My favorite seasons for hiking around here are, in order, autumn, winter, spring, and summer. A caveat for winter: the cold and a little snow are great, but anything more than six inches spoils the fun. But summer, well, it is just too hot and humid. No one rushes outdoors to greet the bugs either. I suppose I could remain indoors throughout the dog days, but that is a far worse prospect than heat and bugs.
When I started thinking about an outing to Bear Mountain (the one in Rockland County, N.Y.), I also thought about how to mitigate the risks and discomforts of a high-summer hike. I looked for a cooler – or at least seasonable – day in the weather forecast. Finding none, I opted at least for an early start. Knowing I would be on a summit or two, I picked a day with zero chance of thunderstorms. I used to make the mistake of wearing cotton t-shirts on the trail. They sagged from my sweat. These days, I sweat just as much into polyester, but the shirt stays light and dries fast, given a chance. All that sweat, of course, must be replaced. I took three quarts of water to Bear Mountain.
I had thought about starting my hike at sunrise, but in the end I was walking across Bear Mountain Bridge at 7 a.m. It was comfortable at 70 degrees, and the view of the Hudson River, 150 feet below and stretching north between wooded hills, was grand. There is something epic about the Hudson here, a great American waterway bearing the marks of history – place-names from the time of New Netherland, the forts of revolutionary armies, the estates of industrialists. This morning, a long, purposeful, screeching train carried raw materials toward the big city. It all harked back to another time. Only the tense faces of commuters driving across the bridge seemed definitely of our era.
I found my way to Hessian Lake, the centerpiece of Bear Mountain State Park’s recreation area. A zoo, a carousel, and the Bear Mountain Inn were nearby. But few people were about yet, only vultures picking over yesterday’s trash. They parted, grudgingly, to let me by. It was like a scene from The Birds. I hiked south, toward Dunderberg Mountain, and soon left the human world behind. By the time the Cornell Mine Trail (blue-blazed) reached Dunderberg’s steep flank, the sound of woodpeckers and birdsong had taken over from trains and the popping of guns from the direction of West Point. Whatever freshness the morning had offered was long gone, and scaling Dunderberg was strenuous and hot. I recovered on its summit ridge in sunlit woods of small, well-spaced oak.
It was a 10-minute hike from Dunderberg to Bald Mountain, where there were big views from an open ledge. Bear Mountain Bridge was now 2.5 miles north and 1,000 feet below, spanning a gray-green Hudson. The wooded hump called Anthony’s Nose rose abruptly from the bridge’s eastern end. Bear Mountain itself – Perkins Tower just discernible on top – rose west of the river. (More photos from my hike can be found at “McWilliams Takes a Hike” on Facebook.) The Appalachian Trail, my map told me, ran along a ridge to the west, and my plan now was to hike the intervening valleys to meet it and climb Bear together. The intervening valleys – three trail miles – were sultry woods, leaves unstirred by the slightest breeze. Once upon a time, these woods were home to Doodletown; not a colony of scribblers, but a hamlet of 70 homes taking its name, perhaps, from dood dal, meaning “dead valley” in Dutch. If it weren’t for some crumbling asphalt and a few historical markers you might not notice that Doodletown had ever been here.
I hiked about five miles on the A.T. to get back to my car. To say that the A.T. here offered a variety of hiking experience would be understatement. On the winding ascent of Bear Mountain – 500 feet spread out over two miles – the trail was of cinder-track quality, but the terrain was rugged, and empty but for a few serious-looking hikers. Views over unbroken, rolling forest reminded me of the Catskills. The sun was harsh on bare outcrops, and I sucked often from my reservoir. All this changed at Perkins Tower. The motor road brought not crowds exactly, but people, exuberant people – picnickers, cyclists, selfie-takers, and hikers coming up from Hessian Lake. I stopped sucking from my reservoir and, with lunch, drank ice-cold sodas purchased from a vending machine.
It was now 90 degrees, but the steep section of A.T. between Bear Mountain and Hessian Lake – 1,000 feet up or down – was full of walkers. One couple I overheard had trekked from Georgia, but most of us were out for the day. There were troops of kids – Orthodox Jewish boys on their way up; a file of small Japanese children, all pink t-shirts and cute satchels, going down. Everyone going up asked me how much farther there was to go. Hadn’t anyone heard that summer is the worst season for hiking around here?
|IF YOU GO …|
|PARKING||I parked on NY Route 9D, just north of Bear Mountain Bridge, in Cortlandt NY (30 miles from Ridgefield CT via Katonah).|
|DURATION||I was out for 7 hours.|
|MAP||Bear Mountain State Park map from nysparks.com.|
|ROUTE||START – Bear Mountain Bridge – Bear Mountain Inn – Cornell Mine Trail to Dunderberg Mountain – Ramapo-Dunderberg and 1777 trails to Appalachian Trail at Seven Lakes Drive – A.T. to FINISH.|
|WHAT TO TAKE||Lots of water! Leashed dogs permitted.|