@ The Outset
Photograph: A waterfall scene in the forest.

New York's Appalachian Trail, Part III: Out is Through

There was a coyote on the loose in Manhattan.

I had taken the early bus from the city to Bear Mountain State Park. Stopped at the Bear Mountain Inn to scare up some coffee; a hostess at the restaurant told me to help myself to what was left at the buffet. As I filled up my small thermos, I happened to glance at the local news playing on the dining room’s big screen TV. The headline of the minute was a loose coyote wandering Riverside Park. I laughed at the thought that I had taken a 90 minute bus ride to escape from the city to the mountains, while a denizen of the mountains had wandered to the Upper West Side.

The date was April 23, a Thursday. I had blocked out four full days for the second half of what had become nothing less than a section hike through the Appalachian Trail in New York. It would begin here; cross the Hudson River via the Bear Mountain Bridge; zigzag up and down mountains, wind past the towns of Garrison and Stormville, past highways and interstates, to the brink of the Connecticut border, where I hoped to catch a train home. All told, I was about to embark on a much longer trek than I had thus far attempted: 46 miles.

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As much as I’d like to say it was ambition that led me to take on 46 miles, it was in large part circumstance. West of the Hudson, there were enough bus stops to get me from one point on the trail to another in a day and a night. But once I crossed into the east Hudson Highlands, the next intersection with mass transit would be Pawling, and Pawling was 46 miles away. On the one hand, that was just the lay of the land.

On the other hand, truth be told, it was a little bit of ambition as well. I’m no professional hiker, yet over the course of two sections, I had begun to feel more capable and confident. When I found myself in trouble on the first trek, I found a way out; with better planning on the second, I achieved my goals with time to spare. It felt a bit like the plant touching ritual I wrote about last month: if an aborted hike didn’t kill me, and a two-day hike didn’t kill me, perhaps I could handle this after all.

The Hike

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.

This trip did require a bit more planning than the previous ones. I wouldn’t be able to carry in four days of water, for example; filtration would be a must. Same with power for devices, like my camera and phone. There were fewer areas allowed for camping on this stretch of trail, which meant setting goals carefully and sticking to them. Most of all, there were fewer offramps if I needed to leave the trail.

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I mitigated the risks by planning in real, granular detail this time. Many of the areas I was hiking into lacked good maps, so I wrote down detailed notes about mileage, elevation and services available at waypoints along the trail — C for camping, S for shelter, W for a water source. I even went so far as to calculate the distances involved in various scenarios, color coding them by difficulty: a day that involved covering fewer than 10 miles was a green day; more than 16, I marked it in red.

The Plan

  • Day One: Hike 7.2 miles to Graymoor Monastery.
  • Day Two: 11.8 miles to camp at Fahnestock State Park.
  • Day Three: 16 miles to Morgan Stewart Shelter.
  • Day Four: 10.9 miles to the Appalachian Trail railroad stop.1

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The Bear Mountain Bridge is, officially, the Appalachian Trail’s route over the Hudson River. You follow a pedestrian walk, separated from the highway traffic; cross the bridge, and end up on the side of the road on the east side of the Hudson. From there, it’s a bit of walking on the highway shoulder to find the next segment of wilderness, up a small hill with a wooden trail information sign. Among the more interesting details on this one: information about the Indian Point Nuclear Plant just upriver, and instructions on taking iodine tablets in case of an incident there.

As fate would have it, there was a siren blaring from the north that morning. But the hikers at this trailhead did not seem alarmed, and I didn’t have iodine tablets anyway. Probably a drill, and either way: by tonight I would be miles away.

