@ The Outset
Photograph: A forest scene; hundreds of skinny trees, devoid of leaves, line a central trail. In the distance, a small vertical white stripe has been painted about six feet up one tree's trunk.

New York's Appalachian Trail, Part I: Find the Blaze

New York City leaps to front of mind as an answer to many questions. “Melting pot?” New York City. “Great theatre?” Broadway’s synonymous with it. “Best slice of pizza?” It’s in everyone’s top three. On the other hand, if I were to ask you to name a great city for outdoor enthusiasts, I would bet a dozen places come to mind before New York warrants a mention. San Francisco. Denver. Seattle. Austin. Salt Lake City.

Where we last left off, I had resolved to start taking backpacking trips to gain some skills. Glossed over in that resolution: there are not many backcountry opportunities in the five boroughs of NYC. I also did not have a truck at this time, or for that matter long-distance transportation of any kind. My single-speed bicycle could take me around Brooklyn, but Bear Mountain would be a stretch. If I was going to do this, I would have to do it with mass transit.

This put an interesting set of constraints on my situation. I needed to find:

  1. trails and public lands, that were
  2. accessible via bus or train, and
  3. allowed for camping, either at sites along the trail or at-large in the backcountry.

This was a surprisingly tough needle to thread, but in my initial research, one option seemed to stand out for checking all the boxes: the Appalachian Trail.

Background

Photograph: in a forest, looking up at a milepost screwed into a tree trunk. It reads: "Appalachan Trail. Viewpoint via Agony Grind, .2; Orange Turnpike, 1.7; Little Dam Lake Bridge, 2.8; West Mombasha Road, 4.8; Fitzgerald Falls, 7.9; Wildcat Shelter, 9.7"

A milepost along the Appalachian Trail. We’ll revisit this sign later.

Few walking paths quite grip the imagination like the Appalachian Trail. Its 2,200 mile bulk stretches from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine, and it is perhaps best well known for the thousands of people who attempt to thru-hike the trail each year. One in four succeeds, which strikes me as impressive for a task that requires walking, more or less nonstop, for five to seven months.

Of course, the trail is not just for thru-hikers; if anything, the notion of “the trail” as a single path to be walked belies many of its complexities. The Appalachian Trail crosses through 14 states and countless local jurisdictions. It’s managed by two national agencies and a nonprofit conservancy. Maintenance of the trail falls to 31 local trail clubs and conferences. Some are student organizations at local universities; others are registered nonprofits managing millions of dollars in grants and contributions. It is a fascinating exercise in federalism.

The idea of an Appalachian Trail was first put forward by onetime forester and regional planner Benton MacKaye, in the immediate aftermath of the First World War. Seeing the stress and dehumanization of modern industrial life, he proposed systematic recreational camping as a working class respite. Vast public lands had been set aside in the American West, but they were out of reach for the working population on the East Coast, who could not afford the time or expense of a cross-country train ride. There were some lands, though, that fit the bill: the Appalachian Mountains.

“These mountains,” he wrote in a 1921 proposal, “rivaling the western scenery, are within a day’s ride from centers containing more than half the population of the United States. The region spans the climate of New England and the cotton belt… rugged lands [that] would form a camping base strategic in the country’s work and play.”

Old photograph: two men standing outside in front of a wood siding wall. At the left, a middle-aged man in plaid wearing round-lensed spectacles. At right, a younger man (30s) in a white collared shirt.

Photo: Appalachian Trail Conservancy

Benton MacKaye, left, and Appalachian Trail Conference chairman Myron Avery in 1931.

The first person to hike every mile of the Appalachian Trail was named Myron Avery, and for him the achievement was perhaps incidental: for years he rallied work crews to build the trail in the first place, then measured every mile in sections, completing his task in 1936. It would be a dozen more years before the first thru-hiker would walk from Georgia to Maine in one fell swoop. All told, fewer than 20,000 people have completed this end-to-end trek over the last 80 years.

Meanwhile, every year, between two and three million people hike some portion of the trail.

MacKaye sought to draw people from the cities to the mountains as a respite, where they could gain perspective and a chance to breathe. “Two weeks spent in the real open,” he proposed, “would be a little real living for thousands of people.” Which is all by way of saying: when you escape from New York to the Appalachian Trail for a few days of camping, you are in some sense using it to its exact purpose.

The Hike

Within my constraints, two bus routes stood out: a New Jersey Transit line that appeared to intersect with the trail near the New York border, as well as a Short Line route to Bear Mountain State Park on the Hudson River. In between: nearly thirty miles of trail, and a shelter called Fingerboard where hikers were welcome on nights between treks.

