“Walking the Razor’s Edge” seemed a little bombastic, I thought while squinting at the nutrition facts on a bag of Planters. Plus it was too close to the W. Somerset Maugham novel, and I didn’t want to be sued by his estate in the vague chance his descendants were fans of my site.
The idea was to start at the Mohonk Preserve Visitor Center, then hop on the Millbrook Ridge Trail and hike the edge of the Shawangunk Ridge, stopping to take in the views at Millbrook Mountain and Gertrude’s Nose. After this point, the path became a bit more questionable. There was supposedly a mile-long trail linking Gertrude’s Nose to a woods road that slalomed down to the neighborhood around Tillson Lake (which the state might drain, by the way). This trail was not on the official Minnewaska State Park map. It wasn’t on ANY map, other than AllTrail’s, which, should be noted, is a user-generated site, so the trail might just be the result of some schmuck getting lost while GPS-tracking his route.
At any rate, we would have to find the linking trail, because we were leaving Ellen’s car at the end of the woods road, and the only other option would be to turn around and hike the seven miles back. I did NOT mention this to Ellen.
Ellen (making her return appearance on TOHV) and I rolled up to a pay booth guarding the Mohonk Preserve Visitor Center’s parking lot. You were supposed to pay, but there was no one at the booth, the privately-owned preserve instead relying on — get this — the honor system to collect fees. Never being one to unnecessarily pay for something, I invoked my journalistic right to free stuff and drove past.
The trail wound up a rocky barranca near Route 44/55 before ejecting us onto the Undercliff Carriage Road. The woods road ran along a ravine of tumbled boulders that led up into one of the Shawangunks’ magnificent palisades, the quartz composite gleaming white in the sun.
The Shawangunks’ palisades draw a huge number of climbers, and we craned our necks to watch them methodically inch themselves upwards while affixed to the rock face like thrill-seeking slugs.
“I have a lot of respect for climbers,” I said to Ellen, “because they do something I could never do. I just imagine getting halfway up and freaking out and stopping.”
“Well,” Ellen opined in her posh Kiwi-Aussie-American lilt, “Ewe’d be forced to just keep going.”
“Yeah. Unless I just, y’know, started living there.”
Perhaps enthralled by the climbers’ disregard for everything nature and God intended for them, I continued leading us up Undercliff Carriage Road without checking the map until we were a good mile past the turn-off. I stopped in my tracks while intently staring at my phone.
“What’s the mattah?” Ellen queried.
“Oh. . . . . . .nothing,” I recovered. “Just seein where we are.”
I wasn’t about to admit I was wrong, like some sort of chick, and the path was so pleasant it wasn’t a big deal. Having found my justification, I led us further along the five-mile detour.
Undercliff Road had only a slight incline, and we power-walked it while watching belayers direct their climbers to the next handhold. It was April 17, and the forsythia had exploded into bumblebee-yellow bouquets, while other bushes along the trail were beginning to sprout spears of Kelly green. Eastern tailed-blue butterflies flited and played in the sunbeams.
Suddenly, Ellen turned towards me while clapping her hands over her mouth and gasping loudly. I instantly became very excited.
“Is it a BEAR?” I shrieked. When Ellen continued to stare at me, wide-eyed, I pressed.
“Bear? Is there a Bear down there? BEAR?!?”
I was about to go running down the trail to investigate myself when Ellen told me that, no, there was not a bear down there, but, yes, she had left her car keys in my Nissan at the beginning of the trail.
This made the point-to-point hike impossible — we would need to end the hike where we started. I acted a bit annoyed by this (I had just landed on “The Shawangunks: From One End to the Other,” as a title, and now that wasn’t going to work), but it was partially feigned, as I realized I was the one who was leading us down the five-mile detour.
The ravine of boulders leading up to the palisades afforded some nice rock scrambling opportunities, and I mounted a couple along the trail while Ellen watched from below, saying her wrist hurt (wimp).
Having finished the detour, we were essentially back where we began, and crossed Route 44/55 on an iron foot bridge that led to the Millbrook Ridge Trail.
The trail ran along the very spine of the ridge, dropping off steeply to our left where you could lean in and see Mountain Brauhouse and the intersection of Routes 44/55 and 299. The drop was so sudden, with nothing visible between the rock at my feet and the structures 500 feet below, that it almost seemed like we were floating.
For the next mile-and-a-half we were blessed with a constant view east into the luxuriant Wallkill River Valley, the curves of the Marlboro Mountains rising on its other end while the Taconics thumbed up against the horizon a good forty miles away. Giant black vultures lackadaisically wheeled on the updrafts at eye level.
This area of the Shawangunks actually consists of a double-ridge, the second thrusting up to our west like a thick monolith; the land between the two is invisible until you mount the ridges’ spines and reveal the hidden forest below.
We stopped for lunch. I had purchased two bags of generic trail mix at the Mobil (the Planters had too much sodium), which contrasted sharply with Ellen’s meal of roasted sweet potatoes & parsnips, pea shoots and some sort of green patty.
“Is that a veggie burger?” I asked.
“…what is it a patty of, then?”
“It’s beef, lamb, pork.”
“…why is it green?”
It was some kind of spice I now forget (not a food guy). Ellen is on a very strict diet, one cutting out histamines.
“What are histamines in, anyway?”
“Oh, histamines are in everything.”
We continued on Millbrook Ridge Trail, dipping in and out of cool pockets of air in depressions and warm hazes radiating from stone.
A tiny, surreally green object flipped across the trail below me. I bent down.
“You SON OF A BITCH,” I exclaimed.
“What?” Ellen stopped and turned.
It was an emerald green ash borer, an invasive insect that’s been chewing the hell out of the Catskill’s ash trees. I should have struck it down, but didn’t have it in me. I love nature, and I’m incapable of doling out tough love to it. I would be an awful parent.
The path was essentially flat after the first mile of Millbrook Ridge Trail until we began to ascend Millbrook Mountain at the trail’s 3.5-mile point. The trail led us closer to the cliff-edge, and we stopped at a series of increasingly breathtaking outcroppings.
From the top of Millbrook Mountain, the Hudson Valley spread out below us. The Shawangunk escarpment stretched away to our left, and I could see the dorms of SUNY New Paltz in the distance. The wheeling vultures that had been at eye-level were now so far below us it messed with my perception, and it looked like they were practically scraping the ground until they passed over the tops of altitudinous fir trees.
We looped back on Coxing Trail, which feeds into a flat woods road. At this point, I was aching, so the easy hike was appreciated.
I waited until we were in the car to tell Ellen I accidentally took us on a five-mile detour. She didn’t mind; it was worth it, she said.
It ended up being a 12-plus mile hike, but we managed it in five hours, not counting an hour of breaks.
I’ve perhaps done too much of the Catskills lately, and this was a great change. I’ll be back to the Shawangunks soon.