Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Guatemala...Here We Come!

Lake Atitlan (photo courtesy of
In less than a week, my love and I will be boarding a plane at 7:00am in frosty Newark, New Jersey and traveling over 3,000 miles to Lake Atitlan located in the sunny but rugged mountains of Guatemala. It is difficult to even summon the words to express my feelings about taking such a venture. I have traveled outside the country once - count 'em...once. In 2004, during my junior year of college, I traveled to Ballyvaughn, Ireland on a school trip for 3 weeks. Although, we were allowed to roam the village and countryside largely unchaperoned, I was almost always accompanied by fellow students and knew that we were under the care of our professors. I have hiked thousands of miles on trail and road throughout the United States, largely solo, but have always felt uncertain to travel alone internationally. Now I have a partner who has traveled to more countries than I can what are we waiting for... time to expand my U.S. tramping to international tramping!

The volcanos of Lake Atitlan as viewed from San Marcos la Laguna (photo courtesy of

Lake Atitlan is steeped in lore, a supposed vortex of energy that influenced its first Mayan inhabitants. Ruins of the Mayan culture have been found not only beneath the waters of the lake but scattered throughout its mountainsides that now serve as land for it coffee plantations and avocado groves. Here, native plants abound, about which I know very little, and monkeys swing from the treetops. The lake is surrounded by 3 volcanoes with roughly seven small villages (not counting the even smaller ones in between) that are inhabited largely by indigenous people as well as large handfuls of hippies that have sought this locale out as a refuge from the norm.

Tuk-Tuk - these act as taxis through the villages of Lake Atitlan (photo courtesy of

There is no main road that encircles the lake, but rather a smattering of roads scattered throughout the more populous villages. The primary modes of transporation are tuk-tuks - three-wheeled motorized carts that act as taxis, motorboats that ferry tourists and locals between villages surrounding the lake, and of course foot travel. Some villages are connected only by water transport and dirt trails. Colorful school buses, termed chicken buses, carry folks from larger cities in Guatemala such as Guatemala City, which we will be flying into, 80 miles but mind you a 3 hour ride, to the lake.

Chicken bus - these serve as city buses that travel from hubs of travel to the lake
(photo courtesy of MayotoMaya.wordpress)

We will be staying in the village of San Marcos in an Air B&B rental dubbed Casa de Bambu. It is costing us a mere $140 for the entire week given that the exchange rate is seven quetzals to one american dollar. Sharing our home with us will be two resident pit bulls that are reportedly sweet as pie and will be tended to by the gardener. This will be our jumping off point for visiting the surrounding villages and of course some hiking while we are here. 

Casa de Bambu (photo courtesy of Air B&B)
San Pedro Volcano is reportedly one hell of a climb, reaching nearly 10,000 feet in elevation with a beginning elevation of 6,000. This elevation is reached over the course of a few miles. This kind of elevation rivals the climb to Mount Washington in New Hampshire. Eep. But how many opportunities will we have to climb a volcano in Guatemala? Needless to say, we will not be doing this on our first day there. A guide to lead you to the top is suggested and from what we have read the procedure is to go into the village and ask for Pedro. Hmm...Pedro must be a well-known guy. I am hoping Pedro can also introduce me to the native flora here as well. There may not be any spring green beings growing here in Northeastern PA but in Guatemala they are sure to be plentiful with 70 degree temps and longer daylight hours!

San Pedro Volcano (photo courtesy of Google images)

But for me this trip represents more than just a flight to a temperate and exotic land...

When I was a child, the countries that I saw on maps were largely just different colored shapes on a projector with names that I could not pronounce. As I got older, I would wonder at the pictures of people in National Geographic adorned in far more colorful clothes than we Americans ever dare to wear. In college I met other young people who had gone to Europe for a semester or to Africa for Peace Corps or perhaps practiced massage in the Carribean - how did they manage to take such a leap? Moving from Pennsylvania to North Carolina seemed mighty tremendous to me. I had friends from Uzbekistan and Kenya and Ethiopia whose stories of their homeland I now don't even remember because I don't think there was anywhere in my brain for them to stick, no relative experiences.

I remember the very first time I was faced with such sudden awareness of the was alarming. The first night that I was in Ireland, I stepped outside the little cottage that we were renting into the blackness of the night - the village had a population of only 300 and we were on the edge of town - and looked up at the stars. I didn't recognize a single constellation. It was then that I realized just how far I was from home. Here I was, after what had only been 5 hours on an airplane, but an entire ocean away, on another continent, looking at a sky that no one I loved back home was seeing. I sat down on the damp grass in an effort to simply ground myself. It terrifying, breath-taking, and tremendously freeing.

Perhaps my inexperience in traveling coupled with the brief but raw sensation of what it felt like to be somewhere completely unknown is one of the reasons I began long-distance hiking. Before I hiked the Appalachian Trail, besides the Tristate area and North Carolina in which I lived, I had been to Illinois, Florida, and South Carolina, not counting the states we had driven through on the interstate to get there. Once I delved into the world of hiking...I listened to tales from international hikers of trails in far away lands that traversed mountain ranges in countries that I didn't even know had mountains. At home, I would research the next trail to hike and inevitably come across long distance treks in Europe, New Zealand, China...and although my eyes had never laid eyes on such beauty...almost immediately discount them because I didn't know how to deal with the airports, the customs, the transportation, the money exchange, all the signs in languages I didn't understand. But I had learned this most important fact through hiking the Appalachian Trail - there was nothing that compared to suddenly finding one's self completely out of one's a town where I knew no one and no one knew me...coming upon a vista that until that moment I had never even knew existed but that from that moment forward would be forever imprinted upon my mind...the experience of not knowing where I might find myself at the end of the day or even what I might see, feel, hear, from moment to moment. The wonder of the unknown, that although I wandered, firmly planted me in the present moment.

This is the same feeling that I have now been struck with on many a long distance trek or travel - from my moonlit tent on Springer Mountain on the AT in Georgia, to the thick of a forest on the MST in North Carolina's Nanatahala National Forest where the insects and frogs were nearly deafening, to the arid red rock cliffs of Utah after driving 3 hours out on a dirt road past nothing but mesas and tough grass, to gazing down the length of Nevada's Route 50 (aka the Loneliest Road in the Country) where the road was ever shaped like an acute triangle but we never seemed to reach its tiny point, to the beaches of Northern California where I tread over smooth stones of every color and looked out an ocean I had never in my life seen, to the rock-strewn green mountains of the FLT where I had no service for weeks. This is the presence of mind, the wonder, the freedom, that I have fallen in love with and continue to structure my life around. To me, this is living and I have now been graced with a partner who values living as much as I do.

And so I look forward to finding my love and I smacked in the face with the present, with the beauty as well as discomfort, in the middle of the mountains in a land I had not even googled until a couple of months ago but of which we now dream. we come!

.....and after that....just one day after we arrive home...onwards to Asheville for two weeks! So begins the adventuring...

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Mast Hope Gamelands

As the snows are falling here today in the valley of Lackawaxen, I would like to introduce you to a special place that is entrancing and accessible no matter the season. In fact, I first stepped foot on this easy walking trail in weather that was not so different from today.

Mast Hope Creek,  late winter 2016, in PA Gamelands #316
From the Zane Grey Bridge, travel down narrow and bumpy Mast Hope Plank Road, which runs alongside railroad tracks and through a corridor of deep green pines now snowladen, follow its sharp turn underneath a steel and stone square of a bridge and continue traveling until you see a small wooden sign that reads: PA State Gamelands. Shortly thereafter, turn right into a pull-off that will lead you over a rickety one-lane wooden bridge that doesn't seem suited to more than foot-travel (although I promise you it is) and you will spy another humble sign that reads: Gamelands 316. This is the start of this of this humble trail that affords far more beauty in 30 minutes walking than one would ever suspect.

This unnamed level trail follows the pristine Mast Hope Creek. Boulders perfect for sitting upon beneath the canopy of Eastern Hemlock line the creek as too pebbly shores that invite you to come dip your toes in the warmer weather. The embankments are tall enough to prevent flooding during a wet season but not too steep to prevent you from climbing down and crossing on a multitude of flat rocks to the seemingly endless woods on the other side of the creek.

Female cone of Black Birch tree (Betula Lenta)
The very first time that I went walking on this favorite trail of my luv's, our feet crunched over days old snow that had not yet been traversed as very few people make use of this trail as far as we have seen. However it was not long before we were lured to the other side of the creek by a snow covered fallen tree that made a perfect bridge for crossing. With the use of two long fallen branches turned makeshift hiking sticks we carefully made our way across the creek's icy waters. There we explored the woods that could easily have enveloped us in a labrinyth of bare Blueberry (Vaccinium spp.) shrubs, Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), White Pine (Pinus strobus), and Birches (Betula spp.) had it not been for the creek leading the way.

Scott and his chest-high Cardinal Flower gone to seed, with shorter red Cardinal Flower at knee-height
When we returned to this trail in high summer it was transformed into a botanical wonderland. Scott was eager to show me his community of Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis) that he had carefully raised at home from collected seed and then transplanted to the creek's embankments. In fact, it was this passion-colored flower that had first wowed me when we had met. He had proudly showed me a photo of his floral offspring while chatting about our love of this guy had something to offer! What had started out as a a few small plants a year prior were now a burgeoning community of over waist-high arching red-petaled, blue-tipped stamen beauties, some already going to seed.

Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis)

Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis), a member of the BellFlower Family (Campanulaceae), has history of use among native people from our region. It is said that the leaves and flowers were dried and were smoked as an effective remedy for bronchial spasms. The dried leaves and flowers were also steeped in a tea in relieving headaches, fevers, and nosebleeds. The roots were utilized in a tea to treat intestinal worms. Personally, I have not had experience with using Cardinal Flower medicinally and there are references to its toxicity as well, so this is certainly a plant to explore further before using.

Alongside Cardnial Flower were the mischevious yellow-faced Monkeyflower (Mimulus ringens) as well as the ivory colored mouths of Turtlehead (Chelone glabra). These two neighbors used to be related, both members of the Figwort Family (Scrophulariaece) but due to recent DNA studies, Monkeyflower has been placed in the Lopseed Family (Phrymaceae). Both of these plants were also favorites of the native populations that probably once inhabited or traveled alongside this creek.

Monkeyflower (Mimulus ringens)
Monkeyflower (Mimulus ringens) is high in salt, absorbing sodium choride from the soil and concentrating it in its leaves and stems, therefore Native people as well as the following colonists would use it to flavor meat harvested from the woods.

Turtlehead (Chelone glabra)
Turtlehead (Chelone glabra), is similar in some of its actions to Cardinal Flower. Its leaves were dried and taken as a tea to rid the body of worms. Being that is leaves are highly bitter, it was also used in afflictions of the liver and gallbladder.

After admiring these plants for sometime, we finally made our way downstream and down trail. Along the way, we paused on one of those flat rocks perfect for lounging and soon found that we were being this magnificent grandmother Black Birch Tree (Betula Lenta). Rarely do we see them so craggy with scaling bark as they are reported to become with age, but this one surely has been witness to this creek for sometime. It took us peering up at it's lowermost branches, still well above our heads to see its egg-shaped leaves, and breaking a small twig from a sapling at its base to smell wintergreen, before we were able to discern that it was indeed a Black Birch.

Black Birch Tree with fissured scaling bark
Eventually we got to hiking again and reached the wetland that the creek creates. Where the waterway rounds a bend, the trail disappears into a rich land of large tufts of grass, again perfect for hopping if your stride is long enough and a bounty of wild Raspberry (Rubus spp.) vines. One day we did stumble upon a father and daughter armed with a shovel and bucket. Covered in dirt and wet up to their knees, they were digging in the muddy soil for bait for fishing in the upcoming days.

Since researching this area further, I have also learned that these gamelands are on Pike County's list of Natural Heritage areas, as it is home to Slender Panic Grass (Panicum xanthophysum), a species found in few other places in the state of Pennsylvania. This grass is said to inhabitat dry slopes, therefore we did not encounter it where we ventured, but perhaps we would have if we had continued to explore the other side of the creek.

Although little traveled by hikers, it is evident that this portion of land is appreciated by far more than ourselves from Cardinal Flower to Grandmother Birch to kin seeking worms. It is a treasure I am thankful is well protected for the sake of the plants and those who reside here in this valley. Now, although I have spent the bulk of this post dreaming of warmer days, I want to remind you, that this area is simply magical in the winter, so put on those showshoes and hit the trail! I am sure these woods will reveal themselves to you in ways we have had yet to even see.

A wintery photo of Mast Hope Creek in PA Gamelands #316

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Tusten Mountain Trail

Alas the first snows have already fallen in our rocky northeastern mountains along the Delaware River. The delicate warm weather plants have nestled their seeds deep into the earth to slumber until spring and even the hardy weeds such as Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) and Burdock (Arctium spp.) have surrendered their green leaves to the cold sending their energy into their long taproots. However a number of the trails that carry us atop these plants and past their evergreen companions are still accessible and the views...well they are better than ever.

Sign at Tusten Mountain Trailhead off of Crawford Rd, complete with map
One such trail is the Tusten Mountain Trail located smack dab in between Narrowsburg, NY and Barryville, NY along route 97 off of Crawford Rd. The Tusten Mountain Trail provides a moderately difficult 3 mile loop or rather a lollipop, up and over Tusten Mountain and through pristine woods. This property is owned by the Boy Scouts of America but remains open to the public for foot travel.

Please allow me to transport you to a warmer time...early this past Spring...when I first discovered this trail. I knew that I would be teaming up with the Delaware Highlands Conservancy to lead a hike here in the fall and so I needed to do a preliminary hike to aquaint myself. My love and I were psyched to learn of a new trail just upriver from our home and so we set out eagerly.

