The Black Rock Forest
Peaks to Ponds Trail
11 total miles
6 – 7 hours
Year-round, sunrise to sunset
Historians report that Rome was built on seven hills. That is one more than Black Rock Forest can boast of, but then Black Rock also has half a dozen bodies of water, and it sees so few visitors that you are apt to have any or all of those features exclusively to yourself. Between the rock scrambling to vistas and stream hopping through swamps, you will enjoy a great workout in a diversity of habitats that virtually guarantees wildlife sightings.
“Great crystals on the surface of the earth, Lakes of Light, if they were permanently congealed, and small enough to be clutched, they would, per-chance, be carried oil by slaves, like precious stones, to adorn the heads of emperors …. ” It was Walden and White Ponds to which Henry David Thoreau referred, but his words seem just as applicable to the many radiant bodies of water within the Black Rock Forest Preserve. In fact, this park is so enchanting that after a few hours of tramping its high points and hidden dells, you may find yourself contemplating where to erect a cabin. Part of the reason this sanctuary is so captivatingly beautiful is its unique location between Schunemunk and Storm King Mountains, where it straddles two thriving ecosystems-the Hudson River basin and the Hudson Highlands. Additionally, while most of its 3,785 acres were set aside as early as 1928, the preserve’s relative obscurity has resulted in a refreshingly unsullied domain. The miles of trails here, from broad forest roads to narrow woodland rambles, crisscross half a dozen peaks and a like number of lakes, with foot traffic surprisingly light throughout the year.
On leaving the parking lot, the red-blazed trail sinks down in to a dark forest of hemlock, oak, maple, and tulip trees, with luminous ferns rising off the ground. Within half a mile, the path hits bottom at a four-way intersection; continue straight and cross the bridge, now with blue markings. The stream to your left on the ensuing uphill grind is an auditory and visual delight that cascades noisily through several rocky constrictions. Ignore the sundry spurs as you plod along, and in ten minutes hop straight over the little arroyo and switch to the yellow-blazed track (the blue markings cross the wider stream on your left), still moving up the slope.
In another five minutes, the yellow trail crests at a forest road. It proceeds straight on, up to Mount Misery, but you turn right, saving the Misery for later. Stay with this wide, pebbly lane for the next quarter mile, hanging a right with yellow and turquoise blazes at the obscure four-way junction shortly after you hear the stream noisily pouring off Aleck Meadow Reservoir. This narrow corridor through laurels and hemlocks leads directly to the reservoir. Follow the path counterclockwise below the earthen embankment of the lake, gaining meanwhile a good view from the concrete bridge of the water sluicing downhill over a rocky streambed. Just as you attain a level with the reservoir, where irises bloom purple in spring, the path veers right, heading upward among hemlocks, beeches, black birches, black gum trees, and innumerable boulders. This route, marked with a yellow rectangle (and the turquoise diamond of the Highland Trail), meets a T in three or four minutes, and continues to the left.
Then, in 60-plus seconds, it swerves to the right, trending steadily higher. In less than a quarter mile, the surroundings evolve from hardwoods and mountain laurel, where wild turkeys are frequently observed, to a more Spartan, boulder- strapped environment. The final scramble up a steep rock face brings you to a sunny ledge, with views through spicebush to the south and of the Schunemunk range to the west. That is just an appetizer for Black Rock summit, 70 feet farther up the path, with its breathtaking panorama highlighted by the expansive Hudson as it flows under the Newburgh Bridge to Storm King Mountain, and Breakneck Ridge beyond the river. At 1,402 feet of elevation, Black Rock is not the highest peak you will climb today, but it may well deliver the most exciting vistas. When you have had enough of this celestial setting, chase after the yellow blazes as the Stillman Trail (ST) departs the dome, down a series of natural steps, and swings left into the mountain laurels. In eight minutes, the ST launches left on the unpaved Hulse Road, only to jump right at a pipe gate by a four-way intersection of forest lanes. Leave the ST as it veers left immediately, remaining instead with Continental Road for 65 or 70 paces and then shift left on the Sackett Trail (SAC, yellow circles). This single-file track edges lower into a boggy, boulder-filled environment before meeting the grass-surfaced Hall Road. Steer left there, and continue on Hall Road at the succeeding four-way intersection, where the SAC forges to the right and the Compartment Trail (C1, blue blazes) branches left. In about a dozen minutes, the yellow blazes of the ST merge from the right. Stick with those as the ST breaks left, away from the road. In a few strides, the blue blazes of the CT merge with the trail, as you begin a brief ascent.
