Nature at your doorstep: Up at Mohonk

Skytop, Mountain House and Mohonk Lake from Eagle Cliff. (photo by Richard Parisio)

Skytop, Mountain House and Mohonk Lake from Eagle Cliff. (photo by Richard Parisio)

One of the pleasures of living in New Paltz is the constant sight of the Shawangunk Ridge. The defining visual element of our landscape, it frames and bounds our view to the west. The eminence of Skytop and the Albert K. Smiley Memorial Tower are as familiar to residents and frequent visitors as the face of an old friend. The tower is a reminder of the conservation legacy that began in this area with the Smiley family and today extends far beyond the Mountain House property to the adjoining Mohonk Preserve and nearby Minnewaska State Park and Sam’s Point Dwarf Pine Ridge Preserve.

Despite our close proximity to Mohonk Mountain House, Rebecca and I are relatively infrequent visitors. More often than not it’s a special occasion when we go there. In this case, we needed no greater pretext than the beginning of summer, on a day that smothered the valley in heat and humidity. The prospect of a day spent in that gracious setting, of a stroll cooled by breezes along the cliff edge and above the lake, and by the shade of forests, was more than enough to lure us.


Just as one recognizes the scent of pine as soon as one enters a pine grove, even day visitors like us instantly register the atmosphere of summer vacation when walking the trails around Mohonk Lake. Perhaps it’s the sight and sound of so many children feeding fish in the lake, and climbing on the rocks around it, but something about being near the Mountain House transports me to long-ago childhood summer days in the country.

There is a charmed feeling at this place, enhanced not just by the castle-like grandeur of the hotel, but perhaps even more by the many (over a hundred) “summer houses” perched on rocky outcrops above the lake or along the ridgelines, each offering a unique vantage point. These small gazebo-like structures seem lifted out of an ancient Chinese landscape painting, and add to the sense of timelessness I feel here. Or perhaps it’s really childhood time I re-experience here, when a summer day seems as though it might last forever.

Richard Parisio VERTICALIn Japan it’s traditional to observe the appearance of transient natural phenomena, such as cherry blossoms or fireflies, as holidays. Maybe we should emulate that custom in the Shawangunks by celebrating “mountain laurel month” in June. They were still near their peak of blossoming the day we went to Mohonk, and the masses of pink and white flowers in contrast to the mountain laurels’ glossy dark green foliage gave the woods a festive air.

Mountain laurel blossoms repay a closer look, from the cupola structure of the unopened flower buds to the exquisite symmetry of the flowers themselves. These flowers are ingeniously designed to achieve pollination: when a bee probes the center of a blossom for nectar, the anthers pocketed in the corolla pop out, and the springy filaments on which they are borne slap them onto the bee’s back, dusting it with pollen. Sometimes I can demonstrate this by poking the flower with a pencil, playing the role of the honeybee.

En route from the Mountain House to Cope’s Lookout, with its breathtaking vista of Minnewaska and Millbrook Mountain, we tried to catch sight of a black-throated green warbler, whose pleasant “trees, trees, whistling trees” tune reached our ears from the trailside hemlocks. We never saw this warbler (though we spotted one later), but while we paused there spotted an beautifully patterned spider, suspended below her horizontal web, which turned out to be an orchard spider. Had we been too intent on reaching our destination to stop where we did, we would have missed the intricate, shimmering beauty of this spider and her web.

Though we took in the splendid panoramas from Eagle Cliff above the lake, and from Cope’s Lookout and Humpty Dumpty Carriage Road with immense pleasure, we were also grateful for the chance to zoom in to what a shaft of sunlight revealed right before our eyes. Children know best how to do that, and we were grateful to the day and the place for that child’s eye view.

As we welcome summer, we also bid a fond (or for some, maybe not-so-fond) farewell to this spring’s insect prodigy, the 17-year cicada. Our walks at Mohonk were accompanied by the plaintive swan song they now seem to be singing, as their mating and egg-laying comes to an end and their spent bodies begin to litter the earth. I can think of no better way to observe their passing than to end with this poem by Dylan McQuade-Dolan, a first grader in Rebecca’s class at Duzine Elementary School.

Sing a song of cicadas
Sing a song of cicadas
Whose wings buzz and snap,
Who fly around and sometimes are
On the ground and dance wildly,
And are on leaves staring at you.
Sing a song of cicadas,
Who crack out of their husks
And are white when it is done.
Sing a song of cicadas,
Who burrow and drink sap for 17 years
And when the temperature is 64 degrees,
They will come up again!