Difficulty: 5 out of 10 (long-ish, relatively flat stroll)
Highlights: Gorgeous lake, Appalachian Trail sections, minimal chance of radiation poisoning
Distance: 4.1 miles, partial loop
Approximate roundtrip time: 3 hours
Total ascent: 627 ft
Max elevation: 839 ft above sea level
This hike is for you if: You’d like to stroll around a beautiful lake and visit a nice stretch of Appalachian Trail. Also, you’re not scared of a little plutonium.
Super-cool Google Earth flyover of hike route:
Google Terrain Map of hike route:
Background you can feel free to skip: I know what you’re thinking. Why would I ever want to visit a place called Nuclear Lake? Well, let me set your mind at ease. The only reason it’s even called Nuclear Lake (you’re going to think this is so funny when you hear it), is that in 1972, a chemical explosion blew out two windows in the experimental nuclear research lab that used to sit on the shore of the lake, blasting an unspecified amount of bomb-grade plutonium across the lake and surrounding woods.
See? I bet you thought it was something bad.
Okay, so maybe it doesn’t sound that fantastic. But the trails around the lake were extensively tested, cleaned and declared safe many years ago, and who am I to argue with all those Geiger counters? I’m sure they dumped plenty of kitty litter and sawdust on top of that plutonium. To visit the place, you’d never know anything untoward had happened at all.
The Chamber of Commerce probably wouldn’t mention the whole plutonium thing, but it’s pretty wild that there was a nuclear research facility in Pawling, right? Who knew?
In case I’ve scared you off of the place, here’s a relevant excerpt from a 1986 Associated Press article on the accident: “The Nuclear Lake Management Committee was satisfied with tests indicating that the trail area, which is 1,200 feet from the lake, was safe… Tests of soil and vegetation in 1984 showed that radiation was no higher than normal background levels.” The buildings that once housed the lab have been razed, and you can just get a glimpse through the trees of the grassy patch where they once stood as you approach the lake.
In any event, our merry band of hikers didn’t let a little forty-year-old nuclear accident keep us from enjoying a gorgeous day at Nuclear Lake, and I’ll be back again soon. Some accounts refer to this place as “easily the most beautiful lake on the entire [Appalachian] trail,” and while I’m inclined to assume a little hyperbole there, it really is a beautiful spot. (UPDATE September 2013: Per Jeff Walden’s comment below, I am no longer inclined to assume hyperbole. He really meant that Nuclear Lake is the most beautiful lake on the entire Appalachian Trail. Very cool! Take that, all you non-Hudson-Valley lakes! And thank you, Jeff!)
If you were feeling especially ambitious, you could continue up the Appalachian Trail past the lake, all the way to the overlook on West Mountain, commonly known as Cat Rocks. That would add another
4.0 roundtrip miles and 400 vertical feet to your day, and our band of hikers, though merry, didn’t feel up to tackling 9 miles of hiking (UPDATE May 10, 2015: Thank you for the updated mileages here, Evgeny! And apologies for my previous lowball estimate.) Maybe you’re tougher than us. If so, I’ll point out in the trail guide below how to add that extra jog up to Cat Rocks so that you can round out your day here with a nice scenic overlook. (One reason you might decide to skip the visit to Cat Rocks is that you can also get there via a much shorter approach, coming up the other side of the mountain. See the Cat Rocks write-up for directions on how to do that hike.)
If you’re looking for a quiet afternoon strolling around a beautiful lake, you’ll have a hard time finding a more perfect spot. Come for the probable lack of plutonium, stay for the high doses of natural beauty! (I don’t think anyone’s going to let me write the brochures for this place, but really, I do recommend visiting.)
1. From the parking area, follow the blue blazes into the woods, away from the road.
2. You’ll pass a small kiosk that has a trail map posted. Hiking tip of the day: Snap a close-up picture of posted trail maps with your digital camera. Zooming in on the map on the camera’s display is almost as good as having a paper version, and it can help get you out of a bind if you didn’t bring a map with you.
3. You’ll pass under some power lines just beyond the parking lot, then the Blue Trail ends. Turn left to hop on the white-blazed Appalachian Trail (AT) and motor towards Nuclear Lake. Remember this spot, since you’ll have to recognize it on your return trip.
4. About five minutes after turning onto the AT, you’ll come to a junction with another Blue Trail – the Beekman Uplands Loop Trail — this one heading off to the left. Keep right to stay on the white-blazed AT.
5. The trail wanders downhill through some choice woods, with large rock formations bordering your path.
Keep chugging along for about another mile, crossing over two small wooden bridges as you go.
On the day we visited, some paper signs noted that the trail here had been re-routed, adding .15 miles to the Appalachian Trail. In marker underneath, a hiker wrote: “The trail needs an extra .15 like my pack needs an extra pound!” I’m guessing that hiker was going further than we are today.
6. Immediately after the second bridge, you’ll come to the beginning of the yellow-blazed Nuclear Lake Loop. Take a right turn to hop on the Yellow Trail here, and we’ll rejoin the AT in 1.1 miles, on the other end of the lake. (Keep your eyes peeled for those yellow blazes — a couple of hikers in the comments have reported that the blazes can be few and far-between in this stretch!
