millions in our time were yet unknown, although a beginning had been made by druggists who flavored, colored and carbonated waters prescribed by physicians for those who could or would not visit spas where naturally carbonated waters were to be found. The place in life of the cola drinks, the ginger ales, and similar concoctions of our day was once filled very well indeed by a slightly alcoholic liquid known as spruce beer. People of all ages relished spruce beer but it was the especial favorite of children and adolescents. Old ladies and one-armed veterans often kept refreshment stands at which they offered spruce beer and gingerbread of their own brewing and baking. Such stands sprang up in cities on holidays and were a feature of summer resorts and of places to which people traveled to see natural wonders.
Most spruce beer was made from the essence of spruce. To a small amount of essence, water, sugar or molasses, and a little yeast were added. The mixture was allowed to ferment for a few days and was then bottled. John Ashley’s plan was to settle on the shores of North Lake and there produce the essence of spruce which he could send down to the Hudson River over the new road. The log buildings were his headquarters, located close to the point at which the stream once known in his honor as Ashley’s Brook enters the lake. For years the spruce trees bordering the lakes dwindled as Ashley’s kettles boiled and bubbled. But by 1809 the project failed and Ashley was turning his attention to fresh paths to riches. An alum mine in the Kaaterskill Clove and a plaster mill near Catskill had become the subjects of his dreams.” (pp. 293-295.)
Samuel E. Rusk, in his 1879 guidebook titled Rusk’s Illustrated Guide to the Catskill Mountains, described the Mary’s Glen and Ashley’s Creek area as being a popular walk from the Catskill Mountain House.
“Mary’s Glen. Walk in the Mt. House Region. The shady walk of a mile, without climbing, from the Mountain House to Mary’s Glen is a desirable one. The way is down the mountain road to the top of the second small hill, where the left one of the two paths on the north should be followed. It leads past the eastern end of North Lake, crossing a small stream near the Lake. Half a mile farther Ashley’s Creek is crossed on a log for a footbridge. A pretty falls are some two hundred feet further up the stream. A path leads from the top of the falls to the road, by the charcoal pit west of the lake, and the return is usually by this way.” (p. 88.)
Three years later, in 1882, Walton Van Loan also described the area in his own guidebook titled Van Loan’s Catskill Mountain Guide.
“Mary’s Glen – North Mountain. Go down the mountain road to the general entrance of North Mountain. Take the left hand path – a wood-road – part of the way along the eastern shore of North Lake; cross Ravine Creek, and just before reaching “Glen Mary,” cross Ashley’s Creek on a log placed there for the purpose. From here the sound of the fall can generally be heard, distant about two hundred feet up the creek.
Arriving at the falls, cross the stream, and ascend the bank so as to cross back again on the top of the falls, where a well defined path will bring you out on the main road by the charcoal pit, three quarters of a mile from the Mountain House. This delightful and shady walk is recommended to those who wish to avoid climbing, and is a favorite walk with the ladies.” (p. 18.)
Roland Van Zandt described the Ashley’s Falls area in his book titled The Catskill Mountain House.
“Quickly descending the mountain, it soon arrives at the headwaters of Ashley’s Creek, the principal source of North and South Lakes. Following this mountain stream for about half a mile, the trail then intersects the red trail that provides a shortcut to the eastern escarpment (not known in the nineteenth century), and soon reaches the head of Ashley’s Falls, the main feature of the idyllic Glen Mary. The falls are not large, but they are proportionate to the intimate seclusion of the surrounding dale and afford a delightful contrast to the more spectacular scenes of the upper trail. A subsidiary yellow trail (much used in the nineteenth century) provides a detour to the top and bottom of the falls, then back to the main trail. During the last century this trail was a popular walk for those who did not wish to encounter the rigors of the eastern escarpment and was a ‘favorite walk with the ladies.’” (p. 115.)
The North-South Lake area is described on the New York state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) website as the most popular state property in the Catskills and includes its largest campground. During the summer months the 84-acre North-South Lake area offers a picture-perfect location for swimming, boating, camping, hiking and picnicking.