Distance: 3.6 mile round trip
Max Elevation: 2,230
Elevation Gain: 150
One of the most exciting and accessible hiking destinations in New York are the Ice Caves in Sam’s Point Preserve, which are, thankfully, meticulously guarded by the Nature Conservancy. Containing ice caves in the depths of its crevasses, this is the greatest open fault in the United States (known geologically as the Ellenville Fault.) The strange environment consisting of globally-rare, ridge-top dwarf pines, huckleberry and blueberry fields, beautiful flowers, deep crevasses and phenomenal views seems to transport the hiker to places more arid than lush New York… perhaps the craggy, dry southwest. The 5,400 acre preserve is located atop the world-class rock climbing Shawangunk (the “Gunks”) range, which is close to the wonderful college town of New Paltz, where you can find lots of good restaurants, shopping and lodging. The area was formed on the ocean floor about a half-billion years ago when a layer of shale formed and was pushed up into the air over time. The shale ruptured at points to cause the fault, and was later covered with giant quartzite boulders. The “caves” caused by this weird landscape capture snow and ice in the winter and preserve some of it as late as August. The hiker will encounter tight crevasses, cool mists, subterranean waterfalls (from a distance..I wouldn’t go in there) and a hike that you will find yourself revisiting whenever possible. The area has attracted tourists for a few centuries. As kids in the late 60s and early 70s, we used to hike this maybe once-a-year. The trail then fell into disuse for more than a decade. My wife and I hiked the trail about thirteen years ago, when it was essentially abandoned. At that time we lost our way, and ended up climbing a steep wall of rock, dirt and shrubs to get back to the trail. Today, much of the paved road leading to Sam’s Point and the Ice Caves has returned to nature and is now limited to hikers. Trails are well maintained with markings, boardwalks and even a log ladder. The gift shop, where you could buy a pendant or bow-and-arrow set, is gone, and has been replaced by a high-tech, “green” visitor center. Most folks who hike the Ice Caves feel that they’ve achieved and witnessed something wonderful. Coordinate the time of the year, and you can eat delicious blueberries as you hike. Aside from the usual Northeastern inhabitants, such as black bears, hawks, bobcats, falcons or timber rattlesnakes, you may see a cat-like lynx, which makes this area home. Other attractions in the preserve include the clear, calm water of Lake Maratanza (no swimming), VerkeerderKill Falls (the highest waterfall in the range) and the historic, creepy remains of the transient huckleberry pickers’ huts (if anybody’s still living there, I don’t want to know).
HOW TECHNICAL IS THE HIKE?
While this is a non-technical hike, wear sneakers with good soles or hiking shoes/boots. Interestingly, other parts of this range attract technical rock climbers from around the world.
WHO CAN DO THIS HIKE?
This hike can be done by most people in fairly good shape. You must be careful, because there are some areas of damp, slippery rock, and a fall could certainly cause injury. Older kids and tweens have an appreciation that matches, if not surpasses, those of adults.
WHEN SHOULD I GO?
The Ice Caves “officially” open in May, but the preserve is open all year. We hiked to the main Ice Cave just before the season opened last year, and, while most crevasses were accessible, the main cave was just too icy to walk through. A more remote area of the preserve, known as the Ellenville Ice Caves, are located in the “Grand Canyon” part of the preserve and hikers are required get a permit from the Nature Conservancy.
WHERE IS IT LOCATED?
The trail is located west of the Hudson River in southern New York State, near I-87 and I-84. Take route 52 to Cragsmoor Road (east of Ellenville)and follow signs to the Sam’s Point Preserve parking lot and visitor center. From the lot, take the trail that veers to the right up several long switchbacks to the sweeping views from Sams’s Point at an elevation gain of about 150 feet. The total elevation is about 2230 feet. Then follow the trail to the Ice Caves. The Nature Conservancy provides a downloadable map with contour lines on its website.
Although no special training is required, it would be good to exercise regularly to build the stamina and strength to negotiate this hike.
As this can be an all-day hike, bring a day pack with sandwiches or snacks, two bottles of water per person, bug spray and sunscreen. Light ponchos will guard against unexpected summer storms. And, of course, bring your camera.