Scrambling at Breakneck Ridge

Manhattan’s population swells from 1.6 to 3.1 million during weekdays and much of this human tide flows through Grand Central Terminal, but at 6 AM this Memorial Day it was quite calm. Beams of artificial light filtered through the station’s enormous windows, casting orange shadows across the nave of this secular cathedral. Several police officers guided a German shepherd past two young tourists, allowing the canine to sniff plaintively at their backpacks. Newlyweds posed for a photographer beneath a massive American flag draped from the ceiling above the 42nd St. entrance. The photographer likely predicted an empty station early on a holiday morning and sacrificed sleep to capture the surreal memento: Grand Central Terminal occupied by no one else but them. Now he holds her above his head. Click, click. Now she waves bashfully as he looks on. Click, click. Now they wait for a gaggle of tourists to pass. Ok, now kiss. Captured.

The station is stubbornly devoid of benches—exiled some time in the mid-1940s to avoid being used as cots by the homeless—so tourists, commuters, and hikers all are forced to either stand or else line the walls and stairways with their bags and bodies. The dearth of benches had never been apparent to me before, but when you’re negotiating a coffee, newspaper, trekking poles, water bottle, and a train schedule all at once, it stands out.

I was bound for the Metro-North’s Hudson line, a route which, after passing through Harlem and the Bronx, clings to the eastern shores of the Hudson River, past the Palisades and along a shoreline that very quickly and quite unexpectedly becomes a shroud of green. The city  vanishes, replaced by a matrix of foliage that hugs the riverbank like a dense fog, concealing all within. The illusion is bracing, but a slight push in any direction would reveal the network of suburban towns and villages dotting the river from Westchester county on up. I got off just north of the town of Cold Spring at the Breakneck Ridge station, a tiny platform abutting the river, so small that passengers are made to disembark from the very last car. The Metro-North only services the station on weekends and holidays—and only a handful of times throughout the day at that—but it’s a wonderful convenience for hikers to access the eponymous trail.

And what a trail! The first 1.5 miles of the Breakneck Ridge trail is the crown jewel of Hudson Highlands State Park, and though it bears a daunting reputation for being the most difficult trail in the Hudson Highlands, it is also purportedly one of the most hiked in the country. Whatever the veracity of this latter bit of trivia, I knew it would likely be more crowded than usual on a holiday. Still, I was a bit disappointed to alight from the train with a throng of 50-60 eager city kids, chatting loudly about the virtues of trail runners versus traditional hiking boots. Unable to escape this unwanted company, I walked a third of a mile single file with them alongside the road (NY 9D) to the foot of Breakneck Tunnel and the trailhead beside. The New York-New Jersey Trail Conference had placed several volunteer stewards at the site (college students on summer holiday if I had to guess) handing out maps and advice; they seemed to be emphasizing the difficulty of the trail and urging inexperienced hikers to consider some of the alternate routes instead. I sidestepped this discussion and set off to conquer the trail.

Breakneck Ridge ascends immediately up and to the left above the tunnel reaching a viewpoint across the Hudson to the Storm King Mountain and Pollepel Island, home to the ruins of the mysterious Bannerman Castle. As it turns inland and crosses over the Breakneck Ridge Tunnel, it becomes clear that the word “trail” is used only in the loosest sense imaginable. This was nothing less than a climb up the near vertical face of the ridge. Hundreds of feet above me, I could see a steady stream of hikers (climbers?) proceeding slowly, one foothold at a time. In a burst of morning energy, I quickly caught up, but because only one or two were able to safely ascend the outcrop at a time, I was forced to slow myself behind what had become a bottleneck. The woman just ahead of me lamented her running shoes’ lack of grip as she struggle with the cliff. No kidding, I thought. She was nearly crying; it was hand-to-hand combat with a granite cliff but I urged her to continue, secretly wondering what I would do if she fell backwards onto me. Shouts of “you can do it!” did much to conceal my selfish desire to be done with this group altogether. Fortunately for both of us (and no thanks to the indifference of her friends), she managed to make it to the top—visibly trembling.

