Trails (Too) Well Traveled, Part 3

Breakneck sign

A new trail and better signage at Breakneck has helped those who arrive unprepared get down the ridge. (Photo by B. Cronin)

People have been drawn to Breakneck Ridge for as long as there have been people in the Hudson Highlands. The Native Americans referred to it as Matumpseck, which loosely translates as “bad rocks to climb.” People have been breaking their necks for quite some time.

To European settlers, and later the first Americans, Breakneck and Storm King Mountain were hailed as the “Wind Gate,” the northern entrance to the Highlands. When New York City’s population swelled in the 19th century, its denizens looked for outdoor havens accessible by train. They explored Breakneck as part of organized hiking clubs, and in the 1920s and ’30s were spurred by “The Long Brown Path,” a daily column by Raymond Torrey in The New York Evening Post.

Visitors (and locals) were lured by the climb and the view.

Standing at the bottom of the ridge and looking up, the sheer, rocky climb seems impossible. But with sturdy footwear, comfortable clothing, two free hands, a clear head and patience, the impossible can be achieved. What awaits atop the three summits is even more empowering: stunning views of the Wind Gate, West Point, Bannerman’s Island and the Hudson River.

Why This Series

Over the past two years, many state and national parks have set visitation records. In one sense, this is good news. The emotional, physical, mental and spiritual benefits of spending time outside have been exhaustively documented. But many parks found out the hard way that they were not ready to handle the crowds and are asking themselves some difficult questions such as:

How to best balance preservation with access? Can we make sure, in providing access, that we don’t destroy what makes the site special? Is there such a thing as a mutually beneficial relationship between hikers and the outdoors? How much “wild” do people want in their wilderness experiences? Are humans separate from the natural experience, or an integral part of it?

In Part 1, we look at the problem of Indian Brook Falls in Garrison, and the collateral damage that occurs when a once-secluded spot becomes internet-famous.

In Part 2, we look at how and why trails in the Highlands were created — and what might have been instead — as well as what happens when unmanaged wilderness suddenly needs to be managed.

In Part 4, we look at efforts to get more Black, Hispanic, as well as the disabled and elderly, into the woods and on the trails.

In the last decade, social media spread that view across the world, enticing increasing number of hikers. It has been less successful in conveying the risk. Hikers began arriving in flip-flops, intoxicated, in constrictive clothing, or without a backpack to keep hands free for the scramble.

Some, upon reaching the first summit, opted to climb down, ignoring a sign that said it was safer to keep going. Rescue crews made regular appearances. Instead of a printed map, many hikers relied on sites such as alltrails.com, which have been a major cause of the increase of unofficial “social” trails created when hikers who get lost or go off-trail upload their GPS data, leading others to think that the paths are the trail, rather than bushwhacks.

On summer weekends, Route 9D is lined with cars on both sides, along with crowds of hikers, much to the mounting frustration of residents, who take to social media to proclaim that the state should start limiting access to the trail, or close it altogether. One resident this year created a website at breakneckridge.org that tries to convince people to hike elsewhere.

But conditions at Breakneck have been improving, in ways that aren’t immediately obvious from the road.

“Disneyland in the woods”

Chris Morris started developing a visitor management plan for Breakneck Ridge shortly after he joined the state parks department in 2015. Usually, such a plan would conclude with recommended steps. But Morris says with growing crowds at Breakneck, the state paused the planning and took immediate action.

The most notable change has been the Ninham Trail, which opened last year. Named for the last leader of the Wappinger tribe, the trail is aimed at hikers who decide to bail. It starts at the first summit and gently winds back to Route 9D. It also provides an easier hike up.

ninham

The Ninham Trail offers a gentler descent from the first summit of Breakneck Ridge. (Photo by B. Cronin)

While it’s not part of Breakneck, the report also found that the Mount Taurus trail that winds past the quarry had eroded to a sliver and went so close to the edge that some hikers were tempted to inch closer for a better look and ended up having to be rescued while clinging to the quarry wall. Recent work rerouted, stabilized and widened that trail. Improved signage, blazes and posted maps also have led to fewer lost hikers along Mount Taurus and Breakneck.

