@ The Outset
Photograph: A forest scene; lush, green trees line a muddy trail. One tree on the right seems to have fallen over; it leans over the trail at a 30 degree angle. On another tree, about five feet up, a vertical white stripe has been painted.

New York's Appalachian Trail, Part II: Easy Way

I could stay or I could go. The decision boiled down to that.

I had given myself five minutes to rest while I faced this decision, ten miles into the day’s trek and three hours from sunset. I had made it to the William Brien Memorial Shelter, the second of three shelters in Harriman State Park. Eight miles remained to Bear Mountain Inn and the bus back home. There was plenty of daylight remaining — if I were to set up camp here. The question was whether I wanted to push nearly four miles further, up and down Black Mountain, then up again West Mountain, to the shelter there overlooking the Hudson River.

I’d not yet seen the path that lay ahead. And the memory of falling short ten days prior was still fresh in mind. In that moment, unsure of my pace, unsure of the terrain, unsure of twilight’s brightness or that of my headlamp, I did not know whether I should settle in and prepare for an eight mile hike in the morning, or push onward and risk losing the light today for the reward of a shorter hike tomorrow. I agonized over the minutes I’d allotted for this short respite. Should I stay, or should I go?

I sat down.

Photograph: under golden afternoon light, a three walled stone structure sits at the base of a small, rocky hill.

4:00 PM at William Brien Memorial Shelter.

Background

The first challenge was booking a ticket.

After the Warwick hike, I had discovered an additional mass transit route that would get me to the trail. Two, in fact: a Short Line bus that dropped off where I had left off, and a Metro North train from Grand Central Terminal to a stop near the Connecticut border. All told, my mental map of the trail in New York was looking something like this:

Drawing: A map of the region shows the island of Manhattan, small, at the bottom. Roads and rails connect the city to the Appalachian Trail at several points: a New Jersey Transit bus stop in the west called Route 17A at Striper Way; a Short Line stop just to the east called Route 17 at Arden Valley Road; another Short Line stop at Bear Mountain on the Hudson river; and at the far north east corner of the map, a Metro North Railroad stop called Appalachian Trail.

Tuxedo aside, I had three buses and one train that could deliver me to and from the trail. One of them, the Short Line to Harriman, would pass right by Agony Grind, the spot where I had started my hitchhiking walk down route 17.

If only I could figure out how to book a ticket. The bus passed there, but I couldn’t find the stop described online, and two attendants at the Port Authority Bus Terminal couldn’t quite decipher my intended destination. It was April 17, ten days since I had left the trail, and looking at that map — I had drawn a simplified version in my notebook — I was struck by how much ground I had covered on my first failed hike, and how reasonable it seemed to get from the western end of Harriman State Park to the Bear Mountain Inn in a day and a night.

So I packed the same bag (and a new map) and headed to the Port Authority Bus Terminal, which was fast becoming my own personal Wilderness Access Center.

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.

For the record, the stop is Route 17 at Arden Valley Road; if you say that, your ticket should have the correct destination, and the driver should know to stop. Although as with many things in life, there are no guarantees; watch out for the intersection, and make sure the bus stops for you. In fact, Life Pro Tip: Be your own chief advocate. Look out for yourself; the rest of the world might just as soon keep driving.

The Hike

Photograph: under an overcast morning sky, a two lane road with a bright yellow stripe recedes into the distance. Mountains are visible beyond.

The arrival at Arden Valley Road felt no less electric than the arrival at Striper Way ten days prior. It still entailed being left alone in the overcast morning drizzle, at the tip of a trail that would take me east through nearly twenty miles of woods and mountains, all the way to the western bank of the Hudson River.

The bus drops off on the west side of a bridge. Walk over it. There you will find a grassy meadow, Elk Pen, where a hundred years ago a herd of sixty elk were brought from Yellowstone to graze.1 The entrance at Elk Pen features a small parking lot, and a detailed signpost about a half mile in that describes what lays ahead. The first thing I noticed: Fingerboard Shelter, my erstwhile goal, 3.9 miles away.

