by Alysse Robin
Whether you are six or 60, hiking and camping are fabulous ways to stay in shape, connect with nature, and enjoy the company of your closest relations. The Hudson Valley boasts an abundance of nature to explore through a wide network of trails, from flat carriage trails to treacherous climbing cliffs, for the novice or expert. Serenity abounds on these less-traveled pathways throughout our region. They are peaceful and quiet, but buzzing with life.
Hiking is a true sensory experience—the scents and views are invigorating. Rushing streams and waterfalls, large boulders and cliffs, views of mountain ranges beyond valleys, and long flowering paths—there is so much to experience and explore with your family in nature.
Before you go on any fairly unpopulated trails, it’s always good to let someone know where you are going before you leave—a quick call to a friend, neighbor or your mom is a good idea. Stretching before your hike is also recommended to loosen up your joints and muscles and ready them for the work they’re about to do. Planning a picnic could be a real welcome treat, especially if you are going on a long or physically challenging hike. For a sandwich that always hits the spot try a fresh loaf of bread, some hummus, avocado, sprouts, cheese, roasted red pepper, olive spread, and sliced meat or meat substitute of your choice. Bring all of these items in a plastic bag in your daypack. Don’t forget to bring your multi-purpose knife. Prepare this feast in the woods sub-style, and then slice it into sandwich size pieces to share with your family. Nuts and fruits make a great snack, too. There’s nothing like some GORP (Good Old Raisins and Peanuts) to hit the spot on a hike. Granola bars help to rejuvenate your energy and oranges are very refreshing, as well.
Of course you need to bring adequate amounts of water with you. If you are going for more than four hours, you should consider packing a water filter, to collect fresh water safely on your hike. They sell easy-to-pack filters at any hiking/camping outlet. It is important to ensure a way to eliminate animal-borne diseases that may be present in fresh water. Avoid standing water. If you do not have a water filter and run out of fresh water, you can boil water that you collect for five to ten minutes to kill any harmful bacteria. Try putting a fresh sprig of mint into your water bottle to add a little extra spring in your step on the trails. And don’t forget a baggie full of treats or dog food for your other special family member. Also pack a lightweight bowl to give your dog water if you aren’t certain about whether there is water on the trail. That way you can share yours!
There are so many fabulous family friendly hikes in the region. Sam’s Point in Cragsmoor, right past Ellenville, is one that seems straight out of a fairytale. The majestic old growth dwarf Pine Barren forests that are found along the Shawangunk range are some of the few remaining in the world. The hike is along a gradually sloping carriage trail lined with fantastic rocky crags and spectacular views the entire way. You can choose between continuing on the carriage trail to Lake Maratanza, the highest lake on the Shawangunk Ridge, or take a trek through the foot trail that leads to the exciting Ice Caves (attributed to Sam’s Point’s former name, Ice Caves Mountain). These caves are lit by motion sensors and have thin bridges leading through dark, damp, breezy cool air. It’s a very fun and wildly different hike for this region. Kids and adults adore it. You may want to bring a sweater. See the video about Sam’s Point Preserve at visitvortex.com/Sams_Point_Preserve.
Mohonk Preserve in New Paltz offers a range of amazing hikes with breathtaking views. One of the most fantastic is Bonticou Crag, a moderate three-mile hike with an option of a challenging rock scramble. After a beautiful walk through the crag trail and carriage road, this replenishing hike offers a marked rock scramble up the large boulders that look as if they just crumbled off of the mountain recently. It’s important to wear footwear with good soles and to go on a dry day, so the rocks are not slippery. It is a fun and adventurous full-body exercise to get up the rocks following the yellow markings, sometimes crawling and ducking, sometimes reaching and pulling yourself to the next rock ledge. At the summit, enjoy 360-degree views of the entire region. It’s a great spot to picnic. If you are with your dog or small child and prefer not to do the scramble, there is a nice winding trail up the mountain’s other side. Watch the video at visitvortex.com/Hikes_Up_Bonticou_Crag_Mohonk_Preserve.
