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?   Continue reading

Catskill Reveries: In the Hall of the Mountain King

The Summer Queen looked dubiously at the knights-apprentice kneeling before her. “You want to take them where?” she inquired of the wood elf beside them.

“To Dibble’s Quarry, Your Majesty.”

“You would take them to the Hall of the Mountain King? Why?”

“Because it’s time, Your Majesty. They have served you well, and deserve the chance to prove their mettle on this quest. Besides, I think they’d enjoy it.”

“ENJOY IT?!” the Queen convulsed in gales of laughter. “Oh, child, you do amuse me! Very well, for your pluck alone, I shall grant them this quest. Perhaps the Mountain King will find them amusing as well. Please bear my greetings to His Highness. But be sure you do not return without his token! Though I will be surprised if you succeed in this quest. It’s a rare visitor to his Hall that has the fortitude to win such a boon.”

“You… you don’t think the King will be there, surely?” the elf asked in a quavering voice.

“I know not. The Mountain King is no consort of mine, he does not answer to me. I bear no responsibility for what may come to pass should you find him at home.”

For the first time, the respectfully lowered eyes of one knight-apprentice looked up from the ground. “We are prepared, My Queen, and ready for all challenges. What could go wrong?”

As the travelers turned to leave, the Summer Queen wiped tears of mirth from her eyes. “What could go wrong, indeed!”   Continue reading

Catskill Reveries: Great Expectations

Expectations are a funny thing. Go into an experience expecting great things, and you’re frequently disappointed. A location sure to yield amazing birds instead gives you Mallards at point-blank range, while the flock of Avocets feeds three football fields away. The stunning 360° views from the highest point east of the Mississippi are completely obscured by thick fog and driving rain.

On the other hand, it’s when you expect nothing that you are often pleasantly surprised. A fussy old mansion turns out to be surrounded by acres of stunning landscapes. The search for a humble lunch spot surprises with an amazing cavern hitherto unheard of.

When my friends and I left for a week in the Catskill Mountains of New York, we took with us our many expectations. Don thought “the Catskills would be touristy with lots of gift shops, restaurants and taverns.” I felt the same, expecting development, hotels and kitsch. Robb thought “the Catskills were going to be like the Adirondacks, very mountainous and ferny.” I, on the other hand, was sure the Catskills would seem like gentle hills, compared to the rugged heights of the Great Smokies and the Adirondacks.

Who was right, and who was wrong? Continue reading

Alien Landscape


Reentry was a little bumpy. Our Harrier-class starship, still smoking, touched down with a series of thuds on what seemed from the stratosphere to be a landing pad. It wasn’t though. Some kind of exposed rock outcropping, blindingly white. Continue reading

Adirondacks Carefree: Whiteface Mountain

Wherever my friends and I go, we try to get to the top of the highest mountain around. So on our Adirondack adventure, we were keen to get to the very top of the High Peaks. That would be Mt. Marcy, 5,344’ high. “How do we get there?” we wondered. Hike 7.4 miles through wilderness to the summit, then hike 7.4 miles back. Ok, maybe not.

Still, we were determined to get to the top of one of “The 46”, as the 46 High Peaks above 4,000’ are called. Folks who have successfully climbed all 46 are called “Adirondack 46ers.” We only had one day to get to the summit of a High Peak, and our experience on the relatively puny Pitchoff Mountain taught us not to take these mountains lightly. What to do?

Enter Whiteface Mountain, 4,867’ tall, the fifth highest in the state of New York. There’s a road that does 4,600’ of the work for you, with an elevator that takes tourists the rest of the way. How hard could it be?

Keep reading!

On The Trail of A Sleeping Bear

160725_mi-sleeping-bear-dunes-6-otter-creek_5015acsIf it’s Michigan, it must be Sleeping Bear Dunes.

160725_mi-sleeping-bear-dunes-5-empire-trail_4997acsEvery summer that I visit Michigan, I try to spend a day in the sprawling Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

Every summer I discover a new favorite place.

The Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive and Glen Haven.

The Port Oneida Rural Historic District and Platter River Point.

This year it was…

Wait. We have to get there first. In Sleeping Bear Dunes, the journey is the destination. Here are some scenes from the trail.

160725_mi-sleeping-bear-dunes-3-empire-trail_4734acsGlaciers played a large role in shaping the hills and lakes of the area, depositing deep layers of sand and debris. In this poor soil grows a dense forest of maple and birch. Scattered boulders known as “erratics” were carried here by glaciers from their origins far away.

160725_mi-sleeping-bear-dunes-3-empire-trail_4776acsAlong the path I look at every fern. Finally, a wood fern I can identify. See the spores along the margins of the frond’s pinnules? It’s a Marginal Wood Fern!

