By Russell Dunn
The Shawangunks (or "Gunks," as they are more popularly called) have long been acclaimed as a rock climber's paradise, but they could equally as well be celebrated for their waterfalls. Here, nature has dipped her brush into a glorious palate of colors to paint the landscape of waterfalls — the bouncing blue-whites of cascading streams; the deep, lush greens of moss-covered boulders and towering evergreens; the stony white hardness of Shawangunk conglomerates; and the riotous red hues of blueberry bushes in autumn.
Best of all, you don't have to drive far to visit some of the Gunks' most spectacular waterfalls. Of these the most frequently photographed is Awosting Falls, located in Minnewaska State Park, right off of Routes 44/55 between the villages of New Paltz and Wawarsing. Awosting Falls is an 80-foot vertical drop over gorgeous Shawangunk conglomerate into a plunge pool. The fall is named after its pond source — Awosting Lake — from which the Peters Kill flows, forming several waterfalls along the way including Sheldon Falls as it descends to Rondout Creek at Alligerville. Although the pool at the base of Awosting Falls may look inviting, don't bring your bathing suit. Swimming is not allowed.
Awosting Falls has been historically favored by its close association with Lake Minnewaska. During the 1800s, when the region went through a momentous mountain-house-building phase, two luxurious hotels were built at Lake Minneswaska — the Cliff House and Wildmere. Both hotels provided not only unparalleled views of the lake, but also ready access to Awosting Falls, which could be reached by a 10-minute stroll.
Beginning in 1924, electricity for the hotels was obtained by harnessing the waterpower of the Peters Kill. Perhaps because Awosting Falls was already a highly valued tourist attraction, it was bypassed for power generation in favor of Sheldon Falls — a stupendous cascade 0.5 mile farther downstream on the Peters Kill. A powerhouse was erected at the base of Sheldon Falls and continued to provide hydroelectric power until the late 1960s.
Not all of the Gunks' waterfalls are as readily accessible, however. Among the ones that are harder to reach are some true wilderness gems. Verkeerder Kill Falls is the most distant of the remote waterfalls, requiring a 2.8-mile hike (one-way). An added benefit to the hike is that the approach starts from Sam's Point Dwarf Pine Ridge Preserve, a scenic wonder in itself and former home of a commercial attraction called Ice Cave Mountain. Verkeerder Kill Falls is over 70 feet high and forms on a small stream that rises southeast of High Point and flows into the Shawangunk Kill at Ulsterville. Verkeerder is a Dutch word, meaning "twisted, turned, or contorted," which the "kill," or stream, truly is as it makes its way into the valley below.
What you will find as you explore the Gunks is a geological area remarkably different from the Adirondacks (farther north) or its cousin, the Catskills, or even the nearby Hudson Highlands. And you will find as well that the Gunks are not only a land of vertical rock and awesome formations, but of raging streams and towering waterfalls.
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