A five-step guide to boating the Catskills reservoirs

Four of New York City’s six reservoirs in the Catskills — Pepacton, Schoharie, Cannonsville and Neversink — are open to canoes, kayaks, rowboats and small sailboats from Memorial Day to Columbus Day. The reservoirs hold drinking water for roughly 9.4 million people, and New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is pretty vigilant about keeping them clean. So before you get out on the water, you’ll have to jump through a few hoops.

To boat the reservoirs, you must have a free DEP access permit; if you’re planning on boating more than one reservoir, you’ll need a separate access permit for each. You’ll also need a boat that has been steam cleaned by an authorized steam-cleaning vendor. (Steam cleaning helps stop the spread of invasive plants, animals and other organisms that could harm water quality or the ecology of the reservoirs.) And you must use a DEP-designated launch area for putting in and taking out your boat, which can be only a kayak, canoe, rowboat, scull or small sailboat: No gas-powered boats allowed.

The hoops are worth jumping through. The reservoirs are one of the Catskills’ best-kept secrets, and with three of the four only opened to boaters since 2012, they’re still new enough that not many people know about them.

This year, reservoir boaters can earn the brand-new Catskill Reservoir Paddler patch. It’s a real sew-it-on-your-rucksack embroidered badge, offered by the Catskills Outdoor Guide in partnership with the Catskill Watershed Corporation and the DEP. For details about the badge program, see our article, "Scout's honor: Earn Catskills badges." 

Here’s how to get on the water:


The four reservoirs have different perks. Want to camp out nearby? Head to the Schoharie, where the Nickerson Park Campground in nearby Gilboa rents out both canoes and campsites. Looking for an adventure close to NYC? Head to the Neversink in Sullivan County. Want tons of space to paddle for miles? Go to the Pepacton, which spans a whopping 9 square miles of water. Don’t want to see another soul all day? Head to the Cannonsville, in the remote western end of Delaware County.


You can apply for a permit online on the DEP's website, or apply through a local steam cleaner. The online form allows you to print your permit at home before you venture out.


Some local vendors keep rental boats at the reservoir for easy access. The rental boats are steam cleaned ahead of time, which makes it easier for those who are coming from out of town or don’t own a boat. For Catskills boat rental and steam-cleaning companies, see the Catskill Watershed Corporation's list of DEP-approved boat companies.


Get your boat steam cleaned and tagged at a local vendor. Choose a temporary tag (up to seven days) or a seasonal tag (through October). If you move your boat off the reservoir, it has to be cleaned and tagged again before you can bring it back or put it on a different reservoir.


Find an approved launch site and get out on the water. For maps of the reservoirs and launch sites, more information about the recreational boating program, and other ways to access city-owned land, see the DEP’s watershed recreation page at nyc.gov/dep/recreation.

You can also download reservoir-specific brochures at the Catskill Watershed Corporation’s tourism website, thecatskillregion.com.

This article originally appeared in the print version of the 2014 Catskills Outdoor Guide, our annual publication covering recreation in the Catskills great outdoors. The Catskills Outdoor Guide is distributed across the Catskills region and at select locations in the NYC metropolitan area. Find a copy near you here.