160725_mi-sleeping-bear-dunes-6-otter-creek_5049acsOtter Creek.

160725_mi-sleeping-bear-dunes-2-stocking-drive_4644acsMy new friend is bright-eyed and curious.

160725_mi-sleeping-bear-dunes-3-empire-trail_4737acs 160725_mi-sleeping-bear-dunes-7-otter-lake_5070acsSunny opening in the woods along the shore of Otter Lake.

160725_mi-sleeping-bear-dunes-7-otter-lake_5059acsOtter Lake.

160725_mi-sleeping-bear-dunes-5-empire-trail_4987acsThe best destinations offer journeys of their own. This path took me to my new favorite place in Sleeping Bear Dunes…

Almost Heaven: Bear Rocks and Bogs

160705_WV Dolly Sods_3578acsWe came to the end of the road – and found a trail.

160705_WV Dolly Sods_3573acsTo the north of the Dolly Sods Wilderness Area in West Virginia lies Bear Rocks, a spectacular outcropping of white sandstone and quartz perched on the Allegheny Front. The rocks are surrounded by the 477-acre Bear Rocks Preserve, owned by the Nature Conservancy, which has been instrumental in preserving and protecting land in the Dolly Sods. After touring Dolly Sods by car, Robb, Don and I were eager to get out and explore on foot, stretch our legs a little.

160705_WV Dolly Sods_3552acsA view of the Bear Rocks trail. No, that’s not a creek, it’s a trail. A very wet trail. After a lot of puddle-jumping, we turned back. The trail doesn’t go to Bear Rocks, which is what we were interested in. So we followed a cobweb of informal trails through the heath barrens to the ridge.

160705_WV Dolly Sods_3575acsI’ve been using the word “heath” a lot. What is it?

“Heaths” are a family of acid-tolerant, low-growing plants. Huckleberry, blueberry, sheep and mountain laurel (left), rhododendron, tea berry, bear oak.

All of these plants are old friends of ours from the low-lying but acidic NJ Pine Barrens. Time and again, we find them in the higher elevations of the Appalachians.

Here they inhabit tundra-like meadows known locally as “huckleberry plains.”

160705_WV Dolly Sods_3590acsFlagged red spruce trees on Bear Rocks.

160705_WV Dolly Sods_3614acsThe view east from the ridge. The Allegheny Front drops 2000’ here to the valley of the South Branch of the Potomac River. Rumor has it that on a clear day, a visitor can see seven mountain ridges, and on the clearest days, Hawksbill and Stony Man peaks in Shenandoah National Park. This wasn’t a clear day. I still can count four ridgelines.

160705_WV Dolly Sods_3634aRocks, rhododendron and red spruce.

We had a lot of fun clambering all over Bear Rocks. Finding our way back through the heath to the main trail was a little challenging. We were glad the plants were so short that we could see right over them.

160705_WV Dolly Sods_3650acsOn the way back through Dolly Sods, we had time for one more stop, the interpretive Northland Loop Nature Trail. Lots of different ecosystems on one short trail.

Also a stern warning about unexploded ordnance. The Dolly Sods was a training area during World War II.

We managed to survive the walk with all limbs intact.

160705_WV Dolly Sods_3666acsThe trail started through a typical forest of red spruce and rhododendrons.

160705_WV Dolly Sods_3731aIt was raining, still, which gave me some nice water droplets to play with.

160705_WV Dolly Sods_3663acsExcept for a few unidentified birds, this was the only wildlife we saw in Dolly Sods. No deer, no chipmunks, NO BEARS. Somehow that absence made this snail all the more welcome.

160705_WV Dolly Sods_3708acsThe highlight of the Northland Loop is Alder Run Bog, a large northern peat bog. Bogs are waterlogged ecosystems where the plants actually grow on the surface of the water. They are unusual at high altitudes, but not in Dolly Sods.

The margins of Alder Run Bog are populated by spruce trees, heaths, sedges and ferns. A boardwalk leads out into the bog, which is covered in sphagnum moss and…

160705_WV Dolly Sods_3717acsSundews! This is a much-loved carnivorous plant we see sometimes in the Pine Barrens. We were unprepared for the vastness of the sundew stands here in Alder Run Bog.

FUN FACT: No more than a couple of inches high, these tiny plants attract insects with a sweet secretion, than trap them with the sticky mucilage of their moveable tentacles. The prey dies of exhaustion or asphyxiation, whereupon the plant digests it. Charming, aren’t they?

160705_WV Dolly Sods_3738acsBack through the forest, we came upon a river of rocks.

