By Matthew Young
Sam’s Point Overlook: 1.2 miles roundtrip
Ice Caves: 3.1 miles roundtrip
Ice Caves + Loop Road: approx. 4 miles roundtrip
Pick a day to hop in the car, drive two hours north of New York City (depending on traffic of course), and you’ll find yourself in one of the most scenic and unique areas of New York State. The New York portion of the Shawangunk Ridge stretches from the New Jersey border towards the Hudson River. Located along this ancient ridge, Sam’s Point, the Ice Caves, and neighboring Bear Hill, provide some of the best outdoor experiences in the Hudson Valley.
The view from these particular points are impressive by anyone’s standards. Even the drive to the visitor center is incredibly scenic. Once at the visitor center you’ll be asked to pay a $10 parking fee, which is well worth it. Pick up a trail map, grab an extra bottle of water, and head up onto the ridge. The trail begins as a relatively wide gravel road, which gently switchbacks up the mountain side.
This area is prone to occasional wildfires. As you begin your ascent, the blackened tree bark on the righthand side of the trail, stands as the first reminder of the recent blazes. The Visitor center has a “Fire Danger” meter installed, so always be aware of the fire risk before starting your hike.
A little further up the path, the looming cliffs come into view. They appear as if they are leaning forward, trying to consume the trail. The gravel road soon gives way to an older and narrower paved road. Once on the ridge-top the trail forks. To the left is Sam’s Point, while continuing straight leads you towards the Ice Caves and several additional trailheads.
On windy days, the view from Sam’s Point can literally take your breath away. The intense panoramic view allows you to see all the way from the Catskills to High Point, New Jersey. Though similar to the view from Bear Hill, located slightly further down the ridge, Sam’s Point has its own unique wonder. The light-colored crags stand like pillars holding up the mountain. From the top, your views seems to extend endlessly towards the horizon.
Not only is this nature preserve rich in beauty, but also rich in history, and surrounded by folklore. As a kid growing up in the area, I would often hear stories about the legend of Sam’s Point. According to local tales, the rocky outcropping was named after “Sam”, whose famed leap from the cliff-top still sticks in my mind. After being chased up the ridge by Native Americans, with little chance of survival, Sam decided to jump into the tree tops below. Why he was being chased was always unclear, as was his ultimate fate. The ridge also holds the history of the seasonal Huckleberry Pickers, who for over a century made their living harvesting the ridge’s plentiful wild blueberries, during the warm summer months.
Spend some time admiring the view and enjoying the silence that accompanies it. After you’ve had your fill you can continue back towards the main trail, following signs for the Ice Caves. The charred pines, devastated by the fire, stand out dramatically from the bright green undergrowth below. The right side of the trail is completely blackened, while the rare Dwarf Pines that line the left hand side remain unharmed. Though it may seem detrimental, naturally occurring forest fires can actually benefit and help stimulate the growth of new trees and plants atop the ridge.
The warm air, mixed with the scent of pine, simply can’t be beat. It’s the same sweet scent that can be found in the red rock country of the American west, or up high in the Adirondack peaks. A particularly calming and rejuvenating smell.
As you descend towards the Ice Caves you can spot the Hudson Highlands in the far distance. The temperature immediately drops several degrees upon entering the caves. With slippery rocks and narrow passages, I would not recommend this portion of the trail for people with claustrophobia. Sturdy footwear is also a plus. Some sections of the caves are completely dark, though the preserve has installed several motion-sensor lights that make navigating these sections easier. Even in the mid-summer heat, your breath is still visible in the cool air of the caves.
Though the trail can be tricky at times (be sure to follow the white trail markings), it always keeps things interesting, with some mild rock scrambling, and the occasional wooden ladder to climb. You’ll pass some small pools, fed by ice-cold underground springs. Keep a look out for patches of snow that the caves keep frozen throughout the summer, acting as a natural mountain cooler.
When you finally exit the caves, the trail provides another gorgeous view, made even more spectacular by the blooming mountain laurel and wildflowers. If you want to extend your hike you can follow the loop road around Lake Maratanza. The pure clear waters and gentle sound of the waves are peaceful. I usually take a break on the shores of the lake before looping back down towards the parking area.
As you trek back down the loop road, look off into the woods to see the remains of the old Huckleberry Picker’s cabins. The foundation is all that’s left of most of them, due to lack of maintenance since their abandonment in the mid 1900’s. Yet a couple still stand as a slowly fading monument to a way of life that no longer exists on the ridge. As with the story of Sam, stories of the mysterious Huckleberry Pickers have been passed down through generations as well.
The easiest way to access the Preserve coming from the NYC area is from the east side of the ridge, yet if you want one more spectacular view before heading home, take route 52 along the western side of the Shawangunks towards Ellenville. The windy road curves along the mountain edge, with several scenic pull-offs offering birds-eye views of the entire Catskill range and some of the best roadside views anywhere in the Northeast.
Sam’s Point and the Ice Caves are a true treasure of New York State, and the subject of some of my earliest and fondest hiking memories. For more information, or for any outdoor clothing and gear needs, stop by Hatchet Outdoor Supply.