If you live in and around the New York/New Jersey/ Connecticut tri-state area, and need a day trip getaway, nestled between Albany and New York City foreshadowing the Southern edge of the Catskill Mountains is the historic Mohonk Mountain Resort. While the old charm of the house is overshadowed only by one of the most spectacular views that your eyes will ever see, it’s a perfect day trip if you plan ahead and know a few tips.
The Mohonk Mountain House (pronounced Mo- HUNK) has been on my radar for almost a decade. For one reason or another, I was always being distracted with work and family, there was never the chance to break away for a overnight visit. Maybe it was also the website that showed a threatening $1500/ night room rate. Or maybe it was the comment mentioning “formal dinnerjacket dress code” for the dining room. Don’t let either of my excuses stop you from moving forward and planning a visit because there’s only partial truth to the aforementioned statements.For those that are unfamiliar with the area, the Catskills to me has always been a bit of a mystery. Growing up in New Jersey, there was always the notion that the Catskills were the place for hazbin Jewish comedians and cheesy Dirty Dancing summer camps. Don’t get me wrong, The “Jewish Alps” as so they were coined, was certainly a retreat and getaway for the New York jet set wanting to trade in black top for tree tops and it was the closest mountain range while still keeping New Yorkers within their New York State comfort zone.
Don’t be fooled by the prices, the dress code, or the exterior photos. The resort is seemingly mashed together like “the Log Cabin Country set meets the high society of Geneva Switzerland”, once you pull up to the backside of the resort and view the stone entrance, you’ll begin to see what I mean.
The Mohonk Mountain House (MMH) is a historic rustic retreat about four miles west of New Paltz, New York, actually in theShawangunk (Pronounced “Scha-WAN-gunk) Mountains, a Lenape Indian term for “smoky mountains.This Mohonk Lake Region is also known as one of the premiere rock climbing areas in the United States. But let me warn you first, If you’re not into outdoor activities or leisure conversations from a rocking chair, set in a rustic charm, this may not be the place for you. The Day Trip
So you don’t have time to stay overnight and you want to experience Mohonk Mountain Resort. There’s a phone number you can call to book what’s known as a “Day Pass” (800) 255-1000 ($20-Adults, $10 kids under 12, 4and under are free). Like amusement parks, the “Day Pass” gains you access to the grounds around the resort. But here’s a trick that expands the possibilities and will enhance your experience. Instead of purchasing a day pass, spend a bit more and purchase what’s known as a “Day Meal” reservation. Here’s why.
When you’re not staying overnight, and you book a “Day Meal” reservation you’re price includes day pass access to the grounds, the daily activities, and an unlimited buffet or sit-down meal in the formal dining area on the second floor of the resort. ($55 –Adults, $30 Children over age of 4, plus tax). You also get parking privileges right at the hotel so you don’t have to park four miles away and get bussed in. You also have the choice to have your car valet parked ($3.00) or self park for free in the parking lots just after the rear entrance of the resort (You actually drive up to the back of the Mountain Resort).
Here’s a tip. Once you walk into the Mountain House, nobody knows whether you’re a Day Guest or an overnight resident, so don’t feel out of place. Walk around the Hotel. Sit in the sitting rooms, read the papers, and begin to take in the historic beauty of the resort. Unwind. But don’t sit too long. Get ready to find what’s called “A Hikers Map of the Mohonk Lake Region”, and get out the back door, because there’s a view that’s been waiting over a hundred years to show off!
First, walk in the entrance above where you parked (remember it’s the backside of the hotel) and go to your left, past the Hotel Registry, and look to your right. There’s a table there with Hikers Map mentioned before, of the resort property (Grab one- it’s free). Now, continue down the main hallway, past the grand stair case and begin looking to your right for Exit Signs and a porch. There’s an “Information” speaking stand which normally has a person there to answer questions. No need to have a discussion, because you know where to go (we’re telling you) – the first trip MUST be up the Sky Top Trail. And if you’ve seen pictures of the resort, you have to be asking yourself…”where’s the Lake? I didn’t see the lake coming up to the hotel? Where is it?” It’s right outside the door, which actually is the “front” of the hotel. Who knew…the darn hotel was built backwards with the entrance in the back!Walk outside and start looking for the view that everyone MUST see. It’s called the Sky Top Trail which takes you up to the Skytop Observation Tower. Yeah, you’ll finally say to yourself “Ah, here’s the Lake!”, because it’ll be right in front of you.