160705_WV Dolly Sods_3743aAmong the rocks we found some white reindeer moss. Not a moss but a lichen, it’s common in the Pine Barrens, just like sphagnum moss and sundews. The similarities between the plant life of the Pinelands and that of high-altitude acidic Appalachian ecosystems continues to amaze us.

160705_WV Dolly Sods_3750acsThe road home. We had a wonderful day exploring Dolly Sods, despite the mist and rain. But our time in West Virginia was drawing to a close.

While doing some research for these posts, I have seen many images of Dolly Sods and Bear Rocks unlike any of mine. Photos of clear blue skies, mountain ranges rolling off into the distance, meadows abloom with flowers, heaths ablaze in autumnal reds and golds. Something to aspire to, I guess. Something for a return visit (or two!) to West Virginia. I could spend several days right here in Dolly Sods.

Maybe I’d even see a bear…

Almost Heaven: Raindrops, Moptops and the Lindy Hop

160704_WV Blackwater Lindy Point_2867acsIf it’s the Appalachians, it must be raining.

Like July Fourth last year, and the Appalachian Spring Expedition before it, Independence Day in the mountains of West Virginia was a wet one. The rain started at breakfast, and though light, continued for much of the day.

160704_WV Blackwater Lindy Point_2955acsWith precipitation in our future, the three of us had decided a day spent in and around our home base of Blackwater Falls State Park was in order. So we broke out our dancin’ shoes and Lindy hopped out to Lindy Point.

The short trail wound through woods dense with rhododendron. Sometimes there is beauty to be found in the rain.

160704_WV Blackwater Lindy Point_2891acsThe trail ended at a rocky outcropping, a once-proud craggy castle clinging to a precipice overlooking the Blackwater River Gorge. A two-tiered observation deck awaited us there. Mostly we ignored it in favor of ducking through curtains of greenery to stony alcoves open to the leaden sky. The rock formations and the view drew my complete attention…

160704_WV Blackwater Lindy Point_2930acsWhen I wasn’t distracted by the rhododendron blooms.

160704_WV Blackwater Lindy Point_2842acsA lone turret stood guard over the castle walls.

Made of sandstone and shale, like most of the rock in Blackwater Falls, the tower shows the effects of differential weathering.

Less resistant rock has eroded away, leaving the more resistant rock perched precariously in fantastical shapes.

Please pardon the raindrop blurs. It was raining faster than I could dry the lens.

160704_WV Blackwater Lindy Point_2877acs2Raindrops on rhodies… these are a few of my favorite things.

160704_WV Blackwater Lindy Point_2887acsDon’t lean too far over the edge!

Don and Robb posed for the obligatory portrait on the observation deck. That didn’t satisfy the photographer. Too dull, too… common. Taskmistress that she is, she insisted that they walk around the railing and out onto the rocks, dance from side to side until they were placed just so, and then kneel before Her Majesty.

160704_WV Blackwater Lindy Point_2902acsThe Mage and his staff, and the Wise Fool, on the Castle Lindy parapet.

160704_WV Blackwater Lindy Point_2924acsLuckily for her attendants, they did not displease Her Majesty. In her boundless generosity, she allowed them to return to the safety of the dance floor, er, observation deck.

The tomfoolery continued in the afternoon. Every day, we traveled from our cabin to the Lodge several times. Every time, we passed a certain sign. Every time, I cried out, “Look! There’s a petting zoo!”

This seemed as good a day as any to drop in on the furry residents of the zoo. Chickens, piglets, rabbits, a donkey, a goat and more were tucked into a cozy barn.

160704_WV Blackwater Falls State Park_105436acsRobb and his new friend, Miss Moptop Alpaca. (cellphone image)

160704_WV Thomas_154054acsFrom farm to town, the  whirlwind went on, to the little hamlets of Davis and Thomas. Davis offered a neat artisans’ shop full of local crafts.

Thomas had an opera house, antique shops, and the Purple Fiddle, a local watering hole renowned for its eclectic roster of musical performers. (cellphone image)

Thus another fine day in West Virginia drew to a close, with our merry band snug in our cabin while the rain beat a tattoo on the roof.

Others may have their parades, barbecues and fireworks on Independence Day. Not us. For my companions and I, a day of raindrops, moptops and the Lindy Hop was the perfect recipe for a West Virginia Fourth of July.

160703_WV Seneca Rocks_2487acs

Sites Homestead, Seneca Rocks

Almost Heaven: Seneca Rocks

160703_WV Seneca Rocks_2442acsIt was an up and down kind of day. Our first full day in West Virginia’s Potomac Highlands began at a high rocky cliff and finished deep underground in a cavern.

