The largest, most famous, and most frequented of all the streams in the Ashokan Watershed is the Esopus Creek. The Esopus Creek drains 75% of the watershed, is an economic engine for the watershed Towns, a vital water supply, and provides rich and abundant aquatic and riparian habitats.
The stream above the Ashokan Reservoir is commonly referred to as the Upper Esopus Creek (and the Lower Esopus Creek below the Ashokan Reservoir) and covers 192 square miles. The entire 26 miles of the Esopus Creek mainstem flows “clockwise” in a sweeping arc from the headwaters at Winnisook Lake on Slide Mountain to the Ashokan Reservoir through the Ulster County Towns of Shandaken and Olive. There are nine primary tributaries from Big Indian to Boiceville and many smaller perennial and intermittent streams that join the creek before it enters the Ashokan Reservoir.
Upper Esopus Creek has a tributary network of at least 330 stream miles that drain some of the tallest and most rugged Catskill terrain, including 21 peaks higher than 3,000 feet above sea level. The slopes along Esopus Creek range from 13% in the cascading headwater reaches, down to 3% – 0.5% as the stream descends to Boiceville. Any stream with a slope over 2% is managed differently as a “mountain stream” compared to lower gradient streams. This is significant because management of steep, mountain streams is different than for lower gradient streams. All valley side slopes in the Upper Esopus Creek watershed are classified as “steep to extremely steep” with valley bottom widths varying from 144 feet in the headwaters to around one-half mile (2,428 ft.) in the lower reaches. Much of the variation corresponds to topographic features associated with the erosion and deposition of the last ice age.
NYS Route 28 runs alongside approximately 13 miles of the Upper Esopus Creek from Boiceville to Big Indian and is the major east/west artery connecting Kingston, NY with the western Catskills. Here the creek and the road occasionally come into conflict with one another during floods. Management of flooding, erosion, streamside vegetation and wildlife habitat, and water discharged from the Shandaken Tunnel are top issues for community members, while water quality is the foremost concern for Federal and State agencies and New York City.
The Esopus has been a haven for anglers since the local Native American tribes fished its shores in Pre-Columbian days. By the late 19th and early 20th Century, the Esopus Creek and the surrounding watershed were becoming more widely known for the fishery, and became the birthplace of American dry fly fishing, a popular sport to this day. Abundant numbers of Brown and Rainbow trout as well as other fish species swim in Esopus Creek waters.
Fishing isn’t the only pastime engaged in upon the Esopus. Kayakers and canoers enjoy a trip down the waterway during high flows. The country’s second oldest slalom race has its home here and has been the training ground for dozens of Olympic hopefuls. The Esopus is also a place to enjoy “tubing,” and from Memorial to Labor Day one can see dozens of people floating down the creek on inflated tubes, one of the most unique Esopus Creek activities.
The Esopus is not without its problems. Flooding has washed out roadways and inundated people’s homes in some locations. Muddy or “turbid” water (a result of erosion into the underlying glacial geology of the area) has created concerns over water quality, public and ecological health, and aesthetics. The Esopus is designated as a “navigable” river which raises questions about private property rights versus public needs and desires for transportation and recreation access. These are complex problems that may only be solvable through multi-agency and community partnerships.
Through it all, anyone who visits the Upper Esopus Creek may fall in love with the river and its grand, majestic beauty. The Esopus Creek has had, and will continue to have a profound influence on the landscape, local communities, and the people who live near it and call the Ashokan Watershed home.
For more information please read the Upper Esopus Creek Stream Management Plan: