Simple Pleasures.

Simple Pleasures.
Irish soda bread on its way up North with Noah.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Great Jaunts, Part II: Go Climb a Rock.

When I take my kids out in the woods or out in the wilds, I find no thrill in the experience if everyone’s life is at stake. (Been there, done that, children still traumatized from the experience.) So, when I got a bee in my bonnet about taking the youngins rock scrambling up in New Paltz for the first time a few years ago, I knew just what I had to do to preserve all of our sanity: I’d pass up Bonticou Crag, my fave scramble in the area, swallow my pride, and shell out bucks for day passes at Mohonk Mountain House.

Mohonk Mountain House, if you aren’t familiar with the place and haven‘t read my previous blog about it, is a rambling, old resort that occupies one of the most gorgeous spots in the Shawangunks. Perched next to a mountaintop lake, it is surrounded by miles of gazebo-dotted trails and rimmed by a profusion of carefully tended gardens. It is also home to The Labyrinth--a well-used, carefully marked maze of ladders and rock scrambles that leads intrepid climbers to the resort’s mountaintop tower. While not risk free, it’s about as cushy as a bouldering spot can get. I mean, even if you do happen to fall and crack your skull open, there’s a nice tea salon inside the hotel where your clan can hang out while you’re rushed to the local ER. (Actually, day trippers aren’t allowed inside. But I’m assuming they’ll take pity if someone actually gets bloody while visiting.)

Now, when I was a kid and we wanted to hit the Labyrinth, my father refused to pay for a day pass at Mohonk just on principle. So--principled man he was--he’d usually con his way out of paying by telling the gatehouse some farfetched story about scoping out the restaurant for a family reunion. Or he’d try to cajole at least a couple of us kids to hide in the trunk so he could cut down on the per person charge. At this point in my life, it still makes me gag to pay a steep fee just to use the grounds. And I’m not too proud to say it irks me just a bit to be the interloping day tripper on Mohonk’s privileged premises. But, it’s easy to get over myself and the charge once we’ve parked the car, hiked our way up to the hotel (the shuttle busy is for babes with bingo arms,, thanks) and started scrambling up that good ol’ Labyrinth.

It’s not a fear-free venture, mind you. In fact, Ben and our neighbor Nicole sobbed the whole way up when they took on the Labyrinth at 10 years of age. But Noah and tiny Stefanie, just 7 and 8 at that point, scrambled up without a hitch. Except, perhaps, for the infamous Lemon Squeeze--a long ascent via rickety ladder through a rocky chimney at the top of which climbers must physically haul themselves up into the sunshine. They all cried, but I got them there, even if pushing them all up to safety took a permanent toll on my rotator cuff. The take home message here is that each of the kids I had in tow not only survived, they felt amazing pride in the fact that they succeeded. And every single one declared they would do it even faster….next time. And there have many “next times,” not necessarily with the same players, but with kids and adults of many ages who have all lived to tell their tale. Including me. Now, as for Bontcou…
Want to go? Need to Know….
Getting There:
It’s about an hour and 15 minutes from Montclair, up the GSP to the NYS Thruway to New Paltz. It’s a quick and pretty drive from Exit 18 to Mohonk Mountain House, as long as town isn’t choked with apple pickers (the legions of which include us at some point in mid October). Find exact directions at
Trail Tips: The hike up from the parking lot to the hotel is scenic and not too long….about two miles maybe. You could also take the free shuttle, which lets you off at the picnic lodge. Ask anyone there how to get to the hotel. Then ask anyone on the hotel grounds how to get to the Labyrinth. It should take an hour or so to get to the tower via the Labyrinth…all along the way reassure the kids that they will not come down the same way. It’s a gentle stroll back to the hotel down a well-tended path. Fit grandparents and non-climbers can walk the gentle way up and meet scramblers at the top.
When to Go: The Labyrinth is good for a visit any time it’s dry out and pleasant enough to be outside. I tend to stay away from Mohonk Mountain House on peak summer and autumn leaf-peeping weekends, since the hotel books up, and crowds pack the whole New Paltz area. In fact, if you don’t get there early enough on some prime weekends, the hotel stops issuing day passes in order to control crowds.
What to Bring: Sunblock, sneakers, crummy clothes you don’t mind snagging on rocks, water. Pack a lunch for eating up at the tower. Don’t have the kids carry daypacks--they can be cumbersome while climbing. As for the adult sherpa in the pack, pack as little as you can and put it in the smallest daypack that’s practical--you won’t want anything big and bulky on your back either. You might also take a bathing suit and leave it in the car--there’s some good swimming in the Mohonk area (Lake Minnewaska or, if you hike in to it, spectacular Lake Awosting.)
Services/Costs: As mentioned, lowly daytrippers aren’t allowed in the hotel. I do think the hotel is happy, however to sell the hoi polloi overpriced bottles of Poland Spring from a kiosk outside near the lake. The picnic lodge (where the shuttle bus drops and picks up) will also sell stuff to interlopers. I pick up eats/drinks just after I pull off the Thruway and begin heading into New Paltz. Now for what it costs to lurk around Mohonk Mountain House: Adults are $23/weekends and $18 during the week. Kids are $18/weekends and $13/week. As mentioned, the hotel only issues a limited number of passes and they are available on a first come, first serve basis. I know it hurts to pay for a walk in the woods, but hey--it’s cheaper than shelling out $1000 to stay at the resort for the night (which is, um, really fun, too).
Fear Factor: Anyone who tries the Labyrinth should be tall and strong enough to climb a ladder and climb up big rocks. As I mentioned earlier---you can’t really state a specific minimum age here. My younger son did fine at 7. My older, more cautious Ben, was threatening to call DYFS. I wouldn’t bring a grandparent on this (they can stroll up the path and meet you) or anyone who is terrified of heights. And it’s never a bad idea to bring along an extra adult, in case there’s a problem or in case one or some of the kids opt out.
Nearby: There’s so much to do and see in the New Paltz area, I can’t even attempt to give you a thumbnail here. Frankly, though, you’ll have enough to do on the grounds of Mohonk Mountain House to keep you busy for a day. There are rowboats to rent after you finish the Labyrinth. You can check out the gardens if you please. You’ll probably need to save further exploration of New Paltz for another day.

Have fun.

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