Published in The Hour Online – January 2013.
PRACTICAL INFORMATION AT END OF ARTICLE.
The highest point in Westchester County may not be much of a boast. But Bailey Mountain sat only a hundred yards off the park road, so I could hardly pass it up. The summit is 982 feet above the sea. It is wooded and gently rounded. Even in leafless January there were no dramatic views, just a sense of the woods falling away in most directions. There can’t be a view at all in the leafy months. The good views in Mountain Lakes Park are in fact elsewhere — for instance on the white-blazed trail where my hike began this morning.
Much of the two-week-old snow had melted, but the trailhead was covered in frozen slush. I hardly took two paces before stopping to put on the boot chains that I’d almost not packed. They kept me moving – and upright – on the slick trail to the lookout. A few green pines stood out in the gray woods, and also a sapling beech amply clothed in stubborn fall leaves. A faint whiff of skunk hung in the air. After half a mile, the trail reached the rim of the escarpment above lakes Rippowam and Oscaleta. There was a fine view, but not of wilderness. Occasional sounds rose from the lakeside neighborhoods – knocks of construction, beeps of reversing vans, a hum of traffic. But southeast, above where Long Island Sound would be, there was a sky of cooked salmon, and a breeze kissed the rim from the same direction. Now the trail climbed sharply on steps of rock to a 900-foot ridge, and a pond that seemed to be glazed with cake icing. The snow here was crisscrossed by animal tracks that melting had enlarged into the marks of fearsome beasts.
Close to its road, Mountain Lakes was dotted with lean-tos and other structures. I rested at the lean-to called Larch. As well as the hut itself, there were two picnic tables; a grill and fire pit; and even a tinkling wind chime. This is after all a park, a place for the recreation of people more than the preservation of nature (the priorities are reversed at the Devil’s Den which I wrote about last month). For those in search of peace, winter may be a good season for Mountain Lakes, with the added benefit of walking the park road if the trails are treacherous. And the park is only developed in bits. In many of its 1,082 acres nature is left alone. I struck out for them now from Bailey Mountain, sending an unseen bird whirring and peeping into the woods in alarm.
But first I went to Connecticut. There was a stone marker where the park road ended at the state line − a dead-straight line, of course, following no curve of brook or ridge. And it could easily have ended up in a different place altogether. The colonies of Connecticut and New York squabbled endlessly over their boundary, even to the point of threatening force. At last, in the late 1600s, they agreed it should lie 20 miles east of the Hudson. But that would put Greenwich and Stamford in New York, against the will of their inhabitants. So the “handle of the cleaver” was ceded to the Nutmeggers, and in return New York gained 1.81 miles of Connecticut all the way from Ridgefield to Massachusetts – a strip called The Oblong, and but for which Bailey Mountain would be just another hill in Fairfield County.
The northeast corner of the park was natural all right, full in fact of nature’s mess. Huge pines had fallen across the trail – snapped or uprooted. Sandy again. They made for awkward detours. In the woods, there was a worn carpet of snow. I stopped at a brook to look around at the patches of snow-crushed leaves, the downed wood littering the brook, the twigs sticking out of the snow. It was hardly pretty, but it was still good to be out, drawing cold air into my nostrils.
And later, when I shut out the tumbledown huts around it, Hemlock Lake was a treat — the gray of ice and sky interchangeable, and tawny reed beds separating ice from dark trees.
MOUNTAIN LAKES PARK
|PARKING||At “W” trailhead, 400 yards beyond park entrance (201 Hawley Road, North Salem).|
|DISTANCE||A little over 5 miles.|
|MAP AND ROUTE||Trail maps available at park office, and on Westchestergov.com. Hike followed W trail; park road to CT line; Y trail to B trail via Hunt Lane; B trail to Hemlock Lake; R trail around the lake; park road back to start.|
|WHAT TO TAKE||Sturdy shoes (chains in icy conditions), layers of clothing, water and snacks, your dog.|