As you might or might not know, I live in the state of New Jersey. Now the Garden State is not exactly known for any mountains. Living up to its name, you can find a lot of fields, woods and green grass around but mountains? – Uh Oh.
So it wouldn’t really come as a surprise if I declare that currently, my favorite place for hiking and training up for a mountain climb is located not in New Jersey, but in the state of New York, about 2 hours of driving distance away from Princeton. I found out about the Breackneck Ridge quite randomly – through a meetup group, which doesn’t even claim to be a hiking club or anything. But it so happened that the group has a couple of crazy hikers/ rock climbers as its organizers and they decided that it would be fun to go up and down the Breackneck Ridge on a wintry Saturday morning. True to my calling, I signed up for the outing without putting in a lot of thought.
Tucked away among the hills of Hudson Highlands State Park, Breackneck Ridge is definitely a challenging hike owing to its steep, rocky terrain. Going by the number of hikers, families, couples and college students I have seen on this route, it’s pretty popular among New Yorkers too. Those living in NYC can simply board a train that will drop them very close to the trail head while the more boring people like me have to drive up a couple of hours in their cars from down south.
Breackneck Ridge is actually a mountain (although a big part of the hiking trail is along its ridge) that sits along the Hudson river, with Storm King mountain on the opposite bank of the river. From various view points on the trail , one gets really beautiful and panoramic views of the river and the mountain range on the opposite side. The summit of Breckneck is at 1260 feet above sea level. Even though the altitude is minimal, the gradient of the trail is very steep throughout. If I had to rate the steepness, I would rate it at 8/10. Due to quarrying carried out in the past years, southern face of the mountain has a jagged look. The white-blazed trail is full of rocks and walking up the trail is actually akin to scrambling up. The trail is not dangerous as such – there are no great exposures and the scrambling is completely within the reach of anyone who is even a newbie to hiking but even then, this is not the hike if you are introducing someone to the wondrous activity of hiking or trail walking for the very first time. You can go to New Jersey for that :-P. There are various easier routes to go back down to the base of the mountain. I have seen very few hikers go back the same white-blazed path but my group likes to do it and it’s not super dangerous either.
I have gone up this mountain thrice till now, once in winter, in the middle of falling snow and then twice in the summer. Contrary to what I said above, it WAS dangerous going up the white-blazed trail when the rocks were wet with snow. It’s another matter that none of us took a slip while going from rock to rock, esp while getting down on the trail. But I wouldn’t take this route on a snowy/ rainy day if I were alone. At all other times, I would and I have and it’s entirely safe. The rocks are good to hold on to and there are rest points after every steep section of the trail.
The white route can be divided into 4 sections – the first of which is the steepest of them all. After a couple of minutes of walk from the trail-head, you stand at the base of a steep rocky cliff like part of the trail. You enter the woods and scramble up the rock laden trail. Around the same time, you also start huffing and puffing but every time you go breathless, just stop and look back and from between the tree branches, you will catch glimpses of the Hudson river. The view will refresh you for the next 50 steps or so. Sometimes, there’s a lot of traffic on this section as most people tend to stop a lot in between to catch their breath. At the end of this steep section lies a really nice reward. You reach the first viewpoint on the trail. This viewpoint is kinda flattish and has rocks you can rest your butt on, sit and enjoy a gorgeous view of the river and the surroundings. A flag keeps fluttering at this view point – this flagpole can be seen from the tunnel near the trail head too. In the distance, you can see boats passing by in the Hudson and you wonder where they are coming from and where they are going. The Bannerman’s Castle stands on an island in the river, somewhere to the right hand side of this panoramic picture. I still haven’t figured out what one has to do to be able to reach the castle but some day I will.
There are three more steep sections after this viewpoint but each of them is shorter than the first one and also, not as steep. You basically go from one bump to another, as is always the case on a ridge. At times, you momentarily pass through woods, to emerge out on a rocky outcrop that you have to climb up. At every bump, you are able to rest and soak in the beauty before charging up towards the next bump. My favorite view-point is the 3rd or the last bump below the summit. The panorama is widest from this point and in the summer, mountains around you have a green carpet on them. The hawks glide effortlessly all over the sky and you can’t stop looking at the river and enjoying the silent breeze.
For the last section, you actually climb down a little bit before going in the woods again and then climbing up the last but the least steep patch to reach the summit of Breackneck Ridge. The views from the top are slightly disappointing (they don’t feel as panoramic as the previous ones) and if the wind goddess is not favorable to you, you might get bitten by the big mosquitoes or bugs that frequent the woods in the summer’s heat and humidity. I generally stick to the 3rd view-point and go back from there.
At times, I have gone up to the summit and taken the longer circuitous route back to the base (The Breackneck Bypass Trail). This route is easier on the legs as you are basically just walking down a trail like any other hiking trail and not doing a balancing act as you would do on the white blazed trail. But longer trails are sometimes boring and I prefer the white blazed trail any time over them – it’s shorter and more fun. Breackneck Ridge is a short hike in terms of distance. If you stick to the white blazed trail, then the one way distance is just about a mile or so. If you do the circuit via the most popular route, the total distance covered would be 2.8 miles. In any case, Breackneck is about the steepness and the terrain and not the distance. It’s a wonderful mountain to train on – having to balance yourself on the rocks is tricky but gets you in an even better shape than just lugging up some weight by walking along the switchbacks on a mountain.
So shake out that weekend laziness and get yourself up on this mountain – you would certainly not regret it! It’s as good as it’s hard!
- Location: Hudson Highlands State Park, New York
- Best Season: Summer. Winter hiking is a serene and more adventurous experience but I won’t advise going in the rains or snow unless you are a seasoned hiker.
- Distance: 2 to 2.8 miles depending on the route
- Time: Average circuit time quoted on the Net is about 3-4 hours. But it really depends on the fitness level. My best one way timing up to the third bump is 32 mins without any weight on the back and 44 mins with about 22 pounds in the rucksack.
- Essential Gear: Sturdy pair of hiking shoes are ideal. I have often seen hikers in their sneakers or running shoes. They will also serve the purpose provided that you are ready to be extra careful on the rocks.
- Water: About a liter or two per person. The steepness makes you thirsty pretty fast.
- Various routes and the description: http://www.nynjtc.org/hike/breakneck-ridge-trail