Your first walk will take about an hour if you take a leisurely pace and choose to stop along the way. Just remember these words; “the view just continues to get better and better.” If you have fear of heights, challenge your fear and keep walking to the top of the Trail. At the top of the trail with be the Albert K. Smiley Memorial observation tower and a spectacular view.
Left: Lakeview and midway up Sky Top TrailRight: Atop Sky Top Tower (300′ higher)
The structure, also known as “Sky Top Tower” was completed on August 30, 1921. While my 12 year old practically ran to the top of the tower, my sweet little four year old couldn’t overcome the coaxing to climb the iron railed cement stairs to the top of the tower. I think my mind was playing tricks on me because it really looks like the stairs get narrower and narrower as you climb the tower. It was probably my own phobia playing tricks on my brain. At least my four year old went half way! Son was fearless….right to the top. He kept wanting to know if he could climb up on the wall edge for a better view (wasn’t going to happen!).When you finally make it to the top of the tower, two thoughts that went thru my mind. I’m sure it went through the minds of the thousands that have passed before us;
- “What a spectacular view!”
- “Could you imagine the lunatics that climbed all the way up these rocks and built this thing?”
Oh you might have one more thought….”Is this thing stable?” Tell me if you don’t think the same thing! All in all, the total assent from the Resort to the top of the Observation Tower is 295 feet. (Mohonk Lake is at 1247 feet above Sea Level – The top of Sky Top Trail is 1542ft. There are a total of 100 steps to the top, and you can see six states on a clear day. (Can you name them all?) – Answer’s at the end of the article). And see the Resevoir below the tower? The adjacent reservoir was the quarry site used to supply the tower’s stone and is used today as a firefighting water source.
From Sky Top Tower – The Great or Wallkill Valley is to the southeast, the Rondout Valley is to the northwest, and the Hudson River Valley to the east. Look west down the 20-mile length of the Shawangunk ridge, taking in the white Moby Dick headlands of The Trapps cliffs and Millbrook Mountain.
On the walk back down, stop and take a few additional photographs. And you probably won’t be as fearful of those rickety looking, over the edge, cantilevered timber sitting posts. My wife certainly had fun wanting to take staged pictures of her pushing me off the edge, or simulated pictures tripping off the ledge.
Tip – Don’t go too close to the edge when my wife’s around!
Tip #2 – There’s no need to buy any photographs of the exterior of MMH in the gift shop because if you walk the Sky Top Trail, and the weather cooperates, you can’t help but take a fabulous photo. Just point and shoot – voila, suitable for framing. I actually like the pics mid-way up the trail, since you get a great view of the Catskills in the background verses at the top of the Tower where you’re literally looking down onto the resort.
Call the Mohonk Day Reservation line (there are four ladies answering the phone everyday). Day Meal Reservations: 845-256-2056
Book a lunch reservation for sometime around 12:30-1:00pm (reservations are available with starting times every 15 minutes). Don’t wake up crazy early. Just get to the main gate of the MMH at about 10am (the gates open for day passes at 8am). It’s about a 4 mile drive up the guardrail-less hillside to the MMH.
Park in the self-park lot and walk thru the house as I described earlier. Take about 10-15 minutes to acclimate yourself with the hotel so you can act like you’re staying there. You can even walk down to the Offices (Office 5 houses the ladies that booked your reservation. Say hi to Wendy for me). There are bathrooms right outside these offices. Another set of bathrooms are on the second floor to the left of the staircase.
