Northeast Cross-Country Ski Roundup
Minnewaska State Park
New Paltz, New York 12561
Trail conditions: (914) 255-0752, Rentals and lessons: (914) 255-7059
Trail System: 62 km groomed (62 km classical, 12 km skate and 3 km backcountry)
Our Personal Estimate: Mild grades and scenic views make this a good beginner area, although most of the trails are very long.
Grooming: Good. However, unless there is a good deal of snow, the gravel from the carriage roads and bike paths gets pulled up onto the ski trails.
Scenic Beauty: 4 - the forest is unremarkable, but the views from the Castle Point Trail are stunning.
Touring Center: Weekends: Small rental/lessons shop, cafeteria, outhouses. Weekdays: Outhouses
Favorite Trail: Castle Point Trail, which has spectacular views and feels like the top of the world.
Payment: No credit cards
Lodging: Mountain Meadows-TOWN (914-255-6144, $$$); The Chelsea-New Paltz (914-626-3551, $$)
Local's Tip: There are no locals.
Minnewaska State Park is not your usual touring center. The fortress-like cliffs and the scrubby pines give it a western feel a little bit of misplaced Utah butte. The exposed ridge on the top of the trail system has some spectacular views that highlight the area's particular geology. Bring a windbreaker and a camera. During the week you can have the park all to yourself, but on sunny weekends urban escapees crowd onto the small network of trails near the parking lot. Most of the skiing at Minnewaska has a backcountry flavor. It is not exciting, but it is rife with the pleasures of long, wilderness-style treks.
Minnewaska is a state park. There is no touring center, but there is a privately owned rental hut and a trailer/warming hut serving hot food on weekends. If you're feeling chatty you can go talk to the park rangers at the ranger station. The rates are about half what you would pay at a traditional touring center, but you may miss the benefits that the other half brings. Old carriage roads afford picturesque views, but they don't generate much adrenaline. They were built to take gentry on scenic tours of the property, not to entertain skiers. The utter disregard for imagination in trail naming Lower Awosting, Upper Awosting, Lake Awosting, to name a few could only have been achieved by a government agency. It makes it difficult to remember what trail you are on.
The area's geology is striking, and it has greatly influenced the ecology. The Shawangunk Ridge was formed when two geologic plates collided; one plate fell down and one stuck up at a diagonal. This explains the vaguely disorienting slant of the land. Throughout the Preserve, you will see quartzite conglomerates (also known as Shawangunk grit) which were formed 400 million years ago from quartz pebbles and sand. This conglomerate cap is stubbornly resistant to weathering, so only a poor, thin veneer of soil covers the bedrock. Few species of vegetation can survive. The pitch pines that grow rampant throughout the park manage well in poor, sandy soil; they are very unusual in this part of the country, and make the park feel vaguely like an oversized Japanese garden.
Minnewaska's history is bound up with the Mohonk House, just a few miles away as the crow flies. The Smiley brothers started Mohonk House as a grand hotel in the late 1800s. The story runs that after a family feud, one brother moved over to Minnewaska in a huff, to start a rival resort. It was very successful. Two hotels Cliff House and Wildmere Hotel went up, and carriageways and walking trails were built to entertain the gentry. But the resort's fortunes faded in the middle of this century, as Minnewaska fell prey to financial troubles and fire. Marriott hotels made a bid to purchase the property and continue the hotel tradition, but they were beaten back by local opposition in a bitter fight. Finally, the state purchased the property along with the Nature Conservancy in 1987, and it is now a popular state park. The legacy of the resort is mostly in the carriage roads, but you can easily see the former site of Wildmere House, a broad flat area just above the parking lot.
The Upper Awosting Trail is a long, straight, wide trail traversing the Park's central ridge. The trail is so flat and the rise so subtle that it should inspire a new difficulty designation: Ultra-Easy. A lower layer of leafy mountain laurel and an upper layer of bare-limbed hardwoods give it a strange, foreign feel. Several miles out, the trail passes under Litchfield Ledge with its startling multi-colored icicles that drip perilously from the rock. They could easily kill a Grendel. The Millbrook Mountain Trail is a more isolated beginner trail. It ventures out to the scenic vista on Millbrook Mountain, where you can see opposing ridges. You're likely to run across deer tracks here.
Any but the most determined misanthrope would be crazy to miss the popular Castle Point Trail. This windy, scenic trail traces the top of the central ridge, and climbs to the area's highest point, at around 2000 feet. From a string of lookouts on this trail, you can gaze down to where fields and farmland flatten like melted butter below. The stunted trees testify to the fact that there is no neighboring mountain range to curb the wind. Take your windbreaker.
The Lake Awosting Trail is rated most difficult only because it is ungroomed and far from the parking area. It circles the long, pretty Lake Awosting with only a mere hint of a hill. Because of the wind and melting patterns, the snow can be thin on the southern side of the lake. Rocks rise to the surface. This is not a good trail for a new pair of skis.
The Hamilton Point Trail is probably the most technically challenging at Minnewaska. The far end runs along an exposed ridge, with some steep slopes and turns. The near end slides under a canopy of hemlocks and passes intricate, layered rock outcroppings that a master stonemason would be glad to imitate. The beautiful Clifftop Trail rises and falls with the cliffs around Lake Minnewaska. Despite its most difficult rating, this trail attracts a lot of first-time skiers. The curvy downhills take their toll, and skiing the Clifftop Trail on a weekend is like making your way through a battlefield after the guns have finished.
Finding Your Way: Take I-87 to Exit 18 at New Paltz. Drive straight through town on Route 60 west for several miles. When you come to the intersection, take Route 44/55 west. After five miles, you'll see Minnewaska State Park on your left.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication