Over every mountain there is a path, although it may not be seen from the valley.
— Theodore Roethke
I had recently watched Into the Wild with my kids, a movie based on the best-selling book by Jon Krakauer. It follows the adventures of a 24-year-old itinerant hiker, Chris McCandless, who decides to go off the grid and live in the wilds of Alaska, where he eventually dies from starvation. The story is riveting and exhilarating and, in the end, absolutely tragic.
After a swim at Lake Minnewaska, I’m feeling adventurous and decide to pull into the Peters Kill trailhead to see what it has to offer. I pass it often and have vague memories of holding onto a tow-rope with wool gloves and crisscrossing skis as a young child, when it was a ski resort called Ski Minne as part of the old Minnewaska Mountain House.
It’s approaching 7 p.m. and there are only two other cars in the lot. One active-looking couple are on their way back from a hike, and I ask them what trail they might suggest to take me to the Peters Kill. They point to a trail entrance and say to follow that to the stream and that it loops back around. Sure; I got this.
As I’m walking and seeing wild blueberries and huckleberries and pitch-pine trees jutting towards the sun from the crevices of the white Shawangunk conglomerate rocks, I feel invigorated. The path winds steeply downwards and towards the river, and I can see the sharp blue contours of the Catskills off to the West. There’s something about this stream that is unique as it flows stridently, almost carved into the rocks like a smooth gutter allowing the water to run at great speed and grace. The colors and striations of the river bed are hues of pink and gold and even hints of azure. I splash my face and hop from rock to rock, soaking in the quietude and beauty of this place. I can look up and see an open swath through the forest that was likely the path I descended after holding onto the tow-rope or being lifted onto my father’s lap in the ski lift that once presided on top of this ridge.
As I make my way back up, I’m so enamored with the natural beauty and beginning of the sun’s descent that I pay no attention as to what trail I’m taking as it all leads upwards. I lean over and pick an almost-ripe blueberry and think that McCandless, a/k/a Alexander Supertramp, had the right idea. Maybe I should just take the kids and hit the road — thumb out, rucksack on, canteen filled with water – and see what the natural landscape has to offer.
Then I realize that I am lost. Granted, I can hear cars humming down 44/55. This is upstate New York and not Alaska. But the sun is descending at a fast rate, the Catskills’ blue contour is fading into night and I keep walking towards old beat-up signs that read “For Experienced Climbers Only,” and quickly backing away. After roaming the ridgeline and leaning against a chestnut tree and contemplating being eaten alive by mosquitoes or bears or fisher cats if I could not find my way back to the parking lot, the fear was real. I quickly went from Supertramp to Super-scared. I was also in chunky-heel sandals and a sundress, which did not help the rock-scrambling that I had to do in the near-dark, eventually to find myself a good mile or so from the parking lot in a meadow.
So maybe I wasn’t quite ready to go off the grid, but I was ready to learn more about the Peters Kill, and I knew just the person to take me: Rich Gottlieb, owner of Rock and Snow and a jack-of-all-outdoors-adventuring trades, from rock climbing to ice climbing to Nordic skiing, snowshoeing, kayaking, paddleboarding, bouldering, backpacking and every other type of skilled outdoor frolicking. “I’d love to get out for a hike,” he says. “Peters Kill is great.”
He didn’t happen to mention that he had recently been in a mountain biking accident and broken several ribs, punctured a lung and had surgery to reconnect his shoulder. “I’m fine to hike,” he says, pointing the way towards the trail. We had the company of his equally adventurous and accomplished wife, Teri. Bounding ahead on the Bullwheel Trail was Rich, talking about needing a permit and an extra fee to partake in the climbing at Peters Kill and what makes the climbing here special. “If you’re a climber, the routes here are much less intimidating than the Trapps or Millbrook,” he muses. “The routes are not as tall; you can easily walk to the top of most of them,” which means you can attach the rope there and not have to lead a climb, which requires a higher-level skill set.
He points to the Shawangunks’ hallmark white-faced cliffs and guesses that certain routes are 30 feet in height, while there are others that are closer to 80 feet and even some “roofs that need to be cleaned,” and some virgin crevices and future routes. “It’s also a great place for bouldering,” he says as he swings towards the High Peters Kill Trail, which leads us up a single-track trail past paths rich with ripe blueberries and huckleberries, as well as forests of hemlock and mountain laurel whose blooms have not yet entirely faded. “This is the confluence of Minnewaska [State Park] and Mohonk [Preserve],” he says at some juncture that only he recognizes, and then leads us to a pristine outcrop of rocks that look over the entire Catskill range and the Shawangunk valley towards the west. “It’s like being on top of Bonticou Crag, but without any crowds,” he says, pointing towards various rich hiking destination spots: Sam’s Point or Lost City or other, lesser-known jewels hidden deep within the Gunks.
We wind our way down to the stream, which meanders and cuts tight into the rocks, at times spreading wide and slowing its tempo down enough to entice one to stop and cool off. This stream is responsible for many of Minnewaska’s waterfalls. including the always-popular Awosting Falls, which is easily accessed by carriage road from the Peters Kill parking area. Named by the Dutch colonists, the Peters Kill carved out its unique streambed after centuries of eroding through one of the hardest rocks known to man: the Shawangunk quartz conglomerate.
We come to the Peters Kill bridge, and Rich once again lists various trekking possibilities that one could take from there. But we loop our way back, walking upstream, past luscious stretches of fern and moss and eventually back up a steep slope with pitch-pine ecosystems and rocks slippery with evidence of gradation. Rich and Teri move with ease and grace from one tree root- and boulder- and pine-needle-covered path to the next. We are chatty and silent and suddenly laughing or staring off in the distance. And this is the nature of being off the beaten path. There are no people here, or very few. “What I love about Peters Kill is that it’s great for climbing, for bouldering and it has so much beauty without having to do an epic hike like to Castle Point or Gertrude’s Nose,” Rich reflects. “You can move among all of this in various loops of a half-mile or mile or the three miles that we just covered. So, it’s great for a family.”
With that, we have come full circle: from Teri and I walking around Duck Pond pregnant with our June babies, who are now in their first year of college, to Rich having successfully punctured both lungs from a bike accident and ice climbing mishap. But here we are sitting on a picnic bench, taking a sip of water and feeling grateful — or at least I know that I am — that we have all of this richness and kindness and beauty, right here in our own backyard.
The Peters Kill is a 6.3-mile lightly trafficked out-and-back trail located near Gardiner that features a river and is rated as difficult. It can be accessed from either Mohonk Preserve at the Coxing Creek parking area or from Minnewaska State Park. There is a fee to park at Minnewaska in an established lot, but hiking is free. Mohonk charges to use their land.