The brief reign of downhill skiing in the Shawangunks

It was in 1933/34 that the Mohonk Mountain House, built in 1879, began hosting winter guests, and back-country skiing was one of the advertised attractions. (Mohonk Mountain House Archives)

The snow season in the Hudson Valley separates the Nordics from the Alpinists – quite literally and spatially. If you do downhill, you have plenty of options, once it’s cold enough for snowmaking. Ski resorts in the Catskills, including Belleayre, Hunter and Windham, and in the Berkshires, such as Butternut, Catamount and Jiminy Peak, are not too far away for a day trip. If Mother Nature doesn’t oblige, they can generate their own snow cover.

Cross-country skiers face more of a challenge, especially in these times of global warming, when significant snowstorms are less frequent and often followed by lingering spells of above-freezing weather. Local trails that, a few decades ago, were reliably snow-covered for much of the winter now rarely build up a deep enough base for the point of a pole to push off comfortably. Nordic fans need to look much further north – to Lapland Lake and Garnet Hill in the Adirondacks, or the minority of Vermont downhill ski areas that also offer cross-country – for anything resembling a guarantee of decent conditions, even in midwinter.

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So, for XC skiers in the vicinity of the Shawangunk Ridge, it’s a compelling excuse to play hooky from work on those rare days each winter when conditions are just right to head out on the carriage trails with their stupendous cliff views, or the rail trails in the valleys below. Both the Mohonk Preserve and Minnewaska State Park Preserve provide regular grooming; there’s even a Mid-Hudson Valley Cross Country Ski listserv on Google Groups where fellow Nordics share daily updates on conditions.

Ski Minne Alpine center at Minnewaska opened in 1964. Hikers can still see ruins of the infrastructure not far from the Peterskill Entrance to the state park. It featured a 1,500-foot T-bar and a J-bar, five intermediate trails and an on-site restaurant.

Considering how ancient a sport – a means of transportation, really – skiing is in Scandinavia and Russia, it’s surprising to note how late it made inroads in the Hudson Valley. Interest in the sport was piqued among New Yorkers by the 1932 Olympics at Lake Placid, four years after a ski jump had been built at Bear Mountain, and construction of ski resorts began in earnest during that decade throughout the Northeast. The distinction between downhill and cross-country was less marked in those days of low-tech equipment. A group of Finnish and Norwegian expats in Rosendale formed a Telemark Ski Club in 1936, racing on level terrain at Williams Lake and building a ski jump at Mount Joppenbergh in Rosendale.

It was in 1933/34 that the Mohonk Mountain House, built in 1879, began hosting winter guests, and back-country skiing was one of the advertised attractions. Visitors had to bring their own gear and break their own track. Skiing became part of the physical education curriculum for boys at the Mohonk School, which two of the younger generation of Smileys, Dan and Keith, attended. Their enthusiasm for the sport is credited with much of Mohonk’s increasing stature as a magnet for XC skiers in the ensuing decades. The family’s sister resort at Lake Minnewaska – sold off in 1955 to Ken Phillips, Sr. – didn’t get on the Nordic bandwagon until much later, in the early 1970s.

In the meantime, following the end of World War II, downhill skiing had become a much more popular American pastime. Although the Gunks are known more for their abrupt drop-offs than for their slopes or their altitude – ranging only from 1,600 to 2,200 feet – they did enjoy a heyday, albeit brief, as a downhill destination. The first commercial Alpine ski operation in Ulster County, the 11-acre Bonticou Ski Area, opened in 1964 on Mountain Rest Road in New Paltz, below the entrance to the Mohonk Mountain House. Featuring a modest 475 feet of vertical drop, it began operation with three rope tows and a T-bar. The entire enterprise shut down in the early 1970s.

Ken Phillips jumped on the bandwagon by winterizing Cliff House and Wildmere at Lake Minnewaska and opening the Ski Minne Alpine center, also in 1964. Hikers can still see ruins of the infrastructure not far from the Peterskill Entrance to the state park. It featured a 1,500-foot T-bar and a J-bar, five intermediate trails and an on-site restaurant. As at the Bonticou Ski Area, there was a small snowmaking operation. A double chairlift was installed in the winter of 1971/72. But neither facility could long compete with the more impressive ski resorts that were booming nearby in the Catskills. Ski Minne shut down in 1978, and the restaurant was destroyed by fire three years later.

With the demise of Alpine skiing, the Gunks began their true heyday for Nordic skiers. The Mountain House acquired its first snow machine and grooming tools in 1978, not long after hiring its first cross-country ski pro. Beset by financial woes, Ken Phillips closed the Wildmere Hotel to overnight visitors in 1980, but his son Ken Jr. ran a ski rental operation out of a ground-floor drawing room. Day visitors carbo-loaded at a snack bar and warmed their woolen-knicker-clad bottoms and softened their wax sticks by a woodstove. Wildmere burned down in 1986, and New York State acquired the Minnewaska property the following year. Plans to build a Visitors’ Center alongside Lake Minnewaska, offering visitors running water and warm bathrooms for the first time in nearly four decades, were announced by Governor Cuomo in 2019.

Though they may lack the heart-pounding downhill runs that excite the Alpine skier, both Minnewaska and Mohonk supply ample enjoyment to today’s Nordic adventurer, with terrain and viewscapes as splendid as any to be found amidst the fjords and forests of Northern Europe. All they’re lacking is a winterlong supply of sufficient snow.

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