If you are looking to go that extra step and spend the entire night in the woods, camping out of your car can be a real luxury. You can bring most of the amenities you are used to from home—food, drinks, blankets, tarps, clothes, lanterns and more, but you are still getting that special experience of sleeping on the ground, only a thin sheet of nylon away from nature and all its beasts. Plan to bring or buy some firewood to create some nice hot coals to cook on. There are many great meals that can be made on a campfire with a simple mess kit. A favorite, and a real hit with kids, is flatbread pizza. Use pita bread, a small jar of tomato paste and mozzarella cheese. You can add sliced pepperoni or really any topping you desire. Layer it up and put it on a little grill on the hot coals, or a thin rock on the coals, and watch while the cheese melts (be careful not to burn the bottom). Then enjoy. Also, sticking potato or squash directly in the coals is a great way to slow roast these warming foods. A little pat of butter and salt after an hour of slow roasting and turning, and you are in for a real outdoor treat. For breakfast try oatmeal cooked in a pot on the fire, with some fresh fruit and a side of coffee (a plastic French press is great for camping) or hot cocoa for the kids.
North-South Lake is a wonderful campground to visit with your family. It is the Catskill Mountains’ most popular campground, and for good reason. North-South Lake offers campers and hikers some exquisite natural wonders, such as Kaaterskill Falls (watch the video at visitvortex.com/Kaaterskill_Falls) and Alligator Rock, as well as some fascinating historic sites, such as the ruins of the Catskill Mountain House. On a clear day, five states can be viewed from the cliffy scenic vistas. North-South Lake is also the Catskills’ largest campground with over 200 tent and trailer sites in seven camping loops. There are great sites, with charcoal grills, fireplaces and common areas that have playgrounds, flush toilets, showers and boating and swimming on the two lakes. There are numerous hiking trails around the campgrounds, so make sure to grab a trail map. You have many options, including the Laurel House historic site or Sunset Rock.
When you start feeling more adventurous, as the kids get a little older, you can explore all the region has to offer in backcountry camping. Camping several miles away from your car, through hills and across creeks, is a very exciting and rewarding way to experience nature. It requires carrying a pack with all of your gear—clothes, food and supplies. Although you can set up camp in the woods 150 feet from trails, roads or water, you can enjoy some sense of shelter and welcoming by staying in a Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) lean-to. You can find these well-built three-sided log shelters by purchasing a NY/NJ Trail Conference trail map and locating the lean-to icons on the maps. Besides a stable shelter from wind, rain and snow, lean-tos usually have a privy (primitive bathroom) down a small footpath and they have a nice large fire pit. Seeing a lean-to destination after a rigorous hike with a backcountry pack is a real gift. Just remember these are a shared resource, so be willing to accommodate other groups of travelers if you can.
If you are looking for something in-between car camping and backcountry camping for your family, you’ll find it in Dutchess County at Malouf's Mountain Sunset Campground (see the listing at visitvortex.com/Maloufs_Mountain_Sunset_Camp). It is a fully catered camping resort—meaning they supply as much or as little as you want to make your camping experience relaxing and enjoyable. A short shuttle from the Beacon train station will get you to your choice of hikes (from half-hour to five-hour long hikes). If you prefer, they will bring your gear to your campground. They have a covered platform for your tent (or rent one of their tents if you don’t have one), and they leave plenty of supplies and wood for a fairly convenient back-woods experience. Or, for the more adventurous, you can choose one of their primitive sites and haul your own gear and forage for your own wood.
Whether you are interested in a few hours in nature, or a several day deep woods immersion with your family, you’ll find what you are looking for in the Hudson Valley—rivers, lakes, mountains and prairies! Try committing to a schedule for outdoor activities with your family, like getting into nature at least one day each week, or camping once a month in the warm season. Nature is a fabulous resource that our region has to offer—an exercise plan and a therapy session in one. We are fortunate to have so many protected areas, preserving nature and sanctity.
Get out there and enjoy it!
Tips for taking the Dog Hiking
A dog can be a welcome friend on a camping trip. Besides being a good companion, dogs can smell and hear things before humans, and warn us about potential visitors to our site, or help locate a path in the woods. They’ll even eat any scraps of food you may drop, leaving your site less prone to critters.
