Rocky Ramapo Ruins

A new camera. A mountainous hiking trail. Abandoned ruins of a once-great mansion. A cold January day. Blustery winds making the temperatures feel far below freezing. A hard-to-decipher map. Getting lost. These are only a few of the events that came together to turn a planned two-mile hike into an 8-mile excursion. It was, without a doubt, one of the most memorable misadventures we have ever had in this blog.

In April of 2015, I bought a Canon EOS 70D, which became my workhorse camera body over the past five years. Although still serviceable, I felt I had reached the limits of its abilities. For instance, I found its autofocus system lacking when I tried to photograph action photos such as birds in flight. While surfing through camera store websites, I came across a fantastic deal on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, a pro-level camera that would be able to handle anything I could throw at it. Basically, if I can imagine a scene, this camera has the technical abilities to handle it. Although the 5D Mark IV would ordinarily be out of my price range, I found a gently used model at a camera dealer I trust. I purchased it, and after wading through the six hundred-page owners manual, I was ready to take it out into the field for a test run.

My wife offered to try to figure out a cool spot to test the camera. After reviewing several options, we settled on a hike in the mountains of northern New Jersey, through Ramapo Mountain State Forest.

So on a frigid January weekend, we headed up, up, up the mountain ahead:

The New Camera Test Drive

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV camera body on wooden table, with box in background.
The purpose for our trip: a test drive of my brand new Canon EOS 5D Mark IV. As days go, “New Camera Day” is pretty good. 
Map of New Jersey, with red pin in location of Ramapo Mountain State Forest
Our destination: Ramapo Mountain State Forest, a 4,200 acre woodland in the mountains of northern New Jersey.
View of I-287 through windshield of Jeep Grand Cherokee.
Although we had clear skies for our trip, it was certainly on the chilly side. Temperatures would rise to the low 30’s, but the wind chill made it feel like it was in the teens.
Sign along Forest path that says CASTLE LOOP TRIAL TO RAMAPO LAKE
We arrived mid-morning and set off along the Castle Loop Trail. In our pre-trip research, we had read of a ruined mansion on a mountaintop deep in the park. Checking the map, a two mile round trip hike would take us to the ruins and back to our Jeep. However, please note this sign… it holds a critical clue to our later misadventure.
Rocky path through woodland.
Carved into the side of a mountain, the trails through Ramapo Mountain State Forest were filled with large stones, loose rocks, fallen leaves, mud, and ice. This was among the more gentle of the sections of trail we encountered.
Ramapo Lake.
Although the trail map indicated that the Castle Loop should pass right by the ruins of the old mansion, we ended up at Ramapo Lake, having seen only trees and rocks during our walk. On the positive side, I was impressed with the level of detail my new camera provided in this image of the partially-frozen lake.
Forest path, with sign that says CASTLE LOOP TRAIL TO UPPER LOT.
Despite searching the hillsides during our hike, we saw no evidence of any ruins. Disappointed, we trudged back to the parking lot. 
Information board on trail, with map of park.
Before heading home, we thought we would check the map at the parking lot to see what we possibly had done wrong, and then we noticed something about the signs…
…whoops. The Castle Loop Trail has two paths – one to Lake Ramapo, and one to the ruins. We had gone left when we should have hung a right. Compounding our mistake, we also missed where the two trails connect (it’s a loop, after all). Although we were tired, we were determined to reach our destination, so we set off again!
Rocky trail through woods.
Whereas the trail to the lake was rough, the path to the ruins was downright challenging. Steep grades, sheer rock face, and paths strewn with constantly-shifting rocks made this one of the more challenging hikes I have taken in recent memory. Even my trips to the top of Bald Mountain and Rocky Point in the Adirondacks were less difficult than this.
Stone tower on top of mountain.
Ascending to the top of the mountain, we came cross this stone tower – we had reached our destination! Once upon a time, this was a fire tower atop the mountain. It was also here, among the ruins, that I was able to put my new camera to the test. I love the way it accurately captured the colors of the scene.
Interior of fire tower.
Even more impressive was the level of detail the camera captured inside the fire tower. With bright light streaming in through the windows, my old camera would have severely underexposed this scene, losing much of the detail within the structure.
Remaining stonework of mansion.
A few hundred yards down the trail, we discovered the ruins. Van Slyke Castle was constructed in the early 20th century, high atop Fox Hill. At one point a magnificent mansion, it was abandoned by its owners in the early 1950s and began to decay, until being vandalized and burned down a few years later (via Atlas Obscura).
Interior side of remaining stone walls.
The ruins are freely available to wander through. At one point, this must have been a magnificent home.
Exterior wall of house.
As I roamed through the ruins, I was thrilled with the quality of photos. The level of detail that the camera provided was impressive.
Interior wall of house.
Once home, I began post-processing the photos, and was impressed with how little correction they needed.
Stone gate, with one side in shadow and one in light.
With one side of the stone gate in shadow and the other in light, my old camera would have been completely befuddled as to how to correctly expose this scene – either the light side would have been perfectly exposed and the gate in shadow would have been underexposed, or the gate in shadow would have looked good, and the part in the sunlight would have been way too bright. The new camera metered it perfectly.
View of remains of brick fireplace.
I love the texture of the crumbling brickwork in this fireplace.
Ruins of interior of building, including pipework.
One of the most jarring remnants of the building – much of the pipework remains. I would have thought, given its exposure to the elements, that the metal pipes would have long since corroded into dust.
View of concrete swimming pool.
One of the remaining structures is the house’s swimming pool – even the stairs and railing are still intact.
View of Lake Ramapo.
From a rocky outcropping near the house, we had a spectacular view of Ramapo Lake and the countryside in the distance.
Manhattan Skyline in distance.
You could see the Manhattan skyline as well – what a view!
Probably the most random part of our hike – a wooden ladder that allowed you to scale a retaining wall as you leave the ruins.
View of rocky hillside, with trees in the distance.
This was part of the “trail” that we had to descend from the ruins. It wasn’t a climb as much as a controlled fall down the mountain. But we made it, safe and sound.
Trail with a white red emblazoned with red.
We took the “C” trail on the way back to our car. According to the map at the trailhead, the C stands for Cannonball Trail, which was reportedly a secret path during the Revolutionary War to transport cannonballs from a factory in nearby Pompton, NJ to New York for use by American soldiers. Consider this fun fact an addendum to last week’s post on Revolutionary NJ!
Trail through woods, with moss growing on side of trail.
Although we had a few twists and wrong turns (at one point, I asked my wife if this was starting to remind her of The Blair Witch Project), we kept trekking through the woods. Although the trails are challenging to climb, the park gets an A+ for trail marker frequency.
2014 white Jeep Grand Cherokee.
Almost five hours of hiking later, I have never been so happy to see my wife’s Jeep Grand Cherokee. After practically inhaling our picnic lunch, we headed home.
Car odometer reading 62637
Tired and sore, but with lots of great memories, we pulled into our driveway. Grace, our Grand Cherokee, once again did an excellent job transporting us safely and comfortably to our destination.

