Rail To Trail
Itching to explore the Valley’s best hiking trails, but don’t want to drive? No problem. Just hop aboard a train
By Greg Bruno
The 10:23 a.m. train rolls to a halt two miles north of the village of Cold Spring. Three dozen hikers — some sipping Starbucks, others hauling the Times — shoulder their gear and quietly amble to the tracks below.
Welcome to Breakneck Ridge, a towering slab of gray granite overlooking the Hudson River, and the region’s rail-to-trail mecca.
“We’re based in one of the most populous places in the country,” says Bill Bauman, manager of Hudson Highlands State Park, which includes the ridge trail. “If you’re living in New York City and looking for a great place to hike, this is it.”
More than 100,000 people visit Breakneck Ridge and the Hudson Highlands State Park each year, and a growing number are riding the rails to get there. Recreation experts say it’s a trend likely to increase as more city dwellers discover the recreation options that train travel affords.
But popular and accessible doesn’t mean overrun — far from it. Even at Breakneck, quiet walks and wooded escapes are waiting to be discovered, as I found one recent Sunday.
After a quick breakfast, my girlfriend, Judita, and I caught the 8:57 Hudson Line train originating from Grand Central, one of two morning locals making stops at the Breakneck Ridge trailhead in Putnam County. The day was perfect — bluebird skies, puffs of white clouds, 85 degrees and a slight breeze. We were excited, car-less, free to bounce from town to town like hobos hopping a boxcar. A very crowded boxcar, it turns out. Even at this hour, while many weekend warriors are still in bed, the “hiker express” is packed with boots and wool.
Once settled in my seat, I turn my attention to the scene out the window. The short, picturesque ride from Tarrytown (where we boarded the train) takes just under 50 minutes (90 minutes from 42nd Street) and has been hailed as one of the most scenic train trips in the country. The track hugs the eastern shore of the Hudson, which is dotted with boat clubs, million-dollar views, and abandoned factory buildings reminiscent of the area’s industrial past. On this calm morning, hawks flutter over the glassy river and sailboats slice lines beneath cliffs the color of brick. It’s easy to imagine Englishman Henry Hudson sailing the Half Moon north toward Albany 400 years ago.
Then, as quickly as the train ride begins, it ends. “Breakneck Ridge,” the conductor bellows. “Last car, last door.”
Stepping off the train here takes trust. This “station” is more like a front porch: just a small platform and set of steps to get you from the train car to the ground below. There’s no sign, no ticket window, no building to welcome your arrival — only crowds of anxious hikers, and a conductor urging them on. But it’s here, on this stretch of track hemmed in between the Hudson and a wall of sheer rock, where the real adventure begins.
The white-blazed Breakneck Ridge trail starts about a quarter-mile south toward the village, on the northern side of a tunnel that passes over Route 9D. From the edge of the river to its peak, this imposing chunk of rock rises 1,240 feet in three-quarters of a mile.
Views of the Valley are, in a word, spectacular. But be warned: This steep and tricky climb is strewn with rocks and tree roots all the way to the top. It’s more wild rock scramble than hike, as one jeans-wearing walker learns not five minutes up the footpath.
“Roy, I feel light-headed,” the young blond says, leaning against a tree. “Drink some water,” Roy replies dryly. Legend has it that Breakneck Ridge earned its name in the 18th century, when a farmer ran a runaway bull off the cliffs into the river below. The bull broke its neck, and a mountain’s name was born.
Today the livestock are gone. But the unforgiving spirit of this place lives on — in lost, ill-prepared hikers. Bauman says the accessibility to the trail is a double-edged sword. Each year, he rescues dozens of stranded visitors, most of them city dwellers unprepared for the ridge’s near-vertical demands. “There is absolutely no common sense on that mountain,” Bauman says. “That’s why I go out looking for lost people.”