Then there’s the human infrastructure: trail stewards from the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference who hang out at Breakneck and other busy trailheads on weekends. The stewards chat up every hiker to figure out if they know what they’re getting into. Evan Thompson, the manager for Hudson Highlands State Park, said that some of the people showing up at Breakneck in 2020 and 2021 had never hiked before — they just needed to get out of the house during the pandemic and Breakneck was the only hike they had ever heard of. Inexperienced hikers are gently directed to a less challenging trail.

Breakneck had days during the pandemic when more than 1,000 hikers showed up. Yet, with stewards directing foot traffic, rescues are down so far this year, and the number of hikers in 2021 was the lowest since counts began in 2013. Part of that, Thompson said, may be due to months of unusually high temperatures and high gas prices. But it could also be that many people have decided that the pandemic is over. “People are traveling more,” Thompson said. “Instead of going hiking, they’re going shopping or going to the movies or whatever they used to do.”Breakneck visitors

One advantage of Breakneck being the most popular trail on the East Coast is that its rocky geology can withstand the traffic. “It’s not going to erode,” said Thompson. “You’re walking on granite.”

But that doesn’t mean the experience is ideal.

“It’s like Disneyland in the woods,” said Hank Osborn, a Philipstown native who is director of programs for the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference. “The trail can handle it. But being mobbed with hundreds of other people right around you for your entire experience is not what most people are looking for.”

Osborn said he prefers to discuss “increased use” of local trails rather than “overuse,” since the latter usually is defined by trail erosion. But other factors have to be taken into consideration, such as parking, if there’s room on the trail for hikers to spread out and the ability of nearby communities to handle the influx. There’s also the fact that not every hiker has the same impact. “One hundred hikers who are less educated in responsible recreation will do more damage than 100 who are,” said Morris.

While trail stewards at Breakneck have decreased the number of inexperienced hikers who get lost or injured, the long-term goal isn’t to turn them away. “Providing the right information to visitors is the solution to combating the threats from increased use,” said Osborn. “Threats to local communities, threats to nature and threats to themselves.”

Efforts to ease crowding and accidents at Breakneck may have been occurring “behind the scenes” over the past few years, but a project intended to continue that progress is ready to break ground and will be harder to miss.

Not just for tourists

Fifteen years ago, a group of residents envisioned a path alongside the Hudson River between Beacon and Cold Spring. Christened the Hudson Highlands Fjord Trail, it underwent years of discussion before a master plan was created in 2015.

In the meantime, the growing crowds at Breakneck had outpaced the plan’s goals. Route 9D was clogged with hikers, as were the streets of Cold Spring as hikers arrived by train. Some hikers went beyond Breakneck to get a better view of Bannerman’s Castle and ended up on private property (and in some cases, porches). And despite the state’s insistence that no swimming is allowed at Little Stony Point, people continue to enter the water, leading to occasional drownings because of the unexpected current and a sudden drop-off. What if the Fjord Trail could address all of these problems?

In April 2020, during the early weeks of the pandemic shutdown, the Fjord Trail was reintroduced as a more robust project with its own nonprofit under the wing of Scenic Hudson, and input from such groups as the Lenape Center, the Little Stony Point Citizens Association, state parks and the Hudson Highlands Land Trust. Among other provisions, the trail plans to lead hikers out of the Cold Spring train station to Little Stony Point, largely bypassing the village while providing the bathrooms and trash collection by Dockside that the village sorely lacks.

Fjord Trail bridge at breakneck

A rendering of the proposed Fjord Trail bridge at Breakneck (HHFT)

Organizers say the trail will offer better views of Bannerman’s Castle and provide attractions that spread out foot traffic. A sanctioned swimming area will be constructed at Little Stony Point in an area currently overrun with invasive species.

The largest part is the one due to break ground soon: the Breakneck Connector, which will include two parking lots between Route 9D and the river and a pedestrian bridge over the tracks that will be accessible to hikers with disabilities. “That is going to be a huge improvement for that trailhead,” said Morris. “For the major issues that we’ve seen, the parking and safety along the corridor with hikers arriving, that’s just going to be phenomenal.”

Morris thinks the Fjord Trail will probably pull people off Breakneck who would prefer a “front country” — rather than back country — experience. But some Highlands residents are asking: Could the trail prove to be so popular that it ends up making the overcrowding problem worse?

“This is not Yankee Stadium”

Pete Salmansohn is an outdoor educator who, among other volunteer positions, has served as a trail steward at Breakneck and elsewhere. After seeing the crowds up close, he said he is not convinced that the Fjord Trail, as envisioned, will help.

“I just don’t think that Cold Spring can handle more people,” he said. “You don’t have to be a genius to see what happens to other regional tourist attractions, like Walkway Over the Hudson [in Poughkeepsie], or the Highline [in New York City], to know that Cold Spring is too small for this. It will radically upset the small, rural town that we have.”

He points to the emphasis on hikers using the Metro-North station lot, which is free on weekends. “There would be a continual flow of cars up and down Main Street,” he said. “This is not Yankee Stadium.”

Salmansohn thinks that eliminating the portion of the trail between Cold Spring and Breakneck would solve the majority of the problems, as would a permit system at Breakneck. (Both Thompson and Morris said a permit system would be impractical because the ridge has too many access points.) And despite the plan for new parking lots, the proposal would still allow visitors to park along Route 9D.

“For a multi-gazillion-dollar project to allow parking on 9D is nuts,” Salmonsohn said. “It’s dangerous, ludicrous and self-sabotaging.”

Amy Kacala

Amy Kacala

Amy Kacala, the executive director of the Fjord Trail, said that parking on 9D will be limited to parallel spots on the east side of the highway and will include a crosswalk and reserved spaces for emergency responders. The strategy is to allow the state Department of Transportation to lower the speed limit near Breakneck from 55 mph to 40 mph, she said.

The critiques from residents are not new to Kacala, as the Fjord Trail has been making presentations this year to the public and elected officials. “We can’t say that this isn’t going to draw more people,” she said. “However, they’re already here. To do nothing doesn’t seem like a reasonable answer. I haven’t heard an alternate scenario for how visitation will be managed without the Fjord Trail.”

The trail, she said, fits into Cold Spring’s comprehensive plan and will help solve issues that the village and the state parks department don’t have the resources to deal with, such as trash collection, restrooms and swimming at Little Stony Point. “This project is implementing the vision the community had for itself,” she said.

Fjord Trail meeting

Joined by elected officials, about 125 residents gathered at Chalet on the Hudson in October 2014 to review a route map for the Fjord Trail. (File photo)

The trail will ultimately serve locals more than tourists, as the locals will be able to easily access the trail every day, she said. And it will add amenities such as public swimming and outdoor activities suitable for older residents and provide access points for paddlers, she said. “It’s just another way people are interacting with the space,” she said. “One of the key goals of the trail is to reconnect people with the river. From the land side, you’re physically and visually being connected to the river through the project. From the water, you’re able to touch the lands a bit.”

Kacala said the concern about even larger crowds is based on a belief that the visitors will bunch up in Cold Spring. “I don’t see that as how it will play out,” she said, in part because the trail will be 7.5 miles long.

Osborn, who has been involved with the trail planning since its earliest days, thinks the completed project will win over skeptics. “Through traffic and parking management, to intelligent and sustainable trail design, the local communities will soon realize the tremendous benefits of all the years of careful planning,” he said.

“We’re all lucky to live in this area,” said Thompson. “Does it create some problems? Yes. But that’s why we’re trying to work on the problem so that everybody can be happy.”

Even if any project that draws people to the Highlands will make somebody who lives here unhappy, “this is a matter of equity and the value of public space,” said Kacala. “This isn’t private land where you can just shut the door and say, ‘It’s ours.’ ”

Next week: Who gets to go outside?

This report was funded by readers who contribute to our Special Projects Fund.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

2 thoughts on “Trails (Too) Well Traveled, Part 3

  1. I write as a resident of the Village of Cold Spring for almost 20 years. The views expressed in this letter are informed by my hundreds of volunteer hours in service to the Village as an appointed member of the Comprehensive Plan/Local Waterfront Revitalization Plan Special Board (from 2009 through 2014) and the Code Update Committee (from 2018 through 2020). In particular, I helped organize many public meetings that led to drafting and adoption of the Village Comprehensive Plan. These views are also informed by many, many visits to Dockside Park in Cold Spring.

    I have serious concerns about the anticipated Fjord Trail, in particular the recent proposal by Hudson Highlands Fjord Trail (HHFT) to begin the trail with a boardwalk along the river connecting to Dockside. My concerns are both substantive and procedural:

    Without disclosing to the public any specific plans for the Dockside Entrance, HHFT is treating the project as a fait accompli.