Photograph: morning dew collects on a wooden sign. It lists waypoints and distances along the Appalachian Trail: Green Pond Mountain, .6 miles; Island Pond Road, 1.1 miles; Lemon Squeezer, 1.7 miles; Fingerboard Shelter, 3.9 miles; Arden Valley Road, 5 miles; Willam Brien Shelter, 9.2 miles; West Mountain Shelter Trail, 12.5 miles; Bear Mountain, 15.6 miles; Bear Mountain Bridge, 18.8 miles.

Of course, Fingerboard was no longer the plan. With about 19 miles to cover to my destination, I would need to advance further on day one to make Bear Mountain by Sunday. Luckily there were a couple of shelters in Harriman and Bear Mountain that gave me options.

The Plan From Here

  • Hike 9.2 miles to the William Brien Memorial Shelter.
  • Depending on my progress, either camp there, or
  • Hike an additional 3.3 miles to the Timp-Torne Trail, and follow that 0.5 miles to the West Mountain Shelter.

Day One

Brisk morning air. No more ice or snow underfoot; ground lightly moist and muddy. Turning green. Early hints of spring. On the one hand, nothing special; an annual occurrence. On the other hand, something of a miracle: naked grasses and mosses and trees, springing back to life after months of winter cold.

I was alone again for the first mile or so of the walk, but in due course, a few people filtered past me on the trail. It was far too early in the season for thru-hikers — at this point, the northbounders would still be south of the Mason-Dixon — but Harriman is a popular destination, and here the Appalachian Trail is just one path in a crisscrossing network of blazed trails and old woods roads.

About two miles into this first hike, the first feature I was expecting appeared: the Lemon Squeezer. A narrow rock scramble between a cluster of massive boulders.

Photograph: a narrow crevice between two giant rocks. In the middle distance, a hiker with a large backpack squeezes his way through.

It’s narrower than it looks, and a bit of a challenge to navigate with a large backpack. I watched a pair of hikers go through, then scrambled down myself. At the bottom of the lemon squeezer, I noticed a blue-blazed path back up, and a sign that promised a shortcut around the rocks. “Easy Way,” it read.

I mentioned these blue blazes in the last blog post. In the sprawling trail system of Harriman and Bear Mountain State Parks, there are blazes of many colors: the red-blazed Major Welch Trail, the Suffern-Bear Mountain Trail in yellow, the Timp-Torne in blue. But blue blazes along the Appalachian Trail have a specific meaning: a side trail, sometimes to a shelter or water source, but often a shortcut. This connotation leads to a derogatory term for corner-cutting among more purist thru-hikers: blue-blazing.

All of this was, of course, a purely academic concern on this trek; easy way or hard, I was mostly interested in getting to the far side of Bear Mountain.


I need to stop here to point out an important historical detail: this route? The route between Arden and Bear Mountain? It was the very first section of the Appalachian Trail to exist at all. Well before the acts of Congress and the National Park Service, before the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and the myriad regional trail clubs, a group of volunteers blazed a trail from the base of Bear Mountain, to the town of Arden near where I had disembarked. In October of 1923 the volunteers completed this effort, and convened at the Bear Mountain Inn to hike these very miles and plan for the future of the trail.

Newspaper clipping: the New York Times. Sunday, October 28, 1923. Headline: Plan Long Trail Over Appalachians. Subhead: Organized outdoor groups propose a 2000-mile route from Maine to Georgia. Confer at Bear Mountain.

New York Times archive

I need to stop here again. That last paragraph? While technically accurate, it is perhaps a bit misleading. This was indeed the first stretch of trail to be completed, and I would indeed walk over some of the same miles those first trail blazers blazed. But over the years, the trail has shifted. Sometimes we routed it toward nearby points of interest; other times we routed it away from areas that experienced erosion or poor conditions. Whatever the reason, we have from time to time destroyed the old blazes and painted them, elsewhere, anew.

I sense a dichotomy between the idealized vision of the trail — “The Trail” — as pure white-blazed icon in people’s minds, and the reality of dirt and stone, of ice and mud, of maintaining and conserving a living strip of earth from the deep South to the far North. The men and women who built that first path across the dirt are largely gone; but then, they carved that path for those yet to walk it. So we undid some of the old work. It’s what we needed to do to make it work for new people.

