Try a trek along the spine of the Gunks  

Fall on the Millbrook Ridge Trail.

Sometimes the most magnificent places are just around the corner. At least for me, a New Paltz person, that’s true for the Millbrook Ridge Trail. How many times have I run the Undercliff/Overcliff carriage road loop that wraps around the the eastern side of the ridge, also providing striking views of the Catskills along its western side? 

The Millbrook Ridge Trail, not more than a stone’s throw south of the West Trapps Bridge spanning Route 44/55, begins at the Mohonk Preserve and then traverses into the Minnewaska State Park. People use it to walk along the spine of the Shawangunk Mountain Ridge. 

The trek starts with a steep, rock-scramble ascent up a field of white conglomerate slabs and boulders interspersed with well adapted, wind-combed pitch pines. As you go up, you experience the feeling that you don’t want to lean back too much for fear of becoming one of the boulders near the bottom. 

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Fear not, because every time you stop to catch your breath or turn around, the views only get better. You can see the entire Hudson Valley to the east, spread out before you like a patchwork quilt. Looking north beyond the whale-like shape of the climber-addled ridge, you see the blues of the Catskill Mountains etching themselves into the horizon like a woodcut relief or a watercolor that delineates its forms in thick lines of saturated hues. 

Just that quick, steep ascent to the jaw-dropping 360-degree viewscape earns the hiker a transcendent experience. If you get there as the sun is setting, you’re in for one of our area’s great natural-theater performances. You can lay your burdens down at a spot like this and soak up enough of the light and beauty to provide yourself a brighter tomorrow. 

That’s only the beginning!

Once you get past the upward rock scramble, you are on a journey that can plunge you into pockets of cool, thick forested floors, and then have to crawl right back up to a rock outcropping that makes you wish you had one of those gingham picnic blankets with which to drape the canvas. 

Like any hike, this one changes day by day. and certainly sees dramatic changes seasonally. I’m a big fan of it in the winter, iced toes and all, because of the way the pine needles can hold that burden of heavy snow or the way the whiteness of the rocks and the snow start to blend into one another like an orchestrated dance.

Autumn, especially early autumn, like right now, is when the wild blueberry bushes ignite from a tame green to a wild red, giving the feeling that the sides of the trail are on fire. Within a mile and a half, hikers will reach the first intersection. 

A wooden sign points towards Bayard’s Path. This path back down will deposit you onto the Trapps carriage road, which you can stroll easily along back to the parking aream providing a memorable four-mile roundtrip hike.

If, however,  you want to get a little closer to the sky and have the wind press against your face, then keep going straight. The climb gets a bit more vigorous, leading down a root-and-rock single-track trail that is lush and canopied. You will start to climb and climb. Your legs will burn. You’ll lose traction every now and again. You will be grasping onto pine branches and tree limbs like they’re a raft in a stormy sea.

Eventually, the canopy will break open. The cliffs will expose themselves. The pleats of this ridge will roll beneath you, and the contours of the Catskills will unfold. 

This is only the second act 

Those views will hopefully fill your energy coffers with some reserves. As you continue to climb along the ridgeline, the pine trees get smaller, the rock exposures higher and wider, and the jawks and falcons fly so close to you that you begin to feel part of this raw landscape. 

There really is no “top,” but only multiple perches that feel like you’ve gone as high as you can go. Some of these views show the entire ridge as if it were lying on the ground, it’s back exposed, its vertebrae connecting one limb to the next. There’s an uncanny feeling that you might be treading on a living, breathing body. 

As the trees drop back and the top of the mountain seems to be closer to the sky than it is the ground, you will see large boulder fields at the bottom of the valley. Might have some invisible power shaved the side of the mountain or shaken it for loose change? To the right and left are more exposed cliff, fearless pine trees grasping on with inscrutable root systems that defy logic. 

Here there will be another intersection, where a hiker can turn right and descend to either Lake Minnewaska or back to the Trapps Carriage Road via the Coxing Trail. The Coxing choice will put you at approximately six miles. 

The lake choice will involve a much larger loop. If you don’t turn  and stay straight, the trail bleeds off into an actual carriage road that takes travelers along Millbrook Mountain, and eventually leads to Gertrude’s Nose. That all-day adventure requires not just a large swath of time, but also familiarity with the area or at least some good map or map app skills. 

Whether you want to test your leg muscles and shoot up to the top of the Millbrook Ridge Trail next to the  Trapps Bridge and watch  the sunrise or sunset, or simply breathe in the  beauty on either side of the mountain, it’s a worthwhile venture. If you’re hunkering for an actual hike, either the Bayard’s Path or the Coxing Trail are ample hikes, filled with views and a smooth back half on the carriage road.

There are so many ways explore the ridge. It’s anyone’s adventure to create. Lace up and dig in, there’s so much to marvel out, just outside your door!

To learn about day passes, membership fees and trail information, go to www.mohonkpreserve.org 

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