Day One

The walk to Graymoor begins at the foot of a mountain called Anthony’s Nose that, along with Dunderberg Mountain to the west, marks the southern end of the Hudson Highlands range. The origin of the mountain’s name remains unclear, but it dates to at least the late 17th century. One story claims that it’s named for St. Anthony; another, for a passing ship captain with a particularly memorable nose. Either way, the white-blazed trail climbs most of the nose; a blue-blazed side trail will take you up to the summit, and a great view of the Bear Mountain Bridge.2

Despite the light dusting of snow falling at the top of Anthony’s Nose, the signs of spring were unmistakable back at the bottom. Bright green sprouts popping up from the marshy ground like weeds; forsythia flowers lighting up the landscape in bright shades of yellow. It occurred to me that in taking this series of treks on the brink of two seasons, I was getting the chance to see each point along the trail in its own moment. The frozen lake I had passed some weeks prior was surely thawed by now; perhaps then, these sprouts were still seeds under snowpack.

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At any rate, the trail seems to enter a pattern around this point: across a road, up a mountain, down; across a road, up a mountain, down again. The pattern is broken up as you approach the intersection with Highway 9: the terrain flattens; a wooden boardwalk carries you over a particularly marshy stretch of trail. At that point the roads take on an even more staccato feel: 1000 feet of trail; then a road. 500 feet of trail; a smaller road. After a couple of roads, at the top of a small hill, you will pass by a bright red barn.

You have entered the grounds of the monastery at Graymoor.

Graymoor

The story of Graymoor dates to 1875, and an Episcopal church called “St. John’s in the Wilderness” that was built and quickly abandoned. Restored eighteen years later, it became the site of a monastery and a convent in 1898; both joined the Catholic Church in 1909. The mission was already well-established by 1923, when the earnest organizers of a so-called “Appalachian Trail” came to the sisters and brothers, seeking a path through their land. For decades the Appalachian Trail crossed a wooded area at the eastern edge of the friars’ property.

So it was in 1972 when, as the story goes, a thru-hiker stumbled into the monastery, and the superior allowed him to stay overnight. Word spread along the trail, and with time it became a sort of a tradition for the hikers, and a ministry for the priests. These weary travelers were allowed a private room in the old friary, for one night only, as well as dinner, breakfast, and a tour of the grounds.

The tradition persisted into the early 2000s, but eventually it came to an end. There were more hikers, for one thing; for another, the old monastery had fallen into disrepair. Most of all, it was costly: the friars also serve hospital patients and prisoners, addicts and the homeless, and the growing stream of hikers put a strain on the mendicant order. So the tradition shifted: instead of in rooms, passing hikers were welcomed to stay in tents, at the ball field just east of the monastery.

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I had chosen the ball field at Graymoor as my first camp site. At barely more than seven miles from the start, it made this first day a short day; but then, that gave me time to wander the grounds; see the chapel and the “peace pole”, a post driven into the ground, inscribed with the phrase “May Peace Prevail on Earth”. I left a donation at the St. Anthony shrine and lit a votive candle. My grandmas light enough candles for me, I thought; I should light one for them once in a while.


As an aside: in the time between writing that last paragraph in March and sharing it now in June, one of my grandmothers passed away. She knew well my hiking affectation, and she always prayed for me whenever I was on the trail. This month, June of 2018, I’m headed on a two week trek in the Talkeetna Mountains in Alaska, and she’d already lit a candle for that trip. I don’t know how religious I consider myself, but I do know that she loved me, and I always came home safe.

My granny was like that. She always lit a candle, said a prayer, sent a card, made a call. She made sure the people she loved knew that they were loved. It wouldn’t have occurred to me then, but it does now, how much I was doing it wrong: hiking alone, retreating inward, pretending I could do it all by myself.

That night at Graymoor I didn’t see another soul; I set up my tent, refilled my water, and spent some time writing in my trusty Field Notes notebook, crowing to myself about how happy I was to be hiking alone, how sure I was of my direction.

I reread that entry when writing this post, and I don’t believe a word.

Day Two

Let’s just get this out of the way: Day two of the hike wasn’t great.

From the outset, it felt like I was doing it wrong. The hike from Graymoor was simple; unlike in Harriman, there were no other trails intersecting this path, no state park surrounding for miles to a side. Just the Appalachian corridor, a straight line path to the north-northeast that I should have been able to follow. And yet. The blazes were fewer and further between on this stretch, and at a couple of points, I must have wandered off on game trails or desire paths. I found myself foundering, having to backtrack or cut through forest to get back to the trail. I know, I know: you’re supposed to stay on the trail. But I’d already hadn’t done that, so I had to work it out.

