Climbing the Shawangunks in Upstate NY

The Shawangunk mountains are a rock climber’s dream

By Chance St. John

Rock climbing in the Shawangunks. photos by Chance St. John.
Rock climbing in the Shawangunks. photos by Chance St. John.

Ulster County is known for its historic cities and towns. It’s also famous for the Shawangunk mountains, where thousands of rock climbers have discovered the thrill of climbing a rock face for the first time.

The entire area is saturated in culture, from Woodstock and the 1969 concert that made it famous (which, ironically, did not actually take place in Woodstock) to Kingston, the first capital of New York State. That happened in nearby Bethel.

However, with historical landmark signs seemingly outnumbering gas stations, it can be easy to overlook some of the true gems of the county. One such town that is often off the radar of the casual traveler is the charming village of New Paltz.

Located in the Mid-Hudson Valley, halfway between Albany and New York City, New Paltz is a striking blend of deeply rooted culture and vibrant youthful vitality. Founded in 1677 by Huguenots, it is the home of one of the oldest communities in the country as well as a State University of New York (SUNY) campus.

This concurrence of past, present, and future would never be allowed to exist in many towns, which simply pave down the outdated and rebuild in its place. Instead, you can walk a matter of blocks from the modern campus dorms at the heart of town down to Huguenot Street, home of seven original stone houses that founded New Paltz over three hundred years ago.

Humbler Times

Walking down Huguenot Street is a refreshing reminder of humbler times. In addition to the remarkable stone houses, recreationist actors spin wool and churn butter to add extra historical realism to your visit. Tours are offered in addition to a small museum and gift shop, where you can learn about the French Huguenots who left their homeland of die Pfalz along the Rhine in Germany to escape religious persecution.

Twelve original families founded New Paltz, and their legacy lives on through the beautifully preserved stone houses that compose what is claimed to be “the oldest continuously inhabited street in America with its original houses.” You do not have to be a resident of the area to appreciate the legacy existing on Huguenot Street; the founders of New Paltz were among the earliest explorers and settlers in America.

Recreating the past in New Paltz. photos by Chance St. John.
Recreating the past in New Paltz. photos by Chance St. John.

Back to the Present

When you are done perusing past centuries, it is a short walk back to Main Street and the present. The street is not mislabeled; while quite lively, New Paltz is still a relatively small town.

Main Street runs through all of New Paltz, and the bulk of local businesses and restaurants reside there. A variety of eclectic and independently-run shops stand in stalwart defiance of the corporate takeover of small businesses.

Tired of Best Buy or simply looking for hard to find CD’s or vinyl? Check out one of the unique record shops in the area such as Jack’s Rhythms or Rhino Records. The artistic college vibe of New Paltz also fosters interesting offbeat clothing and accessory shops like the Groovy Blueberry.

Every shop brings its own personality to the wonderful stew of culture that is New Paltz. Where else can you still find upscale shops such as Deluxe that blow gallery-quality handcrafted glass art in modern America? Do you yearn for a glass rendition of the Eiffel Tower?

Anything that you can dream you can have custom blown for your aesthetic pleasure; that is some customer service that Wal-Mart simply cannot provide.

New Paltz also offers a fine selection of restaurants catering to any budget, from the penniless college student to a traveler in search of a gourmet dinner. If you’re looking for a tasty and convenient meal at an excellent price, you should make a visit to the Taco Shack.

A delicious Tex-Mex institution of New Paltz, the food choices are what you would expect, but are surprisingly better than most faux-Mexican food that you will find in New York.

If you’re looking for a lively college bar atmosphere and excellent chicken wings, however, make sure to check out McGillicuddy’s. With a famous selection of 14 different flavors of wings and.35 cent wings on Mondays (in addition to cheap pitchers of Miller’s Light), they live up to their motto as “a place to raise your spirits.”

The ‘Gunks

Medusa Antiques

Despite all of this, the greatest draw of New Paltz and the surrounding areas is not the town itself, but the stunning mountain range of the Shawangunks.

Famous for being one of the premier rock climbing areas in North America, the Shawangunk Ridge offers amazing outdoor recreation opportunities.

The perfect climate and breathtaking views attract visitors all across the state and beyond, and for good reason. The Mohonk Preserve and Minnewaska State Park Preserve offer visitors over one hundred miles of hiking trails, in addition to many other outside opportunities.

Encompassing 12,000 acres of the Shawangunk Ridge, the Minnewaska State Park Preserve hosts a variety of historic carriageways on which you can hike, mountain bike, cross country ski, or even horseback ride. Lake Minnewaska, at the heart of the area, is one of the main draws of the preserve.

Certified scuba divers are welcome, as are permitted holding sailors. If you didn’t happen to bring along a boat or scuba gear, the lake is a beautiful area to swim and cool down from a day of hiking past cascading waterfalls and spectacular views of the surrounding valley.

Mohonk Preserve

The Mohonk Preserve covers over 6,500 acres, and offers many of the same opportunities as the Minnewaska Preserve. In addition, it also hosts the majority of rock climbing activities in the area, although some climbing is offered at Minnewaska as well.

Boasting to be “the largest member, and visitor-supported nature preserve in New York State,” Mohonk offers over 1,000 different rock climbing routes. Nature enthusiasts have more to look forward to than beautiful views; Mohonk and the Shawangunks boast a variety of endangered plants and animals, including the peregrine falcon. Whether you are traveling solo and looking for a little adventure or picnicking with the family, Mohonk and Minnewaska offer nature opportunities for everyone.

Mohonk lake
Rowing at Mohonk Mountain House

The Famous MMH

In addition to the preserve, there is also the Mohonk Mountain House. Located on a separate 2,200-acre property, it is adjacent to the Mohonk Preserve.

The Mountain House itself is a majestic Victorian castle that now serves as both an upscale hotel and restaurant.

If you can afford to stay it is well worth it. Regardless, it would be an oversight to visit the area and not at least explore the rest of the notably preserved property with a day pass.

The Mountain House–Or Not

There are many nice lodgings in the area if you cannot afford to stay at the Mountain House or would simply like to be closer to town. The New Paltz Hostel and Inn, conveniently located on Main Street, is a wonderfully cozy place to stay that lives up to its slogan as “serendipitous lodgings for the weary traveler,” and is perfect for any nomad on the go.

Extremely affordable with pleasant accommodations, the hostel is owned and operated by a New Paltz native who has traveled the world extensively and shares his passion. If you are looking for more traditional style accommodations, the Minnewaska Lodge is another excellent place to stay.

Located five miles outside of New Paltz, near the Mohonk and Minnewaska Preserves, the Lodge provides travelers with everything most hotels offer as well as a bed and breakfast style atmosphere. Wherever you decide to stay, you’ll be sure to fall in love with what The Nature Conservancy has designated as one of Earth’s “Last Great Places.”

Chance St. JohnChauncey (Chance) St. John is a Magna Cum Laude graduate of SUNY Albany. He freelances as a travel writer and currently works with GE as a financial analyst.

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