Cartographer Herb Chong has hiked the rocky ridges of the Shawangunk Mountains countless times collecting trail data, but he never tires of the craggy terrain.
"There's so much character here," Chong says, pausing on a recent afternoon to watch a pair of turkey vultures ride the thermals above great, blocky cliffs. "In the fall, the blueberry bushes are a sea of red. In winter, it's dazzling snow and ice. And in spring, flowers pop up everywhere."
The Shawangunk Ridge, a glacially scoured mountain range of white quartzite conglomerate rock topped by globally rare dwarf pine barrens, is one of the more unusual segments of the Long Path - a 349-mile hiking trail from Fort Lee, N.J., to the Helderberg Escarpment near Albany, N.Y.
Chong is editor of the fifth edition of the "Long Path Guide," recently published by the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference, a nonprofit group that marks and maintains the Long Path and other trails.
The Long Path idea was conceived in 1931 by Vincent Schaefer, a scientist from Schenectady. Schaefer envisioned an unmarked route linking the state's greatest natural and historical landmarks from New York City to Whiteface Mountain in the Adirondacks.
The concept didn't gain strong support until the 1960s and '70s, when trail construction got under way. Unlike Schaefer's original idea of an unmarked route, the Long Path is clearly marked with aqua paint blazes.
It begins on the western side of the George Washington Bridge in New Jersey and follows the Palisades Escarpment, with spectacular views of the Hudson River and New York City.
Farther north, it follows roads for 18 miles through hilly farm country in Orange County. Then it winds along the Shawangunk ridge with its towering cliffs, turquoise glacial lakes, blueberry fields, and bonsai-like pines.
Later, the trail passes over the highest peaks of the Catskill Mountains, through the quiet forests of the Schoharie Valley, and finally along the dramatic cliffs of the Helderberg Escarpment in John Boyd Thacher State Park.
The Trail Conference and other groups hope to extend the path north through the Adirondacks to the Canadian border someday. But now, it ends abruptly at a stop sign in rural Altamont, 12 miles west of Albany.
"I took a picture of myself at the stop sign, then stood there for a few minutes trying to figure out what to do," says Roger Mailler, 31, a doctoral student at the University of Massachusetts. He is only the fourth person to have hiked the entire Long Path at once; most do it in a series of short hikes over a period of years.
The Trail Conference records "end-to-enders" who have hiked the entire path. There are 69 listed in the latest edition of the guide book.
"I like to have a goal when I hike," says Mailler, who completed the Long Path in 25 days of hiking this spring. "Someday I hope to do the Appalachian Trail (from Maine to Georgia), and maybe the Pacific Crest Trail (Mexico to Canada)." He already has done Vermont's Long Trail, 270 miles from Massachusetts to Canada.
One of the great appeals of the Long Path is its diversity, Mailler says. "When you start out, the path is in the city with lots of people walking and riding bikes," he said. "As the day goes on, the George Washington Bridge gradually disappears behind you. You're shedding more and more civilization the farther north you go."
Mailler carried a backpack that he restocked with food from packages mailed in advance to post offices along the route. He slept in a tiny tent in state parks whenever he could but had to stay at motels near some trail segments where no camping is allowed.
He encountered porcupines, deer, an enormous snapping turtle laying eggs in the middle of the trail, a wary timber rattlesnake and hordes of ticks. Sometimes he wouldn't see a human being or cross a road for four or five days.
That solitude is nice, up to a point.
"The trail is hard, and when you're all alone, it wears you down. You start questioning if it's worth it," Mailler says. "To me, the answer is yes, it is worth it. It gives me a sense of completion, of connection with nature."
Ed Walsh has hiked the entire trail twice and wrote a section of the guide book. He first hiked the trail in about 20 trips in 1984-85 with his two sons, who were 6 and 9 at the time.
"I needed something to keep their interest, to give them a goal," says Walsh, 53, a power plant operator from West Haverstraw, 35 miles north of New York City. "This was a good long-term project, with a little more accomplished each week."
Kay Cynamon, a New York City physician who completed the trail last October, says the Long Path introduced her to areas she never would have seen otherwise.
For some, hiking a long-distance trail is a way of proving to themselves that they're mentally and physically up to the challenge. For Mailler, it's also a matter of regaining a fundamental connection with nature, as described by Ralph Waldo Emerson.
"We go about our daily lives looking for something, not knowing what's missing," Mailler says. "The hole we feel from day to day is the lack of connection with the natural world."
And when it's all finished, the simple pleasures of civilization are oh, so sweet.
"When you get into town, you go right for the ice cream," Mailler says. "You get a pint of Haagen Dazs, chow it down, then go have lunch. You build up a voracious hunger on the trail."
IF YOU GO ...
To order maps or guide books, contact the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference at (201) 512-9348 or online at www.nynjtc.org.Copyright © 2015, CT Now