Photograph: under an overcast sky, a small stone structure sits at the top of a small grassy hill. Skinny trees are visible in the foreground, and a thick forest is visible in the middle distance.

Fingerboard Shelter

It wasn’t far past the lemon squeezer when I reached Fingerboard Shelter, but I blazed right past it; of the three shelters along my path, this was the only one not on the table. Right there on the side of the trail, it’s a pretty stone structure, three walls and a roof, situated in a broad, grassy area. It is easy to see where dozens of tents could fit outside in the peak season.

But it was at the second shelter, William Brien, that I faced both a feeling of accomplishment, and a dilemma. It was early enough, 4:00 in the afternoon, and I was nearly ten miles into the day’s hike. Only eight miles remained to the bus that would take me home. My pace had been perhaps a bit better; my planning had definitely improved. Mostly, though, it struck me how much of the difference was mental. Knowing the outlines of the possible, I made a plan; I executed that plan; and now I was here, where I had set out to be.

Of course, I only knew the outlines of what I had done; I didn’t know the outlines of what I still could do. Which brings us back to the question I was facing at the outset, as I sat on the lip of the three-walled lean-to. Having walked ten miles on day one, I knew I could accomplish eight miles on day two. But what if I were capable of more? How would I know?

I did the math. This stretch of trail would lead me up and down and up a mountain, but if I maintained the pace I had kept up so far, I could make it to West Mountain shelter by sunset – and not a minute sooner. If my pace slackened? Well, I supposed, I would have an hour of twilight to play with.

I stood up. Adjusted my pack. As I walked away from William Brien shelter, I briefly considered that I could turn back if it started to look late. I dismissed the thought quickly. It was West Mountain or bust.

The Vending Machine on Black Mountain

The trek to West Mountain was filled with beautiful sights and incredible light as the sun dipped nearer the horizon. But I’m wrapping this section in a ridiculous side story that has, frankly, zero practical use for anyone. It just colored this entire section of hike for me, and so I want it to color this section of the hike for you.

I had been using my National Geographic map of the parks to navigate the trail, but I was also using Google Maps to estimate distance, and I couldn’t help but note — incredulously — that the latter map showed a Coca Cola vending machine at the top of Black Mountain.

Screenshot: next to the Appalachian Trail, an icon labeled "Coca-Cola Vending" is seen.

There were some beautiful sights along this stretch of trail. A path that seemed clear cut through a dozen felled logs:

Photograph: under brilliant orange sunset light, dark sepia dirt cuts through a series of felled logs. Each log has a section removed to make way for the trail.

A pair of evergreen trees framing a first glimpse of the Hudson River:

photograph: under a dramatic cloudy sky, the Hudson river is visible in the far distance. In the foreground, verdant evergreen trees frame the scene.

Yet the whole time, I kept thinking about the vending machine on Black Mountain. How would the logistics of such a thing even operate? Could the refrigeration run on solar power? Would some long-suffering park ranger have to hike up weekly with a backpack full of sodas, then back down with pockets full of quarters? Also, what are the odds a passing hiker would have change on them? I didn’t. It had been a long day, and I felt that if there was a Coke to be had, I certainly deserved one.

Photograph: A hand holds an iPhone displaying a map. The current location indicator is near the Coca-Cola vending machine on the map. But in the background, only blurry dirt and leaves are visible.

It ended up being a moot point. Spoilers: there is no vending machine atop Black Mountain. I mean, obviously. It was probably placed on the map by some clever hiker, adding barely plausible destinations where they knew no one could check. Since the date of this hike, the waypoint seems to have been scrubbed from the database; if you pass the spot today, it will be as though it never existed. I suppose if this blog post does nothing else, it will serve as evidence that someone got the joke.

In the end, I made it to West Mountain shelter at two minutes to sunset.

Photograph: A forest scene. Hints of orange in a light blue sky that has just seen the sunset. A tent and a hammock are visible in the middle distance. A group of people are visible just to the right. At the far right edge of the frame, the flat roof of a lean-to shelter is visible.