Walking the dirt road that that leads to the loop up and over Tusten Mountain
The trail begins on a dirt road (this is the stick of the lollipop) that runs along an upper embankment of the  Delaware River. Now for some of the purist hikers out there this may sound less than enticing but trust me, the roadwalk in and of itself is beautiful, leading the hiker past tall healthy Eastern Hemlocks (Tsuga canadensis), knee-high forests of Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) and large boulders randomly dropped by Mother Nature in wooded clearings. I personally love a good roadwalk because one gets to simply take in the sights around them unencumbered by having to watch the next step.

Scott walking atop Stone Arch Bridge
Rounding a bend, the trail passes atop a picturesque arching stone bridge.  This bridge was built in 1875 when this now wooded glen was a hub of industry for the colonial settlement of Tusten. A sawmill, gristmill, tannery, and quarry could be found along the Ten Mile River which passes beneath this archway, the products of which were then transported along the Delware River and D&H Canal. Evidence of stone foundations can still be found along the Ten Mile River as well as the trail.

Ten Mile River that flows beneath the Stone Arch Bridge

Leaving the dirt road, we were soon embraced by some of the largest White Pines (Pinus strobus) I have ever seen, tall slender Eastern Hemlocks with heavy green boughs, and of course in these hills, more boulders. We took the right branch of the trail, unknowingly heading up the steeper route to the summit. Here the trail climbed straight up, but because we had to stop several times to catch our breath we had the honor of admiring the many clusters of Rattlesnake Weed (Hieracium venosum) and bobbing flower faces of Mayapple.

Rattlesnake Weed (Hieracium venosum)

Leaf of Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum)

Flower of Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) found beneath cover of two umbrella-like leaves 
The trail was well marked as we followed the yellow blazes that soon led us up less strenuous, although still rocky switchbacks to the top. Once at 1,120 feet, we found a flat table-like slab of stone marking the summit and a view all the more confirming that we had indeed reached the height of the trail.

View from Tusten Mountain in the Spring
Here we enjoyed a couple of granola bars and the tree-filled expanse of the Delware River Valley. When we were there, the trees were largely leafed out....admittedly obscuring some the vista...however that means this time of the year would be the peak season for a climb to the top! With needing some more time to rest, we took a seat on a perfect rock ledge for sitting and turned our eyes to the ground beneath us. It wasn't long before we spotted this fellow who blended in perfectly with the lichinized rock- bug folks - any idea what we are looking at here?

The insect guarding the summit of Tusten Mountain - mind you he was still as that stone as well
Here on this ledge we also found at our elbows, a thick spread of Lowbush Blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium) with dangling bell-shaped flowers . From the cracks in the rock grew plumes of Solomon's Seal (Polygonatum) in flower and on the thin grassy surface grew yet more clusters of red-veined Rattlesnake Weed.

The bell-shaped flowers of Lowbush Blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium) 

Inconspicuous green flowers of Solomon's Seal (Polygonatum)
Well rested and ready to see yet more of this trail, we continued over the summit and down another series of switchbacks. This more gradual descent led us past mounds of blue-stone slate, slivered and sharp, as well as a sort of bluestone amiptheatre where the mountain had been systematically sliced into to remove the stone; the walls of the mountainside nearly perfectly flat and creating an obviously man-made hollow. This is all evidence of the once-active Bluestone quarry here in the settlement. I learned later that fall from one of my attendees on the hike that oxen would have been responsible for carrying the heavy slabs down to the river. Another attendee, who is a retired geoglogy professor, was also kind enough to point out evidence of glacial activity in the area, evidenced by swooping markings on the surface of nearby boulders.

Scott making his way through the Eastern Hemlocks atop one of the hand-crafted wooden bridges
However this trail's allure did not dwindle once it flattened out and neared its end. At the base of the mountain, we traveled through the forest between pillars of old-growth Hemlock. The ground beneath our feet was a soft bed of dry red needles and hand-crafted wooden bridges guided carried us easily across slender streams. The woods were dark and warm and full of magic. We found ourselves literally frolickling like children, skipping over rocks and running full speed over bridges our arms waving this way and that. This place seemed safe and full of time, having escaped man's ax all these years. Here we also spied lean-to's for the boyscouts...lucky kids getting to sleep beneath these grandfather trees.

Tusten Mountain Trail hike (October 8, 2016) 
Quite the trail for just three miles of trekking. Scott and I returned here nearly two seasons later, in early Fall to lead that group with the Delaware Highlands Conservancy. It is always interesting to watch a group dynamic unfold - there is usually an initial hesitancy and uncertainty not only about the route but between attendees - like any group a trust must be established. But just as we had found a special taste of freedom and ease on this trail, so did the hikers. No sooner had we stepped foot into that forest of Eastern Hemlock (I took them to the left this time - the easier ascent) that each attendee's interest and expertise were revealed. I had a historian on my hike and a geologist and a star-gazer and an eagle-watcher and butterfly hatcher and so much more, and each one sharing their knowledge to broaden our collective perspective of this trail.