    Dockside is a stunningly beautiful park that a diverse range of village residents and visitors have enjoyed for many years. It already offers rare “toe-in-the-water” public access to the Hudson River. That said, it is an extremely narrow, environmentally precarious piece of land that is subject to overcrowding (as during the first year of the pandemic) and massive flooding and erosion (it was completely submerged in 2011 and 2012).

    It remains to be seen whether the recently completed $1.85 million taxpayer-funded shoreline stabilization project will protect the site from further erosion. Yet HHFT proposes to turn Dockside into an extension of its proposed linear park, with bicycle use. This could render the site dangerous and unusable. If built, the Dockside Entrance would undoubtedly become a tourist attraction to which people would seek to drive. There is a limited amount of on-street parking in the vicinity, and the traffic could become unbearable for all.

    In May, HHFT presented to the Village of Cold Spring Board of Trustees a slide deck that lacked any meaningful specifics about the Dockside Entrance. Tellingly, the 2015 Fjord Trail Draft Master Plan does not mention the Dockside Entrance at all. (For some reason, HHFT’s website does not contain the 2015 document or its 2020 update, but the 2015 version is available at parks.ny.gov/inside-our-agency/master-plans.aspx.)

    During the May meeting, HHFT staff referred to a “feasibility study,” which apparently did not address the Dockside Entrance; that study also is not on HHFT’s website. Troublingly, HHFT staff suggested that the Dockside Entrance was being proposed due to complaints about visitors walking along Fair Street in Cold Spring. What about concerns of other residents of the Village regarding the Dockside Entrance? Is there another reason why HHFT has changed its plans for the entrance to its signature project? These questions demand answers. Relatedly, HHFT should commit to making available all planning documents on its website.

    HHFT has also failed to provide specifics on critical issues such as safety, environmental impacts, traffic impacts, or costs to the Village from the Dockside Entrance. Missing as well are any specifics regarding how the Fjord Project complies with the Coastal Zone Management Act (which gave rise to the Local Waterfront Stabilization Strategy that was presented to the village trustees in 2011) or state Scenic Area of Statewide Significance (“SASS”) regulations (19 NYCRR Part 602, Policy 24), which are referenced in the Comprehensive Plan and were the subject of proposed amendments to the Village Code last year. These questions demand answers.

    Although HHFT’s May slides stated that “Route Alternatives Analysis” was to be “Included in Environmental Review,” no details about such analysis were provided. In fact, HHFT stated that it asked contractors on the Dockside shoreline stabilization project to move dirt so as not to block the anticipated Fjord Trail. This action was premature. The slides vaguely refer to “the idea that a shuttle should help move people throughout the system,” without acknowledging that a trolley has existed in Cold Spring for many years, with sparse ridership.

    Why should we believe that a new shuttle would work now? And what would be the impact of a frequent shuttle from the Cold Spring train station parking lot to the Dockside Entrance, or elsewhere? These questions demand answers.

    Despite the fact that no studies of the potential impacts of the Dockside Project on the Village of Cold Spring have been made public, the FAQ on HHFT’s website boldly asserts that the Fjord Trail will limit “strains” on Cold Spring because it “will create clear wayfinding at both the Cold Spring train station and at Dockside Park” and such “amenities will improve quality of life in Cold Spring in ways that would be financially challenging for the Village to implement on its own.” This statement, which dubiously suggests that signage might solve all problems, completely fails to address the question presented, which is how will the project limit strains on the village.

    It is unacceptable for any developer — much less a tax-exempt one — to promote a massive land use project without providing essential details and for which no approvals have been secured. This is marketing, not planning. Much greater transparency on the part of HHFT is required.

    HHFT has appointed itself to manage the “problem” of visitation to Cold Spring, which it admits will increase with the Fjord Trail.

    In the Sept. 16 issue of The Current, HHFT Executive Director Amy Kacala admitted that “[w]e can’t say that this isn’t going to draw more people,” but “to do nothing doesn’t seem like a reasonable answer.” Aside from wrongly suggesting that the approach of Cold Spring residents and officials is to “do nothing,” Ms. Kacala implied that only HHFT has the answer. She stated: “I haven’t heard an alternate scenario for how visitation will be managed without the Fjord Trail.” HHFT, a private organization, is essentially saying that only it — not local governments, which are elected by and are accountable to residents — has the solution to a “problem” that it will exacerbate. This is dubious logic.

