Every summer they pass silently through the woods of Orange County.
Dozens a day, hundreds a week, thousands a year.
Unseen by most, they carry their own water, food, toiletries, tents and cooking gear.
They set up camp at night and are gone by morning.
They are thru-hikers.
They are the thousands of hardy souls who trek from Georgia to Maine – or Maine to Georgia – along the Appalachian Trail. At one end is Springer Mountain, Georgia, the other Mount Katahdin, Maine. Their journey is 2,180 miles long – give or take – as it follows the ridgelines in 14 states.
But approximately 40 miles of that famous foot trail resides in Orange County and includes some of the most beautiful, wild and challenging hiking in all of the northeast.
In fact, the Appalachian Trail, the most famous foot trail in the Western Hemisphere, was conceived, planned and born right here in Orange County.
It began back in 1921 when forester, planner and conservationist Benton MacKaye, living in Arden Valley at the time, began promoting an idea for a trail that would wind along the mountaintops of the Appalachians.
The plan was already a popular one among camping enthusiasts up and down the East Coast. In fact, many other foot trails already existed, but MacKaye’s grand scheme was to link them together into one long Appalachian Trail.
MacKaye first broached his idea in technical and architectural publications of the day but his plan gained real traction when an article was published in the New York Evening Post under the headline: “A Great Trail from Maine to Georgia!”
Shortly thereafter, the newly-formed Palisades Interstate Park Trail Conference adopted the plan and just two years later, on October 7, 1923, the first official section of the AT opened between Bear Mountain and Arden Valley.
Which makes that section the first original part on the AT even though older foot trails were later incorporated into the pathway.
So every thru-hiker who successfully completes the five to six-month long challenge of walking the entire route must pass through Orange County at some point. Whether northbound, southbound or section hiker, they all come our way.
But plenty of day hikers are out there in our woods as well.
Trekkers come up from the New York City metropolitan area and down from New England to enjoy Orange County’s section of the trail. Some come for the day while others come for longer periods.
What they find sometimes surprises: In fact, the “AT Guide” warns: “Despite the unimposing profile, rocks and abrupt ups and downs make this section challenging.”
And indeed it is.
“These mountains only go up past 1,300 feet,” said Andrew Ferk, 27, a thru-hiker and software engineer from Elba, Minn., while catching his breath on top of Bear Mountain. “But the terrain, the rocks are similar to much higher elevations.”
“I always knew the Appalachian Trail went through New York,” said Ferk. “But I never expected so much up and down terrain. In New Hampshire you go up the ridgeline once and stay up. But here it’s up and down, up and down.”
It’s a profile that catches many a hiker completely unaware.
“I recently led a group of hikers up here from Kingsport, Tenn.,” said Rich Taylor, Appalachian Trail supervisor for the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference.
“They looked at the elevation numbers for the start and the finish and thought it would be an easy hike. But there are about 4,000 to 5,000 vertical feet gained in all those ups and downs between West Mombasha Road and Elks Pen on Route 17 in Monroe,” Taylor said. “It took nearly seven hours to complete.”
“I am sure they never expected to see that kind of wilderness so close to New York City,” Taylor continued. “In the end, they thought it was quite beautiful and we saw a nice size rattlesnake along the way, too. They were impressed.”
If you are hiking northbound, the AT first crosses into Orange County near Unionville but it soon retreats back into New Jersey and runs mostly parallel to our border for several miles. In the Town of Warwick, high above Greenwood Lake, the trail crosses back into the Empire State for good and then leads hikers along a series of roller-coaster walks on puddingstone rock formations – the remains of an ancient seabed.
The views, looking 700 feet down on the long and narrow form Greenwood Lake, are nothing short of spectacular.
But the toughest part lies ahead: From Fitzgerald Falls near the Monroe-Tuxedo border to the top of Bear Mountain the Appalachian Trail becomes particularly strenuous. It’s here that a hiker will encounter “Agony Grind” a rock scramble that gains 500 vertical feet in just a half-mile, in full view of the New York State Thruway.
It’s also here that hikers find the “Lemon Squeezer” in Harriman State Park, a split in a giant boulder that the foot trail navigates directly through.
And finally the AT takes hikers up to the jewel of the region – the top of Bear Mountain and its wonderful views of the Hudson River to the north and south, the Bear Mountain Bridge directly below and the New York City skyline far off in the distance.
The Bear Mountain trails – and there are several ascending the summit from both north and south – wind across the Orange-Rockland county border several times. And although cars can easily drive to the top using Perkins Memorial Drive, the 2.5 mile, 700 foot high hike is very steep and quite difficult for those on foot.
And, until recently, it was even more difficult.
“The trails on Bear Mountain were the original part of the AT,” explains Rich Taylor. “By the late 1990’s if was in very bad shape. So the New York New Jersey Trail Conference sought an agreement with the Palisades State Park Commission to relocate the trails and harden them.”
The Bear Mountain pathways are used by almost a half-million people a year and a study determined that they needed to be completely rebuilt. After years of negotiations, grant money was obtained, a plan drawn up, a project manager hired and finally in 2006, a network of over 700 volunteers went to work.
“We had to teach volunteers how to harvest rocks, split them and move them down the mountain and into position to create stone steps,” said Taylor. “It took years to complete.”
The effort sparked a unique “Trail University” program that trained workers in long-lost stone masonry skills. Volunteer crews, working mostly on weekends, put in thousands of man-hours to relocate and rebuild the trails. And although an official ribbon cutting was held in 2010, the work isn’t expected to be fully finished until 2016.
But the result is a wonder to behold: The multi-million dollar Bear Mountain Trails Project completely transformed the hiking experience. More than 1,000 hand-hewn rock steps carved into the steep mountain now lead hikers safely to the top and back down again.
The half-ton sized granite steps, each 4-5 foot wide, were moved into position using man-powered winches. In some cases the slabs were transported more than 300 feet by the crews. The end result looks like a stairway to heaven to some and a pathway to sore knees for others.
More than a mile of pathway was re-fortified by the volunteers and lined with gravel to improve the treadway. But although the footing is much improved, the effort to reach the top remains just as strenuous.
“It took three hours to get all the way to the top,” said Farrell Brenner, of Chester who hiked to the top with five friends early in early January. “It was pretty steep at times. Very difficult on the legs.”
“But it would have been even more difficult if the steps had not been there,” Brenner said. “We weren’t all that prepared so we probably wouldn’t have made it without them.”
And, according to Brenner, the steps “looked like they belonged there. They blended right into the mountainside.”
And the climb to the top was worth it.
“The views were beautiful,” Brenner said. “We got to see the mountains across the river, the bridge below and the sun setting in the distance.”
“It was breathtaking.”
(By John DeSanto. This story first appeared in the April/May 2014 Edition of Orange Magazine)
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