Back in England, we were often to be found heading out of town to spend bank holiday weekends hiking around various scenic parts of the country. Since moving to New York, we’ve managed the grand total of one weekend walk (although we’ve put in an awful lot of miles around Manhattan, which has to count for something!), and so this holiday Monday seemed like a good opportunity for another.
After some deliberation, and much consultation of bus and train timetables, we settled on a circular route at the southern end of the Palisades Interstate Park. As seems to be the case with many hiking trails in America, getting to the start on foot is often more challenging than the actual walk. This one was relatively easy, involving a single bus, which stopped a mile from our front door, and only one sprint across a busy intersection with no pedestrian lights.
The Palisades park was created in the early 1900s, largely to stop the quarrying which was devastating the woodland and spoiling the views across the river from Manhattan. The waterfront beaches became a popular summer daytrip from the city, as people could catch a ferry across the river, but by 1943 the ferries had been driven out of business by vehicle traffic across the George Washington Bridge (opened 1931) and the beaches had fallen into disuse. Meanwhile John D. Rockefeller Jr. had been quietly buying up as much of the summit of the Palisades as possible, with a view to returning the land to wilderness other than a scenic roadway along the cliff top.
Consequently the park occupies a skinny stretch of land between the river and the road, much of which is taken up by vertiginous cliffs. This makes life easy for hikers, who have two paths to choose between – the Long Trail along the cliff top, or the Shore Trail (which needs no further description). Starting by the George Washington Bridge, we decided to walk north along the Long Trail and return by the Shore.
This turned out to be a good decision, as it helped us stay out of the sun – an important consideration for our pasty English skin. Unlike the average British bank holiday weekend, the weather was superb (especially for those planning a day at the beach). After a lovely cool and sunny, springlike week, the heat and humidity promptly cranked themselves up a notch – a little too far for my personal comfort levels, but after such a long cold winter I shouldn’t start complaining about this quite yet. Our route meant that we spent the sunniest part of the day beneath the trees, and were shaded by the cliffs on our return, with the humidity of the woods more than compensated for by lovely river breezes.
So we wended our way through the trees, doing our best to avoid the poison ivy, and being startled occasionally by a variety of wildlife – deer (both living and deceased), birds, caterpillars, and so on. Most memorably, we watched an inchworm working its way up the side of a trail signpost (I thought they only did that in cartoons), and stood very still as a little snake slithered across the path in front of us (I think just a garter snake). Occasional viewpoints gave us some great views out across the river.
I was quite surprised by just how close the road and trail were – in many places we were walking just a few feet from the carriageway, and I don’t think there was anywhere we couldn’t hear the cars rushing by. Fellow hikers, however, were few and far between – other than around the areas with carparks and lookout points, we only saw a handful of people on the trail, so if it hadn’t been for the traffic noise we’d have felt very far from civilisation.
In a moment of uncharacteristic enthusiasm, I had insisted that we continue as far north as the Alpine picnic area, rather than head down the cliffs by an earlier path. Tom wasn’t entirely convinced (we’d been walking for four hours by the time we arrived), but this was a very pleasant spot for a rest, and we ate lunch on a picnic bench with lovely river views.
Heading home along the shore, our main concern was how very far away the George Washington Bridge looked to be (in actual fact 8 miles or so). This trail was even more deserted than the clifftop path, and as we wound our way along just above the waterline we looked up into dense forest (into which I was, of course, busy imagining bears). Geese and their fluffy goslings provided some nice distraction, as did jet skiers zipping up and down the river.
After a mile or two we accidentally found ourselves up on the Henry Hudson Drive, an old scenic roadway which runs approximately half-way up the cliff. We decided to follow this for a little while, and it made for much faster going than the uneven rocky shore path, with the added drama of occasional cyclists zooming by. Back on the shore, we paused for a break by the ruins of an old beach resort.
The southern section of the trail is punctuated by a number of boat moorings and picnic areas. Many people were taking advantage of the lovely evening, with elaborate BBQ set-ups in every direction and all kinds of outdoor games in progress. It felt rather strange to be wandering through these family outings and then plunging back into the undergrowth, and by that stage of the day we’d have been very happy to trade our boots and backpack for an SUV and a portable grill, but the sight of the bridge looming ever larger drew us onward and we made it back to the bus stop in good time.
In total we clocked up a shade over 19 miles (just over 17 on the trail, and then 1 each way between the bus stop and our apartment), and, allowing for food stops, our average pace was around 2.5 miles per hour. Given that most of the route was pretty flat I thought this was slightly pathetic, but Tom felt it was a good average for a long and warm day.
Writing this the following morning, I’m a little bit achy and footsore, but not nearly as much as I was expecting (and I’d feel significantly worse than this after jogging just a few kilometres). We also seem to have avoided both sunburn and the dreaded poison ivy, hurrah! So of course now I’m busy riffling through our walking book, trying to see if we can fit any more excursions in before the summer hits for real. Will we manage it? Watch this space…!