Our first destination? Seneca Rocks, in the Spruce Knob – Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area in Monongahela National Forest. Our goal? To scale the craggy cliffs known as Seneca Rocks.

OK, maybe not. The cliff faces are a popular draw for experienced rock climbers with the technical skill and gear to handle one of the 375 different climbing routes. We were here to ooh and ah over the cliffs from below, and walk the trail to an observation platform just short of the North Peak.

160703_WV Seneca Rocks_2447acsDon posing in front of Seneca Rocks. Do you think he realizes Robb isn’t pointing the camera at him?

A Geological Diversion: The rocks at Blackwater Falls and many other places in the Potomac Highlands are sandstone, of the Tuscarora Formation. But Seneca Rocks are Tuscarora quartzite. Why?

     The sandstones of the area began forming over 500 million years ago. As mountains to the east were slowly eroded away, sand, silt and pebbles washed westward into a shallow sea that covered West Virginia at the time. The sediment settled and compacted into sandstone.

     About 275 million years ago, the collision of the continental plates forced the continental crust upward to form the Appalachian Mountains, and sandstone formations like Blackwater Falls were created. In some places, however, extreme pressure and heat caused the sandstone to change into quartzite, a metamorphic rock that is highly resistant to the weathering. Over time, softer stone eroded away to expose the “fin” or razorback ridge of Seneca Rocks.

160703_WV Seneca Rocks_2483acsIn the valley we stopped to admire the Sites Homestead, before crossing Seneca Creek.

160703_WV Seneca Rocks_2472acsWe also crossed the Potomac River. The North Fork of the South Branch of the Potomac River, to be exact.

The trail gains 1000′ elevation in 1.5 miles through a series of steps and switchbacks. That’s pretty stiff. By my calculations, over a 12% grade. What fun!

160703_WV Seneca Rocks_2542acsAlong the way up we passed a wall of sandstone. No, this photo isn’t crooked. Millions of years of geological uplift have left these layers tilted just so.

160703_WV Seneca Rocks_2559acsOne of many switchbacks. This photo isn’t crooked either, the trees grow that way. Trees like striped maple, birch, beech and oak, and some pines near the summit. I tried to get the entire switchback in the photo, but couldn’t without falling off the mountain.

We heard birds, but didn’t see much wildlife. Perhaps because there were a lot of folks out for a relaxing Sunday stroll. Most of them made it to the top, despite some questionable wardrobe choices. A lot of dogs took the trek, too. Near the start we encountered one little fellow with very short legs that already seemed to be struggling. Darned if he didn’t make it all the way up and back!

160703_WV Seneca Rocks_2576acsMushroom. No, the photo isn’t crooked! Plants and rocks alike grow at odd angles on steep mountainsides. Lots of lichens and mosses covered the rocks, and there were ferns everywhere. Wood ferns, sensitive ferns, and – look, Don! Christmas ferns!

160703_WV Seneca Rocks_2601acsAt last! The overlook. I was somehow expecting a close-up view of Seneca Rocks. Instead, the observation platform, perched on the cliff side just below the North Peak, offers a fine view of the valley below and the mountains beyond. Don, front and center.

160703_WV Seneca Rocks_2609acsWhile I rest and enjoy a little snack, why don’t you join Don and take in the view.

Wait a minute, where’s Robb?

160703_WV Seneca Rocks_2730acsHe’s climbed up the rocky trail toward the top of Seneca Rocks, right past the huge STOP! sign warning of death and disaster to all who go past it – which everyone is ignoring. This is the North Peak, accessible without climbing equipment. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

Seneca Rocks_Panorama1acsI want to go to the top, too! But just when I’m rejuvenated, Robb reappears, so we both head out onto the platform to enjoy the wonderful panorama. The pines on the right are Pinus pungens or Table Mountain pine, native to the Appalachian Mountains.

And what’s this? July Fourth weekend, at the top of a mountain; oh, it must be rain. Lovely.

With that, we took our last look over the valley and headed downhill. Fortunately, we were spared a repeat of last year’s Stony Man deluge; the rain this day was light and intermittent. The descent was much easier than the climb, and faster, too. Leaving us with plenty of energy to explore the rocky banks of the Potomac River.

The North Fork of the South Branch of the Potomac River.

160703_WV Seneca Rocks_2651acsA little way upstream, Seneca Creek flows into the river. Don and Robb decided to continue up the creek bed to the bridge, where I would meet them after retracing my steps along the trail.

Except when I got there, they were nowhere to be found, on the bridge or on the creek. I walked back to the Discovery Center in search of both the guys and a signal for my cell phone, and soon ran into Robb. Who claimed that they were RIGHT THERE on the creek bed, had SEEN me on the bridge, and SHOUTED at me repeatedly to no avail.

