“Hiking Breakneck Ridge is easy. Lots of beginners do it,” my friend Jason assured me when I expressed reservations about scaling 1,260 feet of sheer rock in Hudson Highlands State Park. Putting uncertainties aside, on a bright Saturday in early autumn, I traded in my ballet flats for hiking boots to tackle the steep and striking cliffs up north.
With its close proximity to New York City (only an eighty-minute train ride from Grand Central), stunning vistas of the Hudson, Storm King Mountain, Mount Taurus and West Point Academy, it’s no wonder why Breakneck Ridge is an immensely popular hiking destination for those seeking to escape the frenetic city pace, if just for a day.
Repeatedly voted as one of the best trails in the country, Breakneck Ridge offers 5.5 miles of challenging rock climbs and rugged hikes for even the most seasoned Eagle Scout. You’ll need all four limbs to scramble up the first mile when suddenly the vertical ascent will have you scrunching your brow at how you managed to get stuck—and without safety equipment—between a rock and a hard place, with no way to go but up. The adrenaline is pumping at this point.
While the clearly marked trail is easy to navigate even for first-timers, Breakneck Ridge may not be recommended for height-fearing folk prone to vertigo. Still, as you progress from one tier to the next, you will find the spectacular sight of turkey vultures swooping between mountain peaks and an unfettered view of lush landscape to be well worth the challenge.
At the Breakneck Ridge Metro North flag stop (make your way to the last car to get off), find the trailhead near the 9D highway tunnel. The four to five-hour hike—depending on pace and party size—starts from the base of the ridge and progresses from the white Breakneck Ridge Trail to the blue Notch Trail. Bearing left on blue, continue onto the yellow Wilkinson Memorial Trail, which returns you to 9D leading to the charming town of Cold Spring, where trains depart hourly for Manhattan.
If you’re up for an outdoor adventure and want to explore with a group (after all, safety in numbers!), consider joining the New York-New Jersey chapter of the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC), the nation’s oldest outdoor recreation and conservation organization. Every weekend, AMC offers over a dozen hikes to nearby New York City area destinations like Harriman State Park and forests of Northern New Jersey to further places such as the Catskills, Adirondacks, and even the White Mountains of New Hampshire. There’s a hike for everyone—from leisurely jaunts for novices to arduous terrain for hikers with years of experience blazing the trail.
To celebrate the fall foliage season, take your hiking boots (the ankle-covering kind is strongly suggested), climbing gloves, SPF 30, two liters of water, and lunch for a skyward ramble through mountain laurel and wildflowers on Breakneck Ridge. For just $20 to cover round trip train fare, it’s a quick and affordable ticket out of the city. Sure, there were times when the floor was farther away than I usually prefer, but given some fresh air and river views one just lets go of these hang-ups for a firm grip on the next rewarding ledge.
How to get there: Breakneck Ridge Trail is easily accessible via the Metro-North Hudson River Line from Grand Central Station. On weekends and holidays, disembark at Breakneck Ridge flag stop, which is situated just north of the trailhead. The trail is accessible from Cold Spring all other times. Check weather conditions beforehand. For more information on the Appalachian Mountain Club, visit outdoor.org.
Note: Appalachian Mountain Club Membership includes a subscription to their award-winning magazine, AMC Outdoors, and the option to participate in hundreds of activities where you can meet other outdoor enthusiasts in the NYC area. First year fees for new members are $50 for individuals and $75 for families—and there’s a 20% discount for signing up. Outdoor explorers under 30 and seniors over 69 can take advantage of the $25 rate.
Photo: Angela Rutherford