The Plan

  • Take NJ Transit bus 196/197 from the Port Authority Bus Terminal to its intersection with the trail.
  • Hike 15.5 miles to Fingerboard Shelter on day one; camp there.
  • Hike 13.4 miles to Bear Mountain State Park on Day Two.
  • Take the Short Line bus from the Bear Mountain Inn back to the Port Authority.

I prepared for the hike meticulously, or at least, what I thought was meticulously. I went to REI and purchased a new sleeping pad and bag, gear similar to what I had borrowed for Denali. I found the Appalachian Trail on Google Maps, and printed out two dozen screenshots that I scotch taped into a comical four foot by two foot guide.

Photograph: a map of the author's planned trek, composed of black and white printouts taped together

And of course, I informed two emergency contacts of my plans and my planned return. The idea of getting out into the wilderness alone excited me, but I was nevertheless terrified at being the only person in the world who knew my whereabouts.

Life Pro Tip: When hiking alone, always inform at least one person of your location, your planned itinerary and your anticipated return.

There was something electric about the bus ride. It was a Monday morning, April 6th. It struck me that I, with my oversized backpack and thermos of coffee, was piling into a commuter bus alongside dozens of people in dress shirts, all heading to their jobs in New Jersey and the surrounding areas. They would be disembarking for their offices; I would be disembarking… where exactly?

NJ Transit’s website promised a stop on the side of Route 17A, near a creamery, just past a sharp 180 degree turn in the road. My map – “map” – showed that the Appalachian Trail would intersect the road within a hundred feet of the bus stop at Striper Way.

Photograph: inside a New Jersey Transit bus with several passengers. Mountains are visible out of the left window. A dot matrix sign at the front reads "Bearfoot Ave".

Still, as the hourlong bus ride neared my stop, there were butterflies in my stomach. Within minutes I would be out of this bus and on a dirt path, with only the objects in my possession to sustain me for the next two days.

Packlist

Note: many of these items have been updated since the date of this hike; all links are to the latest iterations of these products.

The automated voice called out names: Bearfoot Ave, Mountain Lakes, Random Road – literally, Random Road – before I pulled the cord and made my way to the front of the bus; disembarked, stood outside, looked around, the roar of the bus engine fading as it continued on its way to Warwick.

Quiet.

The trail was not immediately visible from the roadside; I got the sense that this stop was more here to serve the handful of homes in the area, than Brooklynites pining after a walk in the woods. Nevertheless, I had a pretty good idea what I was looking for: a white stripe of paint, about two inches wide and six inches tall, painted on a tree trunk or a boulder: the white blaze.


This right here, on the side of a lonely road not far from the New Jersey border, is as good a time as any to mark a short digression from the narrative at hand. Why are we here? Not we, I suppose, nor here, but more specifically, why was I there? Yes yes, to get the skills to get back on the trail, but why?

The fact is, I had made a mistake. A while before any of this, I had run away from my life over some feelings I couldn’t quite deal with. I quit my job in the city and became a traveling consultant, boarding a minimum of two airplanes a week, working at far-flung corporations for just long enough to do a job, but not so long that I might form any attachments. For a while I felt like I was nothing, no where, no one. I think I had hoped that by flying away from my feelings, I could create a life different enough from my mistaken one that I could start to feel something different.

Life Pro Tip: You can’t run away from your feelings. You’ll end up with the same feelings you had before, just in a different place.

Anyway. I quit that job too, after a year and change, and flew back home. Within that time I had become a ghost, or a vapor where I live; my absence from the city made me lose touch with many friends, and left me feeling more alone than ever.

So of course, wandering out on solo hikes was the logical next step.

What? I said at the outset that this blog wouldn’t shy away from screwups. Sometimes when you’re lost, you get more lost before you find your way. It’s not the preferred methodology, but when you don’t know any better, it’s a thing that can happen.

At any rate, I found the blaze.

Photograph: close-up detail of the white blaze on a tree trunk. The trail is visible as an area of trampled dry leaves at the left of the frame.

Day One

The white mark was painted on a tree just across from a drainage ditch. I scrambled over, and found the trail running left and right. Picked a direction; walked. Quickly found myself back on the highway. Not that way. Turned around; followed the trail. The path ran parallel to the road for a spell, then continued on to the north where the highway made its sharp southward turn.

I was underway.

If you were looking at this stretch of trail from above, you might notice that it generally follows the gentle ridgeline of a long, skinny mountain. Bellvale Mountain, I would later note, sharing a name with the Bellvale Creamery I had seen near the bus stop. A continuation of Bearfort Ridge to the south, the two mountains are apparently unusual among mountains in the Jersey Highlands for their bedrock composition: a colorful conglomerate of round pebbles and sandstone called “puddingstone”. At points along the ridge, wind erosion had denuded the underlying stone, leading to dramatic formations like the first one I would encounter, about an hour into the hike: Cat Rocks.

