Wings of desire

Major change is afoot at the end of the winding road that leads up from Route 44/55 to the top of the cliff that overlooks Lake Minnewaska. The New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation is installing a new septic system and burying utility lines underground; the parking lots are being radically reconfigured and landscaped; and, very near the footprint of the grand old Wildmere Hotel that burned down in 1986, a new four-season $6.1 million, 5,421-square-foot visitors’ center will soon rise, with completion slated for fall 2020.

The 24,000-acre Minnewaska State Park Preserve draws nearly half a million visitors annually and is widely regarded as one of the most spectacular destinations in the state parks system, home to a rare dwarf pitch-pine ecosystem in the Sam’s Point Area, along with 35 miles of carriage roads, 50 miles of trails, four pristine sky lakes and numerous waterfalls. Old-timers who have been visiting Minnewaska since the park’s founding – and perhaps even before that, when it was a privately owned resort, established by the same Smiley twins who founded Mohonk Mountain House and taken over in 1955 by the late Kenneth B. Phillips, Sr. – still lament the days when there was a building near the lake where you could thaw out after cross-country skiing, or use a flush toilet and wash your hands, or obtain snacks and drinks. 

That’s about to change. Once complete, the Minnewaska Visitor Center will offer a welcome/information desk to help visitors explore the park’s expansive trail network and other features; drinking water stations and public restrooms; a warming hearth to complement the use of the park during cold months; an outdoor patio overlooking Lake Minnewaska, where visitors can take in the park’s dramatic views; and a classroom for education and interpretive programs.

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The new building is part of a $28.2 million public/private investment in Minnewaska State Park Preserve under Governor Cuomo’s NY Parks 2020 initiative, which includes $21.2 million in state funding. When the multiyear project, currently underway, is complete it will include the restoration of more than 21 miles of carriage roads, creation of the Shawangunk Gateway campground, a reconfigured main entrance on Route 44/55 to relieve traffic backups, improved parking areas, new walkways, public drinking water, new self-composting restrooms and other site improvements.

Here’s where the public/private part comes in, and how you can contribute: The Open Space Institute (OSI) has raised $2.5 million and is launching a public campaign to raise the final $500,000 toward the project, matching the state’s contribution of $3.1 million. OSI’s involvement has already been crucial to improvements to the park; a recent example is the $1.9 million restoration of a 4.5-mile stretch of the Smiley Carriageway, which used to carry hotel guests up to Cliff House and Wildmere from Ellenville – literally via horse-drawn carriage – back in the early days of the resort. The section of trail that was refurbished in 2019 begins behind the old ranger station opposite the swimming beach on Lake Awosting and leads westward past the trailhead for the Stony Kill Carriage Road, which affords access to the top of Stony Kill Falls. It also connects with the Upper Mine Hole segment of the Long Path, filling in a missing link in the 358-mile trail network that enables hikers to walk from New York City to the Capital District.

Now OSI has announced the public phase of its campaign to match state resources in the building of the new Minnewaska Visitor Center. The fundraising effort focuses on features that will transform the visitor experience and expand access to and appreciation of the park for all audiences, including state-of-the art interactive exhibits highlighting the park’s geology, natural history, cultural significance and conservation. “From the park’s establishment, when those who loved its precious sky lakes, cliffs and historic carriage roads rallied to ensure its protection, it has needed a central welcoming location,” says campaign co-chair Jim Ottaway. “By participating in OSI’s forward-thinking campaign, we can ensure that future visitors to the park understand and care for its treasures.”

One way to participate, and to honor or memorialize a loved one or celebrate hiking excursions, engagements and other fond memories of the park, is to sponsor a window tile in an exhibit depicting one of the “Birds of Minnewaska.” Each window tile will feature a full-color five-by-four-inch songbird ($500 level) or ten-by-four-inch raptor ($1,000 level) and will include a personalized dedication or other inscription.

The Birds of Minnewaska window tiles are available for sponsorship through OSI’s website at www.openspaceinstitute.org/minnewaska-birds. For more information about the campaign, including other ways to donate, visit www.minnewaskavisitorcenter.org.

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