This day, however, is quiet. After 30 minutes of gut-grinding exertion and scrambling on all fours, sweat begins to pour. It’s been straight up since the trail began, and I’m starting to wonder if I should have brought that extra T-shirt I left at home. But then, just as I’m about to reach for the water bottle, we emerge on a wind-swept plateau, which offers the first unobstructed views of the Valley below. From my lofty perch, the river looks like a painting. Steep cliffs frame the Hudson as far as the eye can see. Small boats silently motor north, competing for room with a lone barge inching south. A flag, planted on this cliff by some patriotic hiker, snaps to attention in the wind. It’s only 90 minutes by train to Breakneck, but New York City feels a million miles away.
By the time we’ve reached the trail’s halfway point, the crowds have nearly vanished (although not because anyone went missing, Bauman later assures me). Nearly a quarter-mile above sea level, the sounds of daily life have faded and the din of cars and trains is replaced by the chirping of songbirds.
The ridge trail is actually a series of five summits that rise like giant steps from sea level, and are connected by tree-and-rock- filled paths. Near the top of one of these plateaus, Judita and I take a right.
Ten minutes later, after descending a steep slope on the yellow-blazed Undercliff Trail, we’re alone; the chattering of fellow hikers has been replaced by the “cah” of crows and the whoosh of maple leaves in the wind.
We soak up the solitude and begin our return trip to Cold Spring, slowly winding our way along a densely forested route beneath the summit of Bull Hill (also known as Mount Taurus).
But there’s no hurry. Along the way we dunk our heads in a cool creek beneath a small footbridge which is basked in sunlight; take a nap on a slab of sun-soaked rock; and forage lazily for mountain blueberries, most of which have already been picked over by birds.
From here it’s a quick right on another white-blazed trail, the Washburn, and then about a two-mile walk along the road to Cold Spring’s Main Street. Five hours after beginning our train-to-trail jaunt, we’re back in civilization.
Most train hikers opt to return to New York via the village station, rather than catch southbound service at the Breakneck platform. There are two considerations that make this a sound choice. The first is service: Metro-North makes only two late-afternoon stops at the tiny trailhead station on weekends. And finishing your jaunt in the tourist hub of Cold Spring has another perk: namely, cold beer and dinner for two. And that, as any train hiker will agree, is what makes Breakneck Ridge irresistible.
“There are tons of amenities in town, everything from fine dining to casual stuff,” says Chris Rickard, a park ranger in the Hudson Highlands. “Where else can you do that after a hike? Maybe the Adirondacks, but the only way to get there is by car.”
Five Train-to-Trail Day Hikes
To the car-less urbanite, finding spots for metro-region hiking might sound like an uphill climb. But for those willing to ride the rails, the Valley to the north offers an abundance of hiking options. Pick your pleasure: rolling hills, craggy cliffs, historic routes and miles of wide-open woodlands are just waiting to be discovered. All aboard!
Train Station: Breakneck Ridge, Cold Spring â€¢ 3.2 Miles â€¢ Very Difficult â€¢ Highlights: Mind-blowing views after a body-blow of a climb
To hell with the West. In 2005, Trails.com ranked the “rugged assent” of this rolling knobby ridge overlooking the Hudson as the number-one hike in the whole country — besting Yosemite’s Half Dome and Franconia Ridge in New Hampshire. It’s no wonder: climbing (or scrambling: expect to use all fours at some points) Breakneck Ridge is a rite of passage for Hudson Valley hikers, who proudly ascend the series of five exhilarating summits (or knobs), most of which have sheer drops that can make the hardiest of hikers tremble. But don’t fear, bypass trails offer less-threatening territory for the route down.
Avoid climbing after it rains, and keep your eyes open for timber rattlesnakes (the endangered reptiles are sometimes spotted sunning themselves on nearby boulders).
Start your trip on a vertical note, following the white-blazed Breakneck Ridge Trail. This knee-jarring route climbs to more than 1,200 feet in less than a mile. After ascending the fifth knob, turn right on the blue-blazed Notch Trail for about a half-mile, then proceed straight ahead on the red. At the intersection with the yellow-blazed Undercliff Trail, turn left. Return to Cold Spring via the white-blazed Washburn Trail. Total time: about six hours.