    The “problem” of too many cars has been managed to some extent, including with parking meters and ferries. That said, there is certainly room for improvement. But it defies common sense to conclude that the solution requires a multimillion-dollar “fix” that would change the face of the village and the coastal environment forever, and potentially make things worse. Establishing the entrance to a linear park in the middle of the Village of Cold Spring is not the answer to overcrowding, but an invitation for more people to drive more cars into the village and look for places to park. There are many alternatives, such as ending the Fjord Trail at Little Stony Point, which has both easy pedestrian access to the center of Cold Spring and parking, which was recently improved at taxpayer expense.

    In the Sept. 16 issue, Ms. Kacala asserted that the Fjord Trail “fits into Cold Spring’s comprehensive plan and will help solve issues that the village and the state parks department don’t have the resources to deal with, such as trash collection, restrooms and swimming at Little Stony Point.” She added that “This project is implementing the vision the community had for itself.” What is the basis for these statements? Does HHFT get the final word on whether its project is consistent with the Village’s Comprehensive Plan, which has the force of law? (See N.Y. Village Law §7-722.) These questions demand answers.

    HHFT should clarify decision-making, governance and administration for the Fjord Trail.

    HHFT’s statements to date suggest that the Village of Cold Spring does not have a formal role in decision-making regarding the Fjord Trail. This is troubling. In fact, HHFT’s May 2021 Form 990 filed with the IRS states that HHFT’s mission is “[t]o develop and operate an accessible linear park, in cooperation with the State of New York, located between Cold Spring, NY and Beacon, NY, currently known as the Fjord Trail.”

    Is HHFT an agent of the state on this project? Is it a contractor? To whom is it accountable? What, if any, governmental entities and/or agencies have the ability formally to approve or disapprove aspects of the Fjord Trail? Does Cold Spring get a vote? (See N.Y. Village Law § 7-722.) What will be the governance structure for the Fjord Trail? What is the “entity responsible to manage and maintain” restrooms and garbage bins along the trail, as described in the May slides? These questions demand answers.

    HHFT should be transparent about funding for the Fjord Trail.

    A recent article in the Poughkeepsie Journal reported a statement from HHFT and its related organization Scenic Hudson that the project will be funded by $20 million from the State of New York, $14 million from the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and $36 million in private charitable contributions. As no budget information is available for the Fjord Trail, it is impossible to know whether $70 million is too much or too little. (Given the tremendous need to address the pandemic, the opioid epidemic, and the mental health crisis in the Hudson Valley, query whether spending $70 million on a linear park is warranted.)

    And how much of that $70 million is guaranteed? Presumably any public funding is subject to the annual budget approval process. If any of the funding – public or private — is not available in the future (due to recession or other reasons), what happens? Who makes sure the money is spent properly? Who watches for waste, fraud, and abuse? Who foots the bill for ongoing maintenance and supervision, which will undoubtedly be substantial? These questions demand answers.

    HHFT has unfairly portrayed those who question or criticize the Fjord Trail.

    In the Sept. 16 article, Ms. Kacala implied that critics of the Fjord Trail seek to “shut the door and say, ‘It’s ours.’ ” This is incorrect and offensive. Those who have doubts about the trail — people like myself who love and have served their communities voluntarily, at their personal expense — are asking important questions, many of which should already have been answered. I do not want to “shut the door” to visitors. Ironically, it seems that some proponents of the Fjord Trail wish to “shut the door” to further comments and questions, as if to say, “it’s already been planned.” It has not.

    Ms. Kacala also stated that the development of the trail is “a matter of equity,” suggesting that to disagree with HHFT is to promote inequity. This is also offensive. During the almost two decades I’ve lived in Cold Spring, the Village has become more open to people of different races, religions, ages, orientations, abilities, and backgrounds.

    Yes, it has a way to go, perhaps a long way. But since well before the arrival of HHFT or the shoreline stabilization “improvements,” Dockside was a public place that a diverse range of people enjoyed, where they have been able to come into physical contact with the majesty of the Hudson River and the natural environment. I hope that the Fjord Trail does not disturb this fragile beauty.