My friend Megan (of Nerding Out at the New York Ren Faire fame) and I drove up Route 23A in Greene County to Palenville one Sunday morning, parking at the official DEC lot a little less than a half-mile from the intersection of 23A and Route 32A. There’s an easy-to-locate trail leading from the parking lot to the popular North-South Lake, but, if you’ve read The Other Hudson Valley before, you know “popular” and “easy-to-locate” are not things I generally embrace.
The route to Poet’s Ledge begins with a nerve-racking stroll along the windy and heavily-trafficked 23A. It’s only a five-minute walk west from the lot, but there’s really no shoulder to speak of, and the traffic consists of visitors slowly swerving along as they gawk at the scenery and irate locals tailgating them.
Megan and I made it to the bridge on the Kaaterskill Creek and saw the vacant red building marking the entrance to Morton Road, which leads to the Poet’s Ledge trail. However, “entrance” is not a great word to use here, because Morton Road is blocked off from 23A by a double vehicle barrier festooned with a bulwark of poison ivy.
After scooting around the barrier, we came to the No Trespassing signs. They were posted on both sides of Morton Road, though there were initially no houses here, just the Kaaterskill Creek to our left and a wooded ravine to our right.
There was also a crazy-looking fence between the road and the creek consisting of discordant old boards crookedly nailed to trees and looped with chicken wire, a plethora of No Trespassing signs strung along its length. It looked as though the property owner had reached the end of his rope with trespassing hikers one evening, and angrily bashed the thing together overnight with stuff he found in his garage.
“Well,” Megan drawled, “I can kinda see the point. If there were only TWO No Trespassing signs, I might go in.”
The creek is scenic here and includes at least one waterfall, so the vista is alluring, or at least was before the psychotic-looking fence was installed. Now it looks like you’d be shot by a sniper as soon as you step off the road, but the ugliness is visible from either side. The property owner (if they ever even go down to the creek) has to stare at the thing too, so they’ve really cut off their nose to spite their face.
We also passed the remains of a dirt road to our right leading up the ravine with a sign clearly reading “Not The Trail” at its entrance. We continued along Morton, but when we came upon a neighborhood, we actually doubled back to the sign, thinking perhaps it was some local hijinks to throw our nose off the scent. This was not the case, and we nervously set back to the neighborhood.
Morton Road turns into a residential street at this point, so there were even more No Trespassing signs. We spotted the DEC sign marking the beginning of the trail up a dirt driveway on the right and breathed a sigh of relief before a dog, Cerberus-like, started barking his head off while trotting down at us from one of the yards.
The dog’s concern never turned to anger, so we hopped on by and were on the trail.
Poet’s Ledge trail is steep but surprisingly clear of obstacles for something so little-used. As we ascended from beech and striped maple to fir trees, we saw only one other group, despite it being the weekend and the trail being closer to population centers along the Hudson River than pretty much any other hike in the Catskills.
Towards the peak, we came across a stony clearing spotted by multicolored islands of thick moss.
Poet’s Ledge itself is off a path branching to the right at the trail’s peak. The view is impressive. From the ledge, you can see the cliffs near North-South Lake across the Kaaterskill Creek Basin and up the creek all the way to Haines Falls, with Onteora Mountain visible in the distance.
Of course, 23A winds along Kaaterskill Creek as well, and the basin acoustically enhances the noises of the roadway, so we unfortunately heard a lot of motorcycles.
As we skipped past the dog at the trailhead and back onto Morton Road, we noticed a structure we had missed before. The wooden kiosk had pantries filled with trail-snacks, and a refrigerator stuffed with water, Gatorade and ice cream, all purchasable for such low prices I suspect the purveyor was selling them with no mark-up. You paid on the honor system, slipping money into a box, and could enjoy your treats on lawn chairs set up for the weary hiker.
As Megan bit into her Klondike bar, she mentioned her recent hikes in Switzerland, where the trails led through farm fields uncluttered by No Trespassing signs, and the farmers waved at backpackers as they passed through their property.
I’m not one of those liberal apologist assholes who thinks Europe has attained the height of civilization, but I think the Swiss have gotten this one down. No Trespassing signs, and the American emphasis on protecting private property, shows miserliness and a revulsion towards outsiders.
But then there’s the guy with the snacks.
We strolled back up Morton to 23A, making sure to stay on the road so the snipers wouldn’t target us.
Update, 10/11/18- The Department of Environmental Conservation, the state body maintaining the trail to Poet’s Ledge, got back to me about the the property rights along Morton Road. There are “at least 4-5 property owners” whose land you pass through to access the trail, including on Morton Road, which is private, according to DEC spokesman Rick Georgeson.
The DEC was unable to track down the specifics in time for this article, but “there could be a combination of agreements, property easements and/or rights of way” along Morton Road to the trail, according to Georgeson.