Getting here and away: On weekends, Metro-North (www.mta.info) operates two early-morning trains from Grand Central to a platform at the base of the Breakneck Ridge Trail. The ride takes about 90 minutes. Walk south along the tracks toward the tunnel over Route 9D. The trailhead is at the south end of the parking lot located on the tunnel’s north side. For more flexibility, return via the Cold Spring station, which has trains running about every hour. The station is an easy two-and-a-half-mile walk south along Route 9D.
Lake Skenonto Loop
Harriman State Park (Orange County)
Train Station: Tuxedo Park â€¢ 7 Miles â€¢ Moderate to Difficult â€¢ Highlights: Rolling hills, thick forests, and a visit to a secluded lake
The New Jersey Transit stop at the Tuxedo train station is the quickest way into Harriman State Park — 46,600 acres of forested mountains, bogs, lakes, and brooks. Hiking and camping options abound. The Skenonto Lake Loop takes you to a scenic body of water in the shadow of Black Ash Mountain.
Enter the park via the Ramapo-Dunderberg Trail (marked by a red dot on a white background), which starts near the metered commuter parking lot north of the station. The Ramapo-Dunderberg connects to the yellow-blazed Triangle Trail at Parker Cabin Mountain, about three-and-a-half miles in. A right turn at the Triangle will take you to the lake. Return to Tuxedo via the Victory Trail, marked by a blue “V” on white. You’ll hit the red-dotted Ramapo-Dunderberg Trail just beyond the Black Ash Swamp. Turn left and retrace your steps. Total time: about five hours.
Getting here and away: New Jersey Transit operates frequent service to Tuxedo from New York’s Penn Station (visit www.njtransit.com for schedules). To find the Ramapo-Dunderberg Trail, walk north from the station platform and turn right over the tracks toward the parking lot. The first red-circled blaze is stenciled on a state parks sign at the entrance to the lot. Continue following blazes down the road, under the Thruway, and left on Grove Drive. The trail enters the woods one-tenth of a mile on the right.
The Appalachian Trail
(Putnam and Dutchess Counties)
Train Stations: Appalachian Trail, Manitou, Pawling, Harlem Valley-Wingdale â€¢ 50 Miles or less â€¢ Moderate to Very Difficult â€¢ Highlights: Commanding views of the Hudson River to the west, rolling farmland and forests to the east
Boldly go where few will follow. Each summer, an elite handful of Appalachian Trail thru-hikers saunter through the Valley on their way to Maine from Georgia. A 2,175-mile footpath, the AT is the longest marked trail in the country. And about 50 of those miles which cross Putnam and Dutchess counties are accessible by train.
A hike along the AT takes planning. For the day trekker, hit the trail via the Appalachian Trail train station, which is about two miles north of Pawling. Like Breakneck Ridge, service here is spotty and restricted to weekends, so check schedules before heading out.
A seven-mile round-trip hike along the white-blazed AT will take you through wetlands, fields and forests; past one of the many camping sites that dot the trail; and finally, up to the breathtaking panoramic view from atop Cats Rock. Once you reach the overlook, which is located just off the AT proper, relax and enjoy the beautiful rural landscape. Be sure to pace yourself: Although this hike starts out fairly flat and leisurely, the final ascent is quite steep, and you certainly don’t want to miss the train home.
If multi-day treks are your thing, the AT has that down cold, too. The more adventurous walker can knock off about 50 miles from their AT life-list while riding the rails. A series of shelters and campsites between Bear Mountain and Pawling can stretch a day hike into four or five. Visit the Appalachian Trail Conservancy at www.appalachiantrail.org to start planning. Total time: varies.