The first outcrop of Breakneck Ridge gives way to a beautiful panoramic view of the Hudson River marked by a flagpole. This vistas across the river were stunning and I was beginning to see why this was such a popular trail, but the physical demands were undeniably intense. A bit of climbing rewards the persistent, but parts of the stone face were unfortunately marred with large tags and litter so I moved on, leaving behind all those who took the opportunity for a break. At least 30 minutes has passed and we had come virtually no horizontal distance. Though we had scaled hundreds of feet, half a mile would be an exaggeration. As I left the outcrop, I overheard two young men openly castigating a third companion for bringing them on this “crazy ass mountain.”

According the Lenape tradition, the hills along this part of the Hudson were once home to the Great Naked Bear, an immense and ferocious creature that fed on human flesh. The bear’s skin was entirely hairless except for a tuft of white along its back and it compensated for poor vision with a keen sense of smell. Because the bear’s heart was so small, it proved remarkably difficult to kill, but breaking the animal’s back or neck would apparently do the trick. The Lenape and Their Legends (1885) continues:

Fortunately, there were few of these beasts. The last one known was to the east, somewhere beyond the left bank of the Mahicanni Sipu (the Hudson river). When its presence was learned a number of bold hunters went there, and mounted a rock with precipitous sides. They then made a noise, and attracted the bear’s attention, who rushed to the attack with great fury. As he could not climb the rock, he tore at it with his teeth, while the hunters above shot him with arrows and threw upon him great stones, and thus killed him.

Though this was the last of the species, the Indian mothers still used his name to frighten their children into obedience, threatening them with the words, “The Naked Bear will eat you.”

Lovely mythology, but it’s not clear from the sources I’ve read that Breakneck Ridge was ever singled out in folklore as the specific “rock with precipitous sides” featured in the final confrontation, despite what some claim. Moreover, the cliffs on this part of the ridge only became as steep as they are today in the 19th century when much of it was exploited by humans for use in the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, West Point, and the steps of the state capitol building in Albany. It seems to be a case of a name in search of a legend. Charles Skinner relates a less fantastical, if more plausible, account of the name in his Myths and Legends of Our Own Land (1896). He writes that “a wild bull that had terrorized the Highlands was chased out of his haunts on this height, and was killed by falling from a cliff on an eminence to the northward, known, in consequence, as Breakneck Hill.” Hence also the name of nearby Bull Hill/Mount Taurus.

Whether bull or bear, legends are hardly necessary to comprehend the difficulty of climbing up the face. White blazes indicated the trail’s ascent to a near-vertical bluff even larger and more threatening than the previous, directly adjacent to the cliff’s edge. A several hundred foot drop down onto jagged granite below made it clear that mistakes would not be forgiven. As I watched the careless scrambling of those ahead of me, I wondered how many inexperienced hikers, imagining a casual walk in the woods, wind up falling to their deaths like the errant bull in Skinner’s story. As one online observer comments:

[A] surprising number of people began the steep climb towards one of the many summits [Breakneck Ridge] offers with a nonchalance that was worrisome. For while many people climb Breakneck Ridge with no dire consequences, albeit with a winded ‘I didn’t expect it to be so hard,’ the occasional accident does happen and it isn’t hard to see why.

Another blogger somewhat hyperbolically calls the ridge a “death trap.” In an effort to prevent actual broken necks, an alternate route winds left away from Breakneck Ridge and into the forest, but few hikers took advantage of the option—if they were aware of it to begin with.

From the top, the trail continues into the woods, reaches another viewpoint, and then descends steeply before diverging with the Undercliff Trail (0.7 miles from the start), which heads off to the right marked with yellow blazing. At one of the ridge’s highest points, the hiker is presented with a complete 360º view. Then more woods. At 1.5 miles, the Breakneck Bypass Trail leads off to the right. This, it turns out, is where many day hikers, exhausted from the initial ascent, decide to leave the trail, winding around to complete a very short loop back to the parking lot at the trailhead. At this point, at last, the Breakneck Ridge trail became pleasantly quiet. I stopped for a moment and heard nothing but the comforting sound of wind in the leaves, the wet earth sighing to the thrill of every sense. Though I encountered two small groups after this on the way up to Beacon Mountain, the trail was no longer a traveling circus.

