Day 2 – Overlook Mountain and Shawangunk Mountains (New York)
Day two started in Woodstock, New York, a mecca for musicians and artists for many years. The elevation of the town is from the lower slopes of Overlook Mountain. This is part of the Catskill Mountain Range considered to be a “branch route” of the AT according to Benton MacKaye, an original founding father of the famous trail. Despite being off the official 2,190-mile AT route, I knew Overlook Mountain would not disappoint as the next summit to be reached.
I was encouraged that my plan to go from mountain to mountain was coming to fruition. A night-time ritual of driving until I was tired would determine which mountain I would climb the next morning on the way back to Florida. The undetermined plan was to hit highlights in different states on the southbound journey.
To me, the Catskills are familiar territory. I grew up in the mid-Hudson area and have climbed Overlook several times. One indication you are on the proper approach road is when you see prayer flags strung between the trees. A very striking Tibetan Buddhist monastery is located across the street from the start of this trail. There are always cars in the parking lot of the monastery, but I have never seen any people coming and going. I only imagined how the professionals go about their form of meditation while I sought my own solitary path to the mountain peak.
The magic of a sunrise on the mountain top appealed to me. However, this was coupled with the uncertainty of starting a hike in the predawn darkness. The idea of being in your old stomping ground made it more comforting in spite of the dangers. Little did I know at the time, a sunrise hike would become a trend in the upcoming days.
When you know you are the only one on the trail the adrenaline pumps a little. A good flashlight is worth its weight in gold at 5 a.m. My biggest fear was timber rattlers. Their brown bands are a good camouflage for the dirt trail and an unfortunate encounter could be an abrupt end to my journey. I wondered how many people have knocked on the door to the monastery asking for a snake-bite kit. No doubt there are also brown bears in these parts of upstate New York. The next town to the West is called Bearsville for obvious reasons. It would be a focused 2-mile hike to the top of Overlook Mountain during which I oscillated my flashlight across my feet about 10,000 times.
The elevation gain was steady with no chance of getting lost on the wide dirt pathway. In about an hour I was at the top scouting out a place for reflection. At the summit, you can optionally climb the fire tower and easily take photos from the several platforms between sets of stairs. There was an enclosure with windows at the very top of the fire tower. The trap door leading to it was locked but this did not affect the bird’s eye view from the tower’s top platform. It was easier on the eyes to contemplate the scenery opposite from the sun. The mountains all around looked more like rolling green hills from the peak of Overlook. A thin cloud cover in the valleys with the mountains bursting through was a mystical sight. With a mountain vista in every direction, Overlook has a truly appropriate name. As I enjoyed the solitude of the early morning panorama, I imagined all others who came before me to be inspired by the Catskills such as the Hudson River School of landscape painters.
Coming down, I clearly saw the whole trail including the Overlook Mountain House ruins which were worthy of a brief stop. As the morning sun streamed through the bare concrete openings, the old hotel was awakening for visitors. Since the 1800s, it was fashionable for wealthy New Yorkers to visit mountain resorts. Fires destroyed previous hotels on this site. The remains of a 1928 re-build are what you see today. It is possible to safely walk through many of the decaying hotel rooms. I just snapped a few photos from the trail so I would not disturb any slithery locals before I made it back to the car.
I was sidetracked from the AT one more time. A friend called me while I was on my way south along the New York State Throughway. He lives in the Shawangunk Mountains near New Paltz, New York, which is a popular destination for rock climbing and hiking. He said I would enjoy the trails in the Mohonk Preserve. I was not convinced. Then he followed up with a description of a walk that ended in a waterfall and a swimming hole. Suddenly, it sounded more like a Huckleberry Finn adventure. Needless to say, as the sun was setting two old friends were still sharing stories about their reckless high school days when the laws were much different. The cold water at the swimming hole did not freeze our memories. Just in case the statute of limitations had yet to expire, the conversation went unrecorded.
The following day I was back on the official AT starting at Bear Mountain, New York. However, an unexpected challenge would alter my priorities.
Look for Part 3 in an upcoming edition of the Ponte Vedra Recorder.