If nothing else, I knew the trail more or less followed a ridge via a series of named hills: Denning, Fort Defiance, Canopus. This was helpful knowledge, because it meant that if I found myself down a hill, uphill was the way back. I’m not sure exactly which hill I was lost on when, clawing my way back up to the trail, I found the ruined shrine.

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At first I didn’t quite recognize what I was seeing. Stone steps leading up to, well, nothing in particular. A picnic table nearby, and an overlook; perhaps this was just a rest stop along the trail? But that didn’t explain the debris, the shattered glass, the terra cotta that looked like it had been smashed and smashed again. This was not something broken. It was something destroyed.

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I paused, at this point, for a good fifteen minutes. Partly to take pictures, but also to research what exactly I was seeing. Even in remote areas of the Hudson Valley, you can usually find a reliable cell signal atop a ridge; I took advantage of that to search for anything I could find about this place. What I came up with was a Poughkeepsie Journal article, dated about six months prior, describing and depicting the “Virgen Misionera Madre De los Inmigrantes” shrine.

I also found a mirror of a 2006 article, from a local newspaper:

On Sundays, [Francisco] Hermida and others lead a 25-minute hike through the woods near the nearby Appalachian Trail to a shrine known as Virgen Misionera Madre de los Inmigrantes that draws large crowds each week. “We try to preserve our culture and to teach the children,” he said. “It means a lot to the whole Latino community.”

This hike took place in April of 2015, months before Donald Trump would launch his Presidential campaign with a vicious attack on immigrants. And yet. Anti-immigrant sentiment has been an ugly stain on America’s history since America has had a history to speak of. A part of me feared it could have something to do with that. But for all I knew, it could have been a random act of vandalism.

To be clear: to this day I have no idea what happened to the Missionary Virgin Mother of the Immigrants shrine; who built it, who destroyed it or why. But I do know that in 2006, it drew crowds that sought to save the culture; that in 2014 it was a point of interest along the trail; and that on that spring morning in 2015, it was gone.


But back to those mistakes. My day’s purpose was to hike 11.8 miles to a camp site at Fahnestock State Park.

All three of my color-coded scenarios involved a stop in Fahnestock. I had, of course, never been to this place; what I knew, I knew from research: the maps I had on hand, and the details I had written down. My notes suggested some sort of camping arrangement at mile 19, but I didn’t look into it too deeply; the letter C next to the line in my notepad was enough for me. Besides: 11.8 miles. Not even an orange day. A few lost minutes in the woods wouldn’t slow me enough to screw that up.

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Hiking on the brink of spring made for some incredible contrasts. From wetlands overrun with yellow flowers and bright green sprouts, to dry plains filled with tawny grass and naked trees, all singing quietly, if you stop to listen; creaking and rustling in harmony with the gentle wind. This was the scene as I entered the southern edge of Fahnestock.

Up to this point on the day’s hike, I had been following one trail, the white-blazed Appalachian. From here, though, the App joined with the dense network of trails and woods roads of the state park: the red blazed Catfish Loop; the blue blazed Three Lakes. My confidence level was high. At every turn I followed the white blaze, and at every turn I found my waypoints: Dennytown Road, Sunken Mine, Canopus Lake. My pace seemed to match the progress of the sun across the sky, and as that sun began to lilt toward the horizon, I knew I had covered the miles; all that was left was to find the promised camp site.

By 6:30 I had walked to the northern shore of Canopus Lake. By 7:00 I had climbed a hill. By 7:30 I’d descended the other side. I’d seen nothing indicating a camp site. Not a marker, not a side trail. It struck me that I may have missed something. Until it dawned on me that perhaps I had misplanned something. The waypoint at mile 19 did not mention a specific shelter or camp site. Merely the name, “Fahnestock State Park,” and the fact that camp sites were available… somewhere? Certainly not on this trail. I would have seen them by now.3

I was stuck. The sun was setting, and I knew from my notes that the next legitimate place to make camp was more than four miles away, on the other side of Shenandoah Mountain. For all my newfound confidence, I did not feel comfortable with night hiking that distance. With minutes to make a decision, I left the trail and headed toward a small rocky hill, where on the far side, I found a flat, leaf-covered spot, and began to set up my tent.

