Views from Fire Tower on South Beacon Mountain (left) and Breakneck Ridge (right) as taken from my iPhone.
In recent years, I have got into hiking in all the various destinations I travel to for vacations. As such, I realized that I neglected exploring the great hiking spots in New York, specifically the Hudson Valley where I grew up. I have gone up Mount Beacon multiple times over the years. However, I have not done the other phenomenal hikes in the Hudson Highlands State Park Preserve. In particular, the Breakneck Ridge hike has become extremely popular in recent years. In fact, Metro North created an impromptu Breakneck Ridge train stop to accommodate hikers. Consequently, I really wanted to try it. Subsequently, I have also completed the other main hikes in this state park: South Beacon Mountain, Fishkill Ridge, and Bull Hill (Mt. Taurus). The Hudson Highlands offers an incredibly diverse set of hikes of varying difficulties that provide stunning views of the Hudson Valley. They are a short distance from New York City and are great day trips. Both the Breakneck Ridge and Mt. Taurus hikes are easily accessible via a short walk to and from Metro North train stations. While there are snakes on the trails, they will not bother you if you do not bother them. Nevertheless, pay attention and be on the lookout for them. Of course, stay attuned to the trail markers which are color coded and generally on trees along the paths. The New York State Parks, Recreation also provides maps and instructions at the beginning of the Breakneck Ridge and Mt. Taurus trailheads. Below are link for similar maps I received that are also helpful in planning and hiking during the trip. In particular, the first link is a better map for the Fishkill Ridge trail.
Below are my recommendations.
Mt. Beacon (2.4 miles) and South Beacon Mountain/ Fire Tower (Additional 2 miles round trip)
The hike up Mt. Beacon to the casino ruins is the best reward for the least amount of work hike. It is a 2.4 mile roundtrip from the parking lot to the overlook (1,210 foot elevation). The view is spectacular. The overlook provides a large clearing and unobstructed view of the Hudson River and Valley. It is a great payoff for only a half hour hike up. I have completed the roundtrip hike in an hour many times. I recommend this hike for beginners who want to start hiking. It is a good trail to conquer before attempting more challenging hikes. There are a couple points in the trail that are a little steep. There are also some rocks but they are not too difficult of an obstacle unless it is winter and ice is on them to make it a bit slippery. In addition, there are plenty of trees along the path to provide shade until you reach the overlook.
The parking lot is located at the intersection of Route 9D and Howland Avenue in Beacon. When you start to walk on the trailhead, you will quickly see a set of stairs that get you to the trail and switchbacks that take you up to the overlook. From the Beacon Metro North train station, it is a little under 2 mile walk through town on Beekman Street and Wolcott Avenue/ 9D to the trailhead.
The overlook is connected to other trails in the Hudson Highlands network of trails. When you get to the top of the overlook, you can take trails that continue at the left. I have wandered a little bit on them and found the Beacon Reservoir. It is another mile to get to the Fire Tower, South Beacon Mountain, from the overlook. From there, you can connect to the wider network of trails (e.g. Fishkill Ridge, Breakneck Ridge, etc.). However, the issue would be getting to your car afterwards because you will have to retrace your entire path backwards. The one loop you can do that returns to the parking lot is to Fishkill Ridge (reverse route described below). I highly recommend adding an extra two miles round trip to go to the Fire Tower. When you are hiking to the Fire Tower from the overlook, there will be a slightly steep, rocky hill on your right as you near South Beacon Mountain that you can hike up to get to the tower. You will probably see other hikers going up and down it. If you miss that turn, do not fret, there will be markers for the white trail where you can also take a right to reach the top. Both paths get you to the same place. The Fire Tower is the highest point in the Hudson Highlands State Park with 360 views of the entire park, which encompasses the Hudson River and the east side of the park and beyond. Going up the tower can be a little scary especially if you are afraid of heights. I was much more worried going down than up. When I went down, I felt like I could lose my balance and the short guard rails would only hit my knees before I plunged off the tower. Naturally, most of the concern was totally just in my mind. Of course, I walked down very slowly. I definitely would not try to go up to the top of the tower if it was windy. If the sight of the tower frightens you, the views from the base of the tower are great anyway. I would allocate 2 ½ hours to complete the hike and enjoy the views.
New York State Parks, Recreations has South Beacon Mountain as one of its recommended hikes. It suggests entering through the Notch trailhead (blue) that is 4 miles north of the Cold Spring train station. From there, it instructs hikers to connect and turn left on the Wilkinson Memorial Trail (yellow) then another left once you reach the Breakneck Ridge Trail (white) which connects from the right of the yellow trail. From the start of the Notch trail, this route is 6 miles round trip. If you do not drive to the trailhead, the hike would be much longer. As such, I recommend my route since you also get to enjoy the views of the Casino ruins. Even if you walk to the beginning from the Beacon train station, at least it is through a town and also shorter than trying to walk to the beginning of the Notch trail from a station.