Photograph: the author stands at an overlook wearing a large backpack. Mountains are visible through haze in the far distance

I would later discover that there are several formations in the region named “Cat Rocks”. But this was my first time encountering the name; I briefly considered whether they looked like a cat, before scrambling up to where the boulders formed an overlook, pausing to take a picture of myself at the top.

I didn’t linger, though; it was 9:30 AM by this point, and I would need to make good time in order to cover 14 more miles. The next landmark was Wildcat Shelter. Another of the small lean-to shelters that dot the Appalachian Trail, I noted the location of the side trail – marked with a blue blaze, which generally means shelter or shortcut – but did not follow; I didn’t want to waste time exploring when there were miles to cover.

Continued onward, northeast along the ridge until it came time to descend. 500 feet down and a road crossing later – the Appalachian Trail crosses a number of paved roads in this region – I came upon the next major landmark: Fitzgerald Falls.

The forest really was beautiful. Early in April, barely two weeks into the start of Spring, the remnants of winter were all around. Waterfalls fed by snowmelt; the occasional patch of leftover ice and snow underfoot. The unexpected vision of some unnamed pond, half-frozen, half-thawed. For a kid who grew up in a state with no seasons, this was another thing that I had never seen.

Photograph: a wide panorama of a pond, mostly frozen except at the edges. Skinny trees surround the pond; all are dry and brown, without any leaves

Once again, though, I tried not to linger, as it was nearing 1:30, and I would have to hustle to cover the remaining… wait a minute… ten miles? I did the math quickly, because it was pretty easy math: I had covered a third of my intended distance, and spent half my day doing it. This did not bode well for my plan to camp at Fingerboard Shelter, or to reach Bear Mountain by Tuesday.

From this point on, I tried not to stop for anything. It wasn’t quite trail running, with my 40 pound pack, but I was definitely making better time than I had made all day. From the unmarked lake, I followed the meandering trail up and down the foothills, to a point where the trail seemed to dead-end at the base of an overgrown, rocky mess of a hillside. My map suggested that a road was 500 feet ahead, but this did not look like the way.

I backtracked a few dozen feet; saw a tree with a white blaze pointing me forward. This should be the place. And yet. Scanned the hillside until, halfway up, behind a clutch of dry brown branches and atop a rock scramble, I found it. A tree trunk with the signature white mark.

“No,” I said out loud, to no one in particular.

An overgrown hillside; tall, skinny trees tower over boulders and logs, strewn about. If you look closely, you can see a white blaze on a tree trunk, about halfway up the hill at the right side of the frame.

Find the blaze?

It’s funny. I can look back at this hillside, and with hindsight recognize how inconsequential it was. This hill was maybe 150 vertical feet. It should not have been so intimidating. And yet. In this moment I didn’t yet know what I was capable of, and maybe, in back of mind, I feared that I wasn’t. Capable, that is. All I did know was that as the day wore on, and obstacle after obstacle slowed me down, the stress and fear of losing light was wearing on me. What had I gotten myself into? How would I get myself out?

In the end I climbed the hill; found the road, and enough of a cell signal to start to look into an exit strategy. I was just over eight miles from Fingerboard Shelter, laughably short of my goal as the clock struck 3:30. The sun was set to dip below the horizon in four hours. If the terrain were flat and easy, I might be able to make two miles per hour to Fingerboard. But if my pace dipped below that (which seemed likely) I would end up somewhere in Harriman State Park, which prohibits camping except near the shelters.

Alternatively: about three miles ahead was a highway, and six miles down that highway was a train station. Tuxedo, New York. I could keep walking along this stretch of trail, and find a place to camp the night in the hills adjacent.1 In the morning I could awake, head to the road, and walk the six or so highway miles to the Tuxedo train station.

The Plan Revised Plan

  • Camp along the trail about a mile from New York Highway 17.
  • Hike the remaining distance to Highway 17 in the morning.
  • Walk the six road miles to Tuxedo.
  • Take a New Jersey Transit train from Tuxedo to New York Penn Station.

Photograph: looking directly upward, through a gap in some dry tree branches, an airplane drags a thin white vapor trail through a cornflower blue sky.

Onward and onward. Now that there was no need to rush, I moved at a medium pace. Past East Mombasha Road and the Orange Turnpike, I found another climb, this time up Arden Mountain. It felt liberating to take my time, look around, appreciate the details. Hear airplanes’ engines roar far above; watch them appear like tiny pinpricks in the twilight sky, dragging long white vapor trail runners behind.