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As a practitioner of Leave No Trace principles, I felt by now confident in my ability to camp here without damaging the wilderness. Even so, I did not like doing it. Regulations on this activity vary: most Catskill parks allow at-large camping away from established trails, and at least in New York, just about anything with the name “state forest” would welcome what I was doing. But at-large camping like this was not allowed in Fahnestock.

Opinions vary on the legitimacy of what I was doing. Personally, I get it. If every New Yorker came to this park, with its dense trail system, and camped at-large? The wear would become evident, Leave No Trace principles or not. For the sake of conservation, I should not have been setting my tent up on that patch of dry leaves.

But with darkness falling, I felt I had no choice.

Like I said. Day two wasn’t great.

Day Three

Awoke with the sunrise. Worse, I should add, for the wear. I had not mentioned it to this point, but after each day’s hike, my nightly ritual had involved laying down in my sleeping bag, then sitting up suddenly with terrific, searing cramps in both legs. The mornings were better, but not by much; each day’s ritual involved coaxing dead limbs back to life for long enough to stow the tent and heat up coffee on the camp stove. But coax I did, and on the trail I was by 6:30.

The trek to Shenendoah Mountain, all four miles of it, took just about two hours; I felt vindicated in my decision not to push forward the night before. I paused there, to take a photograph of myself at the overlook, and share it with my friends.

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That was a strange sentence, wasn’t it? Right here, on a moutaintop, 48 hours and 23 miles into a hike, alone, in the wilderness, I am “sharing something with my friends”? Moreover, by the time I reached my next waypoint, a dozen of them would have liked it. Excuse me — “Liked” it. What a strange world we decided to build for ourselves. Alone with our friends. Together, alone.

Looking at this all in hindsight, I recognize that there was something off about the forces that drove me alone into the forest. I have no regrets about these hikes; they taught me a great deal about how to be self-sufficient, how to work through problems on my own. That’s something I think I desperately needed at this moment in my life. And yet. There was perhaps something darker lurking below the surface, a fear that perhaps I was going into the woods alone because I was the only one I could trust. Because I feared no one would want to come out to the woods with me.

Anyway. On the occasion of getting an opportunity to reach out to someone, anyone, from the ridgeline of this mountain, I cast a selfie into the ether and fished for likes from no one in particular. There’s something deeply broken about this. But — Life Pro Tip — some things, you can’t fix on a hike, be it four miles or forty six.

These things take time.


Once out of Fahnestock, the dense network of trails ends, and the Appalachian resumes its more-or-less straight-line, white-blazed path. These stretches of trail have varying stories; some are owned by the state park system, others by the National Park Service. In general though, these long, narrow sections of trail more resemble a path on an easement than a park. And like many long paths, they must intersect with others.

After passing the Ralph’s Peak Hiker’s Shelter (RPH) — a shelter of a more modern, cinderblock construction, with a decent well for water — the next waypoint was the intersection with the Taconic State Parkway. Then it’s back into the hills, up to a ridge and down the other side, to the southern outskirts of Stormville.

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The entrance to the trail at Stormville Mountain Road. Note the white blazes on the gap in the railing.

At this point, you are close enough to civilization that you can wander off the trail to a store or a restaurant; I was making good enough time that day that I wandered down the road to get a slice of pizza — something, anything, that was not rehydrated with boiling water.

I also popped an Advil from my first aid kit at this point. My right knee was in serious pain, and my left ankle seemed to be threatening. I was beyond the halfway mark of this journey; my mind saw the destination so close, but my body needed help getting there. The last mountain of the day — Mount Egbert — clocked in at 34.9 miles from where I had set out. I stopped there for a while, with less than an hour to sunset, to take in the accomplishment.

