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)

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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

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