Sam's Point Preserve, situated near Ellenville in Ulster County, is a favorite place to hike and explore for many area natives, namely because of its naturally occurring ice caves.
Spring is a great time to visit the ice caves because they are usually still filled with a great deal of ice. Despite the fact that portions of this hike are actually subterranean, it is an easy outing. It is 3.6 miles round trip and takes a few hours to complete.
The ice caves at Sam's Point are unique because they are actually part of an open fault line known as the Ellenville Fault. The open fault was created 350 million years ago, and the resulting caves were formed from the debris of the Shawangunk Ridge. The Sam's Point ice caves are considered to be the largest open fault in the United States. The crevices are chiseled hundreds of feet into the ridge and stay shaded from the sun's warming rays. As a result, ice remains in the caves well into the summer, and they manage to stay very cool during the warm spring and summer months.
The entrance to Sam's Point is at the Conservation Center, which is maintained by The Nature Conservancy, located at the end of Sam's Point Road in Cragsmoor. Visitors are encouraged to arrive early because parking is limited. There is a $10 parking fee at the preserve, but this is money well spent because you are visiting an area of extreme geologic and biologic rarity.
The cool temperatures found around the ice caves also attract a few subarctic plant species that are not typically found this far south. Because of this unique biology, a large area of the Sam's Point Preserve is only accessible by permit. This is to help protect the ecologically rare and fragile flora for researchers studying the area. Sam's Point Preserve's 5,400 acres also contain the highest point of the Shawangunk Ridge. However, the hike has remarkably little elevation gain because you drive most of the way up the ridge as you approach the Conservation Center.
After paying the parking fee, it is time to start the hike. From the parking area, you head towards the large rocky outcrop known as Sam's Point.
Keep right, heading southeast for a brief time, and follow the teal-blazed Long Path. The trail follows a well-defined road which switchbacks up a gradual grade leading to Sam's Point. About a half mile from the parking area, you will notice a barricade on the left below a large rock outcrop. This once was a staircase which led directly to the Sam's Point overview. It is currently badly eroded and should be avoided for your safety. Continue following the Long Path for another three tenths of a mile until it meets another road merging in from the left. This road leads to the Sam's Point Overview and is worth the short side trip to examine its scenic view overlooking the village of Ellenville. Once you’ve soaked in enough of the view, backtrack to the Long Path and head northeast (left).
As you follow the Long Path, be sure to examine the small coniferous trees that surround you. These are dwarf pitch pines and are considered critically imperiled. That means there are fewer than twenty populations of them in the world. Dwarf pitch pines are particularly interesting because they are dependent on fire. In order for these trees to reproduce, their pinecones need to be exposed to heat. A forest fire’s heat causes the cones to open, so that they can spread their seed. Fire also creates a nutrient rich soil for the young saplings to thrive and grow into adult trees. The full-grown trees, which rarely exceed 10 feet tall, are also well adapted to fire because their thick trunks and tough bark protect them from blazes. When their branches are destroyed by fire, they are able to sprout new ones. Through use of controlled burns, the conservation efforts of Sam’s Point Preserve has helped to protect this fragile ecosystem for the enjoyment of generations to come.
After about a half mile, you will notice a road merging in from the right. This is your path to the ice caves. After a short distance, you will notice that the teal-blazed Long Path turns left off of this road as it heads to Verkeerderkill Falls. Stay straight on the main road as it begins to slope gently downward for just under another half mile. Eventually the road dead ends, and you may notice two signs leading to the ice caves. The white trail will form a loop as you head through the caves, hence the two trails. It is recommended that you turn right at the first sign. This direction will take you down very steeply through a deep chasm. The rocks here can be slippery, so take care not to fall. You will notice fissures large enough to walk through off the sides of the white trail, but you are encouraged to stay on the trail.
Eventually the deep chasm bottoms out. It can be difficult to find your way here because there are three cracks, one of which is walled off. You will need to turn left and scurry under a rock overhang. Once on the other side, the trail becomes well defined again as it passes other large cracks, overhangs, and boulders. The trail even requires that you climb a small ladder. Soon you will enter a cavern that is complete with solar-powered lights and a boardwalk. If you weren’t able to find any ice in the crevices so far, you will now. While you are on the boardwalk, look down and notice the river of ice below you and relish the natural air conditioning.
Continue through the cave, enjoying the dark, cool air, and start climbing a short distance until you reach daylight. The trail will continue to climb until you eventually reach a very inviting overlook facing east over Orange County. You can bask in the spring sunlight here for a while before continuing your climb a short distance to complete the white trail loop.
Go back up the gravel road the way you arrived. All of this subterranean activity has probably caused you to work up an appetite. In warmer months, you will find an abundance of blueberries and huckleberries in this area that may help to stave off your appetite. Interestingly, Sam’s Point has a historical connection with these berries. Between the 1920s and 1960s a thriving industry existed with people escaping the heat of summer to set up small shacks picking blueberries for market. The remains of some of these shacks are still visible today in certain areas of the preserve. Continue to retrace your steps as you head back to your car. If you are still hungry, be sure to stop off in Ellenville and enjoy the fine fare of the local restaurants.