Finally, on a saddle between two high points near Arden Mountain, I found a flat spot a few dozen feet from the trail. I set up my tent on the soft leaves. No campfire, of course; the goal here was to leave no trace.

I hung my food bag from a tree branch some distance from my tent – as in Alaska, a precaution against bears – and then settled in to write in my journal as sunset lit the sky in shades of periwinkle, pink and fire orange.

Photograph: the tent, set up in between some trees, on a bed of dry leaves at sunset.

Day Two

Awoke late, around 8:30 AM; but then, there was not that much ground to cover. Breakfast of quick oats and instant coffee, and back to the trail. Light mist under an overcast sky; the soft ground was a joy to walk on.

Found a wooden box with a trail log fastened to a tree, practically falling apart. Checked the composition notebook inside, where passing hikers had left notes of their travels. “Thirsty Boots” regretting the choice of shorts on the Winter Solstice; Ben and Holly reporting icy conditions in March. The forest telling its story through the people passing by.

Photograph: close-up of an old wooden box attached to a large tree with grizzled bark. Brass hinges and rusty screws attach the lid, open, to the base; on the lid, graffiti has been scrawled in pen and marker: "Junester, 4/6/14"; "All Hallows"; "Wrong Way Gang '79".

Of course, I left a note.

All told, it was barely a mile to reach the far end of Arden Mountain, and a viewpoint overlooking things to come: Highway 17, Interstate 87 and Harriman State Park beyond. My failure to reach Bear Mountain, I felt, was a temporary setback. I knew I would return and walk all of those miles.

A wide panorama. A freeway bisects the woods in the foreground and the hazy mountains beyond.

Overlook near Agony Grind. At left, the bridge over I-87 into Harriman. At right, NY-17 curves toward Tuxedo.

The last scramble to the road was called “Agony Grind”, a lovely 500 foot vertical descent over the course of about 1,000 horizontal feet. And there, at the base of the grind, I saw a sign that made me smile. It listed all the things I had seen so far, but in reverse order: Agony Grind, 0.2 miles; Fitzgerald Falls, 7.9; Wildcat Shelter, 9.7.

For my failure to reach Bear Mountain, I had at least done all of that.

So I started down the highway; past the bridge to Harriman State Park and down a mile of road with only trees and power lines as companions; kept on walking into the outskirts of Southfields; past the cemetery, the post office. Onward past the tree nursery and the baseball field, past scattered homes and abandoned businesses.

Photograph: an abandoned building next to the asphalt highway. Three roof gables rise above a rusty awning; in front of it, on a post, hangs a sign with a logo of a red apple and the word "REST" in white capital letters.

Somewhere around mile 3, a kind woman in a compact car pulled over with hazard lights on.

“You a thru-hiker?” she asked.

“Just out for the weekend,” I replied.

She offered me a ride down the road to the train station, which I accepted with thanks. Two hours later, I would be back in New York City.

Conclusions

It’s tempting to look at this trek as a failure, to see this as a story of falling short.

Map: A drawing of the area, including a red line from the bus stop near Warwick to the intersection with Highway 17. A dimmed red line shows the trail not walked to Fingerboard Shelter.

On the one hand, it is. I can look at this map and see the miles left un-walked, see where in two days I didn’t even make it to my day one goal. Still, I could also count some wins. On a chilly night, my gear protected me; this was an improvement. When faced with a change in circumstances, I adapted and made good choices despite bad options. For the first time I camped alone in the woods, hitchhiked, navigated the Port Authority Bus Terminal – which hey, worst bus terminal on earth? New York City.

I also noticed something on the walk down Highway 17, before I caught a ride: a Short Line bus making its way north, along the same highway on which I was southbound. I would soon find out that there was another mass transit route along this road, and that it would drop me at exactly the point where I had left the trail.

The trek to Bear Mountain could continue. @

  1. Disclaimer: I’m still unsure whether what I did was technically allowed. Both Harriman and Sterling Forest prohibit at-large camping, but my map suggested that this stretch of trail was on federal land, and in the course of walking it, I saw a large fire circle in the immediate vicinity of the trail. Lacking better options, I decided to go for it; but full disclosure, I don’t know whether you should make this your plan. ↩︎

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A headshot of the author.

Joey Castillo

Texan by birthright, Joey now lives in Brooklyn, NY with four roommates and his truck, Ghost. He likes backcountry hikes, cold weather camping, dark starry nights and hot camp stove coffee in the morning. He’s carried a national parks passport since 1996.