The Hudson Valley has no shortage of amazing mountains to explore, with views that make the climb up the steep inclines completely worth it. Mountains like Storm King and Breakneck Ridge rise from the river’s edge and give hikers the opportunity to take in views for miles. I love mountains more than most things, but occasionally I am looking for a hike that doesn’t push me up a series of switchbacks or over a ridge line. It’s easy to write off flat hikes as not being worth it, but there are some hidden gems in the area, including Nuclear Lake.
A lake and its plutonium
I’m sure you read that twice to make sure you were correct. Nuclear Lake? That sounds foreboding, doesn’t it? Trust me, this hike is anything but foreboding. It’s a great choice if you’re looking to see one of the most gorgeous lakes in the area, if you’re bringing kids along, or if you want to make it into a much longer hike via the Appalachian Trail, which skirts Nuclear Lake’s loop trail.
But, Heather, why is it called Nuclear lake? Don’t worry, we’ll get to that.
There are a few different places where you can pick up this trail. I was meeting my best friend Elijah, and our friend Stef to tackle this hike, after letting it sit on our list of good intentions for over a year. We met early in the morning the trailhead in Pawling, NY. It’s conveniently located right on the side of Rt 55 and marked with a sign and a gravel parking area.
The hike starts out flat, winding away from the road and into the woods. It had rained heavily the night before and into the morning, so the trail was cool and slightly muddy. We were alone on the trail except for when we ran into a woman who was out walking her dog. She commented on my lack of shoes and went on her way.
The trail follows the shore
We crossed over a stream where we could hear running water but couldn’t find a good vantage spot to see where it was rushing through the giant boulders on the side of the trail. A wooden bridge helped keep us dry as we crossed and continued on in search of the lake.
The trail begins by following blue blazes until it picks up the Appalachian Trail and changes to white blazes. The route is relatively flat, but there are sections that are rocky and require some thoughtful footing. After hiking for a little while, a sign appears for the Nuclear Lake loop, and the trail turns to yellow blazes as it winds around the water. We began to catch glimpses of the lake in the distance, hurrying our pace to get to its shore.
The lake itself is stunning. The water was a deep blue and smooth from shore to shore, reflecting the trees and bushes at its edge. We walked to the edge of the water and dumped our packs down, silent for a few minutes as we took it in. Bird calls rang out through the wood, and from the other side of the lake, the faint sound of other hikers could be heard.
So why is it called Nuclear Lake?
Well, because a long time ago, there was a chemical testing facility located right on the shore of this pristine body of water nestled in the woods. Like the setup for Stephen King novel, there were chemical experiments going outside of the small town of Pawling. So what could go wrong?
Something went wrong in the lab one day and there was an explosion that blew out the windows on the building and sent a bunch of bomb-grade plutonium into the lake and the forest around it. I guess calling it Plutonium Lake would have been more obvious.
Now you’re probably shaking your head at the screen, wondering why I am sending you on a radioactive nature walk! But have no fear, the area was cleared of any contamination decades ago, and to date, there have been no reports of hikers being negatively affected by the accident. Who knew the site of a chemical explosion could be the perfect spot for a picnic?
Don’t forget Bigfoot
Nuclear Lake’s other claim to fame in the area is being a supposed hotbed of Sasquatch activity. People in the area have stories about coming across the mammoth creature in the desolate woods around the lake. There is even purportedly a video that shows a baby Sasquatch swinging through the trees like a monkey. Because a baby bigfoot is a more reasonable explanation than a rogue monkey or an acrobatic thru-hiker.
We saw no Sasquatch, though we were hiking with a dog named Poseidon and I am relatively sure he scared off any big creatures that might have wanted to cross our path. After resting by the water for a while, we decided to continue around the lake.
The trail winds around the lake, taking you along its edge and giving different views of the gorgeous water. There is a peninsula that juts into the middle of the lake, and we stopped there for our next break. It’s nice to not hike for time sometimes, and we enjoyed lazing about and watching a giant frog in the reeds at the edge of the water.
The next section of trail includes the only real incline on the path, which is barely a hill that you trek up to get a higher vantage point of the area. We could hear other hikers once again, their voices bouncing out over the water like bits of plutonium.
The next outcropping of rocks gave us a view of the grassy field where the testing facility once stood. The path doesn’t come close to it, instead cutting over a wide carriage road and continuing to give the spot distance before meeting up with the Appalachian Trail once more.
Once we were back on the AT, it was about a half hour or so back to the juncture with the blue trail that would take us home. We retraced our steps and passed back over the stream that we had crossed earlier. We finally broke back out to the parking area and began to check for ticks, since that is easier to look for than radioactivity.
The fun doesn’t have to stop there
The cool thing about this hike, besides that it is relatively secluded, is that you can make this a longer day on the trail if you wanted to continue along the Appalachian Trail and head out to Cat’s Rock. It adds an extra four miles to your trip, but if the lake wasn’t enough for you and you want an overlook, Cat’s Rock is where to go.
We talked about doing an extended trip another day. Actually, we’re planning a backpacking trip along the trail later in the summer. I added Nuclear Lake to the list of hikes that my kids would love, especially if I lead with the story about the testing site.
So, if you’re looking for a trip that shows off one of the prettiest lakes in New York, or are on the hunt for Sasquatch, check out the Nuclear Lake trail in Pawling. It offers a relatively leisurely hike and amazing photo opportunities. You can also bring along unsuspecting friends and terrify them with stories of chemical testing and its aftermath. Or you could just go on a picnic. Your choice.