Hitting the Trails, Thanks to the Vision of a Special Few

By Jana Seitz

<“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

— Margaret Mead

Walk with me if you will in an “It’s a Wonderful Life” way to what Upper Westchester County could have been if some of our George Baileys had never lived. New York is a British colony. The Jersey Palisades and Hudson Highlands have been removed by quarry companies. A maximum-security prison is at Bear Mountain. There is no inn, no park, no bridge, no nothing.

Now, let’s insert the heroes who circumvented these near disasters, changing the direction of history. Firstly and most obviously, General George Washington under whose command two forts were built on the west side of the Hudson at the base of Bear Mountain to protect an upward surge by river of the British forces during the Revolution. Forts Clinton and Montgomery were connected by footbridge across a small tributary creek, and can still be walked through today. Washington’s action saved our young country on October 6, 1777, when the British got tricky and came by land rather than by ship in a “divide and conquer” tactic, rendering our chain across the river useless. The 700 American troops lost, but the battle detained the British troops just long enough for them to miss (and lose) the battle at Saratoga, a major turning point for us.

Secondly and least conspicuously, The Englewood Women’s Club of New Jersey, a small group of civic-minded, environmentally-concerned, tenacious ladies (like the Rye Garden Club) which began a movement to save the Palisades from being blasted to Kingdom Come. Their action led to the creation of the Palisades Interstate Park Commission (PIPC) with a mission “to preserve land and to provide opportunities for outdoor recreation accessible to all.” The year was 1896.

Fast forward to 1908. New York State decides to move Sing Sing Prison from Ossining across the river to the Bear Mountain woods. One hundred prisoners begin clearing land, laying sewer pipes, and constructing buildings for a new maximum-security prison. Several escapes occur. Nearest neighbor Edward Henry Harriman, a railroad magnate who owns thousands of acres, hatches a “so crazy it just might work” plan. He will donate 10,000 acres and $1 million to the PIPC if the State will scrap the prison idea and turn Bear Mountain into a park. Harriman, our third and final hero, died before he sealed the deal, but his wife and son carried out his wishes in October of 1910.

Bear Mountain is as laden with history as it is with geologic layers. It is the bedrock of our nation, from the American Revolution through the Industrial Revolution to present day, the gateway of the Hudson. From its peaks in one weekday hour you can see passenger trains on the east bank, huge freight trains on the west bank, load-pushing barges up the middle, West Point helicopters in training, and replicas of ships from the 1600s sailing upriver. It’s just showing off to also claim that the birthplace of the Appalachian Trail is another feather in Bear Mountain’s cap. But it’s true. The very first completed section of the Appalachian Trail ran from Pennsylvania to Connecticut, right across the newly constructed Bear Mountain Bridge in the 1920s. Also, the very first planned Nature Trail established in the U.S., brainchild of The American Museum of Natural History and the PIPC, occurred right there on the new A.T. in 1925, literally covering and housing part of the A.T. for the purpose of education. The 57-acre outdoor area with trails, museums, and an outdoor zoo of indigenous animals is still there today, yours for the taking.

You really just need to get over there and discover it for yourself. It’s only 35 miles from Rye. I wouldn’t wish a weekend visit on my worst enemy as its crowded, but a weekday trip is a delight. There are tons of trails and options ranging from an easy drive to a stringent hike. My favorite plan is to start with an overview hike of Anthony’s Nose, the Hudson Highland peak on the east side of the river directly across from Bear Mountain. Head up Route 6 from Peekskill, the scenic route formerly called “The Goat Trail”, toward the Bear Mountain Bridge. Rather than stay on Route 6 to cross the bridge, stay right on 9D and park on the right side of the road at the trailhead sign. This is part of the Appalachian Trail, section 9. Up and back down same trail is the simplest route, although there are other trails if you’re adventurous.

It’s a lovely hike up with some interesting finds along the trail, homemade lean-to’s and a pond full of frogs. Pack a lunch for the top of Anthony’s Nose where the view is stunning and you get an idea of the big picture. You’ll know you’re there when you hit the American Flag atop a flagpole. Back down to walk across the Bear Mountain Bridge, past the Toll Booth and across Route 6 on the marked pedestrian crossing (don’t trust the drivers to automatically stop). The entrance to the Trailside Museum and Zoo is a few hundred yards back toward the river on the south side. The A.T. runs straight through the museum trail, and you’ll probably see some Through Walkers resting on benches. Be sure to see the Bear Den. If you still have time, stroll along Hessian Lake and grab a coffee at the cafeteria in the Inn for your walk and drive home.

Appalachian Trail marker

Bear Mountain Bridge

Freight train in the distance on the west side of the Hudson

Revolutionary War Reenactment at Fort Montgomery on Popolopen Creek

Southwest view from Anthony’s Nose