Walk back down the stairs and walk to the left of the “Information Speaker Stand” and take the Skytop trail (Just to the left, walking past the boats up towards the ice rink). Go up – Come back down. When it’s time for lunch, go back to the second floor of MMH and take a right down the hallway. Have a wonderful lunch.
The Receptionist will just ask for your name and if you have a reservation (of course you do) and just let them know you have a reservation. You have a fantastic buffet style lunch with a bucolic view over the Rondout Valley unto the plateau peaks of the Catskills: Thunderhill, Peekamoose, Balsam Cap, Ashokan, Indian Head at the base of the Catskills (if you’re seated in the back).
You can special order chicken fingers and fries, or a grilled cheese for the kids. Alcohol and tip are not included in your pre-purchased day meal, so bring the AMEX.
After lunch, I recommend performing the “rock scramble” and going to what’s known as “the Labyrinth”, if you’re inclined for a bit of rock climbing. I’d recommend this for boys over the age of 10 and those looking for a bit of challenge and exercise. I’m glad my wife deferred this excursion to my out of shape, non-athletic body, I also had my 8 year old daughter join us. Got to admit, I was more scared for her then she was. In fact, after we got about a half hour into the climb, it was she that was looking out for me!
The Labyrinth takes you up to a place called “The Crevice” where a ladder allows you to climb up to the base of the Sky Top Tower. I think “Crevice” is French for “Don’t have a big fat ass or you’re going to get stuck”! So be advised that I told you before you’re looking up the face of a 75 foot ladder that goes up into a rock face that’s only about 15 inches wide! Pretty insane climb if you ask me. I have to admit, The Labyrinth is yet another set of spectacular views, but with the added sweat equity that comes with a sense of physical accomplishment. You’ll know what I mean if you go. Make sure you follow the “the red arrows!” which mark the rock climbing trail. If you’ve got older kids, it’s nature’s ultimate jungle gym.
Another great walk is along the nearside cliff wall adjacent to the Hotel, known as the Eagle Cliff, down to the lake on the right, and along the beach. In summer you can go for a pedal boat or canoe excursion around the lake. If you want to go horseback riding, book the reservation a few weeks ahead of time because the stable hands weren’t there the day we visited. All equine activities come at an additional cost. I would have loved a guided carriage ride thru the gardens, but the stable was closed the day we visited.
Which Season to visit?
The Fall must be the best! Sure the fall season brings the colors, and I’m glad I visited in early November, but I’m sure that each season provides a uniquely different experience so you’ll have to decide which is best for you. Winter offers the skating rink (usually opens around Thanksgiving) and I’d bet it’s a great place to go skating and then a nice warm hot cider and rum!. The lake is open for swimming in Summer but I think that’s an activity reserved for guests staying at the hotel. You don’t want to drive all the way home with a wet bathing suit anyway. The spring bloom of the gardens must be truly fantastic. All in all, each season brings a unique viewing and activity filled set of experiences. What a great business model….repeat capabilities for every season, each with unique set of experiences!
Don’t confuse the Mohonk Preserve with the House.It’s simple. The Mohonk Preserve surrounds the Mohonk Mountain House property. As a first timer, you want to visit the Mountain House, so get the day pass.
- Day pass guests are asked to park at the gate entrance (4 miles from house). I think there’s a bus that will drive you up…but if you book a lunch reservation, you get to park at the hotel.
- Day pass access starts at 8am.
- Meal reservation gets you access to the house, grounds, and activities.
- Find the trail map table and get yourself a trail map.
- Take the Sky Top Walk first up to the Sky Top Tower.
- Pick up an “Activities Schedule” – the daily newsletter telling you everything that’s going on at MMH for the day. (I got ours at Office 5 on the first floor).
- Get there as early as you can.
- Bring walking shoes.
If you want to do the Labyrinth, make sure you like to climb and you have shoes that work well on rocks.
- Try the Chicken and garlic potatoes at lunch (fantastic)
- You can order chicken and fries or grilled cheese from your server for the kids.
- Wine and gratuity are extra and you can pay at the end with a credit card.
