Taking a Hike: Spring in the Gunks — in January!

Five years ago I had never heard of the Gunks, and I will wager that they have eluded many a keen hiker, especially those who, like me, are in-comers to our region. The Catskills didn’t elude me, nor the Adirondacks; but I lived a Gunk-less life for my first 15 years as a Tri-Stater. So, the basics: The Gunks are the Shawangunk Mountains, a ridge which runs through New York from the Delaware River almost to the Hudson – Port Jervis to New Paltz. The highest and widest part of the ridge is the northern part in Ulster County.

No surprise that it is this high-and-wide part that attracts us hikers. It is comprised of the Sam’s Point, Minnewaska State Park, and Mohonk preserves, plus other public open space. It is 17 miles long and, at its broadest, six miles across – a plateau bounded by white cliffs, dotted with high lakes, and covered in often stunted forest. It offers exceptional views, both of itself, and of surrounding lowlands and the Catskill Mountains to the north. Surprising, then, that I did not find it for so long. Perhaps if the Catskills and Dacks were not so close and magnificent, the Gunks would be a big name.             

One Saturday last month, waiting for Minnewaska State Park Preserve to open, I readied my gear in the back of my car and paced about. I was 1,400 feet above sea level in Upstate New York in late January, and it felt like spring! The air was soft and calm. Patches of mist had obscured the Gunks’ southern escarpment on my drive up. Above all, the sun had come out, mocking the weather forecast yet again. At 9 a.m. the Preserve opened, and I parked in an empty lot above Lake Minnewaska. I wasn’t yet sure where I’d hike to; Gertrude’s Nose maybe, or perhaps more toward Sam’s Point, the location of my only previous Gunks outing. Either way, I’d start on the carriage road beside Lake Minnewaska.

The Gunks have lots of carriage roads. They conjure up, for me anyway, well-heeled New Yorkers of the Gilded Age cruising the heights to escape the City’s summer sweat. I don’t think this picture is far off the truth. Today, the carriage roads are often immaculate shale tracks, and I admit to feelings that hiking them is not really hiking. Still, they speed you through the Gunks – or at least, they would usually. Despite many mild days, ice lingered where the sun had not reached. It did not linger in a patchy way that could be maneuvered around; rather, whole sections of the track were rink-slick from edge to edge. These were followed by others that were wholly ice-free, and I was forever stretching my microspikes onto my boots or (easier) pulling them off.

Somewhere on this stop-start section I decided to forego Gertrude’s Nose and instead head southwest on Hamilton Point Carriage Road. I’d read that the Nose is “one of the most spectacular rock formations in the Shawangunks,” and getting there would involve real trail. But I liked the idea of connecting my two Gunks outings, perhaps reaching today what I had seen as distant scenery three years ago. As I walked, the stretches of ice grew scarcer, and the morning warmed, forcing me to stop to peel off layers of clothing. If the carriage road was not real hiking, I was – barring one runner – all alone, and the scenery was not tame. The road followed the cliff edge, at first looking over wild Palmaghatt Ravine and then over the wider landscape.

Hamilton Point was grand when it came, a huge ledge with big views to south and west. But above it stood Castle Point, which seemed to promise even more. The track – soon called the Castle Point Carriage Road – switch-backed to reach it. Ice reappeared. But as I climbed, the views opened to embrace all points of the compass. The Catskills rose to the north behind white valley mist, but it was the views up and down the Gunks that held my attention. One way, the pale blue ice of Lake Awosting, a mile off and 300 feet below. Left of the lake, and far, far beyond it, mist streamed over a Sam’s Point bluff. Near that bluff, three years ago, I had looked toward where I now stood, and seen the distant lines of cliffs ruled through the forest. I did not know it then, but they were Castle and Hamilton points and – behind me now – Gertrude’s prominent nose.

It would have taken two or three hours to reach the nearest point of my previous hike, to join the two outings physically. The place of joining would be the beautiful falls where Verkeerder Kill spills off the high plateau. But, for now, I was happy to have joined the hikes visually and, instead of a long trek, I ate my lunch on Castle Point and lay out on its surprisingly warm rock.

For half the trek back to Lake Minnewaska, I took Blueberry Run Trail, a real trail that reacquainted me with water and slush underfoot, and boasted as well a perfect tinkling brook and bright bare-rock clearings in the pines. Finally, I took the two-mile carriage road around Lake Minnewaska. It is certainly a pretty lake; high, cliff-wrapped, and covered in the same blue-gray ice as Lake Awosting. But I was already thinking about my next Gunks trip, somewhere out beyond the immaculate tracks.

Rob McWilliams is a local resident. Taking a Hike appears monthly. Contact Rob at McWilliams Takes a Hike, blog and Facebook. He’d love to hear from you.

PARKING Minnewaska SP Preserve, entrance on NY Route 44/55. $10 fee.
DISTANCE About 10 miles.
DURATION Just over 5 hours.
MAP NYNJTC Shawangunk Trails, Map 104.
ROUTE Lake Minnewaska, Hamilton Point, and Castle Point carriage roads to Castle Point; return on Blueberry Run Trail and Upper Awosting carriage road; finish with circuit of Lake Minnewaska.
WHAT TO TAKE In similar conditions, microspikes, layers of clothing, food and water.