Hiking the Long Path: A little-known trail stretches 350 miles

Tired and hungry, I was limping through the hills above the Schoharie Valley when lightning flashed directly overhead. Within seconds I was drenched. It was late at night, my strained calf was throbbing, and I was unable to find my way back to the trail. Luckily, a friend ultimately guided me via cell phone, and I emerged from the dark woods to discover the Schoharie Reservoir. I continued on.

There were lots of memorable moments — both water-logged and wondrous — during my thru-run of the Long Path last summer. For those who haven’t heard of it, and that will be many of you, the Long Path is a close to 350-mile trail that stretches from near the George Washington Bridge to John Boyd Thacher State Park near Albany. It’s like the Appalachian Trail, only shorter and not as well known. In fact, there are 14,000 documented completions of the Appalachian Trail, but only 120 people have hiked the entire Long Path.

Named after poet Walt Whitman’s famous line about “the long brown path that leads wherever I choose,” the trail was conceived in the mid-1930s by Schenectady hiker Vincent Joseph Schaefer. His idea was that the path would not be marked as a trail, but would be a looser, more meandering route. It wasn’t completed until the late 1980s, but is unique in that it does meander — through urban areas; on suburban/country roads; over a rail trail; through private property in Orange County; over major mountains; and even into areas that require bushwhacking to get through. Today, the path is maintained by the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference and marked with an aqua blue blaze.

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long path map

I first stumbled upon the Long Path while hiking in Minnewaska State Park, where I noticed a “long path” sign. It meant nothing to me, but over the years I encountered this mysterious path in other places in the Valley, and the idea gradually formed in my mind that one day I would explore the whole thing.

Then I learned that there was a “fastest known time” for hiking the entire Long Path of roughly 12 days. I thought I might be able to beat that. To do so, I would travel light, sleep in lean-tos (there are eight or nine situated on the path), and run as much as I could.

Ill-conceived or not, the adventure started on August 25, 2013, a warm summer day with clear skies. I was treated to beautiful panoramas across the Hudson River from atop the cliffs of the Palisades and the summit of Hook Mountain, a short scramble above the town of Nyack. The next day took me through the ancient glacial valleys of Harriman State Park (where the path meets up with the Appalachian Trail); up and down the stunning 1,664-foot Schunemunk Mountain, with its distinctive purplish rock underfoot; and across the Heritage Rail Trail — with a much-appreciated break for food and drink at Kelley Jean’s in Goshen.

The Long Path then turns north and traverses the Shawangunk Mountains. I passed through the Bashakill, one of New York’s largest wetlands and home to 200 species of birds, and witnessed the sun rise from Sam’s Point Preserve, 2,000 feet above the Valley.

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The Long Path next took me through the Catskills, where it goes over 11 of the 35 peaks whose summits are higher than 3,500 feet. One of the most difficult parts of my journey occurred when I encountered an enormous area of downed trees that I had to scramble over; it looked like a tornado had come through. Then, I scaled the very steep Peekamoose Mountain at night; it was cloudy and I could not see an inch in front of my face. I went past Kaaterskill Falls and wished that I, too, could take a long nap there just like Rip Van Winkle did.

In the Schoharie Valley — home to 380 million year-old fossil trees — I scaled a 600-foot protuberance called Vroman’s Nose, which brought me to the town of Middleburgh and, happily, to Hubie’s excellent pizza.

The Long Path finally ended at the Helderberg Escarpment, where I admired fantastic views of the Adirondacks and the White Mountains. The elapsed time of nine days, three hours, six minutes was indeed a new record. I had lost eight pounds (I had underestimated how hungry I would be and was mighty sick of mixed nuts and freeze-dried food), but gained an understanding of the great work the trail conference folks have done. Next time I think I’ll go slower!

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