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Spring is here, and for those wanting to stretch their legs outside, several day-hikes and overnight backpacking adventures are available just north of the City. All of these hikes are accessible by train, in some cases in conjunction with a cab ride.
These particular hikes are not for those desiring a mildly-exerting walk in the woods. They offer dramatic mountain views and, as such, are strenuous, though doable for most fit people. As with any hike, these routes require basic navigational competence based on an actual map, not Google. (While Google Maps may work in a pinch, you can’t depend on service.)
Proper equipment is essential, beginning with a map (I can’t say it enough: get a map), boots and bug spray. You’ll need a backpack to carry water and food. For overnight trips, additional overnight equipment is required, obviously, including a lightweight backpacking stove, shelter and sleeping bag. For maps and other equipment, this author prefers to shop at Tent & Trails, an outfitter on Park Place in lower Manhattan, near City Hall.
More information about these hikes and others can be found on the website of the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference, which also maintains the trails listed here.
The Breakneck Ridge Trail, in the Hudson Highlands, is the gold-standard of day-hiking trails around New York City.
The highest peak in the Hudson Highlands is Beacon Mountain, at 1,611 feet, but the most picturesque place is where the Hudson River first flows into the Highlands, just north of West Point. There, two mighty precipices stand sentinel on either side of the river: Storm King Mountain to the west and Breakneck Ridge to the east.
The Hudson Line of the Metro-North railroad provides easy access to Breakneck. In fact, the railroad runs through a tunnel at the base of Breakneck Ridge itself, and on weekends a small whistle-stop lets hikers on and off the train there. (Monday through Friday, the station at Cold Spring is the closest station.)
The trailhead for the Breakneck Ridge Trail is at the base of Breakneck Ridge on Route 9D, just north of the road tunnel that runs through the base of the ridge, parallel to the train tunnel. The Breakneck Ridge Trail is marked by white “blazes,” which are square-splotches of white paint on the trees and rocks adjacent to the trail. Follow the white blazes all the way up.
This hike is especially strenuous and steep. It includes scrambles up rock ledges and cliff-top traverses. At the top, sweeping views await of the Hudson River Valley, and to the north all the way to the Shawangunks and the Catskills.
From the top of Breakneck, continue north on the white-blazed trail to where it meets with a yellow-blazed trail in a small dip between peaks of the ridge, about .5 further on from the final “peak” or ledge. From the junction, follow the yellow-blazed trail down, as it passes a spring and a primitive rock shelter.
Another .5 miles or so further on the yellow trail ends at a red-blazed trail, and there you have three options for returning to the train station at Cold Spring. Either way you choose, you can’t lose, because each offers something unique.
The easiest way to go is to turn right onto the red trail and follow an old road out past the remains of a derelict mansion. The hardest way to go is to turn left on the red trail, to its junction .2 miles away with the blue trail. Follow the blue trail 1.0 miles to a junction with a white-blazed trail on the right. Follow the white-blazed trail right, up Mount Taurus (where more dramatic views await) and down back to Cold Spring.
The last, longest and most remote way to return to Cold Spring is go as you would as if you were going up Mount Taurus on the blue trail, but instead of turning onto the white trail, continue straight on the blue trail all the way to the road. At the road, turn right and walk the road downhill, back to Cold Spring.
ANTHONY’S NOSE via THE CAMP SMITH TRAIL
Eleven miles south of Breakneck Ridge, another significant precipice with dramatic views stands on the east side of the river: Anthony’s Nose. As with Breakneck Ridge, Metro-North’s Hudson River line from Grand Central is your access. Take the train to Peekskill. Cab or walk the 2.2 miles to the trailhead at the old Bear Mountain Toll House on Route 6/202. Follow the blue-blazed trail that begins behind the old toll house.
The trail climbs into the southern edge of the Hudson Highlands as they rise just north of Peekskill. The trail is rocky, and steep in some places, and features increasingly better views the higher it climbs. The trail follows a slim right-of-way along the road, but in most places at a higher elevation so road noise is minimized.
At 2.7 miles, the trail gains the first of several rock outcroppings high above the river, which offer both summer and winter views. At 3.1, you arrive at the top of Anthony’s Nose itself. The Bear Mountain Bridge juts out across the river below you. Bear Mountain itself rises on the other side. Freight-train tracks on the other side of the river complete the rugged, pastoral picture.
You have 5.5 miles to go. Follow the blue-blazed trail .5 further on to its junction with the white-blazed Appalachian Trail. Follow the white-blazed Appalachian Trail roughly 3 miles north to its junction with a blue-blazed trail. (This will be the second junction with a blue-blazed trail since the road-crossing just before Canada Hill.) Follow the blue-blazed trail to the road and road-walk to the Metro-North station at Garrison, or find a way through the Glenclyffe preserve on the west side of Route 9 to the station.
