Bear Mountain State Park: the Hiker’s Mecca

Drive just an hour and a half from midtown Manhattan you can be hiking atop mountains chock full of volcanic rock formed over a billion years ago, take the trail to a ghost town, or grab a hot dog from a cart on the path to the docks at Hessian Lake, where you can rent rowboats. Bear Mountain State Park, perhaps the flagship recreation destination within New York’s Hudson Highland region, is a Mecca for those who love the outdoors, whether that means a ride though the zoo in the stroller or a challenging hike to catch a glimpse of wintering bald eagles.

The Bear Mountain State Park region is deep in history- really deep. When hiking around Bear Mountain, you trek through some of the oldest rock along the entire Appalachian Trail. Geologists estimate that the volcanic rock is roughly 1.3 billion years old. About 12,000 years ago, during the most recent ice age, a massive glacier cut a deep groove between the hills and mountains of the area. Today, we call that groove the Hudson River.

Leap forward a little- to AD 1777- and Sir Henry Clinton lead about 2500 British and Hessian soldiers to decisive victory over the colonists in battles at Fort Montgomery and Fort Clinton. The park’s 1777 Trail was blazed based on maps drawn for the Continental Army, and leads one along the same wilderness route the British trod.

What to do at Bear Mountain State Park

Bear Mountain, allegedly named because, seen from a spot known as Anthony’s Nose, the mountain resembles a reclining bear, is very large and has at least two distinct personalities. Many visitors enjoy its conventional park features without the slightest knowledge or care that the area also features 50 official trails totaling 235 miles across 5000 acres of varied terrain of progressive difficulty, much of which includes the initial portion of the Appalachian Trail, dating from 1923, taking the intrepid from Bear Mountain to the Delaware Water Gap.

If your goal is to get lost in the forest, you can do it here. Plenty have, as scouting party records attest. On the other hand, Bear Mountain State Park is also a wonderful place for family outings when you don’t feel the need to imagine yourself a pioneer.

The park covers acre after acre of wooded picnic groves, athletic fields and basketball courts. There’s a rustic bathhouse and a huge public swimming pool. Paddle and rowboats are available for rental at Hessian Lake. An uncovered, outdoor ice skating rink is open for the winter; cross-country ski trails and ski jumping are popular, too. Natural history aficionados of all ages appreciate the Trailside Museum and the 40 acre zoo, situated on a bluff rising 250 feet above the Hudson. Geology and Native American are highlighted in two additional museums.

Among the most recent additions to the park is the 8,000 square foot stone and timber pavilion, architecturally styled in the Adirondack Great Camp tradition. The pavilion features a carousel complete with 38 hand painted local animals on which to ride, including the obligatory bear, but also a bobcat, river otter, raccoon, fox and eagle.

If this all sounds like far too much to do in a day, no worries- you can dine and spend the night at the Bear Mountain Inn, listed among the National Register of Historic places, or at one of four stone lodges offering spectacular vistas across the Hudson River Valley.

The Mecca for Northeast Hikers

As outstanding as the Bear Mountain amenities and recreational facilities are, its hiking trails may be what truly distinguishes the park. You can trek towards Iona Island, from which, during the Revolution, the colonists stretched a chain to the west east bank of the Hudson to prevent the passage of British ships, but much of which is now designated as sanctuary. Enjoy spectacular panoramic views high atop the Hudson River Valley from the Perkins Memorial Tower or Bald Mountain; the crumbling ghost town remains of Doodleberg, complete with a cemetery dating to colonial days; or the Popolopen Torne and the aqueduct across the gorge.

Pack plenty of trial mix. Bear Mountain State Park will make you hungry, but leave you satisfied.