One of the great joys of life in the mid-Hudson Valley is having world-class hiking opportunities practically in our back yards. And now’s prime time to take advantage of them. The icy and muddy footing of late winter and early spring are past, and the draining heat, humidity and mosquitoes of high summer have yet to arrive. Time to get out there on the trails!
Unlike the Catskills, where it can take half a day of uphill slogging to reach a break in the dense forest cover for the deferred gratification of a fine vista, the white conglomerate cliffs of the Shawangunk (pronounced Shongum by locals) Ridge reward even the casual hiker with a couple of hours to spare with sudden views and vertiginous dropoffs around many a bend. If you want to check out the Gunks and aren’t sure where to start, you can hardly go wrong with Bonticou Crag on the Mohonk Preserve.
Viewed from New Paltz, Bonticou is that first notable white outcrop to the north of Sky Top. Some accounts claim that it was named after an early surveyor; others that the Bonte Coe (Spotted Cow in Dutch) was, like the Gilded Otter, one of the ships that brought European settlers to the area. Whatever it means, locals tend to pronounce it “Bontikyew,” not “Bontikoo.”
Reaching the top of the Crag is not as daunting as it might appear from the valley floor, though the views that it affords are as splendid as one might imagine. There are three primary ways of getting there, all originating at the Preserve’s Spring Farm trailhead in High Falls: a challenging route for those who are fit and enjoy rock scrambling, and a couple of more roundabout ones for those who prefer a gentle climb that doesn’t require frequent use of both hands. All are fascinatingly scenic and varied.
From the parking area, you cross some wildflower meadows that are alive with butterflies and, if you’re lucky, the occasional indigo bunting. Heading uphill via the red-blazed Crag Trail will bring you to a (somewhat confusing) diamond-shaped intersection where you turn left onto Bonticou Road (blue), which in turn will lead you to the Bonticou Ascent Path (yellow). There you head left, and decide whether you want to go the short, scary way straight up the talus slope (yellow) or detour left again on the Northeast Trail (blue), which will lead you to the more gradual other end of the Bonticou Ascent Path. If you take the longer route, keep an eye out for the big hollow “snake tree” at a trail intersection, where a family of nesting black racers may compensate you for what the Northeast Trail lacks in the way of adrenaline rushes.
Either way will take you to a sprawling clifftop, where you can have a fine picnic and watch the vultures soar below you. On a clear day, you can see as far as Storm King to the southeast. Many visitors like to go up via the cliff path (which is even more difficult heading down) and return the longer way.
Staying on the Northeast Trail beyond the yellow path on the way back is a nice way of extending your hike, if you’d like to visit Table Rocks or some Paleo-Indian rock shelters before heading off the mountain. Bonus: Near its end, that extra-long route passes Mohonk’s famed “Million Dollar View” of the Catskills and the rustic Slingerlands Pavilion (both favorite venues for weddings). You can, of course, approach Bonticou Crag from that direction as well.
Many paths crisscross on Bonticou’s flanks, so it’s a good idea to rely on a map. You can get a free Mohonk Preserve map with your entry fee (or by flashing your membership card) at the Spring Farm gatehouse, or invest in the wonderful set of weatherproof Tyvek Gunks maps available from the New York/New Jersey Trail Conference (http://bit.ly/2rkTLw1). Happy hiking!