Central Ulster County, with the miles of groomed carriage roads, linear rail-trail parks. and now the River-2-Ridge trail that leads outdoor enthusiasts from the Village of New Paltz to the heart of the Shawangunk Mountains. This is a pristine and magical place to wax up cross-country skis and glide across the wintry landscape.
Few sports are as physically vigorous and mentally robust as Nordic skiing, which has strong roots here in the Hudson Valley. According to the Shawangunk Nordic Skiing Association (SNSA), the old Williams Lake Hotel in Rosendale, owned by Gust Williams of Finnish heritage, brought together a large group of Scandinavians, predominantly Norwegians, to form a local Telemark Ski Club in 1936.
“They began racing on trails at Williams Lake and ski jumping at the ski jump they constructed at Joppenbergh,” wrote the SNSA in its history of cross-country skiing in the region. “In 1937, during the same period, the Smiley family promoted healthy outdoor exercises of skiing and skating for the boys at the Mohonk School, which operated at the Mohonk Mountain House hotel and hosted ski outings of other groups on the property’s extensive carriage trails.”
During and directly after World War Two, Nordic skiing, like many sports, suffered decline. With the formation of the Rosendale Nordic Ski Club at Williams Lake in 1963, however, there was a revival. Competitions became a regular feature at Williams Lake and eventually Guyot Hill at the Mohonk Preserve. Ski buses of Nordic skiers would come up from New York City. They patronized both the carriage roads and sky lakes of the Shawangunks and the Williams Lake property wedged between Binnewater Road and Joppenbergh Mountain a stone’s throw outside Rosendale’s Main Street.. During the 1960s and 1970s two small alpine ski areas — Ski Minnie and Ski Guyot – were created locally. With but a single hill and a tow rope, they were phased out by the late 1970s as larger resorts in the Catskills opened.
Nordic skiing, however, continued to gain popularity.
In 1965, Williams Lake hosted the first female Nordic ski competition in the U.S., a 5K race was won by Norwegian Olympic medalist Beben Enger. The carriage roads at Minnewaska and Mohonk were ideal for ski touring, and each began regular grooming for increasing numbers of day visitors.
Nordic skiing always popular
The River-2-Ridge trail, an approximately six-mile loop that stretches from the base of Main Street in New Paltz, traversing the cornfields and winding up towards the foothills of the Shawangunks. has been being groomed for Nordic skiing this year.
The 27,000-acre Minnewaska State Park, which recently opened its new interactive visitors’ center, has been grooming trails for both traditional and skate skiing, According to veteran park manager Eric Humphries, the park grooms up to 20 miles of carriage roads when there is significant snowfall.
“Minnewaska has up-and-down terrain with some trails adjacent to cliffs, so beginners should use caution,” Humphries cautioned. “Upper Awosting Carriage Road would be most suitable for beginners.” For more experienced skiers, Humphries said, “The Castle Point to Upper Awosting or Hamilton Point to Castle Point loops are perfect.”
There is a special skiing fee that is outside the Empire Pass. Adults can pay a $10-a-day fee, seniors $9 and juniors $7. Snowshoeing, hiking and dogs are not permitted on trails specifically groomed for Nordic skiing.
“We open at 9 a.m., so come in visit the new visitors’ center and warm up by the fire,” he said. “Nordic skiing is always popular at Minnewaska, and now we’re just hoping for more snow so we can get the trails ready.”
The Mohonk Preserve, the 8000-acre public/private land trust on the Shawngunk Ridge, typically grooms about ten miles of trails, some of which connect with other groomed trails on Mohonk Mountain House lands. The amount of grooming depends on the snow conditions.
For beginners, the preserve suggested starting out with OverCliff Carriage Road. “It’s a great place for beginners — approximately four miles in-and-back, easily accessed from the Perserve’s West Trapps Trailhead,” said staff members.
Cross-country skiing is an included activity as part of the organization’s standard day-use fee and annual membership. “Skiing is always very popular when conditions are good,” said a staff member, “and was particularly robust during the major snowfall in mid-December.”
The trails at the preserve are predominantly groomed for classic skiing. Daily ski reports and information on skiing and snowshoeing can be found at Ski or Snowshoe at Mohonk Preserve. Skiers can also contact the visitors’ center at 255-0919 for information on current conditions.
Happy trails to you
New Paltz Town Supervisor, Neil Bettez said that he’s happy the trails are being groomed. “I think it’s important for folks to get outside and enjoy themselves,” he said. “Unfortunately, I too gave away my skis a few years ago. but look at them every time I am in Rock and Snow,. so it’s probably only a matter of time.”
Nordic skier Diego Schillaci, who has represented New Paltz High School at the State Nordic Ski Championships, said that the R2R has sections that are flat and a perfect place for people to try and learn how to ski. “Also, it’s free!”
Daniel Lipson has observed the increase in the number of Nordic skiers. “When I skied on the River 2 Ridge trail twice after the December storm, I was delighted to see far more Nordic skiers using the trail than ever before,” he said. :”I ran into several friends who were Nordic skiing for the first or second time in their life.”
Numerous national news outlets have written stories highlighting the pandemic-inspired Nordic skiing renaissance. A simple visit to Rock and Snow provides vivid evidence. Virtually all their equipment rentals have been taken for the season. “It’s quite similar to the rush to buy and ride bicycles this spring and summer,” said Lipson.
Schillaci’s favorite loops are from the Testimonial Gatehouse all the way up to the Skytop Tower, the Castle Point loop at Minnewaska and the newly renovated Smiley Carriage Road. His advice is to bring enough food and water, know where you’re going,, have a trail map, and be prepared to have fun.
“Skiing is an easy way to cover lots of ground in the winter,” said Schillaci. “A full body workout. Minnewaska especially, holds lots of snow. and the views are like no other ski area anywhere.”
Lipson’s favorite loop is the 8.5-mile Castle Point and/or overlapping Hamilton Point one. The scenery is spectacular. The trails are in great shape. The substantial elevation is kept gradual by the carriage-road trails.
When it snows, the Gunks and the skiers will be ready. A great group to get to know is the SNSA, which has a dynamic and informative website at http://www.skithegunks.com.