Hip & Healthy: Day Trip: Hiking in the Catskills

Melissa Davison

Living in the city, it’s easy to forget that we've got hills, forests, mountains and farmland right in our backyard. I grew up hiking in the Adirondacks every summer, but when I moved to the city, mountains were out of sight and hiking was out of mind. And while the parks satisfied my need for green space for a while, I began to really miss hiking and the enormous sense of accomplishment I feel when I immerse myself in nature and forge my way to the summit.

So when a friend invited me to go hiking a few summers ago, I immediately accepted. He suggested a mountain called Breakneck Ridge that was accessible by the Metro-North.

The Hudson Highlands, where Breakneck Ridge is located just over an hour from the city, is not a secret to city folk. In fact, on weekends, the Metro-North runs two morning trains from Grand Central up the Hudson line with special stops at Breakneck Ridge.

An Unexpected Challenge: 'Scrambling'

I had previously climbed the highest mountain in New York State, so I was positive that anything the Hudson Highlands could throw at me would be a cakewalk. My tune soon changed. As I looked up from the base of the mountain, I couldn’t help but feel slightly terrified by the near-vertical sheer rock path that lay ahead of me: Breakneck Ridge gets right to business starting with the first step, and only gets steeper from there.

Breakneck forces hikers to resort to a hand-over-foot type of climbing called a “scramble." I'm not tall, so getting from one ledge to the next sometimes required a deep breath, a bit of luck, and a strong grip. Every so often, I would find a large enough foothold or ledge for me to take a short rest and where I could figure out my next move before recommencing the scramble. That's what I'd come to enjoy most about hiking Breakneck -- it requires strategy to succeed. You can’t just stomp along; you have to find the path that will work for you.

The Payoff: Views and Vistas

The reward for my efforts came quickly: the first summit provided breathtaking views over the Hudson. Looking down at the face from above was exhilarating. It was amazing to know that I could scale sheer rock. After a few more steep climbs, we had crested the second and third peaks. At each summit, I rested to take in the views of Storm King Mountain, the river and the picturesque West Point.

Breakneck was fast and furious only at the beginning. It continued at a more leisurely pace the rest of the way, allowing me to enjoy the scenery on the way down. By this point, the crowd had thinned out, and I was able to enjoy the rest of my hike in relative solitude.

Since that first hike at Breakneck, I've gone on a few more, trying out different trails. My favorite option leads through the forest to an abandoned mill home. Only the stone framework of the home remains today, offering a glimpse of what must have been a stately home years ago. It’s a nice place to stop for a snack.

Exploring Town of Cold Springs After Breakneck Ridge

There are so many rewards to climbing Breakneck Mountain. The first is the huge feeling of accomplishment you get from conquering the scrambles. No one can tell you they are easy, but if you take your time, plan your next move and persevere, you will make it to each summit.

The second is the gorgeous views from the summit and the nature-filled paths that take you back down. The Hudson Highlands may be only an hour outside the city, but it feels like another world.

Without a doubt, my third favorite thing about hiking Breakneck Ridge is the charming town of Cold Springs that you can walk to from the base of the mountain. Depending on where you descend, you will be about a mile north of the town. As you walk there, you will pass the Hudson Highlands Park, which has hiking trails, boat rentals and a little beach if you want to take a swim.

Just beyond that, you will find the main street of Cold Springs, which looks like a piece of history preserved in time with charming little stores, ice cream shops and restaurants. Stopping for a bite to eat and a cold drink there feels the perfect reward after a hike. The Cold Spring train station is right at the end of the Main Street area, and you can take a train there back into the city. 

As I ride back I always find it amazing how quickly the serene, lush Westchester towns turn into the urban landscape of Bronx and then Manhattan. It’s like Brigadoon fading away. I enjoy living in the city by day, but am happy to know the woods aren’t too far away when I am ready for an escape.

What to Know if You Try Breakneck

One lesson I can share from my experience in the Hudson Highlands is to have a good trail map (and map reader) on hand. Don’t rely on your smartphone in the middle of the mountains! There is a primitive trail map available at the trailhead, but it isn’t thorough enough to navigate your first time around.

If you’re interested in finding accessible hiking within easy distance of the city, I recommend a few resources to get you started:

The first is a great book, Take a Hike New York City: Hikes within Two Hours of Manhattan, which includes hiking trails in New York, NJ and Connecticut. It is easy to use and includes trails accessible by public transportation, provides good trail maps, and rates the difficulty of the trails.  Breakneck is considered a “butt kicker.”

If you are a hiking novice and not ready to navigate the trails all by yourself, there are several companies that plan and guide your hike from start to finish, including transportation. A few of these organizations include: Outdoor Bound and Living Social Adventures.

Melissa is a NYC resident and workout junkie. She keeps motivated to stay fit and active by trying out new workout classes, signing up for races, and keeping an eye out for a fun fitness challenge. She hopes to complete the New York City Marathon for the second time in 2011. Read more about her healthy adventures in New York City at her blog fitnessnyc.wordpress.com.

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