There are a lot of pluses and a good number of minuses to living in a place like New York City. Among the pluses is that, if you time it so as to miss the traffic and drive in the right direction, it doesn’t take long for the city itself and its surrounding sprawl to melt away and be replaced by the forested peaks and craggy ridgelines of the Appalachian Mountains, or whatever it is that the yankees up here have named them. Ninety minutes can put you anywhere from the Delaware Water Gap along the New Jersey-Pennsylvania border to Bear Mountain along the Hudson River, or maybe the Shawagunks in New Paltz, home to some of the best climbing on the east coast.
We were looking for somewhere new when I stumbled across a place called Breakneck Ridge, and with a name like that, how could I not head up there? At just over an hour along the Garden State Parkway, to the New York-New Jersey state line where sits the enormous Harriman State Park, or the same amount of time by Metro North rail (the train stops just a quick walk from the trailhead), Breakneck Ridge and the neighboring natural attractions, including Storm King Mountain, are among the most accessible hiking destinations from New York City. The point at which I was planning to start is smack dab in the middle of a network of trails that can lead you in breathtaking circuits along the ridge and adjoining peaks or, if you’re in it for the long haul, to Bear Mountain or, if you are really looking for a stroll, clear up to Maine or down to Georgia, as the Appalachian Trail passes through here.
We weren’t looking to do anything quite that ambitious, and so I put together directions for a common circuit that starts at a trailhead off Route 9D in Hudson Highlands States Park, heads up the rocky face of Breakneck Ridge via the white-blazed Breakneck Ridge Trail, then back down along the red-blazed Breakneck Bypass and, finally, the yellow-blazed Wilkinson Memorial Trail back to the pull-off. I’m always looking to combine challenge with relaxation and variety, and this circuit would give us a little of everything: hiking, rock climbing and scrambling, ridge walking, forest hiking, and a leisurely stroll along a well-groomed carriage road.
I had pretty high expectations for the hike, which was described on GORP as being one of the more rugged hikes in the Hudson River Valley, with plenty of opportunities for you to slip and plunge a couple hundred feet to your death. The drive up was nice — perfect weather and light traffic along the Garden State Parkway, which a Brooklyn resident like me, who doesn’t want to pay the $9 toll at the Verrazano Bridge, picks up just across the George Washington Bridge and follows through the Palisades toward the Highlands.
Jersey is a perpetually surprising place to travel, and while I utterly despise much about driving in that state — the divided highways that don’t let you turn around if you’ve made a mistake, the tendency to put important exit information immediately next to or slightly after the point where you need to take some action, the well-meaning but endlessly irritating system for making left turns by employing a series of turn-arounds — heading up the Garden State northbound was beautiful. Not Blue Ride Parkway in the fall beautiful, but good enough. And it only gets nicer as you cross the Bear Mountain Bridge and continue alog 9D to the town of Cold Spring, then finally arrive at the trailhead, just past the train station and a tunnel.The initial portion of the hike attracts a lot of hikers on a nice day, and parking space is limited. If the trailhead lot is full, there’s more parking near the train station. We got there late in the morning on a gorgeous Saturday in early fall and had no problem with parking.
The hike gets strenuous right away as you make your way past an old stone building (remnants of the New York City aqueduct system, I hear) and begin a hike that’s heavy on the vertical but affords you plenty of handholds and places to rest and snap photos as the Hudson River reveals itself to you with each gain in altitude. The trail gains some 800 feet of elevation in a very short distance, and as you make your way up, it demands a little climbing and scrambling — though someone has usually marked off an alternate, less demanding bypass for the hairier climbs.
