Background you can feel free to skip: As you approach Verkeerderkill Falls at Sam’s Point, a sign reminds you that you are visiting one of the Earth’s Last Great Places. The first time I saw that sign, I thought, “That’s a bit of overstatement, don’t you think?”
Then I took a few more steps, out onto the Wiley-Coyote-style cliff that seems to exist solely to give you the best possible view of the falls, and I understood that it wasn’t an overstatement at all. The falls drop 180 feet to the bottom of what feels like your own private canyon. This is indeed one of the Earth’s Last Great Places, without a doubt, and we’re lucky to have it right here in the Hudson Valley.
That being said, the falls aren’t always running full steam. Come here in late summer, and you’ll likely see a trickle with a similar gallon-per-minute rating to your favorite shower head. But when they’re going (as they’re likely to be in spring or early summer, or after a good solid rain other times of year), man, I don’t know a nicer spot in the Hudson Valley, and maybe not in New York. Oh, what the heck. Maybe not in the whole world.
There are also some fantastic ice caves to explore at Sam’s Point. You can feel a cool breeze blowing through the caves even on the hottest summer day.
There are some ladders on the trail through the caves, so if you brought your dog, I hope she can climb ladders, or you’ll need to give her a little help. (If you have a St. Bernard, you could also explore some of the caves with your pooch and then turn around when you come to the ladders – you’d still get to explore a good bit of the caves that way.)
Because they stay so cold, the ice caves are often impassible well into the spring. It would be a bummer to get all the way down to the ice caves entrance to find them closed, so if you’re here in early spring or late fall, check at the visitor’s center at the trailhead to make sure they’re open.
If you’re looking for a moderate hike, a 5-mile stroll from the parking area to Verkeerderkill Falls and back would be my recommendation. That’s the hike I did on my first five visits here; it’s beautiful the whole way and not too steep. Optionally, you could add a spur to the ice caves and another spur to Lake Maratanza, but that would be a lot of hiking for one day (I’ve never done all three in one shot, but in theory it should be pretty doable for hard-core hikers).
In the trail guide below, I’ll give the hike as if you’re just visiting Verkeerderkill Falls and coming straight back (which is what I normally do here), but I’ll list optional steps, with the extra mileage you’d be tackling, if you’d like to visit the ice caves and Lake Maratanza as well. I highly recommend visiting all three, but depending on how much hiking you like to do at once, you might be well advised to check them out in multiple visits.
**UPDATE October 2014** This place is not a well-kept secret. In response to a Facebook post with nice pictures of Sam’s Point, some friendly hikers dropped a couple of good tips about parking at Sam’s Point: “you should note in your trail guide that there is very limited parking at Sam’s Point and once the lot reaches its capacity, they turn away hikers. no parking on the road allowed. If you don’t get there early on weekends, you’re very likely to be turned away!” and “I was there last week during the week too. It was amazing! I asked about the weekends. They said from 9:30 on they are outside managing the parking situation. They only allow 7 holding spots to wait for a parking spot. The rest are turned away. During the week is best!” Thanks for the sage advice, Danielle and Kelly!
**UPDATE May 2015** Sam’s Point officially became part of Minnewaska State Park Preserve in April 2015, and is no longer owned by the Nature Conservancy. As alert hiker Salley Decker wrote to me, here’s one ramification of that change: “Any New York State resident age 62 or older can enter a New York State park free of charge for day use (no parking fee charged) during the week. A driver’s license must be provided. This free access applies Monday through Friday on all non-holiday weekdays. (The parking fee must be paid on all holidays.) The free access applies as long as at least one NYS resident age 62 or older is in the car. The NYS Empire Pass would also be accepted at the parking lot.” Thanks, Salley!
**UPDATE June 26 2019** If you’re bringing your pooch here in warm weather, please be aware that this hike can be very tough on sensitive doggy feet. This is a very rocky hike (especially the path to the falls), and those rocks can get dangerously hot. Please see Stephanie’s comment below for a PSA and cautionary tale. (And thank you for helping future furry friends to avoid the same fate, Stephanie!)
**UPDATE June 2016** Due to a wildfire that recently tore through the park, the falls trail detailed below is closed until further notice (perhaps re-opening in mid-late 2017). Some areas of the park are now open, including the ice caves (weather permitting – they are closed in the winter and generally re-open in May). Before planning a visit here, be sure to check the official Sam’s Point page for the most current trail information.
**UPDATE August 2017** The trails outlined below are all open again! Hooray! (And thank you, Thomas O’Brien, for the heads-up on this site’s Facebook page.) Looks like the area still has a lot of healing to do, but it’s wonderful news that it’s healthy enough to handle visitors again.
