Nov – Hudson Highlands

Published in The Hour – November 2013.

Breakneck Ridge, Hudson HighlandsThis, surely, is the most spectacular stretch of a river famed for spectacular views. Here the Hudson, squeezed down to a half-mile across, slides through the Hudson Highlands, thousand-foot cliffs to either side. The Highlands are the loftiest ground so close to the river downstream of the Adirondacks. And now my eighth-grader daughter and I (Election Day, no school) were scrambling up one of the cliffs, up to unambiguously named Breakneck Ridge. And a scramble it is, very nearly from the moment you leave the parking area. Your lungs and muscles invite you to pause, turn away from the rock in front of your nose, and look down at the gray-green river and the silent barges plying up and down. The freight trains running on the west shore are not so silent; they rumble and whine, their horn blasts audible far into the woods.

The scramble – not the only one on this hike, but certainly the longest – ended at a lookout where Old Glory and the black POW/MIA flag fluttered in a light breeze. The cliffs of Storm King Mountain, scarred by the slanted cut of NY Route 218, stood across the river, dressed in orange and brown only where trees had found a grip. It was not always “Storm King”. Dutch skippers of the 1600s likened it to a lump of butter – “Boter Berg”. Their name lives on as Butter Hill, a connected summit. Upstream, Pollepel Island stood in a wider, grayer stretch of Hudson, the ruin of Bannerman’s Castle at one end. Francis Bannerman – born in Dundee, Scotland – bought the island in 1900, and set about building a castle in the fancied style of his homeland. He gave it a curious dual purpose – family residence and warehouse for his munitions business. In 1920, two years after his death, 200 pounds of ammo exploded, blowing bits of the castle and a chunk of the island into the river. (Photos of the views from this lookout, and of the rest of the hike, are posted on Facebook – “McWilliams Takes a Hike”, no sign-in needed.)

Hudson Highlands State ParkI should probably say now that this was my second outing to the Breakneck Trail in the space of five days. Last week I hiked it with six other members of the Appalachian Mountain Club. The company was great, but the views hid themselves in a persistent mist. So I resolved to come back on Election Day if the weather was better. Now it was clear and cool, and Marjorie and I turned our backs to the river and followed the trail upward and inland. There really wasn’t to be anything easy about any part of this hike. When we weren’t climbing to small summits, we were tackling tricky descents. Be warned, even in dry conditions it was easy to slip. One of my AMC companions last week landed on his rear end, and I nearly did the same today. And when the trail wasn’t dicey, it was just plain cussed – rock field more than track. The good news is that if you tire of this soon enough, you can turn onto the “Breakneck Bypass” after about 1.5 miles. This cuts the total hike in half, but at the expense of Sugarloaf Mountain. Part of last week’s AMC group took this option, tired out from too many late nights cheering on the Red Sox.

I was glad Marjorie and I pushed on. Pain became gain. We dropped off the ridge, swung 180 degrees to join the yellow-blazed Wilkinson Memorial Trail, and reached the highest point of the hike – 1,240 feet by the map. Last week my AMC group ate lunch here, wrapped in mist, oblivious to the long view northeast as far as the Gunks and Catskills. Now the trail dropped 500 feet and it was the woods turn to put on a show – the sharp shadow of trunks cast over a flecked carpet of browns and yellows; amber leaves against a pure blue sky; snatches of maple red. We briefly lost the trail by a drying-out brook, yellow blazes blending too well with the yellow woods.

Hudson Highlands State ParkThe hike saved the best to last. It meandered to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain, where the trees thinned out, making way for tall brown grass like ripe wheat. There was a lonely, wind-bent cedar too, and the remains of a tree, two of its dead limbs slithering skywards like ossified snakes. The Hudson – 900 feet below – shone silver now, blotched with gray cloud-shadow. Storm King, in deep afternoon shade, had lost all feature.

If you go …

PARKING Just after tunnel on NY 9D, 2 mi north of Cold Spring.
DISTANCE 5.5 mi approx.
DURATION 5 hours.
MAP AND ROUTE NY-NJ Trail Conference East Hudson Trails (#102). Breakneck Ridge (White) and Notch (Blue) trails out, Wilkinson Memorial (Yellow) return. Turn-around point where Blue and Yellow first meet.
WHAT TO TAKE Strong boots. Layers. Poles (folded in pack for scrambles). Snacks and plenty of water. Leashed dogs.

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