Winding up and down through the valleys between Breakneck Ridge and Mount Taurus, I stopped to filter some water at Squirrel Hill Brook. I might have filled my bottle straight from the source as there were no pastures in the area, but the presence of so many hikers unfamiliar with Leave No Trace principles concerned me. After all, how could I be sure someone hadn’t taken a shit upstream?

There’s nothing quite so wonderful as splashing one’s face with frigid mountain water during a hike, so l lingered at the brook for a time, submerging my feet and then allowing them to dry. The heat was picking up as the sun approached peak level so I soaked my bandana and wrapped it around my head before setting off again. The path continued along the river basin for a time before sharply turning to begin the ascent to the south summit of Beacon Mountain, terminus of the Breakneck Ridge Trail.

The final scrambles found me slow and exhausted from the initial ascent, but I soon made it to the top of Beacon Mountain’s south summit, where I encountered a dozen hikers picnicking at the rocky base of a 100+ ft. fire lookout tower. Stunning  views all around, but the fire tower was swaying and heaving perilously in the wind, which drove me down after taking only a few pictures. Beacon Mountain takes its name from its role in the Revolutionary War, when the site was used to light fire beacons as warnings of British naval incursions. Today, it is a panoramic suicide destination. More than one RIP so-and-so was marked along the base of the fire tower and I overhead some locals recounting grisly stories and blithely remarking, “if you’re gonna go, you might as well do it with a view.” A rock some distance from the crowds served as an apt site for lunch. While I munched on hummus and cucumbers a bald eagle soared above the trees in the distance. Before long, someone spotted it and several obnoxious picnickers fought over a pair of binoculars, as eager to indulge their vaguely nationalistic wildlife voyeurism as they were oblivious to the scene they were causing.

I had finished the trail in just under three hours. Now I needed to get back to the train, but returning the way was not exactly inspiring excitement. Why not do a different trail? A group of hikers from a meet-up group based in New Jersey kindly suggested another route for my return. From the summit, I was to descend right along a trail blazed red which I was told (and my map confirmed) would intersect with the Wilkerson Memorial Trail, taking me another 3.5 miles back to the river. Unfortunately, it was very poorly blazed and I was left wandering in circles as mountain bikers tore past me more than once. Retracing my footsteps proved fruitless so I resolved to follow a muddy but otherwise dry riverbed on the decline instead. It had to hit the Hudson at some point, I reasoned, and it might very well lead me back to a blazed trail, where I’d be able to work out my position. So I began to descend quickly but carelessly, my legs giddy from lunch and weak from earlier exertion. Waterproof shoes left me reckless in choosing my steps and as the riverbed took a sharp turn I stepped directly into a deep mud hole. Water flooded in over the top of my right shoe. Shit. Water is the foot’s worst enemy. But there was nothing for it; the damage had been done.

After a mile or so bushwhacking along an anonymous riverbed, my instincts rewarded me. The riverbed fed into the larger Squirrel Hollow Brook, where it terminated and left me. A yellow blaze! I found the Wilkerson Memorial Trail after all, albeit about a mile from where I had originally intended. I took the opportunity to filter some more water from the brook and, following the yellow blazes, hugged the river for a time before ascending to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain. Once there, I encountered the same group of hikers who had recommend the alternate route. They were taking photographs of each other sitting in the gnarly tree marking the summit of Sugarloaf, standing sentinel against majestic views of the river. “It’s the Sugarloaf tree,” I was told.

I joined my new friends for the final mile, a steep descent from the summit down to the river. Switchbacks eased our way—as did my trekking poles—but my knees (and wet foot) screamed at every step. By the time we all finally emerged onto the road, I was happy to be done. Hotspots were rapidly forming in my wet shoe and my body was raging for calories. We had arrived at the Breakneck Ridge train station with 30 minutes to spare before the next train back to New York, but a beer in town was a more attractive prospect than waiting. As my new friends began heading back to their cars I inquired about a ride into town and they happily obliged. So before heading back to the city, I found myself drinking cold beer and basking in the sun along the quaint main street of Cold Spring, NY wishing every day could be half as wonderful. 

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