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And as soon as I descended the far side of Mt. Egbert, I practically stumbled into someone’s camp site. Here, at mile 35, was the Morgan Stewart Shelter.

The shelter itself, though I don’t have a photo, is the classic three-walled lean-to that can fit maybe 8 people, all crammed in in sleeping bags. There is a fire circle, of course, and a composting privy a short walk away. Mostly, though, you should know that there is a well with sweet water, and vast areas of flat hilltop on which to pitch a tent. I took advantage of the last half hour of light to set up mine and filter two liters of water.

On this night, for the first time on this long section hike, I found myself surrounded by other campers. After dark I joined the group around the fire pit, and met two guys from Connecticut (whose names, unfortunately, I failed to commit to notes). They’d just crossed the border to hang out on a Saturday night; had brought their beagle and a twelve-pack of Brooklyn Summer Ale to share with any friendly campers they met.

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They told me they preferred camping at New York shelters over the ones in Connecticut, because Connecticut had banned camp fires. We swapped stories by firelight of different trails walked and parks visited. Denali. The White Mountains. Bear Mountain. “Which one?” one of the guys asked. “The one in New York or Connecticut?”

One of the guys freed the small beagle from her leash; she bounded off into the night, a glow-in-the-dark collar bauble bobbing up and down in the forest. I worried about her getting lost in the woods, but I shouldn’t have. She knew how to find her way back.

The conversation drifted to a long trek the guys had taken some time ago, where the wife of one friend was not brought along. She felt badly about not being invited, but the defense, to hear him tell it, was that it was a long trek, and she lacked experience hiking that many miles. If she wasn’t ready, they thought, this might not be the hike for her. On a long and challenging trek, he said, “there’s no way out except for through.”

The phrase echoed in my mind as I lay down to sleep, 35 miles from the start of this trek and 11 miles from the end. At some point, there’s no way back the the way you came, no un-taking the steps, no un-doing the done.

At some point, out is through.

Day Four

My knee, by now, was dying; with every step along my errand, I found myself worse for wear. In my notes I compared the feeling to being stalked by some forest demon, weakening me with each encounter in the night. But it was just me out there; no dread forces, just mass and gravity. My pack by now was only about 30 pounds, but suiting up for the final stretch, it felt as heavy as any load I had carried.

Still. If all went to plan, I would be on a 4:50 train back to New York City; back in Brooklyn for sunset. In between me and that train: several roads, a second West Mountain, and one waypoint that had stood out to me since the first day I copied it into my notepad: Nuclear Lake.

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Source: 1982 report, Nuclear Lake: A Resource in Question.

You might hear “Nuclear Lake” and assume that something bad happened here. We’ll get to that in a moment. Fact is, the lake was given its name at a time of rampant optimism about the coming atomic age; in the 1950s, the split atom was going to power our cars and airplanes and space ships; water the deserts to feed the hungry; render electricity free for all and usher in a new era of peace in the world. So when the Gulf United Nuclear Corporation set up a research facility on the western shore of this placid lake, the name probably carried all of those positive connotations — even if the experiments they ran there were shrouded in secrecy.

By 1972, the company was using the Nuclear Lake facility to manufacture plutonium fuel for breeder reactors. Who knows, it might still be making fuel today, if not for the explosion in December of 1972: a chemical blast in the so-called “hot lab” that ejected an unknown quantity of weapons-grade plutonium dust into the lake and surrounding hills. The plant was shut down in short order, and the cleanup effort began. Contaminated soil was removed by the truckload; teams with Geiger counters sampled the site extensively, and the site was cleared for reuse by 1975.

The Appalachian Trail, understandably, did not traverse these woods back then. At that time, much of the trail in this region followed paved highways; the chairman of a local trail club lamented of that era, “Anyone who wasn’t doing an end-to-end hike of the Appalachian Trail didn’t bother hiking it in New York State, because it was just a lot of road walking.” But it so happened that in 1978, Congress gave the National Park Service a pile of money to buy land for the trail, and it purchased the 1,100 acres surrounding Nuclear Lake for an even $1 million.