1. The Minnewaska State Park Preserve has a nice trail map available from its official NYS Parks Sam’s Point page. They should have copies at the visitor’s center as well, but you could look extra cool by already having one of your own.
2. From the parking area, head around the gate on the main trail, shown as the Loop Road on the map. Almost immediately, you’ll have the choice to go left, towards the Huckleberry Pickers’ shacks (which are a historical curiosity, but you needn’t feel like you’ve missed out on anything if you never pay them a visit, especially if you’ve seen a shack before), or right, towards Sam’s Point. We’re going right.
3. Follow the decrepit old road as it gains altitude and meanders through several switchbacks. In just a few minutes, you’ll find yourself looking up at some very cool cliffs shooting up on your left (the same ones you saw on your drive in). At one point along the cliffs, you’ll see a giant rectangular slab of a rock on the ground in front of you. Look at the cliff directly above it, and you can see the hole this rock left when it dislodged and fell. I feel like I should have some sort of punchline here, but I just like that rock for some reason.
4. As the road continues climbing, some beautiful views, complete with rocky viewing platforms, open up to your right. Take a moment to enjoy them.
5. The road gains enough altitude that you’re now even with the tops of the cliffs you were just walking under. In a moment, on your left, the road opens up into what probably used to be a parking area. If you took this left turn, you’d find yourself on a very short spur trail to Sam’s Point, a panoramic vista where, apparently, some guy named Sam survived a jump off the cliffs after angering some Native Americans. No word on whether Sam deserved to get caught or not, but it’s a good story, anyway.
I like to save Sam’s Point for last, as a grand finale before heading back to the car, but there’s no reason you couldn’t scope it out now if you just can’t stand to wait – it’s just a short walk over there. Go ahead if you can’t control yourself. I’ll wait here.
6. Once you either checked out Sam’s Point or delayed your gratification for later, continue straight on the Loop Road, which is mercifully flat compared to the climb you just completed. The bushes rise up on either side, and you won’t be able to see much to your right or left. You’re looking for your first right turn, on the road that heads downhill towards the falls and the ice caves. When you come to this road, turn right off the Loop Road.
7. A very short distance after you turn off the Loop Road, the Verkeerderkill Falls trail heads off to your left, through the scrubby bushes. This is your decision point. Continuing straight down the road takes you to the ice caves, and adds 1.1 miles, roundtrip (that doesn’t sound like much, but it is a rather steep and slow-going 1.1 miles). Going left takes you to the falls, a 4-mile roundtrip from this spot over very rocky terrain that generally slopes gently downhill toward the falls (though the uphill return feels somewhat less gentle).
8. Optional step: Visit the ice caves. Keep heading down the road, which descends steeply for .3 miles to the ice caves. At the bottom of this road, you’ll see what must have once been the parking lot for the ice caves, back when this was a commercial attraction. A White Trail takes you on a .5-mile loop through the caves. Take the closest entrance, and the loop will dump you back onto the far side of the parking lot later, after you’ve caved it up. Have fun exploring!
There’s one spot one the White Trail where you have to open a door, and a light pops on in the cave (unless a previous visitor already turned it on.) It feels like you just walked in on a surprise party for one of the seven dwarves.
There are also some nice views towards the end of the loop.
Once you’ve completed the loop and come back to the parking area, slog back up the road .3 miles to the spot where the Verkeerderkill Falls Trail heads off to the right.
9. Okay, whether you chose to check out the ice caves or not, it’s time to explore the Verkeerderkill Falls trail. Hop on and enjoy the stroll amongst the globally rare dwarf pines. You’ll usually have views off to your right as you go. There are only two minor bummers about this trail: it wanders downhill most of the way (meaning it’s uphill on the way back), and it is very rocky. (UPDATE June 2013: Chris’ comment below reminded me of a third minor bummer: During wet conditions, this trail doesn’t drain the quickest. If you come after a good rainfall, prepare for puddles.) Otherwise, it’s just about the nicest trail I know of, with wide views much of the way, including views of the northern Shawangunk Ridge.
10. As you get closer to the falls, you’ll plunge into a magical little birch grove. If I was a gnome, this would be my hangout.
11. The closer you get to the falls, the steeper the trail heads downhill, and the bigger the trees get. Finally, you’ll arrive at a stream crossing, just above the falls. If the water is very, very high, you’ll have to follow it upstream for a while to find a crossing (this has only happened to me once, after some serious, serious rain). Usually, it’s just an easy hop-and-a-skip to the other side, where you can stop for a moment to strike a pose, if you’re so inclined.
