By Ed Henry
Welcome to the Shawangunks! As part of the Appalachians, the Shawangunks — or 'Gunks,' as locals often refer to them — are actually the start of a long, sharp ridgeline running, in one form or another, all the way from New York to Alabama. The ridgeline's northern end is right here in Ulster County, rising from sea level near Kingston and the Hudson River, to reach 2,289 feet at High Point.
The ridge's trademark rock, a Silurian quartzite, tops the ridgeline and forms many of its well known landmarks. Locally, this rock is known as Shawangunk conglomerate and is among the hardest rocks in the entire Appalachian chain. Variants of this rock show up all along this slender ridgeline, holding up other landmarks including Delaware Water Gap (NJ-PA), Massanutten Mountain (VA), and Seneca Rocks (WV). For all of its length, the ridgeline separates the Appalachian Mountains from Allegheny and Cumberland Plateaus.
Locally, the Shawangunk Mountains extend to the New Jersey border. But the area of most interest to outdoor enthusiasts is where the range widens, extending from a sharp linear ridge to more of a rounded shape, all of which is in Ulster County. This wider area also marks the ridge's highest elevations, twin points of 2,289 feet, in the Lake Marantaza area. Although the Gunks are best known for their rock climbing, it also boasts an incredible number of hikes, including some fantastic viewpoints and spectacular waterfalls.
The ridgeline's quartzite, locally known as Shawangunk Conglomerate, is a white rock that forms towering cliffs and rocky landscapes. Not much of this hard rock remains in most areas. As a result, jagged formations of hard cliffs and weaker shale characterize the northern part of the ridge. To the south, a thicker layer of the conglomerate forms a series of folded ridges culminating in the highlands of Minnewaska State Park Preserve and the Lake Marantanza area. Beneath this hard cap-rock is the much softer Marcellus shale, well-known for its deposits of natural gas that can be found in areas to the west, where it is buried beneath thousands of feet of Catskill and Pocono sediments. In places, the hard conglomerate layers are undermined by the faster eroding shale beneath them.
Awosting Falls at Minnewaska State Park Preserve. Photo courtesy of Minnewaska State Park Preserve
On top of the Shawangunks, the conglomerate, which erodes slowly and is composed of little more than silica, provides little raw material for soil. As a result the Gunks' higher elevations are stark places — only the most hearty plants and trees grow well. Among these are pitch pine, sweet fern and blueberry. Fire is an important part of this ecosystem.
Most of the Gunks ridgeline is preserved by a group of public and private organizations including the Mohonk Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, the Mohonk Mountain House and the State of New York. In the past, most of the ridge was owned by the resort hotels that once reigned supreme along the ridgeline. Today, only the Mountain House remains. These hotels built the hundreds of miles of carriageways that form the basis for most of the area's hiking trails.
The Gunks can be approached from east and southeast from the Hudson Valley or the west from the Rondout Valley. The long ridge and its white cliffs are obvious from either side, with the cliffs most apparent from the east. The long cliff at Millbrook Mountain and Skytop tower above the Mohonk Mountain House are two major landmarks. Once coming to the Gunks, the question becomes where to go. What are the range's highlights and must sees?
Bonticou Crag is the northernmost outpost of the Gunks and its signature conglomerate. Accessed from the Mohonk Preserve's Spring Farm parking area, this short hike includes a challenging rock scramble to a terrific viewpoint. Jagged boulders lay like discarded toys along the west face of the crag. Just south of the viewpoint is Guyot Hill, the Gunks' highest summit, which is topped by Marcellus Shale. This view also allows one to look along the Gunks' spine and over to the west and into the Catskill Mountains.
Millbrook Mountain is about a six mile round-trip hike, which begins just west of the parking area along Route 44/55 at the eastern edge of the Gunks. This hike skirts the eastern ridgline, slowly climbing to Millbrook Mountain and topping the huge, sheer cliffs that rise along the mountain's eastern flank. The trail also offers a number of pleasant views to east, over the Hudson Valley and to the Taconic Mountains, whose geologic ancestors provided the parent material for the Shawangunk Mountains. Additional good views to the west open from the rocks at the beginning of the trail, an area known as The Trapps.
Hamilton and Castle Points are part of an 8.5 mile loop that begins at the parking area adjoining Lake Minnewaska. These trails follow carriageways to the south that are pleasantly warm in spring and fall, but often gruelingly hot in summer. Both points are wide, flat rock ledges with great views to the south and east. Castle Point, located at the top of the ridge, also provides a glimpse into the Catskills to the west.
The Gunks also have their share of waterfalls. Awosting Falls, located near the entrance to Minnewaska State Park Preserve, is a cool and impressive retreat. Rainbow Falls, tucked away in a deep ravine in the park is a high, thin fall. Verkeerdeer Falls, along the eastern edge of the mountains is a long hike through pitch pine and chestnut oak forests.
The Gunks provide many hiking opportunities. Viewpoints, waterfalls, and other mountain highlights offer many days of great hikes for people of all abilities. In addition, the mountains have a character that is unique among the Appalachians and offers many places for observing wildlife, especially raptors during the spring and fall migration, making the Gunks an ideal place to visit any time of the year.
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