Weekend Backpacker: New York
Hudson Highlands States Park and the hills immediately to the northeast present a far more rugged feel than anywhere else in the chain. Along the Hudson's eastern bank lies bulky Mt. Taurus, the all-but-vertical rock face of Breakneck Ridge, South Beacon Mountain (the tallest of the Highlands), and North Beacon Mountain, which looms large above the City of Beacon, clearly distinguishable by the communications towers near its summit.
These are the craggy, weather-beaten remains of once-overwhelming mountains. Today their sparse, wind-bent vegetation, rocky screes, and relative isolation make them home to hawks, turkeys, deer, coyotes, red fox, and at least one species on the state's endangered list: the eastern timber rattlesnake. They also present the most difficult hiking--and rewarding views--in the Highland chain.
For the weekend backpacker, the biggest drawback to this section of the Highlands is the absence of shelters and locales that permit open campfires. You can, however, put in a full day amid these hills and emerge feeling recharged by the rugged terrain and breathtaking views. This area of the Highlands has both adequate parking and a MetroNorth train station--Breakneck Ridge. The variety of trails and your own ambitions make it possible to shape your day in many different ways.
The lower reaches of Breakneck Ridge attract scores of hikers in every season except winter, and the sight of so many cars parked in the pulloff of Route 9D just north of the railroad and auto tunnel two miles north of Cold Spring can be off-putting to hikers who enjoy isolation on the trail. If you choose to make the climb, however, you'll find the crowds diminish with every contour ring on the way up. Locating the trailhead is simple. From both the train station and the parking area you need to walk south along Route 9D almost to the tunnel. There a stone building marks the eastern side of the New York City Aqueduct's crossing of the Hudson. You'll see the trailhead at the building's base.
The navigation once you locate the trailhead is equally simple, since if you deviate much from the rock ledges that comprise most of the trail, you'll fall hundreds of feet down the mountain's south face. Utmost care is required on Breakneck, and deaths have occasionally been the price exacted for carelessness. When you reach the summit the surrounding landscape flattens out considerably. You feel you can reach out and touch Storm King, directly across the water. Taurus looms to your southeast, and the views of West Point are unsurpassed. Relax, picnic, and enjoy the views, because you have plenty of time. While the climbing is arduous, Breakneck is not a long-distance hike.
Note on your trail map that you can make the most vertiginous part of Breakneck a one-way trip by following the white blazes of the Breakneck Ridge Trail one way, and then turning onto the Breakneck Bypass (red blazes) for a far easier descent. The Bypass strikes the Wilkinson Memorial Trail (yellow blazes) after roughly 0.4 miles. A left at the trail intersection deposits you at Route 9D about as far north of the parking area as you were south of it when you began. There is nothing like Breakneck in all the Highlands, and if your hiking appetite runs to the rugged, Breakneck is probably the testiest piece of terrain south of the Shawangunks, which attract not only hikers but rock climbers.
North and South Beacon Mountains
For a longer trip through the Park and points north, begin at the Notch Trail, 1.4 miles north of the Breakneck Ridge Train Station's Pedestrian overpass. There is a small parking area on the right (northbound) side of Route 9D.
From your startig point about 200 feet above sea level, you'll now climb over the course of the next five miles to the crest of South Mount Beacon, the highest point in the Highlands at over 1500 feet (it's also the highest point between the Catskills and the Atlantic). As you climb, be sure to stick to trails. Some of the terrain you'll cross is private, though open to backpackers. The area is also crisscrossed with the remains of old roads and unmarked trails, so it is easy to get lost.
Your first trail, which you pick up at the parking area, is the blue-blazed Notch Trail. It runs slightly east of north for just over one mile, climbing at first, then running parallel to the ridge line until swinging through a hairpin turn and following the contours of Hollow Brook. Soon after sighting the brook, you'll strike the intersection of the Wilkinson Memorial Trail, coming in from your right. Follow it along the Brook for 0.4 miles to white-blazed Breakneck Ridge and Notch Trail. You are now headed for the peak of South Beacon Mountain, a half-mile of rugged, sharply ascending terrain that will reach its apex and flatten right in the area of the old fire tower.
This is one of the Highlands' most majestic views. Here the colonial militia set up beacons to pass the word by firelight of British activity in the Hudson Valley during the Revolution (hence the name of the community you see sitting like a toy village far below). Beyond the Mid-Hudson Bridge, the ridgeline of the Shawangunks and the soft pastels of the Catskills are easily visible in good weather, while to the east Connecticut and Massachusetts lie in the distance. To the south the river files through the entire Highland chain and the towers of Manhattan sixty miles away perch on the horizon. The mountaintop itself is rocky, weather-beaten, home to only the toughest forms of vegetation, scrub oaks, mountain laurel, and blueberry, adapted to the fierce winds of winter storms and periodic fires.
It's worth emphasizing that this is a long hike, made more demanding by the climbing, and it is not for everyone. There is an alternative, easier hike, starting from Beacon on Route 9D. Just as the highway begins a sharp swing--nearly ninety degrees--you'll see a parking area on the right opposite Bob's Store. Park here and, with occasional aid from your trail map, make your way up the bed of the abandoned incline railway. Once you've huffed and puffed up the switchback-free, loose rock ballast of the railbed, you'll need no further reminders that the requirements of hikers and incline railroads are quite different. This method is, however, very direct, and you'll be able to orient yourself with the communications towers perched near the summit of North Beacon Mountain. From there you can pick your way along the southeast-bearing abandoned road to the Breakneck Ridge and Notch trailhead's white blazes. You'll have lost some altitude hiking from one mountain to the other, and the trip to the fire tower at Mount Beacon South, while just 0.2 miles, requires a scramble to regain about 400 feet in height.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication