The Gunks, in New Paltz, New York, is a world-class climbing mecca with literally thousands of established routes and variations. The rock is a solid, dense quartzite (harder than granite!), averaging some 200 plus feet high and extending for miles above rolling pastoral farmland.
The nature of the rock is such that there are long, clean, classic, steep routes at every level of difficulty even at the 5.2 level. The horizontal layering of the rock sometimes creates veritable ladders of bucket-sized holds, so that even the climber of modest ability can fairly confidently ascend many fabulous and exposed pieces of rock. For decades, the climbing scene here has been intense and concentrated with large numbers of talented climbers pushing the standards, so there are innumerable desperates for the hard-core rock-athlete as well. Leads of 5.11+ and harder are often poorly protected, due to the Gunks’ ban on bolts. Here, top-roping has become essentially the equivalent of sport-climbing elsewhere.
The density of superb routes at the Gunks is matched by few other areas anywhere. It’s also a very picturesque place, with laurels and rhododendrons blooming in the spring. The entire ambiance of the place is a sort of Arcadian Climbers’ Heaven. You must go there. It’s a must-see.
Numerous clifflines make up the totality of the Gunks. The two most popular are the Trapps and Near Trapps.
This mile-long cliff has a quality climb seemingly every fifteen to twenty feet along its entire length, and virtually all of them are on excellent, clean, steep rock — even the lowly 5.2’s and 5.3’s are gorgeous and challenging. The “Uberfall” — a kind of “cathedral of rock” near the cliff’s south end — is the standard meeting spot and is good for end-of-day top-roping and bouldering. A carless dirt carriage road runs the length of the cliff and provides perfectly flat landings for the many outstanding boulders along its length; in recent years the Gunks has seen a renaissance of new bouldering and much of the activity is centered here or over at the Peterskill area, several miles west of the Trapps.
When visiting the Trapps a super fun activity is to spend hours up on the airy Grand Traverse Ledge, doing classic top pitches on the gorgeous white rock between Arrow Wall and High Exposure. Rap back to GT Ledge each time and walk along this comfortably-wide ledge to locate your next wonderful climb. The exposure up there is exhilarating and the views are fantastic.
The Near Trapps
The Near Trapps is shorter in length than the Trapps and has fewer extremely easy routes, but the quality and steepness of the rock in the cliff’s first third is very outstanding (the mid-section of the Nears is rather vegetated). Unlike the Trapps, where the rock features tend to parallel the cliff’s face, the Nears is filled with accordian-like sequences of aretes and “open-book” corners capped by overhangs. Tired of weekend crowds? You may walk down to the far end of the Nears for additional clean rock and respite from the masses.
One of the best, most convenient places at the Gunks for hard climbing (from 5.10+ to 5.12) is the phenomenal Birdland-Gelsa area of the Nears. It’s not uncommon to see this entire 150-yard section of cliff festooned with top-ropes. Pitches like like To Be or Not to Be (12a with the direct finish), Birbrain (11+), and Slammin the Salmon (12b) — all normally protected by top-rope — are utterly fantastic.
The Gunks has some wonderful cliffs that are far less often visited than the Trapps and Near Trapps — Millbrook and Bonticou, for example. And there are yet other hidden, but extensive gems which, by local consensus remain “oral history only, no-guidebook" status. If you’re fortunate enough to find a knowledgable friend to show you around, you will be absolutely astonished and delighted by what you will see and climb.
Free camping can be found in the immediate area — but it’s sometimes noisy and crowded, so ask around the DMC for directions to more peaceful tenting.
Swimming is available at the Coxing Kill stream about a mile or so west of the Trapps. You can either hike down a convenient path from the main Gunks parking lot (via the Shongum Trail) or drive there. There is a waterfall at the swimming hole which nicely massages your tired shoulders with its pounding cascade.
References: Shawangunks Rock Climbs by Richard Williams, 3rd Edition, American Alpine Club, New York, 1991; The Gunks Guide by Todd Swain, 2nd Edition, Chockstone Press, Evergreen, CO, 1989.