Outdoor Adventure: Hiking Breakneck Ridge

breakneck ridge

“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.

bkridgefallAt 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.

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

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  • Jim S.

    Fantastic. Can’t wait to do it. Thanks, and keep this type of material coming.

  • This looks great! Thanks for helping me find a place to go hiking outside of Manhattan.

  • Crispy

    I’ve wanted to try this one. And Breakneck Ridge is not upstate. 😉

  • Please do more posts like this!!! Very helpful for those of us who love outdoor day(day+) trips from nyc. Thanks.

  • joe downs

    Hey great, keep sending the neu yawk gutter trash up here!!!

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  • Hi, have 2 videos of my breakneck ridge hiking experiences on my hiking website. If your interested in seeing the videos, looking at trail maps or general trail info, check it out. Full day hike at http://hikingcampingtrails.com/breakneck-ridge-and-wilkinson-memorial-trail/ or for a half day hike http://hikingcampingtrails.com/breakneck-ridge-—-lower-hudson-valley-new-york/

  • Dan

    Much of the fun of Breakneck is the open rock scrambling up the ridge to the summit. If you don’t feel comfortable on some rocky parts on your first visit, there are alternate, side loops around the challenging rock that are marked with an “X Alt.” Many regulars prefer “approach shoes” rather than hiking boots since the grip is dramatically better, although the trade off with their low, light-weight design is no ankle support, which you probably don’t need with a light pack. Wearing Five-Ten approach shoes ($80-$100), one of several good brands, lets me easily walk the steep rock where boots would have me using all fours. Not all approach shoes are equal and don’t get sold ones without proprietary high-grip soles in a camping store. Approach shoes are definitely not “rock climbing shoes,” which you don’t want, and have stable soles. Go to a climbing store–they’ll have an inclined deck to try the fit–and get fitted with the right approach shoes for Breakneck from the get go, and don’t skimp on $15-$20 for the best socks. Regular running sneakers or trail runners are no good at all and will turn the scrambling into an unnecessary ordeal, but hiking boots are preferable to sneakers if you’re not going to get approach shoes. Don’t over-pack as weight is a real drawback scrambling. A single, adjustable hiking pole, maybe $25, is a great help with stability descending. There are almost no mosquitoes on the ridge, but bring bug spray just in case the deer flies are bothering you or you hike down by the ponds where there are mosquitoes. If you want to go all out, a climbing store can fit you with a good hydration pack with some cargo room for lunch and your windbreaker for less than $100. Even the fit of your pack is important, so it pays to go to a climbing store if there’s one near you. A few times out and you’ll know the trail like the back of your hand, and as the reviews say, it’s easily the best trail anywhere south of the Greens or Whites up in Vermont or New Hampshire.

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  • Hoodmofo

    That settles it. I’m bringing the whole hood. lol!

  • Alicia

    I was completely new to hiking and I loved it!!! We did a short circular trail that took us about 4h, not easy-boring but easy enough to make me feel comfortable all the way up and down. I would certainly recommend it!!

  • Suzy Allman

    This one is definitely a thriller, but I think there are other hikes that would at least come close to “best hikes” in the area, including the Ramapo-Dunderberg trail and the Timp-Torne, where views are equally awesome. I also agree that I wouldn’t do hiking boots for this one — the approach shoes are the stuff. Thanks for a great & complete review!

  • ron6788

    Great write-up! Makes me want to go again. Seems like everybody and anybody who’s a hiker shows up at the Ridge sooner or later. In fact, I’d say, more and more of the folks that go up there aren’t regular hikers at all but just folks looking for a challenge. I think it’s great and it’s what keeps me going back, too. If you weren’t in shape before, do Breakneck a few times and you’ll be on your way!
    I wouldn’t worry too much about gear. I prefer running shorts and sneakers myself but I’ve seen folks going up in dungarees and boots and big packs. One guy went up with a kid on his back!