There’s already a post on this side of the blog about hiking (you can find it here) but it’s not really a post about about hiking; it’s more of a meandering about the reasons for hiking and the meaning of hiking and other such existential matters and while I like every word of that post, in this one I’ll share some actual facts and figures about a few of the many quite extraordinary places there are to walk around in nature here in the lower Hudson Valley of New York State.
Nearly every morning I go for a hike with Luca on one of the half dozen marked trails that are within walking distance of our house. They aren’t exceptionally difficult hikes (they are relatively short and their grade of incline is not very steep) but they are well kept and very convenient and there is something soothing and meditative about visiting the same places again and again; following your footsteps from yesterday (or walking around them), watching the seasons change, and witnessing the cycles of the native floras as they sprout and then bloom and then die.
The trails we ramble around most mornings are part of the West Point Foundry Preserve (pictured above), a sprawling swath of protected land that runs along Constitution Marsh and Foundry Cove, both outlets of the Hudson River. During the 19th century, the Preserve was home to an ironworks manufacturing facility that employed hundreds of workers and produced some of America’s first steam engines and locomotives–as well as pipes for New York City’s water system and Parrott guns–the cannon credited with winning the Civil War. After foundry operations ceased in 1911, nature slowly reclaimed the land and today’s trails follow old rail beds and pass extensive remains of the casting house, boring mill and other foundry structures that led to the preserve’s inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. Last year the park was cleaned up and refurbished, and is now complete with an interactive audiovisual tour of the facilities (click here to access the tour).
A bit further north along the river is Breakneck Ridge, the crown jewel of vistas here in the Hudson Valley. Lying within Hudson Highlands State Park, it offers stunning views of the river and is so popular with hikers from New York City, that a rail flag stop has been established on the Metro North line which runs right by the base of the ridge. Breakneck is not a hike for the faint of heart. It has several summits, the highest reaching approximately 1,260 feet (384 m) above sea level. The southern face of the peak is remarkable for its striking cliffs–the result of quarrying in past years–and hiking it involves steep climbs over rock ledges that can be very slippery when wet. You need to use both your hands and your feet in many places along the way. Once you make it to the top, however, you are rewarded with a panoramic view of the Hudson River and the Highlands surrounding it.
And a little bit further north along the river is Mount Beacon, another challenging hike that follows the course of the Beacon Incline Railroad. The rails are silent now, but from 1902 to 1978 they hummed under the weight of two cars that made thousands of passenger runs annually. Traveling 2,200 feet of sheer mountainside trackway to 1,540 feet above sea-level, the Mount Beacon Incline Railway was once the world’s steepest passenger funicular. Thousands of visitors flocked to the site every summer, so many that a casino and hotel were built on the summit and it became an immensely popular vacation site that remained that way for decades. Unfortunately, a series of fires destroyed buildings and, eventually, the railway itself. Due to a combination of the Great Depression and a decline in the number of visitors, the financial burden placed upon the Incline’s owners was so significant that no real capital improvements were undertaken by them to restore it to its previous glory. In 1996 the Mount Beacon Incline Railway Society was founded with the mission of “returning incline railway service to the summit of Mount Beacon and creating a world class nature park for people of all abilities.” The work continues.
The present day hike, as steep as it is, gives way to spectacular views of the Hudson River. It’s short–there’s a 2.4 mile route option–and close to town–so you can use one of the many yummy lunch options in town as incentive. My favorite part of this hike, however, is poking around in the ruins of the old casino and hotel foundations and investigating the mechanics of the railway pulleys and levers and, best of all, imagining a time when folks rode up to the top in their Sunday best.