A KILLER VIEW
For a long time, I've always wanted to do some day hikes in upstate New York. There are many protected areas and park lands available that are as wild as anywhere in the West Coast. As if to answer my prayers, I received an email from Hinestours, a local adventure company in New York, announcing a semi-private hiking in the Shawangunks and the Catskills. What was surprising was that the trip was to be done the next day. I barely had time to think so I called their office to indicate my interest and spoke with Nik who is actually leading this spur-of-the-moment adventure. That same night, Nik called again saying two others have signed-up so I committed myself to it, paying $49 online to join them.
Promptly at 7 AM the next day, Nik met me in Manhattan. In his car was a father-and-daughter team, Cesar and Gemina from Ecuador. Nik, it turns out, is also a transplant from Denmark. He owns his company and he's the one driving and guiding us in this reconnaissance trip: he has a scheduled bus tour on Memorial Day next week but he wanted to find out the trail conditions as well as check a destination he's planning to add in his future trips. In other words, our trip is not confined to a time schedule which is what I like. Add to that a weather forecast of a sunny 80 degrees Fahrenheit for the day and I certainly was upbeat.
After traveling north for about two hours, the hustle and bustle of Manhattan faded behind us as we reached the hamlet of Cragsmoor in Ulster County. Our main objective was to hike into Sam's Point Preserve, perched atop the highest point of the Shawangunk Ridge. This 5,400-acre preserve is managed by Nature Conservancy. Close to the entry gate is the Conservation Center where guests can learn more about the area's rich ecological diversity. This is where I found out that besides the cliffs and plateaus topped with unique dwarf pine barrens, Sam's Point Preserve also hosts wildlife like black bears, hawks, vultures, bobcats and the timber rattle snake which I'd rather hope not to encounter.
Nik and I led the easy hike followed by Cesar and Gemina. We reached one of the cliffs shortly and was immediately rewarded with a grand view of the valley below us. Despite the bright sunny weather, upstate New York tends to be colder and it certainly was up there in the cliffs. There are the many trails crisscrossing the preserve and we took the one leading to the Ice Caves. These were mostly large crevice caves that have formed within bedrock fractures into which cold air and snow enters and freezes into ice even up to summer. At the entrance, a notice was posted "the Ice Caves are closed for the season - the trail is extremely hazardous". But is it really? Not that we don't follow rules but it's almost summer! No one else was around so we proceeded anyway. Nik wanted to check the condition to see if his group on Monday can make it inside these refrigerated caves.
SLIPPERY WHEN FROZEN
The temperature dropped as Nik and I went inside. There were wooden stairs in some areas. We went down and up, down and up. At some point it felt like we were bouldering, and at one time, we had to squeeze ourselves in between slabs of rocks. We carefully moved at surfaces where it's covered with ice and thankfully, much of it have already melted. On a previous trip, Nik said there was a huge block of ice that prevented him from moving onwards. The trail was basically a loop so we re-emerged at an exit close to where we entered. We met up with Gemina and her father who have decided not to enter the Ice Caves. Back at the Conservation Center, I devoured a lunch of pasta.
Up north in the Catskills - our next destination - fire towers were used in the old days to monitor the forests for signs of fire. Out of the 23 towers that once stood in the Catskills, only 5 steel towers built between 1917 and 1927 remain standing. Nik's plan is for us to reach the Red Hill Fire Tower, standing atop a summit with an elevation of 2990 feet above sea level. The 60-feet tall tower was the last to serve its purpose in 1990. Only after it was restored did it open up to hikers in 2000.
THE VIEW FROM THE TOWER
RED HILL FIRE TOWER
We drove again going north passing by Rondout Reservoir, one of the several that supplies potable water to New York City. Nik wanted to test the waters so to speak during this hike that will take us 2.4 miles roundtrip. Armed with a map, he led the way. Gemina and her father opted to just stay at the trail head. The marked trail isn't intimidating at all as we went underneath a canopy of maple, spruce, birch and beech. The mid-afternoon sun was shining brightly and the air was gloriously pure.
In less than an hour, we made it to the summit. There's a log cabin next to the tower that's open only to the public during summer when park volunteers are around. Winds kicked in as we clambered up the steps and unfortunately, the top of the tower is still closed. Nonetheless, we still had stupendous views all around us for miles and miles around. Up on this peaceful perch, I could not believe I'm only a few hours away from the skyscrapers of Manhattan. But then, why do I even have to think of Manhattan?