Atop the historic hamlet of Cragsmoor, home of the oldest artist colony founded in America, sits Sam’s Point: a 5,000-acre preserve that boasts not only ice caves and wild berries and a rare dwarf pine ecosystem, but also the highest point of the entire Shawangunk Ridge. From the jutting, striated cliffs of Sam’s Point on a clear day one can see five different states, the contour of the Ridge as it winds through New Jersey as well as Storm King Mountain and Breakneck Ridge, where the Hudson River carves its way through the Highlands.
Now owned and operated by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, Sam’s Point has a small-but-packed parking lot on the weekend, an interactive Visitors’ Center with murals that depict the flora, fauna and wildlife as well as audio recordings from the old huckleberry- and blueberry-pickers who lived on the mountain in shacks during the summer months at the turn of the century. The Center is a modern building that still has enough natural elements and architectural lines that allow it to blend into the rugged terrain that surrounds it. Natural light floods into the structure, providing a warmth and civility that work to soften the hard edges of landscape that unfold beyond it.
The smooth management of the park is a far cry from what it once was and what it might have become. In the early 1980s, there was the very public and visible fight to keep Lake Minnewaska and its 26,000 acres of undeveloped land out of the hands of the Marriott Corporation and transfer it into the hands of the New York State park system. “There was an equally interesting fight around the same time to keep the Sam’s Point area from being developed into a windfarm, with 668 wind turbines that looked like giant eggbeaters,” said Cara Lee, the former manager of Sam’s Point while she was with the Nature Conservancy for 17 years. The land was owned by Ellenville because they used Lake Maratanza as their water supply, but the municipality leased it to a private owner who turned the natural ice caves into a tourist attraction, even paving a road to the caves and proudly stringing electricity to them so that he could illuminate the caves with multicolored lights. “There is this one picture that shows a Thunderbird driving with two women on the back along the top of the mountain in the 1970s,” said Lee. “It was really like the Wild, Wild West of the Shawangunks back in the day.” There was even a mini-golf course, and videocassettes that one could put in their car for a guided tour.
Despite these modern degradations, the area was declared a “Natural Historic Site” because of its dwarf pitch pine forests and plethora of rare plant and animal species. In the midst of this battle to save Sam’s Point from becoming a windfarm, the Open Space Institute (OSI), a land preservation organization based in New York City, came to the rescue and purchased the 5,000 acres from Ellenville in 1997. It then brought in the Nature Conservancy in 2001 to take over the lease from the private citizen who was running the ice-cave attractions. “A huge part of my job was figuring out how to manage this property,” said Lee, who noted that they eventually were able to get the state Office of Parks to take over in 2013 and manage it, as it borders the Minnewaska State Park.
But Sam’s Point is like no other place I’ve ever been. First, there is the steep descent over the mountain into Ellenville, and then a steep ascent into the Village of Wawarsing and the final climb into the hamlet of Cragsmoor, where artist studios and Victorian-styled homes dot the hilly landscape. Just before you reach the Visitors’ Center, there is a perch atop a cliff where hang gliders can be seen launching their crafts to soar over the Valley. Once inside the Visitors’ Center, there is the 19th-century gatekeeper’s home that was once the official entry point for the two hotels that existed on the property: one just under the cliffs and the other along the shores of Lake Maratanza.
What makes the park so user-friendly is the three-mile loop that takes visitors from the parking lot up to Sam’s Point, through the dwarf pitch-pine forest and acres of blueberry and huckleberry bushes into the ice-cave labyrinth and back out to an overlook where one can see Mohonk’s Sky Top Tower and Lake Awosting on a clear day. Along the paths are wildflowers, and according to Lee, the mountain turns a crimson red in mid-to-late September when the blueberry bushes’ leaves turn color. “It’s so beautiful. The entire mountain is flaming red!” Not only is it the highest point in the Shawangunks, but it is also certainly one of the windiest – hence the dwarf pines, which are exposed to extreme cold and wind and thus cling to the white conglomerate rocks, sticking their bent limbs out for a bit of sun and warmth.
Lee points out that the pine-barren ecosystem is “very fire-dependent,” and that the dwarf pines actually release seedpods when they’re burned to start regrowth. Hikers can see areas that are still charred from fire, others that have burgeoning new growth and then those that are still thick with life and ground coverage. After ascending the ice caves, which typically have ice from November through April or early May, hikers continue along the loop past the awe-striking Lake Maratanza: a sky lake that was manmade with dams for the old hotel and then for the backup water supply for the Village of Ellenville.
“We once found an old rowboat stuck in the ice caves,” said Lee, describing one of the several odd finds in this hardscrabble landscape. Past the lake are the remains of old shacks that used to be inhabited by various migrant populations in the summer, who came to pick blueberries and huckleberries that were then sent by train to New York City. There were local berry-pickers as well, and Lee said that they had put an ad out in the local paper years back for anyone who had stories or pictures of life back in the berry-picking days: “Tons of people came out to the Library” — the Cragsmoor Free Library, home to many of great artists who found inspiration in the surrounding landscape – “with bags of pictures and berry baskets and combs. It was amazing.” They made a film out of the stories and pictures that can be viewed by visitors. “The berry-pickers came every summer until just before World War II,” said Lee, noting that demand subsided once the big New Jersey berry industry took off in the mid-20th century.
This three-mile loop allows visitors to see so much of the unique topography and features of Sam’s Point, but there are longer hikes with plenty of geographical novelties that nature enthusiasts can take, including one path that leads to Verkeerderkill Falls, a gorgeous waterfall, the Indian Rock hike or the 8.3-mile High Point Loop. One can hike all the way to Minnewaska or Lake Awosting and Mud Pond. Unlike its neighboring park, Sam’s Point does not allow for bicycling or swimming.
The staff at the Visitors’ Center is immensely friendly and helpful, and can lead anyone or any group on their way to an excursion quite unlike any other. Not only is the terrain so unique and rich, but so is the history of the mountain, from the old hotels to the berry-pickers, the 1970s ice-cave parties and the surrounding community, founded in the 1880s, of artists who drew so much inspiration from these lands.
Treat yourself and take a hike to Sam’s Point or beyond. To learn more, go to www.parks.ny.gov, call the Park at (845) 647-7989 or go right to the source at 400 Sam’s Point Road in Cragsmoor.