- Try the soup!
- The desserts are fantastic – Cheesecake, Key lime pie, ice cream, Oreo cookie pie fabulous.
- And if you want to stay overnight, you can actually stay for as little as $300 per couple if you shop and are flexible including tea, dinner, and breakfast. With the exception of rock climbing, caving, fly fishing, horseback riding, carriage rides, weekend golf, and spa treatments, recreation is complimentary to overnight guests. Three meals daily– dinner, breakfast, and lunch – plus Afternoon Tea and Cookies – are also included in all room rates
Mohonk Mountain House –
1000 Mountain Rest Road, New Paltz, NY 12561General Telephone: 845-255-1000
Day Meal Reservations: 845-256-2056
For generations, people have come to Mohonk Mountain House to experience its beauty, timelessness, and history. Discover the countless reasons why – year after year – friends bring friends, to share the warmth and comfort of our magnificent “lake in the sky.” Book your reservations at our New Paltz resort online today for exceptional all-inclusive rates. * With the exception of rock climbing, caving, fly fishing, horseback riding, carriage rides, weekend golf, and spa treatments, recreation is complimentary to overnight guests. Three meals daily– dinner, breakfast, and lunch – plus Afternoon Tea and Cookies – are also included in all room rates.
In the summer of 1869 a Quaker gentleman then residing at Poughkeepsie, Alfred H. Smiley, came on an exploring trip and fell in love with the spot. He and his twin brother, Albert K. Smiley, head of the Friends’ School in Providence, Rhode Island, bought the property — 280 acres — from Mr. Stokes for $28,000.
The extent of financing involved made paying guests a necessity. In the summer of 1870 the Stokes Hotel was slightly remodeled and guests, who were nearly all personal friends of the Smiley’s, began to arrive. Year by year the number increased, in spite of the unwritten rules which prohibited liquor, card playing, and, later on, the promiscuous intrusion of automobiles upon the scene. The restful atmosphere of Mohonk Lake became one of its chief charms, attracting from all over the country high-class guests.In October, 1883, Albert K. Smiley, who had been appointed by President Hayes to the Board of Indian Commissioners, called at Mohonk the first conference of Friends of the Indians. These meetings took place annually for many years and brought about a great change for the better in the treatment of the Nation’s wards. In 1904, when such reforms were practically realized, the conferences enlarged their scope and the title was changed to Lake Mohonk Conference of Friends of the Indians and Other Dependent Peoples. The last of such conferences met in 1929.
The Smiley’s added at different times to their original purchase until it now comprises seven thousand acres. New roads have been built, grades improved, the forests opened to nature lovers by enchanting woodland paths, vistas cleared and rustic shelters built, wonderful gardens created.
In October, 1908, the Testimonial Gateway at the entrance to the property, a gift of friends, was dedicated in commemoration of Mr. and Mrs. Albert Smiley’s fiftieth wedding anniversary. The Albert K. Smiley Memorial Tower on Sky Top was presented in 1923 through contributions from 875 Mohonk guests and neighbors.An area covering the upper reaches of the mountain has been set aside as a game refuge for the protection of wild birds and animals.
Albert K. Smiley died on December 2,1912, at his winter home in Redlands, California, aged eighty-four. His wife died there a few weeks later. After the death of Daniel Smiley on February 14,1930, at Mohonk Lake, the ownership and management of the property and the Lake Mohonk Mountain House passed to his sons, Albert K. and Francis G. Smiley.
Additional Information:Mohonk Mountain House – click hereA NYC native visits Mohonk –
Historic Mohonk Mountain House – Arcadia collection of historic photoshttp://books.google.com/books?pg=PA40&lpg=PA57&dq=albert+k+smiley+memorial+tower&sig=9w25gF6Jgi-Troz9B5R-JknxQeE&id=UbFGWeFgAdcC&ots=IBKiqBEjeW#PPP1,M1
Six States can be seen at the top of the Sky Top Tower on a clear day: New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Vermont.