By Tod Westlake
was driving over the ridge one day last summer on Route 44/55, heading from west to east, when I passed the main entrance to Minnewaska State Park Preserve. I wasn't particularly surprised to see a few cars waiting for the ranger at the gate to let them through, as the park entrance is often crowded at this time of year, especially when the weather is nice. Continuing my drive, my surprise grew as the line of cars went on . . . and on.
The west-bound traffic on the ridge was backed up for at least a half-mile, perhaps more, as vacationers and day-trippers, mixed in with a handful of irate locals, waited for their respective chance to enter, or simply get past, the gateway to the magnificent preserve. I couldn't help but chuckle at the irony of city-dwellers making an attempt to get back to nature, only to find themselves stuck in traffic for who knows how long, and right at the threshold of their destination.
Traffic on the ridge is definitely a problem during summer and fall weekends. Thousands of people come from all over in order to fish, hike, or enjoy the fall colors. Most of these visitors end up taking the New York State Thruway; it's the natural route for people coming into the area. But running the gauntlet of a crowded New Paltz, whose horrendous summer and fall traffic has become a thing of local legend, only to then be confronted by an hour-long wait at the park gate, is enough to turn even the most sanguine traveler into a curmudgeon.
But it doesn't need to be like this, as there are several alternative ways of approaching the ridge area (please see the map in the center pages of this magazine). If you're coming from the south, you will likely be inclined to stay on the Thruway until you reach exit 18 in New Paltz. However, you might end up doing yourself a better turn if you make your westward jog before you hit Ulster County. To this end, consider taking exit 16 on the Thruway and picking up Route 17 (soon to be Interstate 86) as it heads to the northwest. Continue in this direction for approximately 30 miles, until you reach exit 113 just south of Wurtsboro. Then take Route 209 north.
Continuing north on Route 209, you will next arrive in the village of Ellenville. The village has a great deal to offer when it comes to good food, with several fine restaurants on Canal Street, as well as a newly-christened diner just south of downtown. Ellenville is also where you can pick up the Shawangunk Scenic Byway, a loop of interconnecting highways that offers a number of terrific views. If you take Route 52 west toward the ridge, you can stop of at Sam's Point Preserve, one of the hidden gems of the Wawarsing area.
If you decide to continue north on Route 209, the next big intersection you will encounter is that of Route 44/55. If you take this route, a right-hand turn off Route 209, you'll be approaching the entrances to the Minnewaska and Mohonk Preserves from the west. And you'll be very pleased that you've done so, as the traffic heading in this direction is almost always light, and certainly far less aggravating than if you were to come up the Thruway and pass through New Paltz. This less-traveled route to the ridge doesn't take any longer than the alternatives, and has its own delightful features, with stunning views, farm stands, antique shops, and many other interesting places to stop along the way.
If you happen to be coming into the ridge area from the north, an alternate route would have you again avoid coming into the New Paltz area. Instead, get off the Thruway at exit 19 in Kingston. A quick jog to the west on Route 28 will place you at the north end of the aforementioned Route 209. You would then continue to head south through the valley, passing through the charming hamlets of Hurley, Stone Ridge, and Accord. When you come upon Route 44/55, take a left and head up onto the ridge.
The west side of the Shawangunk Ridge is often overlooked, and unfairly so. This valley has all there is to offer as on the east side of the ridge. And it has the added advantage of being a less-crowded, and a much easier way to access the recreation spots throughout the ridge area. Give it a try sometime, and see if it doesn't reduce your stress level, while at the same time offering a new perspective on the ridge — one that looks east instead of west.
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