The Shawangunk Ridge (also known as the Shawangunk Mountains, or The Gunks; pronounced by some locals as "SHONG-gum," (/ˈʃɑŋgʌm/)) is a ridge of mountains in Ulster County, Sullivan County and Orange County in the state of New York, extending from the northernmost point of New Jersey to the Catskill Mountains.
The ridgetop, which widens considerably at its northern end, has many public and private protected areas and is not heavily populated, boasting only one settlement of consequence (unincorporated Cragsmoor). While in the past it was chiefly noted for huckleberry picking, and the fires set to create favorable conditions for further growth, today it has become known for its outdoor recreation, most notably as one of the major rock climbing areas of North America. Also known for its biodiversity and scenic character, the ridge has been designated by The Nature Conservancy as one of the "75 Last Great Places on Earth."
Whritenour has suggested that the name derives from the burning of a Munsee fort by the Dutch at the eastern base of the ridge in 1663 (a massacre ending the Second Esopus War), where it spread quickly across the basin on land deeds and patents after the war. Historian Marc B. Fried writes: "It is conceivable that this was...the Indians' own proper name for their village [and fort] and that the name was appropriated for use in subsequent land dealings because of the proximity of the...tracts to the former Indian village....The second possibility is that the name simply came into existence in connection with the Bruyn [purchase of Jan., 1682, the first appearance of the name in documentary record], as a phrase invented by the Indians to describe some feature of the landscape." . But Fried also notes that the name's swift spread in the deed record suggest it was in use as a proper name before the Bruyn purchase. Shawangunk appears nowhere in reference to the fort itself in the extensive, translated Dutch record of the Second Esopus War. By the early to mid 18th century, Shawangunk became associated with the ridge. European settlers began to truncate Shawangunk into "SHONG-gum," (/ˈʃɑŋgʌm/) a pronunciation still favored by some locals in the area where the name first came into existence. Shongum is frequently misrepresented by educators, ridge land managers, and in publications as the original indigenous pronunciation.
The ridge is widest (7.5 miles/12 kilometers) near the northern end, narrow in the middle (1.25 miles/under 2 kilometers) with a maximum elevation of 2,289 feet (698 m) near Lake Maratanza on the Shawangunk Ridge. The ridge rises above the broad Wallkill River valley to the east and the narrow valley to the west that contains Basher Kill and Rondout Creek at the northern end and the Neversink River and Delaware River at the southern end. These adjacent valleys are underlain by relatively weak sedimentary rock (e.g., sandstone, shale, limestone).
The entire ridge was glaciated during the last (Wisconsin) glaciation, which scoured the ridges, left pockets of till, and dumped talus (blocks of rock) off the east side of the ridge. On top of the ridge, the soils are generally thin, highly acidic, low in nutrients, and droughty, but in depressions and other areas where water is trapped by the bedrock or till, there are interspersed lakes and wetland areas. Soils on top of shale are thicker, less acidic, and more fertile. Topography on the top of the northern Shawangunks is irregular due to a series of faults that form secondary plateaus and escarpments.
Lakes and wetlands occur mostly on the flat-topped ridges at the northern and southern ends of the area and, to a lesser extent, along the western side of the middle part of the ridge. Lakes and ponds occurring on conglomerate tend to be clear, nutrient-poor, and very acidic, due to limited buffering capacity of the bedrock. The northern Shawangunks have five lakes, the "sky lakes," which are, from north to south: Mohonk Lake, Lake Minnewaska, Lake Awosting, Mud Pond, and Lake Maratanza. The pH in four of the lakes averages about 4 (very acidic); Lake Mohonk, which partially overlays shale bedrock and is therefore partially buffered, is closer to neutral pH (7.0).
In 2004, a luxury development plan for buildings has threatened the ridge line, and as a result a grassroots "Save the Ridge" campaign has become extremely popular in the area. In 2006 a court ordered the sale of property by the private owner to settle a case brought on by the developer. The Open Space Institute of NY purchased the land and has signed it over to Minnewaska State Park Preserve.
The Trust for Public Land and Open Space Institute actually agreed to purchase the land for $17 million dollars. At closing, however, the contract was assigned and title was taken in the name of the Palisades Interstate Parkway Commission, a federally chartered commission, although the funds for the purchase apparently came from the New York state Environmental Protection Fund.
Climbing in the Shawangunks has historically been centered around four major cliffs: Millbrook, the Near Trapps, The Trapps, and Skytop. Of these four, The Trapps is the longest and the most popular, with the largest number of climbing routes. The Near Trapps is located immediately across Route 44/55 from The Trapps, and is second in popularity. Millbrook mountain, the most southerly cliff, is the most remote, and sees the least climbing activity. Rock climbing is currently banned at Skytop, which is owned by the Mohonk Mountain House. In the beginning of 2007 it was announced that guided climbing would be possible at Skytop for Mohonk Mountain House guests. Rock climbing is allowed by permit at the Peter’s Kill area, a minor crag with good bouldering and top roping opportunities. There are numerous other minor crags in the area, but local consensus is to keep them undocumented except by oral tradition.
The height of the cliff varies along the ridgeline, to a maximum of some 300 feet. The average height is around 150 feet. Descent is achieved either by walking along a footpath at the top of the cliff, or by rappelling from fixed anchors. Climbing activity goes on year round, but is most popular (and comfortable) from April through November.
Technical rock climbing has been going on in the Gunks since 1935, when the area was “discovered” by Fritz Wiessner. Hans Kraus, along with Wiessner, dominated the local climbing scene until the 1950s. There is a rich history of climbing in the Shawangunks, which includes the conservative Appalachian Mountain Club, the drug- and alcohol-fueled antics of the Vulgarians (a group led by guidebook author Richard Williams that opposed the licensing of climbers and engaged in provocative behavior, including climbing nude), and many colorful personalities. The area has historically often been at the leading edge of elite rock climbing; today it is better known for its large number of high quality moderate climbing routes.
There are roughly 1200 documented climbing routes in the Gunks, ranging in difficulty from 5.0 to 5.13. The area is considered a traditional climbing area; since 1988 the Mohonk Preserve has banned the placement of bolts, and pitons (although bolts and pitons that were placed prior to the ban are still used and are allowed to be replaced) as well as formally forbidding the chipping or glueing of holds or cutting trees. The Gunks is probably the most popular single climbing area in the United States, with some 50,000 technical climbers visiting the area each year.
Preserves within the Shawangunks: