For the last two years I've been regularly flying to New York to sync up with my coworkers. See, I work as a remote engineer for Shutterstock, and while we do a lot of things to maintain healthy communication over different channels there is nothing like some solid face-to-face interaction a few times a year. Anyways, I try to get out and experience a lot while I'm in the big city. Long walks around Manhattan, sampling a wide range of restaurants, even the occasional tourist-level trip to a museum or skyscraper. After two hours I worked up the gumption to try a new thing while in New York - hiking out in country.
The first challenge was finding a spot that I could get to using public transit. In the future I may try to bum a ride from a coworker or taxi out, but for now I am locked down to subways and trains. Breakneck Ridge fit the requirement. Not only is there a train stop for the primary trailhead, there is another stop a few miles to the south (Cold Spring) near some alternate trails. The limited schedule would only give me about three hours of hiking time, or just enough time for one of the smaller hiking loops.
An hour and a half after leaving Grand Central Station and we were at Breakneck Ridge. It was a pleasant trip winding along the Hudson River and, between the views and a good book, the time flew past. Getting off the train was a different story. There must have been a few hundred people scattered throughout the cars that were getting off here, and this stop only had a platform wide enough for a single door, so we all had to funnel through to that single door.
The number of people heading out for this hike was insane. Here I had thought that there'd be a few dozen hikers out here at most, with the cool temperatures and difficulty warnings about the ridge. Once off the train we all formed into a line and walked the shoulder of NY-9D and I got a more sobering view of just how many people would be sharing the trail today. The parking lot was full, both sides of the road were lined with cars, and the line of people from the train stretched far ahead. Guess I wouldn't be finding much solitude out here.
Once we hit the trailhead and could step away from the busy traffic whizzing past there were two more obstacles to surpass. First was the cluster of people waiting outside a few bathrooms, a cluster that spread out and blocked much of the forward motion. Beyond the cluster was the first of many bottlenecks. The trail wastes little time in gaining elevation, immediately zipping up slick rocks surrounded by mounds of dead leaves, and this quick rise gave many less-equipped visitors significant pause. I wound around both obstacles and tackled the climb with a flurry of pent-up energy.
My strategy for the day was to rush up as fast and as far as I could go. If I could skip ahead of all my fellow train riders than the crowds would (hopefully) thin out. Also, I was very worried about my time. I had three hours to get back to the train stop, three hours to cover three miles over steep terrain, and I had no backup plan if I missed the train.
I trotted up the ridge, skipping around backed-up lines along the easier routes and aiming for the steeper, trickier approaches. The first thing to climb is Breakneck Point, the extension of the ridge that reaches out into the Hudson River itself. Once on top of that the trail curves east, heads over the tunneled road, and then starts a pretty serious climb.
Rocky terrain and autumn leaves gave me wonderful flashbacks of hiking in Michigan. The rock was blocky and solid, looking like some flavor of volcanic bedrock, with glacial scratching and smoothing typical of northern landscapes. And the forest was typical hardwood, shedding orange and brown leaves in large piles on the bare forest floor. There were definite differences, though. I've never seen a trail in Michigan with this much traffic, and the path was worn by countless feet and the handholds were slick with oils.
When I reached the first open view I had to stop and rest for a few minutes. The good news was that I had successfully passed by the mass of hikers from the train and only saw a few dozen people around me. A few dozen was much better than the few hundred I had started with. The bad news was that I was completely out of breath. Cold air and the steep climb had really knocked it out of me. In thirty minutes I had gone from sitting on a warm train to gasping some five hundred feet above the Hudson River. I needed to get my wind back before pushing any further.
A flagpole (with both the American and POW-MIA flags) made for a patriotic sight at this first opening. Below was the murky brown of the Hudson, train tracks stretching along its eastern bank, and across the river was the steep hills of Storm King and a few small towns to the north (Cornwall, New Windsor, and Newburgh). More interesting in the immediate was the ridge climbing to the east. I was nowhere near the top of this thing.
Breath under control again I started on the next climb. This one wasn't nearly as bad, maybe a few hundred feet, though there was more sheer rocks to clamber over. Sort of. There was always an easy way around, a way not as steep and thus creating an annoying bottleneck, so I went with the sheer climbs with nearby drops off sharp cliffs. Speaking of, footwear.
For the last four years I've religiously worn boots on all hikes. The same boots, actually, and they really stink and are starting to fall apart, but that's another story. Whether I'm going on a two-mile outing or a week of backpacking I always try to wear sturdy, ankle-high boots. The only time I don't is when I'm traveling. Hauling along heavy stinky hiking boots in a carry-on with clean office clothes never sounds appealing. So today I had on a pair of old running shoes, shoes that were lighter, didn't stink that bad, and had absolutely no tread. I might as well have had rollerblades on. It was so bad that I had to use the ankle fabric as 'spurs' for a few of the worse sections.
Slipping over slick rock, smooth fall leaves, and worn shoe treads, I eventually made it to the second overlook. This one faced southern sun a bit more and offered a great view along the Hudson River that I peered down. I wondered if New York City would be visible on a clearer day, that is, if the river was more straight. There seemed to be enough curves and hills to block any view of the skyscrapers sixty miles away.
The second view was even quieter than the first. I began to wonder if my fellow train hikers would make it back down to the stop in time. One could simply turn around, I guess, in order to make it back. Or there is the 4 o'clock train. If someone was willing and provisioned to they could stay out here for six hours climbing around these hills. That seemed like an interesting future visit here - there are miles and miles of trails reaching further east that could make for a fun all-day (or even multi-day) adventure.
Climbing down from the second overlook was when I had my first, and only, good fall. The leaves simply slid out from under my foot and I plopped down hard backwards. It wasn't bad enough to stop, or even to attract attention from the next group some forty feet further down the trail, but it was enough to give me some pause. Hiking alone is always risky, and getting hurt out here in a totally different state than my wife and family would be terribly inconvenient.
A bit more careful after that fall, I made it to the third view (which was about the same as the past two, if a bit more blocked by trees) and then the first trail junction. This would be the Undercliff Trail, which leads south before splitting into multiple trails, some of which go to Cold Springs. It was here that I had a short conversation with a somewhat lost group of three hikers that asked for my help. They had come in on the train as well but were planning to hike through Cold Springs and get the train through there. That stop is visited much more frequently that the Breakneck Ridge. I pointed down the Undercliff and wished them luck. Starting or ending in Cold Springs could really open up timing options for future visits.
Beyond the trail junction and up a final climb was the fourth overlook, this one complete with a sobering elevation marker. A thousand feet gained over the course of an hour. Shoot, even Camelback Mountain is more than a thousand feet, and Chris and I aim to peak that in less than an hour. This hike, with the sheer rocks and slick climbs, seemed so much taller. I blamed the cold temperatures for my slow ascent and looked around.
There wasn't much to see from here. The Hudson and western bank was blocked by trees by now, leaving a narrow window south and east to see hills and more hills. The colors were well past peak and left the hills covered in dirty oranges and browns. Which is still pretty - I rather enjoy every autumn hue, especially when the leaves are down and the snow begins to collect underneath in light, dusting patterns. It did make me wonder how much farther the trails went to the east. The trail had almost completely cleared out, leaving me with five minutes of quiet in between seeing hikers, and I imagined it would only get more empty further from the road and train.
A few hundred yards through barren woods and I came upon the second trail junction of the day. This trail, the Breakneck Bypass, was one of the better options for returning. I had about an hour and twenty minutes to get back in order to make my train. I could have risked it and tried continuing on to the Notch or Yellow Trail but I really didn't want to miss that train.
Breakneck Bypass wasted little time in dropping off the ridge. The entire slope was buried in slick leaves that threatened to spill anyone daring to descend quickly, even though the trail was steep enough to tempt a trotting pace. Those leaves tried their best to hide the route, too. Luckily, previous hikers ruffled up the ground cover in unnatural ways to show the way down.
I passed a few groups, including one with a girl who was slipping (giving me that weird moral dilemma to reach out and try to save her with the knowledge that we'd both probably fall if I did), and a few groups passed me. I kept half an eye on my clock. Reaching the train stop early wouldn't be the worst thing to do, though I'd have to find a way to kill time while waiting. I tried to balance my rush downhill with the safety concerns on the steep path.
Turns out that all my worry about the time was for naught. I made it down to the stop in a mere thirty minutes, leaving me with close to an hour of time to waste. Maybe I should have chosen a longer route after all. There was one other hiker near the platform reading a book and, after a few minutes, a group of four wandered over and sat around. I didn't feel like being social so I headed back to the pedestrian bridge over the tracks (which seemed overkill, as walking across train tracks doesn't seem that difficult to do) to check out the nearby castle.
Yeah, there's a castle on Hudson River. Bannerman Castle has a pretty interesting back story involving ammunitions storage and (more recently) an arts exhibit that you can check out here. From the bridge I could only make out a few turrets and walls on the little island, which was still impressive. It's not everyday that you find a castle on American soil.
The side destination visited I headed back to the stop and plopped down to read my book. A few trains passed by to make interesting photo opportunities with Breakneck Ridge rising behind them. I munched on some snacks and finished my bottle of water with some hesitation. Without passing through Cold Spring I wouldn't have a chance to refuel until I returned to Grand Central in a few hours and I could really use a decent lunch.
Hiking while in New York made for a great distraction. The city is great and all, but after spending a combined two months plus over the last few years it was nice to get out into the countryside. Usually I wander around the city after the workday, either running errands or just exploring/unwinding, and then spend the weekend wandering some more. I hope to return to Breakneck Ridge on future trips to the city, though maybe I'll bring some better shoes next time.