On reaching the top of the hill, turn right at the four-way crossing, now adhering to blue and turquoise blazes. (The vernal pool to the left of the path is usually black with tadpoles in springtime.) Forget the traces that fork left through laurels to a rock ledge vista point: you will get there soon enough. As the track circles to the left, leave it for the Split Rock Trail (SRT, white blazes), also on the left. The SRT hops back onto the plateau, where knee-high grass grows between the jutting rocks. This is the aptly named Split Rock, elevation 1,400 feet, a fine vantage point from which to survey Sutherland Pond, directly below. Incidentally, among the skunk cabbage of the marsh just south of the pond is sundew, rare insect-eating plants. The SRT clings to this beautiful hunk of the Highlands for a minute or two, and then departs the granite ridge, also leaving behind a cluster of pitch pine, sheep laurel, and spicebush.
Head straight across the forest road at the bottom of the slope, drifting uphill between Sutherland and Sphagnum Ponds (only the latter is visible through the trees). Turn to the light in about a quarter mile on the Secor Trail (yellow markings), plunging into a nest of mountain laurel. Though initially overgrown, conditions improve as you gain elevation, with a fun scramble up a tilted shelf of granite occurring in a few minutes. The path snakes from this knob to another before coming to a fork with the Chatfield Trail (CFT, blue blazes), where you turn right. This peaceful, secluded half mile leg drops lower to a boggy pond, with fractured slabs of boulders standing like sentries below a great crag, and ends at a T. Go left on this white-blazed, meandering track and stride right in nine minutes on the spur marked with blue. This detour forges into a jumble of rocks, at which point you should scale the large, rounded Sisyphean boulder, the highlight of Eagles Cliff, at an altitude of 1,443 feet.
This vertigo-inducing aerie projects precariously out from the ridge and is so isolated you might actually see an eagle or (more likely) vulture roosting on it. The fabulous views swoop from the north to east to south, with Jim’s Pond and Wilkins Pond serving as focal points below, while the denuded hill to the southeast, pocked with rusting military vehicles, is part of a West Point Military Academy training area. Wander down the orange-blazed spur to the left, along the length of this sensational ledge, and slip off the rocks in 300 yards. Trot to the left when the spur merges with a yellow-marked route, and pivot to the right as those yellow indications collide again with the white-blazed trail (WT). In eight minutes, a blue-blazed trace to the left, indicated by a cairn of stones, rapidly hits Spy Rock, a romantic nook shaded by a lone pitch pine. This is the highest point in the park, at 1,463 feet, but the views are limited. Moseying onward, the WT soon arrives at a staggered four-way intersection, requiring a dogleg first to the right and then left to carry you straight 011. About four minutes beyond a yellow-blazed trace to the left (which leads over the rocky ridge to Arthur’s Pond), the WT staggers right, off the forest road.
From initially losing elevation, this trail soon starts to churn upward, sputtering to the pinnacle of Rattlesnake Hill (1,405 feet) in about 1.5 minutes. This granite shelf is coated with pale green lichen, like barnacles clinging to the hull of a ship, and fringed with pitch pines. Visible through the latter is Bog Meadow Pond, where you may see people boating. Don’t fret too much, though, about encountering the Rattlesnake Hill’s namesake reptile: the most exciting animal we have encountered here is a scarlet tanager chirping musically at the setting sun. Walk directly across the dome and pass into the tangle of mountain laurel, with three slightly lower knobs succeeding this first one as the path keeps to the west side of the ridge. From there, a two- minute descent brings you to an intersection with a forest road, which the White Trail crosses diagonally. Then it is back to higher ground, meandering through an impressive spar of stony uplift. In little more than a minute, you near the top of the rise, with the boulders giving way to a grassy sward.
As with the previous peak, you may wonder about the name of this sun-exposed crest, Hill or Pines (1,410 feet), on observing that the two or three pitch pines growing here are greatly outnumbered by oak and spicebush. Justification for that moniker grows as the WI descends through an increasing number of hemlocks. The rocky trail, which doubles as a streambed in wet weather, swerves toward the northwest as it nears the bottom of the gulch, crossing a blue-blazed path when it reaches a natural rock garden, with a superabundance of boulders and stones littering the terrain. When the WT ends by the base of the next ridge, switch to a yellow- and turquoise- blazed track and bear to the right, instead of legging it straight up the lower part of the hill.
Pick your way carefully through this boulder field and gradually climb the steep heap of rocks known as Mount Misery. (In this case, at least, there is no mystery surrounding the name.) You may have been higher today, but this ascent is probably the most arduous. Soon enough, though, the hard turf changes to grass and a more gentle approach, delivering you at last to a very pretty knoll. There are great views to the west, including Aleck Meadow Reservoir and Black Rock Summit, where you were hours ago, as the trail lunges to the far edge of the peak and sticks with the ridge for several minutes. Then it is downward, arriving in five minutes at the same crossing with the forest road you were at near the start of the hike. Continue straight with the yellow blazes, retracing your earlier steps back to the parking area.