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An unusual world nestles atop the Shawangunk Mountain ridge in New York's Catskills region, and Lake Minnewaska is a vital part of that rare world. The small, 36-acre lake lies between steep cliff walls near the top of the ridge, its waters held in the basin by bedrock and a small manmade dam across the outlet. The lake existed before humans appeared to tame the Catskills; the dam was added later to provide electrical power for two resorts. The dam raised water levels several feet but otherwise made few changes to the pristine landscape.
Originally called Coxing Pond, Lake Minnewaska is one of a series of small, high-altitude ponds called the 'sky line lakes'. The lakes all share the same origin: small depressions gouged from the bedrock by glacial action. All are quite acidic due to the characteristics of the bedrock underlying the region. They support few fish, if any. Palmaghatt Kill(Creek) flows from Lake Awosting, over Awosting Falls and into Lake Minnewaska, then on to the south. This striking landscape has delighted visitors since the first resorts were built here in the 1870s. Today, as a New York State Park Preserve, the lake and its beautiful surroundings provide nature experiences to a rising number of visitors.
The lakes in the new Minnewaska State Park Preserve are no-motors lakes, so only quiet paddling and rowing break the silent surface. A small swimming beach is provided during certain hours for park visitors. A larger area for swimming is afforded members of a local 'open water swimming' club who test swimmers' water skills and provide a roped-off area for members only. Canoes, kayaks and small boats can be hand-launched at the area on the north end of the lake known as Diver's Cove. All private boats must carry a Palisades Interstate Parks Commission boating permit and undergo a safety inspection. Because there are so few fish in the lake, fishing is not an option. In the past, fish were regularly stocked by the resorts to add angling to their activities. However, the fish did not spawn well, and their numbers dwindled until there were none.
Scuba diving is popular at Lake Minnewaska. The clear water allows divers to see the bottom at 70+ feet, and several rare features make diving here very attractive. The steep cliff walls continue down to the lakebed in many areas, and two species of salamanders are found at deeper depths than is normal. Because there are no predators, the salamanders don't attempt to hide their nests, which can be easily seen. A bed of rare sphagnum trinitense moss is found growing at the great depth of 36 feet. The moss ordinarily grows very close to the surface, and this is the only bed found in New York, although a few have been found in other countries. One scientist refers to the area as 'an underwater bog', probably made possible by the extreme clarity and light penetration through Lake Minnewaska's pristine waters. Divers must have a diver's certification and pay an annual fee. Area dive shops in Poughkeepsie and New Paltz offer information and arrange group dives.
The entire Preserve encompasses 23,000 acres and includes a few other lakes, mostly smaller than Lake Minnewaska. The Preserve is linked to nearby 7,000-acre Mohonk Preserve by an old carriage path built during the days of local resorts. The 'carriage road' travels through the foundations of Trapp Village, now designated Trapps Mountain Hamlet Historic District. Only one of the original settlement's homes survives, although about six privately-owned homes are located here along Coxing Kill.
The 'carriage way' roads were originally bullt by the resort owners to provide comfortable carriage rides during which their guests could enjoy scenic vistas and points of interest. Originally made from crushed slate mined locally within the park, about half of the original roads have been restored for use by hikers and mountain bikers. Some are open to equestrians, although the trails are not yet heavily used for horseback riding. In winter, some of the carriageways are maintained for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Many foot paths are being established to specific points, including locations for serious rock climbers within the Peters Kill Climbing Area. When the project is completed, there will be about 70 miles of trails and carriageways within the Preserve open to visitors to the park.
Within the two preserves and smaller Sams Point Preserve on the western edge managed by The Nature Conservancy, bird watching and nature observation are the main course on the Preserve menu. Deer, bear and a variety of smaller woodland mammals live within the forested preserve. Some areas are listed as the Minnewaska Bird Conservation Area and part of the Northern Shawangunk Mountains Important Bird Area. An endangered peregrine falcon pair nests along the cliff face, and a great number of other species breed in the area. Other points of interest include spectacular Awosting Falls upstream from Lake Minnewaska which is at its best in the spring. The entire preserve displays the characteristic autumn colors for which the area is well-known, making it a great place for the annual color tour. The area still holds several private properties, and care must be taken not to encroach on the space of others living here. Some of the remaining buildings within the resort complexes are being preserved as historical structures and will be used for park business facilities.
The two major resorts at Lake Minnnewaska, Cliff House and Wildmere, were both built originally by the Smiley brothers Alfred and Albert who began their family enterprise around 1877. By 1890, the two resorts held a combined total of over 600 guest rooms and employed a huge number of local residents as staff. The location only 90 miles north of New York City made the location both logistically attractive and highly 'fashionable'. One of the more interesting notes to the Lake Minnewaska resorts is that the Quaker Smiley brothers did not permit alcohol or dancing during their early years. The family also purchased the area surrounding nearby Lake Awosting-also within the Preserve-and started a children's summer camp. Eventually the family sold to another party which began a nearby ski resort and ran into serious financial difficulties. The property was eventually sold to The Nature Conservancy and the State of New York. The resorts fell to ruin or burned down. The original Smiley family still retains some rights to certain buildings and residences along Lake Minnewaska.
There is no camping or lodging at Lake Minnewaska. The preserve is a day-use facility only. Eventual plans call for a campground outside of the preserve boundaries, and several local campgrounds and RV parks can be found in the area. A few bed & breakfasts and traditional inns are located nearby, and a new lodge facility has been recently built outside the preserve boundaries. Ski resorts are located nearby. Most services will be found in New Paltz, Poughkeepsie or Newburgh-all within 20 miles of Minnewaska State Park Preserve. All types of lodgings are available in between, including large hotel chains, small hotels and guest cottages. Real estate is available nearby, although not within the Preserve itself. At less than two hours from New York City, Lake Minnewaska is still a convenient escape from city life and a much-needed respite amid the best that nature has to offer.
* There are no official statistics for Lake Minnewaska. Our statistics have been drawn from a number of sources and may not be entirely correct.
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