Update 8/10/2014: This is becoming a real trend. Many people are having difficulty following the Yellow Trail here. It’s very high on my to-do list to get back out here and see what’s going on — I didn’t have any trouble on my last visit, but it’s been a couple of years. Until I get out there to take some more pictures and update this guide, you may want to stick with the very clearly blazed White Trail and just do an up-and-back hike, instead of taking the Yellow Trail loop around the lake. If you play it safe and stay on the White Trail, you can skip down to the intersection at Step 9 below, on the far side of the lake, then turn around and retrace your steps from there. Further updates coming soon(ish)!) Update 9/1/2014: Never mind! Sounds like there are some nice fresh yellow blazes out there. Thank you to Liz and Mack in the comments for the update!
7. After being on the Yellow Trail for just a couple minutes, you’ll pop out onto the driveway for your favorite abandoned (and razed) nuclear research lab, the site of which is down the road to your left. Take a right and then a quick left to continue on the Yellow Trail, which never treads all that close to the abandoned site.
8. Begin skirting the lake, peeking through the trees at the spot where the nuclear lab used to sit. If you have a Geiger counter app on your iPhone, now might be the time to fire it up. No, no, it’s perfectly fine here. I’m almost certain.
The terrain along the lake gets a little rocky. Pick your way through, following the yellow blazes and enjoying the views off to your left. Keep on hoofing until the end of the Yellow Trail, 1.1 miles from start to finish.
9. The Yellow Trail dead-ends back into the Appalachian Trail on the far end of the lake.
Decision time! If you want to check out the overlook at Cat Rocks, which will add 4 up-and-back miles and 400 vertical feet to your day, you’d make a right turn here to continue uphill along the white-blazed Appalachian Trail. Cat Rocks will be on your left at the top of West Mountain, down a very short, well-trod (though unmarked) side trail – if you come to the Telephone Pioneers shelter, you’ve overshot Cat Rocks by about 10 minutes (though it’s unlikely you’d go that far past Cat Rocks, since the AT heads steeply downhill immediately after you pass Cat Rocks). If you decide to tackle West Mountain, that’d be a lot of hiking for one day, but the view is definitely worth a visit. (And remember, you can always visit Cat Rocks via the shorter approach from the other side of the mountain some other time.)
If you’re a wimp like me, though, you’ll turn left on the Appalachian Trail to continue looping around Nuclear Lake, heading back towards your car. If you go up to Cat Rocks, have fun! We’ll meet you at the next step in an hour or two.
10. Turn left on the Appalachian Trail to continue going around Nuclear Lake. Keep your eyes peeled for little unmarked side trails on your left that allow access to some choice lakeside lunch spots.
Just past a little clearing on your left, as you near your arrival back at the side of the lake where you started, the trail follows an old driveway, then splits off to the right while the road keeps going straight. Make sure you keep following the trail and not the driveway.
11. In .8 miles, you’ll arrive back at the junction with the Nuclear Lake Loop Trail. Keep right on the AT to retrace your steps back to your car.
12. That’s it! Follow the white blazes past the Beekman Uplands Loop, then take a right on the Blue Trail that will bring you back under the power lines and to your car. From the little footbridge right at the beginning of the Nuclear Lake Loop, it took us 34 minutes to get back to the car. Happy hoofing!
Now that you’re back at your car and reveling in your memories from the day, didn’t this hike give you a nice glow?
Directions to the trailhead: From Poughkeepsie, head east on Route 55 for about 17 miles; you’ll go past the Taconic Parkway and through the town of Poughquag. After you pass NY 216 coming in from the right, keep heading straight on 55 for about another mile. The unmarked, gravel parking area (with room for several cars) will be on your left, directly across the street from the former site of Precision Instruments at 3144 Route 55, Pawling, NY.
You can also get directions by checking out the Nuclear Lake entry on the HiketheHudsonValley.com Google map.
**UPDATE April 25, 2014** See Chris D’s comment below for information on another parking area and access route to Nuclear Lake. Thanks, Chris!
Sorta nearby address for your GPS: The unmarked, gravel parking area (with room for several cars) is directly across the street from the former site of Precision Instruments (apparently now a bait shop, perfect if you forgot your nightcrawlers) at this address:
3144 Route 55
Pawling, NY 12564
GPS coordinates of parking area: 41.58979, -73.65908 (Clicking will open in Google Maps or the Apple Maps app, depending on your browser/device.)
Related resources: If you’re looking for actual facts and/or useful information, visit these resources:
- An Associated Press article from 1986, with the following excerpt: “The Nuclear Lake Management Committee was satisfied with tests indicating that the trail area, which is 1,200 feet from the lake, was safe…. Tests of soil and vegetation in 1984 showed that radiation was no higher than normal background levels.”
- Video clips from a documentary about the former nuclear research facility
- The amusing comments at the bottom of this Nuclear Lake fishing site
- Some longer Nuclear Lake/Cat Rocks hikes at nycdayhiking.com
- A fun write-up of a visit to Nuclear Lake from Scouting NY
More Nuclear Lake pictures from the hike’s Picasa album (with a special thanks to my buddy Jered Earl “Chunks” Widmer for providing many of these photos):
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