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It is an extremely beautiful lake. Something about the glassy surface and ink-dark water called to mind post-Impressionism, for me; sky painted on the lake’s surface with the swirling strokes of a Van Gogh. And while it did feel a bit strange to watch fishermen cast their lines into a lake that was once dusted with plutonium, it’s been declared safe for decades. It’s almost certainly safer than fishing in the East River, which I see people do near my house in Brooklyn all the time.

Besides, better a recreation area than reopening the lab.

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Source: 1982 report, Nuclear Lake: A Resource in Question.

Anyway. Onward. I wish I could write about the mixed feelings about reaching the end of the trail, of being at the bottom of the page; checking off the last of the waypoints; feeling melancholy at a last lake, a last mountain, a last descent. Fact is, I felt none of those things. In between stopping to admire the scenery, I was operating with single-minded clarity: get to the train station.

A couple of points, though, that bear calling out. One: Cat Rocks. Same name as that first overlook I had encountered twenty days prior. Twenty days. How quickly my relationship to the trail had changed. To be sure, I was still no master or long distance hiker, but in fewer than three weeks I had gone from never having camped alone, to hiking most of the Appalachian Trail in New York.

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The overlook at Cat Rocks, for its part, offers a striking view to the east. It’s a view that to me encapsulates what makes the Appalachian Trail great, or at least, the sections that I hiked, the sections in New York. Where Denali and Big Bend are vast and wild lands, untouched and unspoiled by human intervention, this view from Cat Rocks overlooks farms and homes and towns nestled in the surrounding hills. In between the rugged boulders and stretches of thick forest, people make their lives; the trail is here for them, and for us. This was its purpose. To this day it fulfills it.

After Cat Rocks, the trail descends toward the grassy hills you saw from the overlook at Cat Rocks. Gently sloping up, then descending steeply through a wooded hillside. On the way down I encountered a day hiker, huffing and puffing his way to the top. “Is it much further?” he asked.

I don’t remember my reply.

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The final walk took me by surprise. At the bottom of the forest, a bridge over some marshy land. Then, a boardwalk, extending out in between the dry grasses for hundreds of feet until it simply curves out of view. Against a backdrop of tan grass and skinny trees, the whole scene felt a bit surreal — even if my knee and my ankle were deeply relieved at the change of pace.

And then, at the end of the boardwalk, something even more surreal. The promised train track, and the phrase “Appalachian Trail” set in italicized Helvetica.

Mile 46.

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Aftermath

Once on the train, I went to the lavatory; washed my face, changed into the one clean shirt I had saved for the ride home. I’d done this thing. What was next?

I considered finishing out the miles of the trail in New York; returning to this train stop just to hike further north and tag the Connecticut border; or to head back west to Warwick to walk toward the state line. But those were decisions for another day. For the moment, I had done what I set out to do.

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Sunset over the East River in Brooklyn, later that day.

I don’t know what happened to the coyote from the beginning of this story. I looked it up on my return. By all accounts, the NYPD stopped chasing it around 122nd Street. The lesson I draw from all of this? The mountains and the city turned out to be closer in the end than I had imagined. Like a wild animal wandering in and out of the city on its own four feet, so I, a tame city beast, could use my feet to go into the mountains, and make my way back out. @

  1. Planning note: The Appalachian Trail railroad stop only operates on Saturdays and Sundays. If you find yourself at this location on a weekday, you will need to make your way two and a half miles south to the stop in Pawling, which operates daily. ↩︎

  2. There is a primitive camp site near Anthony’s Nose called Hemlock Springs, and if you don’t mind some highway walking, you could make a decent camping trip either via the Bear Mountain short bus (this write up) or the Manitou stop on Metro North (about a mile of road walking to the App). ↩︎

  3. As it turns out, the camping options in Fahnestock are as follows: first, there is a group camp site at Dennytown Road that requires reservations and a minimum group size, although during peak season, thru hikers are allowed to set up here. Second, there are reservable camp sites on the east side of Canopus Lake, about a 3/4 mile detour off the white-blazed trail. You will need to have made a reservation for these sites online, before your trip. ↩︎

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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.