Bringing a pair of proper climbing shoes will make the climbing more fun and give you more options, but even sticking to the most arduous route presents you with nothing that can’t be conquered while wearing a decent pair of trail runners. I suppose the especially ambitious can do some world-class climbing off the ridge as well, but my climbing prowess limits me to bouldering and anything where a fall would break an ankle but not result in death. Someday, I’ll be good enough to risk losing my toehold on a sheer walk wall and plunging two hundred feet to my certain doom via impact and the inevitable impaling on rigid pine tree branches I know would happen just to add insult to injury. But until that day comes, I’m happy to fall a mere ten feet.
The trail continues for a spell, and you will meet fewer and fewer fellow hikers the higher up you get and the more rock with which you have to contend. In terms of difficulty, I’d rank it as hard. It’s usually less dangerous than it looks, as the thrill of being on an open ridge always heightens your awareness of the drop-offs around you, but there’s no point at which I really felt like I might not be able to continue. If you are looking to step things up from easier trails, this is an excellent place to start. It challenges you with some climbs and a need for some technical wherewithal, but it’s relatively safe as long as you keep your wits about you. Plus, since the trail is well-traveled, if you do hurt yourself or need assistance, it’s never going to be very long before someone comes along who can lend a helping hand. However, it’s also worth mentioning that this is not a beginner’s trail, and some of the more challenging portions have resulted in serious injuries and, on occasion, even death. The low end of difficult is, after all, still difficult.
As an added danger, this area of the mountains is frequented by a variety of poisonous snakes, including rattlers and copperheads. This point was illustrated to us quite nicely when we stumbled upon a small group of hikers loitering in a narrow part of the trail just before one of the more challenging climbs. Turns out a copperhead was lazily sunning itself on the rocks, and folks weren’t too keen on disturbing it. Eventually, it got self-conscious enough that it slithered off and let the flow of hiking and climbing traffic resume.
Your reward as you climb higher are breathtaking views of the Hudson Valley, distance West point Military Academy, Storm King Mountain, Taurus Mountain, and the ruins of an old castle on an island near the bank of the Hudson. The trail takes you up to the summit of Sugarloaf Mountain, and like most summits, just when you think you’ve reached it, you come out of the woods and find there’s plenty more to go. Breakneck Ridge Trail offers a nice variety of open-ridge and forested walking, but while the forest helps keep the sun off, it also obscures your ultimate goal. We got tricked several times and began looking for the red blazes of the Breakneck Ridge Bypass trail well before we were anywhere near them.
Eventually, however, you do reach the turn-off, amid a mountaintop forest strewn with giant boulders and looking like the sort of place giant trolls sit around in discussing their dislike of having nuthin’ but mutton to eat. The white blazes continue on into the distance, offering an enticing weekend-long route if you brought the right equipment. But we were just in it for the day, and the day was already starting to get a bit long in the tooth. So we began our descent along the Breakneck Ridge Bypass as the sun began its descent with us, picking our way through the woods and catching glimpses of the occasional deer, fox, and something of which we only caught a fleeting glimpse but I assumed to be a sasquatch, as I tend to do. The descent along this path is nowhere near as technical as the ascent along the Breakneck Ridge trail, but make no doubt about it — you could still hurt yourself. It’s a steep descent, often along washes full of loose rocks. But it’s also incredibly soothing, and after baking ourselves and punishing the muscles climbing up, walking through the woods in the failing light of late afternoon was a treat.
The Bypass eventually hooks up with the Wilkinson Memorial Trail, a wide, well-groomed former carriage road that finally lets you relax and stop exerting yourself. The road leads past what i think is an abandoned mine shaft, but I couldn’t find much information. Then, roughly seven hours after we started, we were back in the parking lot, kicking off the shoes and breaking open a celebratory Gatorade.
Really a tremendous hike. Lots of variation, some definite challenges. The imposing technical aspects ensure that, although it’s an easy trip from New York, it doesn’t suffer the overcrowding of nearby Bear Mountain or Kittatinny in the Delaware Water Gap. Along with the Gertrude’s Nose to Millbrook Mountain circuit in the Gunks, this has got to be my favorite “day trip from the city” hike.