- Make sure your dog has a tag with your name and contact in case you get separated
- Bring a leash that is easy to snap on, that way you can let your dog wander a bit when you get to your site, if possible, but also easily retrieve your dog and put him or her back on the leash.
- Make sure you bring a bowl or something to pour water in for your dog. Keep your dog hydrated.
- Bring dog food in a large freezer bag; measure for the amount of meals your dog will need.
- Choose a path that doesn’t require a rock scramble, as most dogs won’t climb and it is dangerous if they do.
- Bring a first aid kit for your pet.
- Apply flea and tick prevention.
- Check and make sure your pet will be welcome if you are heading to a campground.
- Bury any doggie waste on or near the trails.
Tips for fun in the woods with kids
- Challenge the kids with a scavenger hunt in nature. It’s a great way to identify types of leaves, nuts and interesting shapes and colors of rocks and twigs. It will keep them busy for hours.
- Storytelling at night is a form of entertainment that will never grow old. Try shared storytelling with your family, where one person starts and then the story passes to the next person until someone decides to create an ending.
- Mancala is a fun game usually played with a small board and marbles. It can easily be re-created by digging out 12 holes in the ground and finding four little rocks for each hole to use instead of marbles.
- Bring hot chocolate and ingredients for s’mores. This will make the kids want to go again and again. To make your s’mores, bring your favorite chocolate bars, graham crackers and marshmallows (see the article in this issue about the local Lucky Chocolates and marshmallows). Place the chocolate onto the graham cracker and put it on a rock near the flames (but not directly in them). Then, find the perfect stick, carve the end into a tip (this also gives you a clean, fresh tip), and stake and roast your marshmallow over the fire. When it’s soft, use another cracker to scoop it onto the chocolate-topped cracker. Then have yourself a delicious dessert sandwich!
- A deck of cards goes a long way…from Solitaire to Go-fish to Memory, a lot can be done with a deck of cards.
- Simple games like Charades are so much more fun in the woods. For extra fun, allow the performer to use props they find in nature.
- Bring in a book of poems or Mad-Libs for some late-night fun with words.
- Have the kids help in all of the camping duties. They can help gather wood, set up the tent, prepare the meals, pump fresh water, and even rinse the dishes in the nearby stream (avoid throwing waste and soap into the water). Involving kids in the camping experience is a fabulous way to connect them to nature, while instilling some hardcore responsibility!
Not everyone can instinctively get a fire going—especially if it’s been damp out. Here’s a little how-to that will keep you warm and dry in the woods.
1. Collect plenty of wood of all sizes. Lots of kindling—the more kindling, the more likely you’ll not have to try more than one attempt at fire starting. Also collect plenty of medium sizes sticks and small logs, and bring a small collapsible saw with you to cut larger logs that will sustain your fire while you are sleeping. If it is wet out, look for sticks that are sticking up from the ground; they’ll be less wet than ones lying on the wet ground.
2. If you have newspaper or a fire-starting log, set those at the bottom of your fire pit; dryer lint is also a great fire-starter (can be brought in a plastic baggy). If not, collect dry pine needles and leaves to help it get going. Birch bark can be used in emergencies because it is oily and very flammable. However, it isn’t wise to strip bark from trees in public areas.
3. Then layer your kindling in a Lincoln log fashion, a teepee style, or a combination of both.
4. Light the fire from the bottom and once you see the kindling has caught, keep adding more, without suffocating the fire. Start adding slightly larger pieces of wood, letting it catch slowly before adding too much more.
5. Gradually add larger wood until the fire can hold large logs. If you add too many large logs at first it may smother the small fire and you’ll have to start over.
6. If you are cooking on the fire, let it burn bright for a good hour, and then move the large logs to the side and cook on your bed of hot coals. That will give you a more consistent heat, and remove the risk of ash and sparks going into your food.
7. Then get it going big and bright again by adding small then gradually larger pieces of wood.
8. Enjoy the warmth and light from the fire that becomes the centerpiece of your camping experience!