Hello, dear readers! It’s been a while since we last wrote, and we hope that you’re all doing well. It’s been a cold and snowy winter, but we’re looking forward to sharing more of our adventures with you now that spring is coming and vaccines are making it safer to be out and about. And with last week’s beautiful weather, we just had to get out and do some exploring! For this most recent adventure, we set out to find the ruins of the old Van Slyke Castle, nestled atop a hill in the middle of NJ’s Ramapo Mountain State Forest.
About Van Slyke Castle
The Van Slyke Castle was built in the early 1900s by a NY stockbroker named William Porter. At the time, the location was known as Fox Hill, and the mansion Porter built there was originally called “Foxcroft”. Porter died in 1911, leaving the mansion and property to his wife, Ruth, who later married a lawyer by the name of Warren Van Slyke (hence the new name of the castle). Originally used only as a summer home, Ruth moved into the castle permanently after Van Slyke died in 1925.
After Ruth’s own death in 1940, the castle sat vacant for many years before being purchased by new owners who left it unoccupied. Already beginning to fall to ruin, the castle was abandoned entirely in 1959 after a fire completely destroyed the mansion. The lot and ruined mansion were eventually seized and became part of the Ramapo Mountain State Forest in the 1980s. Which means park visitors are now free to visit and explore the abandoned castle today!
How to Find the Castle
First things first, Ramapo Mountain State Forest is a very popular hiking destination, so you need to be a bit strategic if you want to hike there yourself. If you have a free weekday, you’ll have much better luck finding a parking spot than if you try to hike here on the weekend. Similarly, off-season is always going to be better than summer, and if the weather is a bit dreary, even better. (OR…just have someone drop you off!)
There are three parking lots at Ramapo Mountain State Forest. For the shortest and most direct route to the castle, park at the Upper Lot on Skyline Drive. From the middle of the parking lot, you can get right onto the white-blazed Castle Loop Trail, which is about 3.1 miles long. If the Upper Lot is full, you can park in the Lower Lot and access the Castle Loop Trail via the Ramapo Lake Spur Trail (roundtrip, this will add another 1.2 miles to the Castle Loop.)
And finally, if BOTH Skyline Drive lots are full or if you want to spend a longer day in the park, head over to Back Beach Park instead. There’s a huge parking lot, and they even have public restrooms (neither of the Skyline Drive lots have facilities.) From there, you can take a connector trail to Ramapo and enjoy a long, flat stroll on the red-blazed Cannonball Trail along Ramapo Lake before reaching the Castle Loop Trail. (For even better hiking, though, I highly recommend taking the longer orange-blazed Wanaque Ridge Trail on your way to the Castle Loop – beautiful!)
We visited the Van Slyke Castle on a Friday afternoon since we had the day off, and we were able to snag the last spot in the Upper Lot. We set out for the castle in a counter-clockwise direction because we wanted to visit the castle first and then stroll by the lake afterwards. The first half-mile or so was pretty easy going and then you’ll come across a decent little rock scramble with an overlook.
Next, you’ll head down into a valley with a creek crossing (be sure to wear waterproof boots if you’re hiking here after heavy rainfall!), and then you’ll start to climb again. Soon, the castle’s old water tower will come into view, and shortly before you reach it, you’ll find another nice overlook area to enjoy the view.
From the water tower, we didn’t see any immediate signs that the castle was nearby. We saw another tower off in the distance and thought perhaps that was the castle, but once we continued along the trail we discovered the castle was actually not far from the water tower at all! Soon, the remnants of the castle started peeking through the trees.
Before you reach the castle, though, you will first find the swimming pool. At one time, this must have been quite the spot for a swim on a warm summer’s day!
And finally…we reached the castle! There’s a good bit of the castle left to explore, as well as the gate, perimeter walls, and some outbuildings. On a clear day, you can also see the Manhattan skyline from the castle grounds. There is also, of course, plenty of graffiti, and you’ll want to use caution as you explore (as with any abandoned building).
After you’re done exploring the castle ruins, continue along the Castle Loop Trail to head down to Ramapo Lake. As you leave the castle, there is a very steep set of stairs (you have to go down sideways so your feet fit on the steps) to get you onto the other side of the perimeter wall, followed by a steep and rocky climb downhill. Note: If you prefer to do steeper sections uphill to save your knees, you’ll want to do the Castle Loop Trail clockwise instead.
Soon you’ll reach the lake and follow its northern border until you reach the dam on the eastern side of the lake. The trail here is soft, flat, and easy-going, and you’re more likely to encounter other walkers and hikers here who are walking the loop around the lake. At the dam, you’ll pop back into the woods on the white trail and start making your way back uphill to the Upper Lot to complete the loop. (The dam is also where you can find the Spur Trail to the Lower Lot if you end up parking there instead.)
The Castle Loop Trail has a couple strenuous sections, but overall this is a fairly easy hike. The ruins and the lake are the highlights, of course, and we were lucky we had nice weather to enjoy the views from the overlooks. Honestly, finding parking is the hardest part of this hike, but if you use our tips in this article, I hope you’ll be able to find your way to the castle soon!
Plan Your Own Visit
Where to Go
- Ramapo Mountain State Forest: Oakland, NJ
When to Go
- Ramapo Mountain State Forest is open daily from sunrise to sunset.
Tips for Visiting
- Ramapo Mountain State Forest is incredibly popular, so you’ll want to visit off-season, on a weekday, during less delightful weather, or as early as possible on the weekend if you hope to snag a parking spot.
- There are three parking lots at Ramapo Mountain State Forest. Park at the Upper Lot on Skyline Drive for the shortest hike to the castle (3.1 miles). From the Lower Lot, you’ll need to tack on an additional 1.2 miles via the Ramapo Lake Spur Trail.
- If you’re up for a longer hike, skip the two lots on Skyline Drive and park on the west side at Back Beach Park (and bonus – there are public restrooms here!)
- Take the Castle Loop trail counter-clockwise if you wish to visit the castle before the lake – reverse if you want the lake view first. If you take the trail clockwise, the climb up to the castle will be more steep, so you’ll need to decide whether you want to be climbing uphill or downhill for the steepest portion of the trail. Steep uphills are tough on the lungs – steep downhills are harder on the knees! Choose your pain. 😉
- There are a couple creek-crossings, so ensure you have waterproof boots if you set out after a heavy rain, as the available stepping stones may be mostly submerged.
- Also, if you hike in the winter after snow or ice storms, ensure you wear appropriate footwear!