Amid the sensory onslaught of Times Square, you’re not thinking about wild blueberries, ice caves, or mountain lakes. Most people aren’t wishing they were scrambling over knobby boulders or kicking up dirt. And in summer, you may not even be thinking skiing (crazy, right?). But a reality of Manhattan mayhem is that it lives within striking distance of some of the Northeast’s best—and most accessible—forest.
New York’s Shawangunk Ridge is famous in the outdoor community. Colloquially known as the “Gunks,” its conglomerate rock, cracks, and roofs offer some of North America’s best climbing. The primo routes are located along the ridge’s northern section, a few miles west of the funky college town of New Paltz.
Also in this section, delineated as the Minnewaska and Mohonk state park preserves, you’ll find striking biodiversity, scraggly trails, old carriage roads, waterfalls, and enough vistas to cure even the most acute cases of city-ism. Here’s how to get after it:
Know Before You Go
The raised bedrock that comprises the Shawangunk Ridge stretches south into New Jersey, Pennsylvania and beyond, marking the eastern edge of the Appalachian Mountains. You can access the northern part of the ridge from three main starting points: the woodsy hamlet of Cragsmoor (to the south and west of New Paltz), trailheads off Route 44/55 between Lake Minnewaska and the Mohonk Preserve Visitor Center, and the stately Mohonk Mountain House. From New York City, you’ll follow Route 17 for Cragsmoor. Interstate 87 takes you to the points closer to New Paltz.
A word for the wise: Fire has consumed the park multiple times in the last decade, resulting from human activity—including cigarette butts. The most restrained commentary I can offer is to say that when you’re on the trail, remember that you are, in fact, not in Manhattan. Concrete isn’t flammable. Vegetation is.
Even if you’ve only got a day to get away, the Gunks are still worth the trip. A sub-two-hour drive will take you to any of the access points. Pick one, and go.
At Cragsmoor, park at the Sam’s Point Visitor Center, and hike a carriage road to Sam’s Point. On a clear day, you’ll see all the way to Connecticut, so snap a few photos with a Hudson Valley backdrop. From Sam’s Point, you’ve got options.
Hike 3.1 miles roundtrip to the Ice Caves, where boardwalks and ladders lead you into naturally refrigerated caverns. Extend the route to the Verkeederkill Falls out-and-back trail (5.5 miles), which takes you through blueberry bushes and stubby pines to a 100-foot waterfall just downstream from a dammed swimming hole. Or, for a longer hike or separate trek, ascend High Point, near the tallest elevation in the Gunks at just shy of 3,000 feet.
Accessing the ridge from outside New Paltz gives you access to multiple trails and loops around Lake Minnewaska and Lake Awosting. Crisp and clear water, flat rocks for sun-bathing, even changing rooms. Don’t miss Rainbow Falls, and don’t be afraid to link loops on rugged trails rather than only sticking to the carriage roads.
If you opt for the northerly trailheads near Mohonk Mountain House, you a) may feel like you’re visiting Dirty Dancing’s Kellerman Resort, and b) are pretty much obligated to check out the Labyrinth and Lemon Squeeze. At 5.5 miles, the loop takes you past some of the most pristine views in New York—and you get to crawl, shimmy, squeeze, and climb to see them. One part hike and two parts obstacle course, the Lemon Squeeze feels as far from Times Square as you can get.
Add a Night or Two
While camping is not permitted along the top of the ridge itself, the Gunks feature designated campgrounds off 44/55. Reserve a tent or vehicle site, and get rustic. Staying overnight expands your options. In two days, you can hike the ridge’s best trails, pick enough wild blueberries to cover hors d’oeuvres, and either try your hand at camp meals or dine at one of New Paltz’s eclectic eateries. This writer recommends the Mountain Brauhaus—sauerbraten and other authentic German cuisine at the base of the Gunks’ most stunning cliffs.
Fancy an extended trek? You don’t have to hop on the Appalachian Trail to satisfy your distance urge. Beginning in New Jersey at High Point State Park, the Shawangunk Ridge Trail covers 71 miles, finishing in the colorful mountain town of Rosendale, New York. Give yourself five days, and fully immerse yourself in the Gunks. When you get to Rosendale, don’t miss imported (and surprisingly legit) dairy products at The Big Cheese.
If shuttling a car or arranging a ride is an option, park at Sam’s Point, and trek all the way to Mohonk. At 17 miles, the route makes for a heady—and thoroughly satisfying—day. Because the top of the ridge is relatively level, you should also consider trail running it.
Someone Say Blueberries?
If you pretty much zoned out at the mention of wild blueberries, be sure to take your Gunks adventure in mid to late July. This is typically the time of year when the seemingly endless crop of low- and high-bush blueberries ripens to perfection atop the ridge. The place is famous for the blue superfood, which is often found alongside huckleberries. Why buy blueberry jam when you can make your own, right?
When you’re back in The City with pumped leg muscles, scraped knees, and Ziplocs full of fresh berries, your cosmopolitan friends will wonder what happened to you. You’ll ask them if they own a decent pair of hiking boots.