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Stairway to Heaven

It was a fine morning but looked like it might turn to rain by the afternoon. I found myself with the day to myself and no real plans, so even though it was a bit late to start such an excursion, I decided to go hiking. After leaving through a guide on my way to the car, I decided to try a hike called Stairway to Heaven, just south of Harriman State Park and the Hudson Highlands, on the New York-New Jersey border. It looked to be a fairly easy drive to a hike that, the trailhead being out int he middle of nowhere, probably wouldn’t be too terribly crowded.

Most of the Stairway to Heaven trail is part of the much longer Appalachian Trail, and the name of this section comes from the long, steep series of rocks and boulders you have to negotiate in order to get to the top. But it starts off innocently enough, in the middle of a flat field — one of the very few stretches of AT to cross such terrain and doubtless a welcome respite for thru-hikers from the usual “straight up the mountain, then strait down” ruggedness of the trail. There is a parking lot that can hold six or seven cars. When I pulled in, early afternoon, there was one other car already there. The first stretch of trail is nice and relaxing, meandering through high grass and wild flowers before plunging into that amazing sort of forest where you expect to see trolls and nymphs lingering about. The woods are strewn with giant boulders which would probably make for some good boulder, but at the time I was on the trail, I was not yet into climbing and so haven’t really done a proper assessment. Whatever the case, you should enjoy the shade and relative coolness of this stretch, because things get vertical really fast.

After passing by the largest of the boulders, the white-blazed trail heads straight up the side of a small but steep mountain, forcing you to take the “stairway,” which is really just a series of boulders, outcrops, and ledges, some a higher step than others, a few requiring you to pull yourself up. But for the most part, the entire trail is suitable for hiking without the need for climbing skills. It’s just strenuous. And prone to population by snakes. In fact, in all my hikes, including many out west, this is the only place where I’ve come face to face with a rattlesnake. Well, by face to face, I mean I heard him from a distance, managed to locate it, and then went way the hell out of my way so as not to provoke it. However, not five minutes later, as I was walking up the remainder of the “stairs,” a common garter snake slithered out and over my foot and caused a mighty howl and explosion of what I like to call “oh shit!” dancing.

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After a mighty climb, the trail levels out and winds its way up to a short and worthwhile blue-blazed side-trail that leads to an open outcrop and magnificent view of the surrounding forest and farmland. You could actually end the hike here — the top is wooded, and side trails to other points afford more or less the same view — and it would be an excellent and hard-won picnic spot. I chose to continue. Returning along the blue blazed side trail to the main trail, it’s only a short distance to the actual top, where you will find a mailbox containing a weather-beaten Appalachian Trail journal and register and, more than likely, a fair number of spiders.

From here, there are several options for hike extensions. You could, for instance, continue along the white blazed AT until you reached either Georgia or Maine, depending on your direction. But it was already late in the day, and my chances of reaching Maine before nightfall, with only a small Camelback and a Clif Bar in the way of equipment, was unlikely. I did, however, take a right-leading trail that terminates at another magnificent view, though the going gets confusing in some spots and required that I backtrack to find the proper way again. But it was worth the effort, as it rewarded me with another spectacular view, an eagle’s nest with accompanying (and unfriendly) eagle, and the remains of an old stone wall. From there, it’s possible to follow old, unmaintained trails to create a circuit back to the parking area, but I wasn’t prepared for a bushwack on uncertain trails so late in the day and with storm clouds rolling in. So I took the more normal route, which is to come back the way you came.

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It’s not really repetitive, since the woods at dusk were entirely different than the woods in late afternoon. And the deadly snakes had been replaced by deer and something I am going to assume was a bear, though I’m pretty sure it was actually a small boulder. I hit the parking area at precisely the same moment the skies opened up and let loose with a tremendous amount of rain.

All in all, an excellent hike, and perfect for people looking for something with great views and some strenuous going without demanding much in the the way of technical skill. Just be sure not to slip and fall backward while going up the trail, because there’s nothing waiting for you but a lot of rocks. I went back a short time later with a partner and saw a few more people (and no rattlesnakes, though there were several non0venomous varieties sunning themselves). As soon as I have a free weekend, I intend to go back up and see what the bouldering is like. Just have to watch out for trolls.

Stairway to Heaven is located where the Kittatinnies of New Jersey start to turn into the Catskills of New York. From the city, I took I-287 to Route 23 West, turned right on 515 until it merged with Route 94. The parking area is easy to miss, as the entrance is tiny and you’ll likely be zooming along. It’s in the middle of a field, so your best landmark is a small sign for the Appalachian Trail and an accompany set of rickety wooden stairs that help hikers negotiate a fence. On the opposite side of the road from that is the parking area and trailhead for the hike you want to do. If you pass by a large farming complex, you went too far.