Fishkill Ridge (8 miles)
It is another good hike in the Hudson Highlands. As you near the top and reach the Fishkill Ridge, you will have great views of the Hudson River and the two Beacon mountains. There is some minor rock scrambling near the top but nothing strenuous. The Fishkill Ridge loop, over Lamb’s Hill and Bald Hill, is no big deal. It is like the forest you see as you hike up. Since there are trees everywhere, there is no clearing that provides views of the surrounding area. There are multiple routes to get to the ridge. New York State Parks, Recreations suggests starting at the metal tanks of the Beacon water supply which is 0.2 miles east of Main Street. From there, you will take the Fishkill Ridge Trail (white) up to and around the ridge. At the end of the white trail, you will connect to the Wilkinson Memorial Trail (yellow) then the blue trail that connects you back to white trail at the Dozer Junction. Then, you will go back down the same path where you came. That route is 7 miles. New York State Parks, Recreations also notes the ridge can be reached from the east via the Wilkinson Memorial Trail (yellow) which begins on Old Albany Post Road (at the intersection of Reservoir Road) off US 9, three miles north of NY 301. The Overlook Trail (red), which starts at the end of Sunnyside Road in Beacon, is another option.
I decided to not go with any of the above routes. The views on the Fishkill Ridge hike are great but I would say it is not as good as the ones on the other hikes in the Hudson Highlands. For this reason, I recommend adding just another mile to your hike and making a loops that also includes Scofield Ridge, South Beacon Mountain/ Fire Tower, and Mt. Beacon. With this route, you can see more and do not have to repeat sights you would see if you followed the main route suggested by New York State Parks, Recreations. Below are the directions for my route. Of course, they can be done in reverse in a counterclockwise direction too.
1. I start at the same beginning of the Mount Beacon hike at its parking lot at the intersection of Route 9D and Howland Avenue in Beacon. Similarly, I follow the beginning of that hike for 0.3 miles by going up the stairs then walking up the first switchback. At that point, you will see some bollards that look like they are there to prevent you from walking onto that path. However, proceed past them to the Dry Connector trail. You will see that it is marked by yellow markers. There is long grass on the trail because it is not heavily trafficked. It takes 0.8 miles to reach the Fishkill Ridge Trail (white).
2. Once you hit the Fishkill Ridge Trail (white), you will follow the same directions given by New York State Parks, Recreations to get to the Ridge loop which is 1.2 miles from this intersection. At one point along the trail, you will intersect the Mt. Beacon Monument Road. Go left on that road and you will see that the yellow trail continues on the right. I went off trail a bit because I was confused when I did this hike. Make sure you see trail markers frequently. Otherwise, it probably means you are lost. If you wanted to follow the New York State Parks, Recreations main route but cut some of the distance, you can drive on Mt. Beacon Monument Road where there are spots to park. Accordingly, you could start your hike at this point on Mt. Beacon Monument Road where it intersects with the white trail.
3. After you finish the Fishkill Ridge loop [which is approximately 1.5 miles], it gets a little confusing. The instructions provided by the New York State Parks, Recreation tells you to connect to the Wilkinson Memorial Trail (yellow) then connect to the blue trail back to the white trail. However, I saw blue markers before I saw yellow markers. In the map I linked at the beginning of this guide, it validates what I saw. Regardless, three trails converge at this point so it is easy to get lost. In addition, it is the point where I diverged from the suggested route. Instead of following the blue trail back to connect to where I came from, I followed the Wilkinson Memorial Trail (yellow) that travels on top of the Scofield Ridge. From the end of the Fishkill Ridge trail (white), make sure you are making a right on the yellow trail [south towards the Scofield Ridge] instead of a left [East towards Old Albany Post Road off of US 9]. You should see a yellow marker on a rock that points to the right and up as well as yellow markers on two trees (photo on the left). I lost my sense of direction twice and walked in the wrong direction on the yellow trail both times. During the first time, I pulled out Google Maps and realized I was walking in the wrong direction. Once I got back in the right direction, I stopped to take pictures at a clearing that offered a great view (photo on the right). Unfortunately, that small clearing is at a point of a path where there is a sharp turn right. When I turned around after taking pictures, I forgot where I came from and faced a decision whether to take the path left or right. I chose wrong and went backwards on the yellow trail. When I started recognizing the same landmarks again, I should have conceded and turned back. When you are hiking for a while and getting frustrated with losing your sense of direction, your frustration overrides your brain. I convinced myself that I originally was going in the correct direction. I started descending and went further in the wrong direction than I originally did. How do you know whether you are going on the wrong part of the yellow trail? The part that goes east requires a moment of rock scrambling to get on an elevated part of a path then descends afterwards. Both are indicators you should reverse course. Again, there is cell phone signal around there so definitely use Google Maps as a guide.
