By Russell Dunn
Hiking can be particularly fun when you have an outstanding destination in mind. Indian Rock is just such a destination, and it's readily accessible from the Nature Conservancy's Visitors Center at the Sam's Point Preserve.
Geologists call Indian Rock a glacial erratic — a boulder that was moved by an advancing glacier from its place of origin to a completely new site. Following an extended period of time when the region was overlaid by ice sheets as thick as a mile high, the melting glaciers retreated, leaving behind millions of tons of rocky debris, including Indian Rock, in its wake.
At one time, an untold number of glacial erratics of all sizes and shapes littered the escarpment ridge around the Gunks. As a general rule, only the largest ones remain today — the smaller, more easily moved boulders fell victim to the Victorian-era sport of rolling boulders off escarpment edges to watch them tumble into the valley below. "Leave no trace" was not part of the Victorian mindset. Indian Rock, however, was so big that even a gang of men would not have been able to budge it one bit.
The boulder sits imperiously at the edge of an enormous crevice along the western face of the Gunks overlooking the North Gully. Below it, huge blocks of Shawangunk conglomerate have split off from the side wall and lie toppled on their sides or leaning against each other like intoxicated rock giants. Together they form what is called a "rock city," something for which the Gunks are famous. Passages and "tunnels" twist and turn through the rock cities of the Gunks like the alleys and avenues between the huge buildings of human cities. The spectacular Ice Caves at Sam's Point are a perfect example of a Shawangunk rock city.
Indian Rock is made of Shawangunk conglomerate — the durable rock that attracts rock climbers by the thousands to this region each year. The boulder is the size of a small cottage or large garage, but has not remained intact. It has been fractured by elemental forces into a number of horizontal layers, much like the slices on a multilayered cake.
Although many hikers are tempted to climb Indian Rock for the view, it is not advisable. The problem is not so much in the climb up, but rather in the climb back down. The rock does afford a view of Ellenville that is otherwise difficult to obtain, but it is far safer and wiser to keep your feet firmly planted on the bedrock and enjoy the surrounding views.
No one knows for sure how Indian Rock got its name. Marc Fried, a local historian, researched the matter at some length and could find no known historical association with Native Americans. Nor has any pre-European artifact turned up at the rock. Fried speculates that the name Indian Rock is more likely an arbitrary or romantic appellation than a descriptive one. Others claim that, with a little (perhaps a lot) of imagination, you can see the outline of a Native American face if you look carefully at the rock from the right angle. Be that as it may, it helps to have a colorful name, and this large boulder has been exciting the imagination since at least 1899, when it was listed on a map depicting the central part of the Shawangunks.
Ironically, in some ways it may have been easier for nineteenth- and twentieth-century tourists to reach Indian Rock than it is for today's visitors. There were hotels in the area at Sam's Point that undoubtedly served as staging areas for hikes and adventures. The first was built by Thomas Botsford in 1871. What made his hotel different, and possibly unique from any other hotel of its time, was that it was built right into the side of the cliff face. Unfortunately, it had a very short life, burning down a year after it opened.
In 1902, LeGrand Botsford — Thomas's son — constructed a hotel that was located farther into the interior of the area and much closer to Indian Rock. It was built next to Lake Maratanza, which is only 0.9 mile from Indian Rock as the crow flies. LeGrand's hotel also burned down within just two years.
But, not to worry — today you can get to Indian Rock from Sam's Point Preserve via a 2.1-mile hike. This route makes use of the High Point Carriageway for a short distance, and then a yellow-marked side path that takes you to the glacial boulder in 0.6 mile, occasionally meandering along boardwalks that allow for crossing boggy areas without getting your feet wet. Along the hike you will be impressed by the harsh landscape sculpted out of gleaming white Shawangunk conglomerate and splashed with the colors of pitch pines, mountain laurel, and blueberry bushes. The journey is worth it for its own sake, but then there's the destination — Indian Rock will take your breath away. And, unlike the Native Americans for whom the rock was named, who were uprooted and displaced by European settlers, no one is going to be budging this rock for a long time to come … probably not until the next ice age.
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