A Night Photography Addendum

2012 Honda Accord coupe at night in parking lot.
One of the features I was most looking forward to trying was the improved low-light photography capabilities of the new camera. Of course, my Accord was a willing test subject.
2012 Honda Accord coupe at night in black and white.
With three times more light sensitivity than my previous camera, the 5D Mark IV captured this scene perfectly.
2012 Honda Accord parked in front of building with red wall.
Needless to say, I’m thrilled with my new camera, and can’t wait to learn the ins-and-outs of all of its functions!

Wrapping Up

If you’re looking for a challenging hike (and a good workout), Ramapo Mountain State Forest is the park for you – on the New Jersey Division of Parks and Forestry website, almost every single trail is rated as “Difficult.” Open year round from sunrise to sunset, the park offers opportunities for hiking, fishing, mountain biking, bird-watching… and testing out a new camera! If you do plan to hike Ramapo Mountain, come prepared with appropriate gear, including hiking boots, water, and while not mandatory, I would recommend a good walking stick. It’s a gorgeous park, however, and well worth the trip.

As for the new camera, I’m thrilled with the purchase. I am looking forward to learning the 5D Mark IV’s full capabilities and customizing its features to my preferences. All of that means that I need to take many more photography excursions!

And thanks for coming along on this unexpectedly long journey down the open road ahead.

‘Til next time.

11 thoughts on “Rocky Ramapo Ruins

  1. Beautiful pictures! I also enjoyed trying to figure out “where’s the clue in this sign” at the beginning. It looked like quite the workout and adventure! My favorite picture is the one inside the fire tower with the graffiti and detail of the stone and wood beams. I can’t wait to see more of what your new camera can do!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Glad you’re happy with your new camera. I know you’ll put it to great use. I really love the greyscale pic of your car.

    Have you thought of contacting Realtors and offering your services for taking photos of new listings? There’s definitely a market for that and you have the skills and equipment for it. Might be a fun side gig.

    Liked by 1 person

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