Thank you Tusten Mountain and thank you to all who made this trail what it is from the quarrymen of Tusten settlement to the attendees of that day's hike. The trail awaits even in the slumber of winter for your discovery - take a hike!

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Cedar Swamp at High Point State Park

Boardwalk through the Cedar Swamp - White Cedar and Holly line its edge while Wild Calla grows in the mosses below
The Cedar Swamp Trail found within High Point State Park is a little known gem. Now please, do not let its name deter you as it did me. My love told me repeatedly what a special spot it was this past summer....but anything called a swamp in New Jersey I typically find less than appealing during the warm months. However, he kept on about it and I was looking for a new trail for my next plant walk. There's a lot of factors that can come into play when seeking a place to lead a guided hike - must be easy to moderate in difficulty, no more than a couple miles long, and of course...botanically diverse. So when I learned that the Cedar Swamp was more than a mere swamp but rather a glacial eratic filled bog with plants rarely found in these parts...and fit all the aforementioned criteria to boot...I gladly gave in.

The Cedar Swamp Trail is about 2 miles long and shaped like a lollipop, in other words, the hiker is not forced to go "out and back" but rather, walk the trail to a large loop so that your steps are only retraced at the end of the hike. It is level and well- marked and contains some of the first miles of the Shawangunk Ridge Trail (read: for more info). This is also an excellent time to hike the trail given that the entire park at High Point State Park is presently free of charge (no charge after Labor Day)

The history of this trail sets the botanical stage for a fascinating walk through time. The Cedar Swamp is better defined as a glacial bog. About 15,000 years a retreating glacier left in its wake a 30-acre pond. Life naturally began to form, firstly with lichen, then mosses, and eventually herbaceous and woody plants. As the vegetation sprouted, flourished, and died, decomposing matter gradually filled in the pond, creating a deeply layered bed of soft acidic soil and the bog we know today. More recently, well on a relative scale, about 300 years ago, a random White Cedar (Thuja occidentalis) seed, likely carried on the wings of a bird or traveling haplessly on a wind current from the Atlantic coast, landed here in the bog. It germinated, sprouted and eventually created the dense stand of White Cedar that remains here today.

However the ecosystem continues to change here. The seeds of Eastern Hemlock, Birches and hardwood trees, which are what surround this bog, continued to be carried to this site by wildlife, wind, run-off water, and even our boot-clad feet. These trees do not require the same amount of sunlight to flourish and are more naturally suited to this mountaintop environment, therefore the sun-loving Cedars are gradually being crowded out. How incredible to walk through this  bog and see Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), Black Birch (Betula lenta), and White Cedar (Thuja occidentalis) with boughs interlaced. The bog is also strewn with boulders rolled and tumbled like pebbles by the glacier thousands of years ago.

Smooth leaf Holly (Ilex)
At the base of these trees and lichenized boulders are exposed roots, rotting downed trees, and a springy bed of bright green moss. This vegetation continues to fill in the bog and when we hiked through in early August after a rather dry summer, there was really no water in sight. However this acidic environment still plays host to a wealth of plant life. Tangled vines of Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens) wove throughout the forest floor as did tiny moisture-loving 3-leaved Blackberry (Rubus) vines, single Canada Mayflower (Maianthemum canadensis) leaves waved as we walked by, and Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) berries tempted us like tiny red candies lining the trail. A few shriveled blueberries still clung to Highbush Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) bushes and nearby smooth-leaf Holly (Ilex) bushes were lit up like the holidays to come.

Wild Calla (Calla palustris) - although technically edible, a whole lot of work to process. The root and berries of Wild Calla may be dried and pulverized, boiled, and dried, and perhaps boiled and dried some more to prevent the calcium oxalate crystals inherent in the fresh plant from doing harm. These crystals will cause your tongue and throat to feel as if it is being pierced by hundreds of needles...however native people did employ it as did the pioneers. It was in fact used as the flour in Missen (famine) bread.
Along the beautifully crafted boardwalk was where we spotted the most intriguing plant life. Wild Calla (Calla palustris) shown its shiny green soon-to-be scarlet spadixes, easily seen even amidst the scramble of mosses. Wild Calla is a plant often found in more northerly regions, further evidence that this habitat was once a colder one. Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis) with its wheel of elliptical egg-shaped leaves also graced the carpets of moss, alongside the fresh smelling needles of Black Spruce (Picea mariana), two more unlikely inhabitants in this now warmer clime.

Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis) - the smallest member of the Dogwood Family - develops edible berries in early autumn that can be somewhat tasteless but contain abundant pectin and therefore excellent for use in jam
We stopped to have a snack on a most inviting bench, one of a few that are located along the trail, and to admire the trail sign for the Shawangunk Trail that we would be hiking in a few weeks. We were no more than halfway through our granola bars when I finally got curious about the rustling that was growing ever louder just behind us down the trail. I turned just in time to meet the round eyes of a large black bear that suddenly appeared just as alarmed as me. I stood up with a jolt and a grabbed Scott to pull him near for a closer look, when the bear darted from the thicket of Rhododendron and Blueberry bushes as fast as he could and ran clumsily down the trail. I do believe, for once, a bear was more frightened of me than I was of him!

American Chestnut (Castanaea dentata) - the nuts at one time were the most delicious to be found in all the North American woods.
Another unique inhabitant of this trail included American Chestnut (Castanea dentata). American Chestnut does reside throughout the nothern forests of New Jersey to many a hiker's surprise. They have not all been wiped out but simply can never reach full maturity, falling ill to a blight within their first few years and usually dying by 20 years old. However, common or not, upon seeing young seemingly healthy trees like this one here, they seem a slender but bright ray of hope. Perhaps, just maybe, this will be one to make it.

The inedible and toxic, although wonderfully lemony smelling, berries of Sassafras (Sassafras albidum)
I returned nearly a month later to lead a hike with the Sierra Club and my fellow hikers and plant enthusiasts seemed to fall in love with this place as much as I did. By this point the Wild Calla berries had turned scarlet and the Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) that lined the old road that makes up the beginning portion of this trail had gone to berry as well. The Wintergreen berries were all the more prevalant and those of the Holly still persisted. Chicken of the Woods (Laetiporus) was even making an appearance.

Chicken of the Woods (Laetiporus)- edible and very tasty when cooked. 
This is one of the things I love about an easy trail such as the Cedar Swamp Trail. The hiking is effortless, allowing one to simply soak up all the sights along the way. It is also readily accessible enough that it can be revisited again and again throughout the year, creating a perfect opportunity for getting to know a relatively small area well and observing what plants sprout, blossom, and go to seed throughout the seasons. This trail may have been a new one for me but one that I believe will someday become an old friend.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Shawangunk Ridge Trail

A handmade sign for the SRT
This post will be the first in a series throughout these upcoming months highlighting some of the beautiful trails that we have here in our region. I blogged very little about my personal adventures over the spring and summer largely because I was too busy frolicking in the forest...I mean who afterall wants to sit in front of a computer screen on a warm sunny day, even a writer? Therefore I hope that these stories of the trail lend themselves to your own inspiration and dreams as our days grow colder and shorter. The cold months are perfect for planning your next adventure!

The Shawangunk Ridge Trail (SRT) runs for 71 miles from High Point monument in High Point State Park to the Mohonk Preserve in New Paltz, New York. It is just the right length for a week-long thru-hike or an ambling series of taking-your-time section hikes. This past summer and fall my love and I chose to take on the latter and are still whittling away at it. I must say...although I tend towards hitting the trail and not returning until the venture is complete, sectioning has been so rewarding and a whole different in which I can spend the entire afternoon hiking 4 miles and taking in every detail along the way.
Typical blazes for the SRT and Long Path 
Our first outing was from Rt. 61 in NJ over Gobbler's Knob and back down to Rt. 61. We were pleased to see two trail blazes in the parking lot and soon learned that the Long Path runs concurrently with the SRT for 34 miles of its length. I guess we have started our section hike of the Long Path now as well!

View from Gobbler's Knob

These roughly 3 miles of trail afforded a beautiful view of the valley below and was well marked and rolling. However, what struck our eye first was how few feet had trodden this path. The trail approaching the view was soft and springy, carpeted with some of the greenest moss I have ever seen despite the dry conditions. Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens) vines wove through the moss like stitching, Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) whorls grazed our bare ankles, and single leaves of Canada Mayflower (Maianthemum canadense) danced in the light summer's breeze; all likely inhabitants in this mossy environment. Once cresting Gobbler's Knob, the trail ran along the wooded ridge remaining flat for just a while and weaving between low bush blueberry bushes (Vaccinium spp.)and Pitch Pine (Pinus rigida), bees that were busy this time of year buzzed about our heads and followed us on our way. As the trail descended, it rolled up and down and we thought of each downward slope we would be climbing on our way back...alas the downside of a sectionhike with one car.

