Out There: Saving Blue Hole

How a Catskills swimming spot could protect Breakneck

By Brian PJ Cronin

Five years ago, the Blue Hole swimming hole near Peekamoose Mountain in the Catskills was a beloved, locals-only destination at the end of a narrow herd path.

Then the travel journalists found it.

Suddenly this tiny, tranquil location was lauded in Men’s Journal and Travel + Leisure. It was featured on a Travel Channel show, “Top Secret Swimming Holes,” making it not a secret. Instagram didn’t help.

Visitors poured in by the thousands. The herd path became a trampled highway. Cars parked on the shoulders for miles along winding Peekamoose Road. Bags of trash were left behind on the trail, in the woods, and in the water, which feeds the Rondout Reservoir, a source of New York City drinking water.

Like Breakneck Ridge in the Highlands, Blue Hole was in danger of being loved to death.

An overabundance of outdoor tourists has long been an issue in the West, where hikers are accustomed to checking if certain trails, mountains or rock climbing areas require day permits. But that is nearly unheard of in New York State, and once pristine natural attractions are paying the price.

Andy Mossey and Selina Guendel of the Catskill Center, picking up microtrash at Blue Hole (Photo by B. Cronin)

“If we allow all these people to come and don’t provide any education or guidelines on how to use it responsibly, then we’re going to see it get trashed,” says Andy Mossey of the Catskill Center, who formerly worked for the nonprofit Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, which had identified Blue Hole as being in critical danger of irreparable damage and traveled to the area last year to help the state develop new guidelines.

This summer, the state Department of Environmental Conservation put those guidelines in place in an attempt to save Blue Hole. A dumpster and two portable toilets were installed at the parking lot. Visitors are required to obtain a free permit online before visiting on summer weekends or holidays. Mossey and another steward, Selina Guendel, are on duty every weekend, holiday, and most weekdays.

When permits are required, the two approach visitors before they even get out of their cars so they don’t have time to unload and head down to Blue Hole only to be told they must leave. Other visitors are handed garbage bags. Each is shown photos of Blue Hole when it overflowed with trash and guests.

“Anyone who sees that, understands,” says Guendel.

For visitors who arrive on weekends and holidays without a permit, Mossey and Guendel provide directions to nearby swimming holes at Minnewaska State Park and the Mongaup Pond Campground. But the most important tool at their disposal is their infectious attitude. They say they are genuinely happy to see everyone.

“We’re not like, ‘Ugh, another person,’ ” says Mossey. “Instead we say, ‘Wow! You drove three or four hours to get here! Welcome to the Catskills! But we need you to help us take care of it.’ ”

With the summer winding down, it’s clear the policies are working. When I visited Mossey and Guendel early Monday morning they were cleaning up after a busy weekend. Instead of hauling out a dumpster’s worth of garbage, they had filled two kitchen-sized bags with “microtrash” such as juice-box straw wrappers that fell out of pockets.

The site was immaculate, and with just the three of us standing there, Blue Hole again resembled the untouched, tranquil paradise that made locals fall in love with it for hundreds — and possibly thousands — of years.

The same groups that came together to work out a plan for Blue Hole are talking about how its success can be replicated. The Leave No Trace Center has identified Breakneck Ridge as a priority and will travel to the Highlands in October for a week of workshops and discussions.

As we walked back from Blue Hole, Mossey noted how the path was already recovering, with less erosion. “You can expect to see, over the next year or two, some vegetation growing back, to help lock some of the soil in,” he explains.

Did you find this article useful or informative? Please consider a contribution to support our nonprofit journalism. Our annual appeal has begun! All gifts of up to $1,000 through Dec. 31 will be matched TWICE! Click here for details. We are able to provide this website and our weekly print paper free to the community -- and pay our writers, photographers and editors for their hard work -- because of the generosity of readers like you.

4 Responses to "Out There: Saving Blue Hole"

  1. Judith Kepner Rose
    Judith Kepner Rose   September 5, 2018 at 3:49 pm

    Thank you for this update.

  2. Kathy Richardson   September 7, 2018 at 8:04 am

    I’m so heartened to see such positive action being taken to protect the natural beauty of our area! People like Andy and Selina are a blessing. In this time and place in my life, where I’m often rocked by the disregard shown for our beautiful planet, these two wardens of the wild are a sweet reminder of all the good we can do just by holding ourselves accountable for the sanctity of our environs. Thank you so much!

  3. Ginny and Chris Crowfoot   September 7, 2018 at 11:22 pm

    Thank you so much for all of your efforts to save this precious piece of paradise for future generations. Our family lived up the street for many years and loved the Blue Hole. My children grew up spending summers there and my oldest daughter used to swim there on New Year’s Day! Keep up the good work!

  4. Toni Martorana Flagg   September 9, 2018 at 7:13 pm

    This is where I learned to swim as a child, many many years ago. I swam here almost every day, weather permitting. It is a special place for all of us who lived in that area. There are many special memories in our minds and in our hearts. Please do not ruin it for us. In our minds, it is the place we came to gather with friends, escape the heat and be “a kid.”