4. The yellow trail travels 2 miles on Scofield Ridge. There are plenty of great views that include the mountains and valleys of the Hudson Highlands and the Beacon Reservoir.
5. You will hit an intersection where the yellow, red, and white trails intersect. At this point, you take a sharp left on to the white trail that ascends up 0.2 miles to the Fire Tower at South Beacon Mountain. After you enjoy the views from the tower, do not go back to where you came from. Follow the other path that connects to the tower. It is a bit steep and rocky but will also be going down instead of up. You will probably see people coming up it. From the Fire Tower, it is 2 miles back to the parking lot. You will hit the red trail and take a left. Follow the red trail markers. It brings you to the Mountain Beacon Overlook that descends back down to the starting point.
I got lost so the hike took me almost 6 hours. It can definitely be completed comfortably within 4 ½-5 hours.
Mt. Taurus (4.5 miles/ 6.5 miles including walk to and from train stations)
Mt. Taurus is a great hike of moderate difficulty and an intermediary between Mount Beacon and Breakneck Ridge. It is a longer hike than the Mount Beacon hike. However, the elevation change is more gradual. There are a couple of switchbacks on the Mount Beacon hike that are steeper. Of course, the Mt. Taurus hike is not close to the strenuous nature of the Breakneck Ridge trail below. There are large rocks on the trail but you do not need to rock scramble. There is a parking lot at the beginning of the trailhead. If it is full, you can park on the side of 9D. If you are coming from Metro North, get off at the Cold Spring station. Walk up Main Street then take a left on to Fair Street that connects to 9D where you will quickly see the parking lot/ trailhead.
From the parking lot, follow the Washburn trail (white) for 1.9 miles all the way to the top. Within the first mile of the Washburn trail, you will see a clearing on your right that has an awesome view. It is a great appetizer for the final payoff at the top, Bull Hill. At about 1.2 miles, the white trail intersects with the Undercliff trail (yellow). From this point to the top, there are great views. The main overlook at the top is a rock ledge that juts out. On a clear day, you can even see the small silhouette of the New York City skyline from a distance. The white trail eventually connects to the Notch Trail (blue). Follow this path for 1 mile. It connects to the Brook trail (red). Follow the Brook trail for .2 miles. Then, bear left to merge onto the Cornish Trail (Blue). Follow the Cornish Trail for 1.4 miles until you return to the parking lot and Route 9D. When I did this hike, I saw most people turn back and go back down the way they came on the white trail. In addition, they turned back even before making it to the main clearing. I highly recommend going down via the Notch trail. The paths are much easier to descend and you will not need to hike down on the rocks of the Washburn trail.
This hike takes 3 ½ hours if you take time to enjoy all the views. It can probably done in 2-2 ½ hours if you tried to do it as quickly as possible.
Breakneck Ridge (3.5 miles/ 5.5 miles including walk to and from train stations)
It measures up to the more challenging hikes I have done around the country. It is the most difficult hike in the Hudson Highlands because of the 20-25 minutes of rock scrambling at the beginning of the hike that gets you to the first overlook. In all, there are four overlooks on Breakneck Ridge. It is about 1.4 miles to get through all the overlooks and connect to trails that bring you back down the ridge. While there is some rock scrambling after the first overlook, the majority of it is in the first part of the hike. The rock scrambling will require you to use your hands. If you are new to it, the key is to still use your feet to push your body up and only use your hands to guide it. Find some crevices in the rocks to get a grip for your shoes. There are a few spots on the trail that are more difficult which I personally consider border line rock climbing. However, there are signs for alternate routes that provide an “easier ascent”. My friend and I also saw two snakes on the way up the trail. As a result, be aware of your surroundings. Due to the strenuous nature of the rock scrambling, I advise against beginners trying it. In addition, I highly recommend using a good pair of hiking shoes for this hike. I do not consider the rock scrambling very dangerous but it can be if you are reckless or not paying attention. Moreover, I drank 1.5 liters of water. Naturally, I consumed most of it on the way up the trail.