Mossy trail to Gobbler's Knob

This tiny taste was enough to ignite our curiousity in the Shawangunk Ridge Trail. I prefer the trails less traveled and our first venture had indeed evidenced that it was a lesser known gem. We soon got to planning a multi-day venture, beginning in Wurtsboro and hiking to....hmmm...we didn't know.

Scott along the Shawangunk Ridge in Wurtsboro Ridge State Forest
We parked outside a modest VFW hall under some shady trees, packed up our gear, and entered the woods where we spied a blue disk on a tree. This trail too was covered in green moss but with sodden leaves clinging to lichenized rocks. It had rained early that morning and the forest was still holding on to the precious moisture. Being mid-September, the leaves were just beginning to brighten, yellows lined with green veins and scarlet reds all the redder from the rain. However when the trail climbed here, we did not all that soon reach its ridge...

View from ridge in Wurtsboro Ridge State Forest 
We climbed up large boulders for what seemed like a long while before reaching the ridge where we walked along the rocky spine of the mountain. White Shawangunk slab rock sufficed for the trail that was lined with Scrub Oak (Quercus macrocarpa), low-bush Blueberry (Vaccinium spp.), Pitch Pine (Pinus rigida), and Sassafras (Sassafras albidum). For nearly 3 miles we walked with views to our left of the road that we had driven below to Wurtsboro. However the sun was setting quickly as we had gotten a late start...due to...ahem...some parking issues.

I hesitated to include our adventures in parking for the SRT because this is a trail I want to encourage others to hike...however, being that it is recently born as a long distance trail in a region that is traditionally that of day-long treks, the parking bugs are not yet all ironed out. We had initially tried to park one vehicle at the Mohonk Preserve, thinking we might end up here and if not, we could easily cab it to this destination from wherever we did...lemme just say I wish you could have seen the faces on those gatehouse attendees. I will never forget the look of horror as one employee exclaimed to her partner, mouth agape,

"They want to hike to NJ or something!!"

Our two pick-up trucks sat at the picturesque stone archway gurgling and whirring, while we stared at the empty parking lot and explained that yes, that was exactly what we intended to do. We were informed that there was no over-night parking but we would be welcome to park for the day after we each paid $21. They were so kind to let us turn around in that empty parking lot when we promptly exited and followed their directions down the hill to Spring Farm trailhead where they thought we might be able to do something so bizarre as parking through the night-time hours. We were also warned not to park alongside the road at any of the pull-offs as the authorities would surely impound the vehicle and charge us a hefty $1000 fine. My oh my...since when did a walk in the woods become so difficult? At Spring Farm trailhead we found a nearly empty lot but were greeted by a sign that stated there was no over-night parking and a box to slip some money into for daytime parking. Hmmm. We called the number on the sign and informed the person on the other end of our plans and asked if we might pay for several days parking as we would be hiking for 3 days back to our vehicle.

"Why would you want to do that?" A perplexed voice asked...they weren't referring to the paying part.

We followed the road to another entrance to the trail that we thought might be available for parking, but there was barely a pull-off in this residential area. Nonetheless we ended up driving back to where we had rented a room at a motel in New Paltz the night before and dropped one truck there, hoping it would go unnoticed for a few days. So this is why...our hike had started several hours later than expected that day. Stay tuned throughout this post and you'll get quite the punchline about...ahem...parking.

Anyway, back to our walk in the woods...

At camp near creek

We bedded down for the night along a slow-flowing creek and a stonewall in Wurtsboro Ridge State Forest. That night my luv dreamt of a green woman who shared her knowledge of Jewelweed (Impatiens spp.). In the morning we marveled at the Jewelweed that lined the rocky creek before us. Jewelweed is one of the best plants for cooling a Poison Ivy rash or itchy bubites. The woods seemed to welcome our presence.

Fire tower along SRT

That day we hiked...straight up...large white boulders that provided more of an obstacle course than stairs and soon crested a ridge of burned out forest. White and black skeletons of trees lined the way as well as a host of scrubby bushes, pines and rhodendrons. We could see that if only the clouds would clear we would have views to either side of us and when we reached a lookout tower we lamented the clouds all the more. We decided a snack was in order. During that break of almond butter and rice cakes, the heat of the day burned through the surrounding fog and we glimpsed the autumn mountains in the distance. Perfect. We climbed the well-maintained tower and got our view afterall. And this is the magic of the often you find yourself in just the right place at the right time.

Scott taking in the view from firetower

Looking out at SRT ridge walk from firetower 
From here we walked along the ridge for roughly 3 miles, passing more large slabs of stone and carefully piled rock cairns that looked more the work of an artist than a hiker. The burned out woods continued, providing views as far as the eye could see as well as our path laid out before us over the continuing ridgeline. This was indeed the Shawangunk Ridge Trail. Although this forest was scorched we did have the pleasure of meeting tiny Mountain Laurel, a close relative to Rhododendron and classified as vulnerable in NY state...a lesson learned in why it pays to take your time. Hike too fast and you'll breeze by the subtle beauties along the way.