12. On the far side of the creek, the trail turns downstream, and you’ll see the sign informing you that you’re now hanging out at one of the Earth’s Last Great Places.
13. Make your way to the cliff overlook on your right. Please be extremely careful here. There are no guard rails, and it’s a long way down.
14. Behold the falls, and then try to tell someone this isn’t one the Earth’s Great Places.
About the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen a human being do was back in 2001, when my friend Chunks ventured onto the rocks on top of the falls to get a cool picture for his online dating profile. I’m including the pictures here because Chunks just sent them to me, and he did, after all, risk death to have them taken. As of this writing, Darwin thankfully hasn’t caught up with Chunks yet.
15. After you’ve soaked in the view of the falls, retrace your steps back up the Verkeerderkill Falls Trail. It wasn’t this steep on the way down, was it?
16. When the Verkeerderkill Falls Trail dead-ends into the road, take a right to head back towards the Loop Road (going left here would take you to the ice caves).
17. Once you arrive back at the Loop Road, you have another decision to make. Take a right, and in about a quarter-mile, you’ll see Lake Maratanza, a very nice place to visit and perhaps let Fido take a well-deserved dip. Go left, and you’ll head back to Sam’s Point and your car. Visiting Lake Maratanza is NOT a loop, and it’s about .5 miles up-and-back (you could make it a loop, but it’s a pretty boring slog with power lines and radio towers in your face most of the way. Better to make a visit to Lake Maratanza an up-and-back venture.)
18. Optional step: Visit Lake Maratanza. Take a right on the loop road and walk along the flat path for about a quarter mile. You’ll see the lake open up on your left, surrounded by a wide, rocky beach. At 2245 feet above sea level, Lake Maratanza is the highest lake in the Shawangunk Ridge, and it is a beautiful place to visit. (It would be even more beautiful without the communications towers on the far side, but since I listen to the radio and have a cell phone, I guess I can’t complain.)
Hang out beside the lake (no human swimming allowed) and enjoy the sunshine for a moment. When you’re done, head back the way you came. (My last time here, I took my friends all the way around the Loop Road, and I regretted it. There’s not much to see after the lake, besides the Huckleberry Pickers’ shacks, which look exactly like you might expect. Tempting as it is to complete the entire Loop Road, I recommend heading back toward Sam’s Point, which is much more scenic.)
19. Head back towards Sam’s Point on the Loop Road (taking a left onto the Loop Road if you’re coming up on the road from Verkeerderkill Falls or the ice caves, or heading straight on the Loop Road if you’re coming from Lake Maratanza.)
20. Whether or not you stopped at Sam’s Point on the way in, take a stop there now, across the old parking lot on your right. If angry people are chasing you, consider taking desperate measures. Otherwise, just relax and enjoy the view.
21. After you’ve taken a picture or two at Sam’s Point, follow your steps back down the road to your car. Once you get there, try to think of a better way you could have spent ten dollars.
Directions to the trailhead: From Walden, take Route 52 West for about 14 miles. As the road ascends steeply, keep an eye out for Cragsmoor Road on your right. Turn right onto Cragsmoor Road and follow it for about 1.4 miles, past the town library. Turn right onto Sam’s Point Road (go slow heading into the turn, it can be easy to miss) and pass the Cragsmoor Fire Dept on your right. Stay straight on Sam’s Point Road for about a mile until it dead-ends into the parking lot.
You can also get directions by checking out the Sam’s Point entry on the HiketheHudsonValley.com Google map.
Sorta nearby address for your GPS: The Cragsmoor Fire Dept is about a mile from the trailhead on Sam’s Point Road. The fire house will be on your right – just keep heading straight and you’ll be in the Sam’s Point parking area in a couple minutes. The Cragsmoor Fire Dept address is:
66 Sams Point Rd
Cragsmoor, New York 12420
(And if your device doesn’t like “Cragsmoor” as the town, try it with “Pine Bush” instead. One hiker reported that this worked better for her.)
**UPDATE March 2019** According to Litza’s helpful comment below, you should not enter “Sam’s Point” as a destination into Apple Maps, or you’ll be taken to a nonexistent road where you’ll have to exhaust your entire expletive vocabulary. Using the visitor’s center address of 400 Sam’s Point Road apparently works just fine, as do the GPS coordinates just below this update (and the fire dept address above). Thanks for the heads-up, Litza!
GPS coordinates of parking area: 41.67015, -74.36167 (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 pages:
Want to support trails in the Hudson Valley? Here’s one great way: Visit the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference homepage and click on Volunteer, Donate, or Shop! (Then you can volunteer, donate, or shop, depending on your mood.)