I hope to go into more detail about food in a later post; fact is, in these early hikes, my diet was not much to write about. I had been using a JetBoil stove for cooking, but it’s mostly good for what it claims in the name: bringing water to a boil. My dinners consisted of couscous with a small cube of beef or vegetable bullion thrown in for flavor. It’s boring, but quick: you can boil the broth, turn off the heat and throw in the couscous. No wasting fuel or trying to control the heat. On that night, I also threw in some strips of beef jerky, and treated myself to a double helping before massaging my cramped calves and turning in for bed.

Day Two

More food notes: instant oats in the morning, with a handful of dried berries and walnuts for flavor and texture; instant coffee packets to avoid the hassle of packing out grounds (Leave No Trace).

Truth be told, I dallied about camp, sipping my coffee and enjoying the crisp morning air. While I did have a mountain to climb, I knew it was only five miles to my destination, and buses departed the inn at 3:19 and 5:19. No amount of elevation change could make me screw that up.

The walk from West Mountain Shelter to the Bear Mountain Inn involves a fun juxtaposition, at least via the Appalachian Trail. Once you’ve packed up your gear and set out northward, you’ll reach an overlook where you can see Bear Mountain from West Mountain.

Photograph: From an overlook. In the far distance, the hulking mass of Bear Mountain is seen. Scattered trees dot the rocky left side of the mountain. At the top, if you look closely, you can barely make out the sharp edges of a small stone tower. Foothills recede behind the mountain.

Then you descend the mountain, reach a depression in between, cross Seven Lakes Drive, and begin ascending Bear Mountain. From the tower on top — visible in the photo above — you then get a stunning view of West Mountain from Bear Mountain.

Photograph: a view from the tower atop Bear mountain. In the foreground, motorcycles and pedestrians are seen on an asphalt walk. A pair of tree-covered mountains dominate the far distance. Over the crest of the mountain on the left, the Hudson River is just visible.

West Mountain is the one on the right.

Final Descent

Near Seven Lakes Drive I met a trio of Staten Islanders, Michael, Eric and Anthony, out for the day to trek up to the tower. We talked about the trail, about how great it was to get out of the city. I would pause to take a photo of the landscape and they would pass me; then I would catch up, and pass them. At one point, I stood aside to let the trio of friends climb a particularly scrambly stretch of mountainside.

“I’m pretty slow with this pack on,” I said.

“I don’t know how you can do it,” Eric replied. “I can barely breathe.”

I would later write in my notes that this exchange made me think, if a bit disjointedly, that perhaps the best way to exceed your limits is to not notice the limits in the first place. To do, before you’re sure you can.

To take the hard way before you know there’s an easy one.

Photograph: From an overlook, Iona Island is visible in center frame, surrounded on three sides by the Hudson River. At the bottom left, behind tree branches, the green grass fields surrounding the Bear Mountain Inn are barely visible.

I ran into the Staten Islanders again atop Bear Mountain; used my good map to point them toward the trail that led back to their car. Soon enough I was descending, the Hudson River looming larger and larger in my view, along with my destination, the Bear Mountain Inn.

It’s difficult to overstate the contrasts between my trail access points so far. Striper Way near Warwick was a barely marked bus stop. At Arden Valley Road there was a welcome sign, at least. The base of Bear Mountain, on the other hand, was an unexpected sight. Green manicured lawns; dozens of picnic tables; vast parking lots. A hotel with a gift shop, bar and two restaurants. And a large bus loop, served by three or four buses a day, to take you from the tip of the trail to the heart of the city.

Photograph: at the base of the mountain. In the immediate foreground, a stand of trees frame an asphalt walk in the center of the frame. In the far distance, bright green fields host a handful of pedestrians and picnickers. A parking lot is just visible in the further distance.

Conclusions

I finished my hike in time for the 3:19 bus, but decided not to rush back to Gotham. Opted instead for a burger and a beer at the restaurant, where I took some notes and plotted the next stretch of trail. A woman at the gift shop had mentioned a viewpoint, just across the river, called Anthony’s Nose. A friend had spoken of a Franciscan friary near Garrison. There was something called “Nuclear Lake” to be discovered. And then there was the station on the Metro North, “Appalachian Trail,” 46 walking miles from where I sat sipping a pale ale.

This one, I thought, might take a few days. @

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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.