The invulnerable Badlands

| 09 Mar 2012 | 10:33

    By Pamela Chergotis Tom and I sat atop a ridge along the Appalachian Trail to watch the storm come in. We knew the hills of Vernon were out there, but a thick gray mat hung overhead, concealing everything. The air pressed down on us. Something was coming.

    We thought Irene would cause trouble at the shore. The usual images of boarded-up beach houses and storm-tossed marinas came to mind. But this hurricane proved to be a disaster of inland places. That thick gray mat held water, so much of it.

    And when it fell, all at once, the quiet streams, the little trickles, swelled and raged, pushing boulders and trees before them.

    Hiking since Irene just hasn’t been the same report. Sawhorses with “road closed” signs block the narrow mountain passes that lead to trailheads. Others you can get to only by picking your ankle-turning way through washouts, around blowdowns.

    But one treasure has emerged unscathed from the wreckage. There’s really nothing more you can do to the Badlands, as the pitch pine barrens of the Shawangunk Ridge are called. Fire, ice, wind, rain have all had their way so completely, the rocks and plants left are perfectly suited to their time and place.

    Geological time hasn’t yet finished with melting and tumbling the Catskills. But the Badlands have gotten past all of that messy living earth stuff and settled into a regal retirement.

    Nothing protects this most exposed of ridges from the full onslaught of the sky. Water has already washed away the soil and soft rock, leaving great blocks of very hard, and stunning, white quartzite. Out of the quartzite fissures grow a fairytale forest of pitch pine. Most of these gnarly trees are under six feet tall. Some grow so low in their mania to adapt, they creep along the ledges like groundcover.

    You can’t take a bad picture in the Badlands: the 180-foot Verkeerderkill Falls (in winter, minerals streak the icefall with pastel pinks, blues and greens); the 360-view at High Point, overlooking the Catskills; the oceans of blueberry plants that turn scarlet every fall.

    The trail follows the ledge that rims the central ravine. The blazes sometimes fool you into thinking they run right off the ledge. But they never do.

    Sneak Peak The hike: Loop at Sam’s Point formed by the Long Path (teal), high Point Trail (red), High Point Carriageway, and parts of the Loop Road.

    Trailhead: Nature Center at Sam’s Point Preserve, Cragsmoor

    Blazes: Long Path, teal; High Point Trail, red

    Length: 10 miles round-trip