Sometimes the treasures that we seek or the experiences that we crave are so close that we brush past them in our haste to get somewhere else. How many times have I run or walked along the Cedar Ridge carriage trail without ever realizing that just out of sight, underneath some glacially created outcrops, lies a rock maze filled with gushing water, dark twists, cool moss-soaked boulders and ladders built of light?
Although the Mohonk Preserve and Mountain House are famous for the Lemon Squeeze — a steeply pitched, tight rock scramble that lies above the sky-lake and just under the Sky Top Tower – a lesser-known cousin, Rock Rift, rests just a few short miles away without any of the labyrinth-loving crowds. As I’m not an avid or even occasional map-reader, I rely on those I know to enlighten me to some of the richness tucked away in our communal backyard.
It was Rich Gottlieb — owner of Rock and Snow, an outdoor rock climbing and sporting goods store in downtown New Paltz — who suggested Rock Rift and accompanied me, along with his wife Teri, on this journey just past the gateway to the Mountain House. After he chatted with the ranger at the Spring Farm entrance, the three of us headed up the to the recently constructed Cedar Drive Bridge that crosses Mountain Rest Road and leads hikers, bikers, runners and the like to Carriage Drive.
“Watch out for the red eft!” said Rich in alarm, quickly directing my feet away from a tiny bright-orange salamander. By the time we reached the old wooden Cedar Bridge that crosses Mossy Brook, we had stepped over and around at least a dozen of these Day-Glo-orange, red-dotted newts. Gottlieb explained that, not only do we not want to harm the miniature amphibian creatures, but that we should not touch them, as our human skin oils can cause them harm.
Suddenly the forest brightened, and not only was I noticing the efts (a native salamander of New York State that, according to the Department of Environmental Conservation, can live up to 15 years), but I also became acutely aware of all the color on what could have been viewed as a drab day. It was a Wednesday, hung like a worn sheet on a clothesline between rainfalls, damp but not wet, warm but not summer-hot. We were stretched in that thick period from August to September where the woods smell of change, but are still clinging to their green foliage.
I noticed flaming-orange mushrooms and fluorescent-green moss, fallen limbs that were almost purple from their bruising and the striated black-and-white of the birchbark, glistening like it had held the moonlight in all night just to be able to breathe during the day.
Not far past the wooden bridge there was a Preserve sign with carved painted lettering pointing towards Old Glen Anna Road, and we meandered up another trail for a bit, talking about an article that Rich had shared with me on physicians giving prescriptions for people to go to their local public or state parks because of the health benefits of being outside. Or we were talking about Teri and her daughter pitching tents in the south countryside of France, or the Japanese phrase shinrin-yoku, which roughly translates in English to “forest bathing”: a practice whereby people consciously exercise breathing in the forest atmosphere with their senses.
Before I knew it, I was atop a path that I had run innumerable times, but never noticed the wooden sign that said Rock Rift Trail, with two red arrows pointing towards a large rock slab. Ever the alpinist, Rich was grasping the sides of a cliff and noting how “great this would be for bouldering,” and then catching a glimpse of a piton that was clamped into a rock face on the opposite side of the trail, approximately 15 feet up. “That has to be from the 1930s or 40s,” he mused, referring to the time when these rocks were obviously part of a mountain climbing route.
Teri, on the other hand, was looking down and noticing the striations on the boulders we were walking across. “Slick and slide,” she said knowingly, referring to the scratches and gouges left by the glacial episode that peaked approximately 24,000 years ago, covering most of New York. The heat that formed as the ice shifted left the grooves that can be seen in the hard, quartz-rich rocks.
I was busy looking at a painted red arrow on the rock directly in front of us that pointed towards some dark, cavernous hole in the earth. Dangling down were various bits of tree roots and ivy and ferns and other rock-loving flora that made me feel like we were deep in a Shawangunk jungle.
“Listen,” Rich said, placing his ear on the cold rock wall. I put my ear to the cold conglomerate and heard the rushing sounds of a stream or river – only there was nothing but a slight crack in the rock.
Soon we went from the white of the conglomerate and the sleek green of the moss-covered stones into a wet, cool rock scramble that had us plunging knee-deep into an underground waterway. The arrows kept pointing up and down and around various bends that made my hands and feet engage with the wet rock that served as the walls, the ceiling and the stairway all at once. Rich threw Teri a headlamp when it became a bit darker than dark, and then I heard it being tossed back overhead. “Next time, how about one with a battery in it?” she said — not mockingly; just in a matter-of-fact, we-got-this sort of way. Rich laughed, I laughed and before long we were so wet and giddy in this subterranean world that life felt silly and fun and one rock away from sliding into an entirely new world.
Just when I thought we’d be wading our way through this rock tunnel until we magically arrived at teatime at the Mountain House, the rock slabs above us folded upwards and a triangle of light came pouring in. We climbed out of Rock Rift, and after a few short bouldering moves, we were back on the trail, as if where we had been did not exist — only it did, but, like all things to be treasured, it lay just beyond or behind the bend, depending on the direction one was headed.
Rock Rift is approximately a half-mile long, although its mysterious meanderings can make it feel longer. The Rock Rift Trail is approximately 2.5 miles from the Spring Farm parking lot, accessible by either Cedar Ridge or the North West Trail. This is one of several gems that lie right here, in our very own backyard. For more information, go to www.mohonkpreserve.org.
Author’s note: A special thanks to my friends and guides, Rich and Teri Gottlieb.