To climb a crag like Bonticou is an exciting outdoor experience, but to view the same crag from a nearby hill offers its own, quieter rewards. I discovered the latter on my recent ascent of Guyot Hill. Jack Fagan says of Guyot Hill, in his superb Scenes and Walks in the Northern Shawangunks, that it “seems unloved and is seldom visited today.” That sounded perfect to me, in the mood as I was for a quiet, solitary ramble on a mild, early spring day.
Guyot Hill’s namesake was Arnold Guyot (1807-84), the first Professor of Geography and Geology at Princeton University, who loved Mohonk and stayed often at Mohonk Mountain House. Guyot’s map and study of what are now called the “high peaks” of the Catskills, including Slide Mountain, was published in 1879-80 and radically altered understanding of the area. Until Guyot’s work, the “Catskills” was popularly seen as the environs of the famous Catskill Mountain House, where North/South Lake State Campground is today. Yet it is this unassuming hill in Shawangunks, and none of the Catskill peaks, which bears Guyot’s name.
Guyot’s Hill is a place of quiet surprises. It is in fact, at 1,270 feet above sea level, the highest point in the Shawangunks north of Mohonk Mountain House area, and the highest in the whole region whose bedrock is shale. Here the much harder, more resistant quartzite conglomerate that forms the dramatic cliffs and bare rock ledges elsewhere on the ridge has been removed by erosion, the last of it perhaps during the Wisconsin glaciation 15,000 years ago or so. The layers of shale that are exposed along Guyot Hill Road are thin and flaky like phyllo pastry. It’s the same rock that underlies the Wallkill Valley below, which can be glimpsed from the top of Guyot’s Hill through the still-leafless trees. Soft, dark and yielding to erosion — these qualities of this Ordovician age shale molded the modest contours of Guyot Hill.
Guyot Hill is summited by a sinuous loop of old forest roads, Guyot Hill Road on the east and Pine Circle and Pine Reservoir Roads on the west side. I followed the Crag Trail from Spring Farm to reach Guyot Hill Road by way of Cedar Drive, and was bypassed along my way by several groups of hikers eager to climb Bonticou Crag’s rocky precipice. I was glad to have my expectations confirmed: as soon as I left the Crag Trail, I had the woods all to myself. After I had rounded a series of switchbacks on Guyot Hill Road, a solitary jogger breezed by. She waved as she passed the lookout bench where I had paused for the view of Bonticou Crag that the spot afforded. I realized that this was in fact the best time of year to visit Guyot Hill, if one wanted to enjoy even such limited vistas as this one, and others looking east to the Wallkill Valley and the Marlboro hills beyond. Guyot Hill’s views were once kept open, but are now mostly screened by second and third growth trees. But I was happy on this day to savor the limited, but lovely, perspective this place gave me, and to peer through a lattice of bare branches at the Crag that I knew others were scaling, scrambling from boulder to boulder, as I gazed from afar.
As I wended my way down Guyot Hill, I noticed how soft and cushiony the road felt underfoot. It seemed as though the slow composting of leaf litter and horse manure had produced this springy surface, so pleasant to tread upon. My footsteps were accompanied by the drumming of one hairy woodpecker, and the answering rat-tat-tat of another. Those drum rolls, the only courtship song this bird has, punctuated the quiet of those woods, and reminded me that a new spring season was at hand. Then came the ringing cackle of a pileated woodpecker, followed by the sight of him, big as a crow, but more dramatic in appearance, with his red crest and swooping flight. And here was a deeply excavated snag, with its labyrinth of carpenter ant tunnels exposed, that I took to be the work of the big woodpecker with the jackhammer head.
On my return from this pleasant excursion to Guyot’s Hill, I was greeting by a chorus of spring peepers from a large vernal pool, still partly iced-over. In honor of these spring pools, and the humble creatures they harbor, frog and salamander eggs and tadpoles, and fairy shrimp, and in observance of National Poetry Month, I’ll conclude with this poem by Robert Frost. Those who came to my Signs of Spring Walk at Spring Farm a few weeks ago may recall hearing me read it then.
These pools that, though in forests, still reflect
The total sky almost without defect,
And like the flowers beside them, chill and shiver,
Will like the flowers beside them soon be gone,
And yet not out by any brook or river,
But up by roots to bring dark foliage on.
The trees that have it in their pent-up buds
To darken nature and be summer woods –
Let them think twice before they use their powers
To blot out and drink up and sweep away
These flowery waters and these watery flowers
From snow that melted only yesterday.
Richard Parisio is a lifelong naturalist, educator and writer. He currently leads field trips for school classes at Mohonk Preserve, teaches courses about John Burroughs and conducts tours of Slabsides and the John Burroughs Sanctuary for groups and individuals by request. Rich is New York State coordinator for River of Words, a national poetry and art program on the theme of watersheds, and teaches River of Words programs for school classes, grades K-12, by request. Contact Rich (email@example.com) with questions, comments, or suggestions for Nature at Your Doorstep.