My favorite time to walk along the famous Trapps cliffs at Mohonk Preserve is in late fall, when the leaves are down, allowing unbroken views of rock faces and cliffs and more distant vistas through the bare branches. Also, the crowds have abated, especially on weekdays, or in blustery weather, when one encounters mostly rock climbers in small parties along Undercliff Road, trying out their skills on the sheer walls of quartzite conglomerate, and walking these carriageways has not been preempted yet by snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.
Beginning at the West Trapps parking lot on a recent walk, I took the short connector trail to the junction of the two carriage roads, Undercliff and Overcliff, just north of the steel Trapps bridge. The name “Trapps” now refers to the conglomerate cliff stretching from this point to Rhodendron bridge, but originally referred to the pass or notch in the ridge here where Route 44-55 passes through. It’s derived from a Dutch word, trappen, meaning “steps,” and described the stairstep-like series of rock formations that led up through this pass before the highway was constructed. Bearing right at this point onto Undercliff road I passed between two huge fallen boulders, slabs of conglomerate that had long ago split off and tumbled down from the escarpment above. For a half-mile or so I had exposures of flaky, dark shale on my left. This thin-bedded shale, older than the Shawangunk conglomerate and underlying it, forms its own steep slope where a view of the Wallkill Valley opens to the east, with the low hills of the ancient Taconic mountains forming the skyline. Here one can stand at the fence, with 44-55 and its “scenic overlook” immediately below, and try to visualize how high those mountains were when they were young, over 400 million years ago, by doing the same thing fifth graders do on geology field trips to Mohonk Preserve. Stretch your arm out toward the eastern horizon, line your fist up with the skyline, and extend your thumb upward. This will show you how high the young Taconic mountains would have looked (had there been anyone around to see them) – as high as the Rocky Mountains are today. There were no cliffs here at that time, just a shallow inland sea to which rivers rushing down from the eastern mountains were carrying their load of sand and gravel which would eventually harden into the beds of conglomerate that now form the ridge.
Soon I reached the conglomerate cliffs, which rise straight up on the left. Short yellow-blazed trails lead to starting-off points for rock-climbing expeditions. There was a part of climbers ascending the cliff here, their dangling rope bright blue against the white rock face. Continuing on, I paused to inspect beds of rock-loving polypody fern, bright green fronds with large yellow spore dots on their undersides, and the darker green marginal wood fern along the road, its spore dots outlining the edges of its leaflets. Two kinds of rock tripe lichen, smooth and blistered, cover many of the talus boulders, looking like wet leather after the recent rains, or peeling green-gray paint blistering a wall when seen from a distance. It’s said that rock tripe is edible as a survival food when boiled, but it seems as though one would really have to be starving to give it a try.
The cliff wall is quite sheer in many places, but in others is split along vertical and horizontal fractures called joints. Water gushes out from some of these clefts, from springs recharged by the rain. When joints intersect, and cycles of freezing and thawing water have widened them enough, large angular boulders split off and fall to the base of the cliff. Farther along these boulders form an extensive talus slope. As I walked along, it seemed that the rock itself was both the setting and the main character in the story of this place. A pair of raven croaked hoarsely and wheeling high above the cliff, surveying me with that mix of wariness and curiosity (both signs of high intelligence) they always seem to show towards humans. Along with a lone black vulture, sailing off on outspread wings over the valley, downy woodpeckers working the thick, blocky bark of chestnut oaks, and bands of juncos scatttering before me into the underbrush, they were the only birds I encountered on my walk. Besides the rock climbers, human presence here was mainly represented by the carefully built road itself, the stone stairway leading down to the Preserve visitor center, a kiosk and comfort station, and the view I had ahead of me for much of the way of the Smiley Memorial Tower at Skytop.
My return trip to Trapps from the five-way intersection at Rhododendron bridge was on Overcliff road, which follows the back, or “dip slope” of the Trapps, and offers a contrasting experience. Here, after climbing up past a small wetland where high bush blueberry grows, I soon had views of the Catskills to the north and west, with Ashokan High Point in the foreground. I found sweet fern growing along the roadside, not a true fern but a relative of bayberry, and crushed the curled brown fernlike leaves to release their spicy scent. Soon I discovered that other, nonhuman, walkers had passed this way not long before me. I found several fresh coyote droppings, full of hair, right in the center of the road, and larger scat on the shoulder that, together with some big indistinct prints in the soft earth, suggested black bear. So I was not really alone, after all! Views now were across the down-folded, or synclinal, valley of the Coxing Kill to the cliffs of Lost City and Dickie Barre, framed by pitch pines with their braces of tight-fisted cones. The latter, together with the chestnut oaks, and the blackened trunks of dead white pines, bear witness to the role that fire continues to play in the ecology of the ridge, and specifically that of controlled burns in recent years, as a sign put up by the Preserve explains.
Shortly before reaching the Trapps intersection, I could look both above and below the roadway at glacially polished conglomerate slopes where even the tenacious pitch pines seem to struggle for a roothold. One of these rock exposures is polished so smooth that geology students enjoy sliding down it during their field trips. A closer look at the glassy stone surface reveals a set of dark parallel lines, which are scratches known as glacial striations made by pebbles embedded in the underside of the ice sheet 10,000 to 15,000 years ago. My circuit of the Trapps, covering about five miles altogether, began and ended with contemplation of the Shawangunk conglomerate, the rock that holds up the ridge, and defines life for the plants and animals who live here, and the humans who come to hike or to climb its cliffs. There is no better place to appreciate the beauty of naked rock in our region, and no better time to do so than the waning days of December, at the threshold of winter.