(The following appeared in the September/October 2010 issue of Adirondac published by the Adirondack Mountain Club as one of “12 Inspiring Backyard Hikes.”)
A Walk Through Mountain Laurel: The Catskills’ Mt. Guardian
Okay, here’s my beef: the Catskills have 355 miles of state hiking trials, 35 peaks over 3500 feet for peak baggers, some of the wildest terrain you can find south of the Adirondacks, yet the Catskills have almost no place to walk, if by walk you mean a leisurely hour in the woods after the last afternoon e-mail and before dinner and NPR. Our trails ask you to commit to mountains. So people like me, who insist upon their daily constitutional, have two choices: walking the roads or trespassing. Once you get past the “Posted” signs you do find abandoned woods roads spread for miles through the forest, a de facto trail system for those in the know. But I won’t be the one to write the Underground Walking Guide sure to piss off private land owners, and rightfully so.
But there is a walk that only feels like trespassing. It’s one of my favorites in Woodstock, though I can’t say that everyone I’ve led up there has understood the appeal. It’s a trail that zig-zags up through mountain laurels under an oak forest to a rock outcropping with a valley view of Woodstock cloaked in trees—look for the white church steeple that reveals the hamlet—and farther hills and ridges down to the Shawangunks on the southern horizon. Granted, at this sunny outcropping amid the shrub oaks you won’t be at the at the summit of Mt. Guardian still some distance away. (If you’re a bushwhacking peak bagger like me, you’ll wrestle your way to the top, where you’ll find a forest with no view and no reason to be there.) Nor will you have as grand a panorama as the sweeping five-state view from neighboring Overlook Mountain. But, almost surely, you will have a private pocket of Shangri-la to yourselves, even on a summer afternoon. Recently, a friend and I made it up there in a leisurely hour. And if you’re lucky, as I was one day in June, you’ll catch the mountain laurels blooming with pinkish white popcorn balls of flower clusters. It’s as if the forest is giving itself a wedding.
Park at the Byrdcliffe Theater on Upper Byrdcliffe Road. Founded in 1902, this arts and crafts colony of wooden buildings that mix Swiss chalets with Californian styles attracted such famous visitors as Wallace Stevens, Thomas Mann, Isadore Duncan, and John Burroughs. Now walk up Camelot Lane, a dirt road, where in a few minutes you’ll pass a long low wooden house down to your right with a green roof and gravel drive, which in the Sixties was Bob Dylan’s home. The current rock star owner doesn’t take kindly to intrusions, so beware.
Next, look for the small “My. Guardian Trail” sign nailed crookedly to a two inch thick shrub tree on your left. There’s also a chain slung between gateposts. Don’t be inhibited by the lack of a welcoming trailhead kiosk, or a map, or anything else. The assumption seems to be that this is one for the locals. So consider yourself local. Woodstock is a global brand after all. The trail sticks to properties owned by Brydcliffe or the town of Woodstock, both of which permit public access.
Around the gate chain, you’ll come up to a sunbaked clearing of weeds, gravel, and dried (or wet) mud. Across this clearing you’ll see the start of an old woods road. Take it. You’re now on your way. Recently, someone spray painted orange spots on the trees as blazes to help. The lower portion of the route follows this road for five minutes or so, crossing a footbridge then starting uphill, where it branches off onto a footpath on the right that will in time zig-zag up through the mountain laurels. There are several trail splits along the way with turnoffs that deadend in the shrubs, but that’s life, at least in Woodstock. If there weren’t a few tricks, you wouldn’t have such a marvelous mountainside to yourself.