Getting here and away: Two trains from Grand Central make weekend stops at the Appalachian Trail train station; both depart 42nd Street before 10 a.m. The ride takes just under two hours, and you can pick up the trail right at the stop. (If you’d rather head east, cross Route 22 and follow the AT into the Pawling Nature Reserve for a less strenuous hike.) For other sections of the AT, Metro-North makes stops at the Manitou train station on the Hudson Line, as well as the Pawling and Harlem Valley-Wingdale stations along the Harlem Line. The Manitou station, like the Breakneck and Appalachian Trail stops, has only limited service, but for off-peak times or weekdays, try the Pawling or Harlem Valley-Wingdale stops. From Harlem Valley, walk east on Wheeler Road, head south on Hutchinson Avenue for about a half-mile, and then bear left on Sprague Road. A green-blazed trail ahead on the left connects with the white-blazed AT.
Glenclyffe Loop and Arden Point
Train Station: Garrison â€¢ 2.2 Miles â€¢ Easy â€¢ Highlights: A lazy lunch, a cold beer and a brush with American history
For those preferring a leisurely stroll beside the Hudson to a rock scramble above it, Arden Point and the Glenclyffe Loop are safe bets. Both treks begin at the southeastern end of the Garrison train station on Metro-North’s Hudson Line; look for a footpath marked with two stone pillars and blue blazes. Arden Point, reachable by a red-blazed trail off the blue, ends at a peninsula across the river from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Stop here for lunch. After fueling up and gazing through your binoculars at the 205-year-old military academy, retrace your steps to the blue blazes, turn right on the red trail, and another right on the white-blazed Marcia’s Mile. Part of the Glenclyffe Loop, this trail eventually intersects with the historic overlook of Beverly Dock, used by Benedict Arnold in 1780 to escape from West Point after he was found out for treason. (Just think: trails and a history tour, all car-free.) Stop for a brew at Guinan’s Country Store and Pub before hopping the train home. Total time: one-and-a-half hours.
Getting here and away: Metro-North offers frequent service to the Garrison train station (visit www.mta.info for schedules).
Train Station: Port Jervis â€¢ 8 Miles â€¢ Easy to Moderate â€¢ Highlights: Undisturbed views and dense forest along a newly cut footpath
Port Jervis may be the westernmost point of New Jersey Transit’s Main and Bergen line, but it’s the new world for Hudson Valley train hiking. In May, the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference officially christened this five-mile loop southwest of Port Jervis in the southern Shawangunks.
The Lenape Ridge Trail, which follows a spiny escarpment dotted with slabs of gray slate, brings hikers high above the Delaware River Valley, Heinlein Pond, and Interstate 84. Rock ledges and thick woods dominate; on clear days you can make out the High Point Monument, a veterans’ memorial rising 220 feet over New Jersey to the south.
The Minisink Trail runs parallel to the Lenape to form a loop, and offers views of the Neversink River, the backbone of New York City’s drinking-water supply. Total time: five hours.
Getting here and away: From the Port Jervis train station, the easiest way to reach the trailhead is via the Delaware River Heritage Trail (visit www.minisink.org/trail.html for directions), which heads southeast out of town. Follow the trail for about a mile, and keep your eyes open for white blazes on a telephone pole on the west side of the bridge. This is the start of the Lenape Ridge Trail. Cross the bridge and turn left onto Minisink Avenue for another half-mile, where the white blazes head north into the woods. Return to Port Jervis via the red-blazed Minisink Trail.
What to Bring
Start with the basics: sturdy, comfortable shoes; rain gear; extra clothes; food; water; insect repellent; first-aid kit; flashlight; matches; pocket knife; and a cell phone. Once your pack is stuffed, buy a map (visit www.nynjtc.org to learn how), print a train schedule, and then tell a friend where you plan to go. Finally, bring along your common sense.
Bill Bauman, manager of the increasingly popular Hudson Highlands State Park — which includes Breakneck Ridge in Putnam County — says he spends far too much time searching for lost hikers. Don’t become one of them. Breakneck Ridge “goes from sea level to 1,240 feet in three-quarters of a mile; it’s the best hike in the Valley,” Bauman says. “But it’s called â€˜Breakneck Ridge.’ So don’t come in flip-flops.”