Catskill Reveries: Beyond the Catskills

My friends and I came to the Catskill Mountains with preconceived beliefs, only to find our admittedly low expectations far exceeded by the beauty of the region.

Although the Catskill Mountains were the center of attention during our week-long vacation, they aren’t the only attraction in southeastern New York state. We’d visited the Hudson River Valley, but smaller ranges like the Taconics, the Shawangunks and the Helderbergs tempted with their own unique charms. Still, with our trip at its end, Robb, Don and I were out of time to explore any of the rugged places beyond the Catskills.

Or were we?  

Every good trip must come to an end, and so we found ourselves packing up for the long drive home. It was another HOT day. Assured that it “doesn’t get hot in the Catskills,” we’d rented a house without air conditioning. Forecasts had called for temperatures in the 70s, nice and comfy. What could go wrong? Well, temperatures over 85°, with two days in the 90s, that’s what. Unexpectedly hot.

Still, we hadn’t been truly uncomfortable until our final night, when the dewpoint shot up. In the morning the humidity was oppressive. We packed in a hurry, eager to get into my air-conditioned car and on the road.

And so we said goodbye to our rental house, and the Eastkill River that ran through its back yard.

We said goodbye to Rip Van Winkle, Hunter Mountain, and the now-familiar intersection at Rt. 23A…

…and headed down the back roads through the southern Catskills.

I was determined to squeeze a little more exploring out of the trip. Beyond the Catskills, I had most wanted to see the Shawangunk Ridge, to get a feel for the unique geology of the region, the clear sky lakes, and maybe find the rare mountain spleenwort.

Minnewaska State Park had a short hike that looked rewarding and we’d go right by it on our drive home. Or at least we would if I took us on the scenic backroads route. We wound our way through a part of the Catskills we hadn’t yet seen, mountains fading into woods and farmland. We never were sure when we’d left the Catskills.

We knew when we hit the Gunks, though. Climbing up a narrow road toward Minnewaska State Park, we unexpectedly popped out of the woods onto a wide-open overlook, perched on a ledge of bright white rock. A good place to take in the view? Nope. With time of the essence, we pressed on to the park.

It all went wrong from there.

The parking lot by the best trail was mobbed, with rangers directing traffic. Robb and Don told me to bail out, so we drove to the second lot and found it much the same. The crowds discouraged any thought of exploring. So did the view. All we could see was familiar forest. The dramatic outcroppings and lakes my research had led me to expect weren’t anywhere in sight. Don pronounced the Shawangunks a bust to which he never wished to return.

Which is how we found ourselves back at the scenic pullout we’d passed over a short time before. Any little crumb, just to get a taste of the Gunks.

Boulder scrambling ensued. Robb posed for my camera, his smile mimicking the graffiti. He and Don thought the rocks were interesting, but they weren’t impressed with this little protrusion of Shawangunk habitat. Soon, arguing over ferns broke out, a sure sign the geology – the highlight of the Gunks – didn’t hold their interest.

Well, I was interested in the geology – I’d been doing my homework. The Shawangunk Ridge – aka the Gunks – is an extension of the Kittatinny Ridge in our home state of Pennsylvania. It’s much older than the Catskills, and looks decidedly different. The bare cliffs and ledges of the Gunks are composed of white quartz conglomerate bedrock, that has been folded, eroded and fractured by glaciers.

The southern portion of the Ridge is home to pitch pine barrens, and dotted with crystal blue lakes. Known as “sky lakes” due to the altitude, Lake Minnewaska and its brethren are said to be sparklingly clear and colorful. The spring-fed lakes are too acidic to support fish or much vegetation. With white cliffs towering above them, they were a photo opportunity I was sad to have missed. I came in with high expectations, and was, not unexpectedly, disappointed.

I was captivated by the bright white quartz and sandstone at the pullout, however. Here the large pebbles of the quartz conglomerate are easily seen.

The pullout offered a way to get up close to the rocks of the region, as well as a nice view of the Catskill Mountains to the west.

Back to the rocks – this boulder was marked by a blasting hole.

Possibly the rocks were blasted to make way for the road.

Finally, it was time to get back on that road, to push on toward I-87 and home.

After driving for a while, we started seeing cliffs, and then a long escarpment of white rock. Finally, I had Don and Robb’s attention! Clearly not what they had expected.

I pulled into a parking lot. Lousy photos, with wires and a car dealer in the foreground.

But the escarpment stood hundreds of feet high and stretched for miles. THAT the guys liked. Suddenly a hike in the Gunks was something they’d like to do – someday.

But for now, tummies called. Conveniently across the street was a restaurant offering German fare, with servers in lederhosen. Great ambience and great food. Very unexpected.

The thermometer outside was nearing the breaking point.

Halfway home, the weather hit the breaking point, and we were confronted by a horizon pitch black from one end to the other. Then my phone went nuts with tornado warnings. Oh, goodie… We drove through three torrential downpours in the last couple of hours of the journey, which we should have expected. It wouldn’t be authentic Great Expedition if we didn’t go home in the pouring rain.

Have to admit, though, the skies and clouds were beautiful. Once a weather nerd, always a weather nerd.

The drive home was much like the entire trip – full of expectations unmet, others surpassed, and delights both small and large in unexpected places. Don, Robb and I underestimated the beauty of the Catskills region badly. We won’t make that mistake again.

A return trip to the unexpected Catskill Mountains is expected.