By RICH GRANT
Just a dozen miles north of New York City, on the western side of the Hudson River, there is a three-mile hike that for wild, scenic beauty and geologic wonder rivals any national park in the country. Most visitors to New York would be amazed that within sight of the city’s skyscrapers and the Empire State Building, there is an area of such rugged wilderness.
The Palisades are a series of 300- to 500-foot cliffs that hug the western banks of the Hudson from New York City north 20 miles to the town of Nyack. Formed 200 million years ago into a hard, volcanic rock called diabase, the cliffs were carved out by glaciers and the ice age. They have played an important role in New York history. In 1776, British General Charles Cornwallis in a secret attack scaled what was thought to be an un-climbable part of the cliffs and nearly captured George Washington and his army at Fort Lee. Alexander Hamilton was killed in a duel with Aaron Burr on top of the Palisades, and the cliffs have been home to everything from amusement parks to millionaire’s estates.
By the late 1800s, the cliffs were in danger of being quarried out of existence, but then the New Jersey Women’s Federation and John D. Rockefeller stepped in and, in 1900, the area became Palisades Interstate Park.
Today, the New Jersey potion of the park hugs the Hudson River and is a half-mile wide and 12 miles long, with 30 miles of hiking trails above and below the cliffs. One of the most spectacular trails is a three-mile loop that begins, appropriately, on the borderline between New York and New Jersey at an area called State Line Lookout. The quaint Lookout Inn located here was built in 1937 as a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project and has maps and trail guides, as well as cold drinks and snacks.
At 532-feet above the river, State Line Lookout is the highest point of the cliffs with corresponding spectacular views, up the river to the Tappen Zee Bridge, across to the villages of Hastings on Hudson and Dobbs Ferry, south to New York City and even as far away as the Long Island Sound.
The classic Palisades hike begins here, but it is a challenging climb with steep assents and a mile of difficult rock scrambling. It should only be attempted by experienced hikers.
Begin by walking south from the inn for a half-mile on the Long Trail, the park’s longest trail, which hugs the top of the cliffs for the entire length. At the junction with the Forest View Trail, begin your descent by heading east, down the cliffs, following the blue-and-white blazes cut into trees.
This is a steep trail of stone stairs and switchbacks that quickly drops 520 feet to the banks of the Hudson. Much of this area has been overgrown with non-native, invasive vines such as Japanese honeysuckle, making it look more like a Brazilian jungle than New Jersey.
At the river, you meet the Shore Trail, the park’s second-longest trail that snakes along the riverbank. The Hudson is an estuary and at slack tide, it can appear as calm as a lake. Head north following the white blazes painted on the rocks to an area called the Giant Stairs, a mile of rocks and huge boulders that have tumbled down from the cliffs for centuries. This is a difficult, but scenic stretch, where the trail goes up and down, over and around the rocks and requires some hand scrambling and climbing. Don’t lose sight of the blazes ahead; often the next one is far above or below you.
After a mile, the trail levels out along the riverbank and comes to the ruins of Peanut Leap Cascade, a riverfront estate that once had elaborate Italian gardens at the base of a waterfall. Nothing remains but the foundation.
From here, there is a very steep assent up through woods to the top of the cliffs, then a cliff path that winds along the edge of the jagged rock walls (often with perilous drops just feet from the trail) back to the Lookout Inn. Along the way, you pass an abandoned portion of old paved Highway 9W, that became obsolete with the building of the Palisades Interstate Parkway. It is fascinating to see how quickly nature is reclaiming the abandoned paved road.
For trail access information and more hikes, visit the Palisades website.
…Oct. 23, 2020