But I know I didn’t see them down on the creek. Couldn’t have been that I was looking the wrong way, could it? Nope, not me!

160703_WV Seneca Rocks_2703This is the South Peak of Seneca Rocks. Here we find the serious rock climbers doing the serious work of playing on cliff faces. How many climbers do you see? Seven (or more) on the top. Two on the face. Don’t see the second one? He’s at the right edge of the photo, resting in the shade of a tree. Maybe enjoying a good book.

Our plan had been to push on south to Spruce Knob, at 4,863 feet the highest point in West Virginia. When we passed the turnoff for Seneca Caverns, and the sign promised a restaurant, our hunger got the better of us and we changed plans. Happens all the time; besides, it was raining.

160703_WV Seneca Cavern_151809acsWe enjoyed the 45-minute tour through the cavern. It was considerably larger than either of the two Pennsylvania caverns we have been to.

Some of the rooms seemed to soar upward forever.

Then we came to some low, narrow passages that required yoga to weave through.

We never had to wear hard hats in a cavern before, but we were soon grateful for them. The trip leader’s talk was frequently punctuated by a plastic BONK! as one or another of the visitors hit their head on the low ceilings.

We finally emerged from the depths, to more rain and an hour’s drive to our snug cabin in Blackwater Falls.

160703_WV Seneca Rocks_2712acsTo plan for the morrow, and reflect on the highs and lows of a grand day in West Virginia.


150711_PA Nockamixon Cliffs_1277acs“Grandfather, look what I found!” said the young boy. “It’s a dragon egg!”

“No, my grandson,” said the old man as he stood along the river shore.

150620_PA Delaware Canal SP_9511acs“It is indeed an egg, but not of a dragon, for they left our land many ages ago. This is the egg of an Osprey, the masked hawk that fishes in the River Delaware. But where did you find it?”

“In the grass at the base of the red rock cliffs.”

“You must return it to the nest. Mother Osprey will be looking for it. The cliffs are high and dangerous, but you are young and strong. I have confidence in you.”

“I will try,” replied the boy somberly. “But first, Grandfather, tell me again of how these cliffs came to be?”

150620_PA Delaware Canal SP_9523acs“Very well, my grandson, I will tell you. Rest here amongst the flowers while I weave my tale…”

150620_PA Delaware Canal SP_9545acs“The Nockamixon Cliffs tower 300 feet above the River Delaware. They are made of red shale, siltstone and sandstone.

“200 million years ago in the Triassic Era, hot molten diabase boiled out of the earth. Its heat baked the shale and siltstone to an unusual hardness.

“See how the rocks tilt to the northwest? Over time tremendous pressure twisted the stone just so, and weathering has left them exposed for us to view from below.

“These palisades host an arctic-alpine plant community that is rare in this land, as well as more than 90 bird species, including peregrine falcons and the Ospreys who are even now looking for their egg.”

150620_PA Delaware Canal SP_9606acsThe boy looked up at the towering cliffs, swallowed hard, and nodded. “I will do my best, Grandfather.”

150620_PA Delaware Canal SP_9707acs“Do you see the Indian carved in the stone?

“If you lose courage, look to him; he will give you strength.”

The boy nodded again, tucked the egg carefully into his clothes, and began to climb. 150711_PA Nockamixon Cliffs_1243acsIt seemed easy at first, as he pushed his way through the leafy branches at the base of the cliffs.

150620_PA Delaware Canal SP_9603acsHe came upon a small waterfall spilling in sinuous braids down the ledges. How slippery the footing was here! “I shall be as supple as this water,” the boy said to himself.

150620_PA Delaware Canal SP_9589acsAlong the way, he marveled at the perseverance of the plants. Ferns, bushes and even trees seemed found no difficulty in rooting themselves in face of the stone. “I shall be as tenacious as these trees,” he said to himself.

150620_PA Delaware Canal SP_9554aAs he neared the top, the boy found the climbing difficult. So high up he was! He tried not to look down. Slowly he moved, clinging to the rocks, wedging his fingers and toes into any crack he could find. “I shall be as strong as these cliffs,” he thought to himself.

At last the boy reached the top. Gingerly he took the egg from his clothes; tenderly he placed it in the Osprey nest. Mother Osprey watched him intently, fierce emotion hidden behind her glittering golden eyes. “I shall be as fearless as this Osprey,” the boy thought to himself.

150620_PA Delaware Canal SP_9590aThen he looked over the edge of the cliff, down to the riverbed and the old man far below. The boy gulped.

Now what?