Kayaking and Tubing the Esopus Creek in Phoenicia, New York

Class III Kayaking in the Catskill Mountains

Esopus Creek
The Esopus Creek in Phoenicia, NY. Photo © by George E. Sayour

The Catskill Mountains have a seeming spiderweb of creeks, rivers, and streams all across their stretches. It is therefore surprising that there isn’t a whole lot of beginner to intermediate whitewater kayaking opportunities in these mountains. Sure there are hair-boat creeks to paddle after a big rain if you dare. But a basic Class III river with good road access is not to easy to find. However, spring and summer whitewater kayaking on the Esopus Creek is just what the beginning whitewater kayaker is looking for in the area.

The Esopus Creek finds its source at Winnisoock Lake on Slide Mountain, the tallest peak in the Catskill Mountains. As the river winds its way through the Catskills it continues to pick up water including through the Shandaken Tunnel which brings water into the Esopus from the Schoharie Reservoir. 13 Miles downstream of the tunnel the Esopus Creek enters the Ashokan Reservoir which is a significant water supply for New York City.

Kayaking the Esopus Creek

The section of the Esopus Creek located between Allaben and Phoenicia on Route 28 is the portion of this river that is frequented by whitewater kayakers. Scheduled recreational boating releases which bring the river up to the Class III level attract whitewater kayakers and canoeists from all around. The Village of Phoenicia also supports a thriving tubing culture with multiple vendors in operation within the town.

When there isn’t a scheduled release from the Schoharie Reservoir through the Shandaken tunnel, the impression is that there isn’t enough water to kayak the Esopus Creek. This simply is not true. All summer long, release or not, they will be renting tubes to run the rapids. In theory, if there is enough water to float a tube, there’s enough to fun a whitewater kayak.

First, there might be enough water in the Esopus naturally due to recent rains or spring runoff. The optimal range is said to be between 5 feet and 8 feet on the gauge. But even if there isn’t a release and the gage says its too low, as long as you can see enough water to float your kayak, its enough to kayak, and the rapids themselves have enough water in them as the flow is directed through them. Of course, it will be scrappy at points, but it all depends on desperate you are to kayak.

Kayaking Dangers on the Esopus Creek

While everything is predictable on the Esopus Creek from Shandaken Tunnel in Allaben down to Phoenicia, all Class III rapids should be scouted before running. There are also some actual hazards to watch out for. The main one will be to watch out for strainers caused by down trees and branches in the river. They tend to accumulate on the outside of the river bends or right in the middle of the river stuck on bridge abutments. At times there have been down trees across the whole river. So, always keep your eyes out, get out well in advance of a downed tree and steer clear of strainers you can pass. There are also times when the river is completely clear of debris. It just depends.

Getting to the Esopus Creek

There are a lot of ways to get to the Esopus Creek depending on where you are coming from. The best thing to do, therefore, is to put Phoenicia, New York into your GPS or your travel website of choice. Ultimately you want to get to Highway 28 in Phoenicia. Here’s how to get to the Esopus from some nearby locations.

  • From Tannersville or Hunter New York: From route 23A in between Tannersville and Hunter take Highway 214 southwest to Phoenicia.
  • From Saugerties, New York: Take Route 212 West. Pass through Woodstock and continue to Route 28. Head north on Route 28 to Phoenicia.
  • From Kingston, New York: Take Route 28 West and North and pass the Ashokan Reservoir and the town of Shokan. Continue to Phoenicia.
  • From the Northeast: Take the New York State Thruway (I-87) from the North. Get off at exit 21. Follow signs to Hunter or Tannersville. This will eventually put you on Route 23A. Follow 23A up the mountain and into Tannersville. Follow the directions above from Tannersville.
  • From Southeast: Take the New York State Thruway (I-87) North and get off in Kingston or Saugerties and follow the directions above.

The section of the Esopus that is good for Class III whitewater kayaking is anywhere along Route 28 from the Shandaken Tunnel in Allaben down to the bridge in Phoenicia. There are a number of fishing access points marked by brown signs and identifiable by the gravel pull-offs along the road.

To decide which stretch to do, start at the second bridge and the last one in Phoenicia. This serves as a good take-out. Drive up Highway 28 observing the different gravel pull-offs along the river. Approximately 2 miles above that bridge in Phoenicia serves as a tubing put-in. It is also a good place to put your kayak in to do a short run on the Esopus. Drive all the way up to Allaben if you want to do the full run.