It is very easy to get to and from the trailhead for Breakneck Ridge via Metro North from Grand Central in New York. The Breakneck Ridge stop on the train is a bit of an impromptu stop. The ride to Breakneck Ridge is about 86 minutes. There are trains that leave Grand Central from 7:43 AM, 8:43 AM, 9:43 AM, 10:43 AM, and 12:43 PM. On the way back, the train stops at the Breakneck Ridge stop at 1:09 PM, 3:09 PM, 4:13 PM, 5:11 PM, 6:13 PM, and 7:17 PM. While it is a longer hike, I prefer going to the next stop at Cold Spring (5.5 total miles from the start at the Breakneck Ridge stop to the Cold Spring train station) where each train will always stop. In addition, the village of Cold Spring is a neat spot to stop by with shops and restaurants if you want to buy some beverages or eat food. When we arrived at the beginning of the trailhead, there was a parks employee that offered information and maps. We were confused by the directions a few times so I will attempt to provide clearer ones below to get to the Cold Spring station with a note on how to get back to the Breakneck Ridge station or parking lot if you prefer that route
1. When you get off the train, you will see Route 9D immediately. Take a right on the road. It will take 0.6 miles to reach the trailhead. On the weekend, you will see cars parked on the side of the road and a small parking lot is close to the beginning of the trailhead.
2. The Breakneck Ridge trail is marked by white markers. Continue to follow the markers past all four overlooks. At some point on the fourth and final overlook, there is a sharp 180 degree turn that might make you think you are going in a circle but just trust the white markers. Eventually, you will reach a large rock with red spray paint that points you left to the Breakneck Bypass (red trail) in order to get back to the Breakneck Ridge train stop or parking lot. You will follow the red markers until you bear left onto the Wilkinson (yellow trail) that leads back out to Route 9D. If you want to go to the Cold Spring stop, continue past the red trail until you reach the Notch trail. The sign on a tree confused us about making a right on a red trail. In actuality, it is the next step after you hike on the Notch trail for a bit. Just take a right on the Notch trail and follow the blue markers. From the beginning of the Breakneck Ridge (white) trail to the connection to the Notch trail, it is 1.4 miles.
3. Follow the Notch trail for 0.9 miles before turning right on to the Brook trail (red). Follow the Brook trail for 0.2 miles. Then, bear left to merge onto the Cornish Trail (Blue). Follow the Cornish Trail for 1.4 miles until you reach another parking lot [beginning of the Mt. Taurus hike] and Route 9D.
4. It is 1 mile to the Cold Spring Station. You will need to make a left at the parking lot and walk a little on Route 9D before taking a right on Fair Street. It will connect to Main St in the village of Cold Spring. When you get to Main Street, take a right and go walk down and through the underpass. Take a left to walk to the Cold Spring station.
5. Technically, you can start at either end point and do the hike in reverse to get to Breakneck Ridge then return where you came from and never have to do the rock scramble at the beginning. However, where is the fun in that?
The hike provides spectacular views of the Hudson River and Storm King across the river. Below are a few notes about each overlook along the way.
You will reach the first overlook after the initial 20-25 minutes of rock scrambling. The elevation is 686 feet. It offers an immediate reward with the best spot for a picture. There are POW-MIA and American flags on a flag pole. You have views of the Hudson River (south and north), Storm King across the river, and Bannerman’s Castle on Pollopel Island on the river to the right. I spoke to a fellow hiker and he noted that most hikers start the descent after reaching the first overlook. It is too dangerous to go back down the rocks they came so they must go down some unofficial paths. However, the signs on the trail suggest that the best way down is to continue up until you reach trails [Notch trail] that provide an easier descent down the ridge. You will also notice that there will be less hikers to impede your views as you ascend up each overlook.
The second overlook has an elevation of 850 feet. It provides similar views to the first overlook but obviously higher up. There are also a couple of ledges you can walk to and sit. I have a fear of ledges so I did not get too close. It arguably has better views than the first overlook.
The third overlook is at an elevation of 968 feet. From the second overlook, you have a pretty look at the peak and the trees on the mountain. When you get to the third overlook, it has a beautiful view of the Hudson River going south. However, your views of Storm King and the rest of the river begins to be obstructed.
The fourth and final overlook is at an elevation of 1,240 feet. Your views are obstructed by trees at the overlook. For this reason, I made sure to snap a picture before I reached the top. Later on the white trail, you will see a small clearing that provides an excellent view at the top of the ridge of Bannerman’s Castle and the north side of the river. The clearing will be on the left and you will need to walk a little bit off the main trail.
Once you get on the Notch Trail, the descent is gradual. There are some rocks and roots from trees on the trail but it is nothing too dangerous. However, just watch your step. There is always a handful of times on each hike that I almost roll my ankle. It is a peaceful hike down in a forest. Along the trails that lead you to Cold Spring, you will see a stream and the ruins of the Cornish Mansion.
Including the walk to the Cold Spring Station, the hike took us about 4 hours.