On weekends, and only on weekends, when the trains stop at Manitou Station (a small whistle-stop like Breakneck’s), you can cut 3.5 miles off the hike by turning left onto the Appalachian Trail after Anthony’s Nose, following the Appalachian Trail down to Route 9, and road-walking to the Manitou Station at the bottom of the mountain, beside the river.
POPOLOPEN TORNE via MANITOU STATION
Standing nearly 1,000 feet high, just north of Bear Mountain, a jagged spike of bare stone called Popolopen Torne sticks straight up into the sky. From the top of the Torne, a rare 360-degree panoramic view can be had that takes in Bear Mountain and Harriman State Park to the South, the Hudson River and Anthony’s Nose to the east and West Point Reservation to the north and west.
There is no water there, but if you carry enough water you can camp overnight at the top of the Torne. If you’ve never stood on a mountaintop at night and been totally surrounded by stars, this is a good place to experience it for the first time.
On weekends, take the Metro-North Hudson line to Manitou and road-walk to and across the Bear Mountain Bridge. On the other side of the bridge, go to the traffic circle and bear right onto 9W, toward West Point. On the other side of the traffic circle, cross 9W and find the trailhead for the red-on-white blazed Popolopen Gorge Trail.
Follow the red-on-white blazed Poplopen Gorge Trail to the blue-blazed Timp-Torne Trail. There, go right and follow the blue-blazed trail across the bridge and up, and up. Return via the Timp-Torne and Twin Forts trail through Fort Montgomery, across the suspension foot-bridge over Popolopen Creek, back to Manitou.
WEST MOUNTAIN via SUFFERN-BEAR MOUNTAIN TRAIL
Fifty miles north of New York City at a height of 1,257 feet, a primitive, three-sided shelter constructed of wood and stone stands at the top of West Mountain. Shelters like these are called “lean-tos,” because of the way they’re constructed.
The West Mountain lean-to is famous to those who hike the Appalachian Trail, because the shelter is the one place where New York City can be seen from the trail itself.
But the West Mountain shelter is not just for those who hike the Appalachian Trail, and can be used by anyone, at any time of year. By train, the West Mountain shelter is best accessed by the Suffern-Bear Mountain trail from Bear Mountain. On weekends, take the Metro-North Hudson line to Manitou and road-walk across the Bear Mountain Bridge to the trailhead. Other times, take a Hudson Line train to Peekskill and a $20 cab ride to the Inn.
The Suffern-Bear Mountain trail begins behind the Bear Mountain Inn. From the Bear Mountain Inn follow the Suffern-Bear Mountain trail 3.3 miles to the top of West Mountain. Stay the night at the shelter, return to the Bear Mountain Inn via the Appalachian Trail or continue on the Suffern-Bear Mountain trail.
SUFFERN-BEAR MOUNTAIN TRAIL
“A Stiff New Trail Calls to Hikers,” was the headline of a 1927 New York Times article written by Edward Torrey, detailing a hike over the then-new Suffern-Bear Mountain trail. “This new trail is twenty-four miles long, following the curves of ridges, dipping into gaps for springs and waterholes, yet pursuing a course intended to combine with scenic values a reasonable degree of directness,” Torrey wrote.
I hiked it south to north, from Suffern to Bear Mountain, over two days in January. This is not for beginners.
Start at Pennsylvania Station and a ride on New Jersey transit to Suffern. Walk forward in the direction the train was traveling in and follow the road that parallels the tracks north, as it passes under the New York State Thruway. After the last house, find the rock-ledge on the right where the a yellow-blazed trail begins, and follow the trail up into a small draw. Follow the yellow-blazed path 24 miles to Bear Mountain.
At .3, a southern lookout affords a sweeping view of the vast carpet of suburbia that stretches from the foot of the mountain all the to New York City. Say goodbye. From here, the trail turns north into the remote southern part of Harriman State Park. Bisected by numerous power-transmission and natural gas pipelines, this section of the trail feels open and rugged, as the cuts allow sweeping vistas of undulating hills for miles into the distance.
At roughly 4.0 miles the first of three lean-tos on the trail is reached, the Stone Memorial shelter. The Big Hills Shelter is another 3.5 miles further on and, after that, 3.1 from the end of the trail at Bear Mountain, is the West Kill Mountain shelter described above. Water sources abound along the trail, even in dry summers (you’ll need to purify it, of course).
Generally speaking, the trail is a wild roller coaster of a hike, particularly at the north end. The steepest part of the trail is the climb up Pyngyp Mountain, right after the trail crosses the Palisade Parkway. The climb involves scrambles up steep, near-vertical rock. Dogs cannot make the climb. Wise backpackers carry a 30-foot length of strong cord, so that they can climb free up the steep spots, and pull their backpacks up behind them.
I did it in winter, when it was covered in snow.