Scott walking the SRT though a burned-out ridge

Mountain Laurel (Kalmia)
When we descended, we suddenly found ourselves in forest that had at one time been inhabited...I am guessing by cattle or sheep. White stonewalls still sturdy and strong squared plots throughout the woods and we walked alongside the stone wall that composed this ridge as we switchbacked our way down to a road. Here, our experience could not have been more different as we walked old route 52, which clearly had also been inhabited at one time...evidenced by a burned out trailer and an old stone foundations...but now was the dumping ground of present-day inhabitants. Improved Route 52 ran along the top of the embankment and it was evident that this was the mode of cheap and easy waste removal. I had visions of getting pegged in the head with a Big Gulp paper cup or pummeled with a broken microwave. Neither happened luckily and after a mile and a half we made our way back into the woods.

Stone walls along SRT
That evening after we set up camp, after a mere 7 miles, we were blessed with a nearby rushing creek, tiny waterfall, and a visiting owl. We sat in the pitch blackness and listened as the owl that surely perched in a tree just yards away shared his tales and we did our best to hoot back our own. He stayed for quite sometime and even called his lover to hoot by our tentside. Again, although the mountains had been challenging, we felt embraced by its life.

Enjoying South Gully waterside
On the last day we truly meandered, making a point to hike as leisurely as our minds would allow. We brunched creekside, hiked up and up and up along the deepening gorge of the South Gully and reveled in being in the woods for our third day. We soon arrived at the Sam's Point Preserve where we were welcomed by park employees. I had cell service for the first time in days and suddenly wished I didn't when I saw the slew of text messages and voicemails. The NY State Police had traced my truck that was parked at the VFW hall in Wurtsboro to my parents' address in Milford, PA and had sent a PA State officer to assess the situation at their home. My parents were in a frenzy, concerned that my truck had by now been impounded, and the warnings of the Mohonk House attendents resounded in my ears...although there had been no signage suggesting parking was not allowed at the VFW hall and it had been marked as an SRT parking area on the map. I promptly put down my pita and hummus and called the NY State Police barracks. When I finally got the officer that was handling the case, he was friendly and amiable, explaining,

"Oh no! You are fine to park there. We were alerted to the truck after someone noticed it had been sitting there for a couple days. We didn't know why someone would go hiking and not return. We were concerned that you were okay."

Again I asked myself...since when did a walk in the woods become so difficult? Now don't get me wrong I appreciate an officer's concern for my well-being, but if you thought I was indeed injured or lost in the woods, why would you look for me at my parent's house? This came on the heels of a terrorist bombing in NY days before...therefore I am guessing it had a whole lot more to do with being certain the truck was indeed registered to me. Nonetheless we decided we had better call that cab and get back to the other truck sitting at America's Best Value Inn.

We were overjoyed to find it untouched and unticketed upon arrival.

After our overnight advenures on the SRT from Wurtsboro to Sam's Point...we decided dayhiking might be the preferrable mode of travel along this trail. We have since returned to its southern terminus at High Point Monument, following it along an easy ridge walk and descending into the woods at Cedar Swamp (a glacial bog worthy of a blog all its own) and to the New York border.
A boardwalk through High Point State Park's Cedar Swamp
Most recently we also hopped on the SRT at the Basha Kill Wildlife Refuge which offers miles of hiking along the prisitine wetlands that comprise the refuge atop an old railroad bed. With boardwalks and carefully constructed overlooks along the way, this portion of the SRT proved far more beautiful than either of us had ever anticipated. The views were stunning, the chill wind invigorating, the leaves colorful, and birds many of which I could not name brought this marsh to life.

Marsh in Basha Kill Wildlife Refuge

Bird's nest in refuge
We were also stunned by how moderate the southern portion of the SRT proved to be. Turns out we had hopped on the trail in Wurtsboro right where the trail increased in difficulty. We had been lured in by its description of its offering the most astounding views in the Shawangunk region...and that it well as some ego-bruising trail. However... I welcome a humbling from trail...a reminder to slowdown and show reverence for our natural world that we all to often stomp on through with our own agenda.
Scott walking along the Bashakill Kill Wildlife Refuge on the SRT
All in all we have hiked roughly 25 miles of the Shawangunk Ridge Trail...and I hope that we can manage to maintain our walking meditation on this trail...taking our time to navigate its boulder climbs, creep along its rough edges, pause at its pristine waters, gasp at its views, sit by its trees, listen to its inhabitants, and above all else, allow it to leave us breathless and wanting for more.