Camping in New York: Not so rough

Map of Beacon, New York
By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 10, 2010; 11:22 AM

Sitting around the crackling fire in a Hudson Valley campsite, I proudly surveyed my forested domain from the throne of a canvas chair. My tent was perfectly assembled and moodily lit by a hanging lantern. On the two-burner gas stove, the cheese was melting on a veggie burger, while a hash of peas and corn heated up in a pot. A sweet potato slowly roasted in the fire pit. I pulled up the iron grill and threw more logs on the flame with an expertise that was, well, false.

I had an enviable campsite, but I could not take credit for any of it. Malouf's Mountain Sunset Campground, not I, deserved the merit badge.

Nestled on Fishkill Ridge near the Hudson River, the hike-in/hike-out destination caters to co-dependent campers who are more comfortable following the leader and to urbanites who want effortless nature.

"I target people who don't have cars or camping gear but want to be in the outdoors," said Dick Malouf, who opened the campground five years ago on his 60-acre mountain plot. "Everything's all set when you come in."

Malouf's operation is rare in the camping world because it fuses the ease of a hotel (shuttle service, luggage transfer, preassembled nest) with the adventure of an alfresco vacation. You don't have to lift much of a finger except to flick away the spider crawling up your tent pole.

Hikers start from the same point - the Beacon train depot, on the Metro-North Hudson line in New York - before heading off on several trails that end at the same place: the campground. (Those with wheels can park at the station for free on weekends or in a municipal lot.) The 80-minute ride from Grand Central Station parallels the sailboat-flecked river and a verdant landscape as healthy as a salad. It gets you in the mood to be free of walls.

Malouf picks up guests outside the station, in a green van that looks as if it had bummed around Woodstock. I admired his beard, a coonskin cap for the chin, as he tossed my bags in the back. After depositing me at a trail head, he would transport my belongings by ATV to my assigned campsite. That's better service than a Holiday Inn.

In the van, we discussed the hiking options. In ascending demands of time and stamina, the three are Access Point 1, a half-hour trek on the Red Overlook trail; Access Point 2, a 21/2-hour journey alongside a stream; and Access Point 3, a three- to five-hour hike about which Malouf's Web site warns, "Do not attempt this hike without a trail map."

In hindsight, I should have heeded this advice. And future hikers, if possible, add to that map (which Malouf sells for $11) a search-and-rescue dog. The Boy Scouts chose "Be Prepared" as their motto for a reason. Unfortunately, I was never a boy or a scout, and did not fully honor their maxim.

The trail follows the old Mount Beacon Incline Railway, which in its day (1902) was the steepest railway in the world, rising 900 feet in less than a half-mile. At the peak, an aerie more than 1,600 feet high, the path turns south, then travels laterally, past an abandoned car (don't begrudge an obvious landmark, despite its blemish on the setting), radio towers and a reservoir. If all goes well, you should land at the campground without incident and in time to build a fire that welcomes dusk.

But for me, all did not go as plotted. I saw the rusted remains of the railway and the brick shell of the former mountaintop hotel, the Casino, a place for fancy folk that burned in 1927. I stood at the precipice with other hikers, regarding the panorama from Poughkeepsie to Storm King Mountain. Red-tailed hawks coasted by on mild wind currents, ignoring the outsiders in their air space.

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