Mohonk Mountain House is one of the last great inns in the Hudson River Valley, just 90 miles north of New York City. It’s a special place for me because I rediscovered my love of hiking there amidst the Shawanagunk Mountains and nearby Catskills Mountain Range. Resembling Harry Potter’s castle, Mohonk is a huge Victorian pile of a place that’s been upgraded with every resort quality convenience but still maintains the rustic charm of a bygone era.
One of the lasting traditions at the Mohonk Mountain House is to place covered benches called summerhouses along the many miles of hiking trails that emanate from inn’s lake and estate. These trails are linked ot a larger trail system in the adjacent Mohonk Preserve, home of the Gunks, one of the most famous rock-climbing destination in the Northeastern United States.
Patterned after the summerhouses of English and French estates, summerhouses were popular in the Hudson Valley area when Mohonk was founded in 1869. Mohonk’s founders, the Smiley Brothers (the Mountain House is still owned and run by the family) incorporated the summerhouses into the system of carriage roads (now trails) that they built around the Mountain House, situating them where guests could enjoy sublime views of the surrounding countryside.
All of the summerhouses on the Mountain House’s property are unique, with no two exactly alike. When they were first built in 1870, the summerhouses were built by rustic carpenters, usually farmers without any carpentry training, who used local materials from the surrounding forest to build them. While the Smiley brothers specified the placement of each summerhouse, there were no engineering drawings to specify what they should look like. Instead, each builder was left to use their imagination to determine their appearance, a tradition that continues at Mohonk today.
The earliest tally of summerhouses, dated in 1917, recorded 155 summerhouses at Mohonk. Each one is identified by a four-digit number etched on an oval tag nailed inside each house (and can be a challenge to find). In 1920, when it was normal for guests to stay all summer, a contest was announced in which guests were required to record the location and number of each summerhouse. Only one guest completed this task in a single season, a Mr G.E Fountain, in 1923.
Today, there are reported to be 125 remaining summerhouses on the Mohonk Mountain House grounds although no one has since located all of them without the use of a map. If that sounds like a challenge, this is your chance to make history and help preserve the legacy of Mohonk’s summerhouses.