Need the quick on-foot getaway from New York City? Sure you do! And there’s no better time to cross the top of Harriman State Park than early October.
UPDATE (JULY 4, 2015): Now you can use the Tuxedo-Harriman shuttle (weekends only) to get to the start of this trail! Take the Saturday or Sunday the Metro-North Train to Tuxedo, then board the shuttle. Get off at Elk Pen to start your hike. Trail maps are for sale inside the train station.
The Quick and Easy, On-Foot Getaway: New York City to the Appalachian Trail, Harriman State Park
Is it a loop “trail” if it starts and ends from your apartment? Probably not, because by that definition, they’re all loop trails.
But it is a 20-mile, round-trip, overnight hike that you can do on foot, without a car, from New York City to the Appalachian Trail in Harriman State Park, and back. You’ll take in terrific views, get stuck in the Lemon Squeezer, sleep in a historic lean-to shelter, and we guarantee you’ll see a bald eagle (because you’ll hike through a zoo).
All you need is one weekend. Below are step-by-step instructions, including a stop at Bear Mountain Inn’s Blue Roof Tapas Bar for a celebratory glass of Prosecco:
1. Leave from Port Authority Bus Terminal (41st and 8th Ave, New York), on the Shortline Bus, to Southfields. This bus ride will take you a little over an hour. Buses leave almost hourly during the week, starting at 6:40; on the weekends the buses are slightly less frequent, starting at 8:30. Use this link to plan your departure.
2. Get off at Arden Valley Road, in Southfields. Ask the driver to drop you off there, as this is not a scheduled stop or marked bus stop.
3. Head east on Arden Valley Road to the Elk Pen parking area: You can only go one way on Arden Valley — east. This paved road will cross the thruway and shortly you’ll arrive at a parking lot in a wide, grassy field on your right. That’s Elk Pen.
Cross the well-worn trail in this grassy field, heading toward the hills and away from the highway.
4. Then — for 20 miles — just follow the white blazes. Keep right when you enter the woods, and look out for the white blazes of the Appalachian Trail. There is a great big carved wooden sign on the trail not long after you enter the woods, with several destinations. Yours is the Appalachian Trail, the Lemon Squeezer, Fingerboard Shelter, and Brien Memorial Shelter, and Bear Mountain. You’ll stay on this white-blazed trail the entire way across the park. Just follow the white.
(Or, for interesting side hikes around the Island Pond area, see and download our free PDF map of the trails. These trails are easily accessed via the Appalachian Trail, and Island Pond offers excellent “stealth” camping areas near the lake.*)
Set Up Camp
There are two nice stone lean-tos on your hike — Fingerboard and Brien Memorial — and the West Mountain shelter is down a side trail, but much further along, almost near the Bear Mountain end of this hike.
Officially, camping is allowed only at or near these shelters, but hikers do often overnight stealth-style. Hammocks are great choices for this kind of camping, and for sleeping near the shelters on the grassy fields surrounding them. You won’t have to worry about rocky ground or finding a perfectly level spot.
Fingerboard Shelter is 3.7 miles from Elk Pen, just off the AT on the blue-blazed Hurst Trail. This is a nice shelter, offering plenty of grass in the surrounding areas, lots of trees for hammocking, and dispersed fire rings for out-of-the-shelter camping (perfectly legal). There’s a water source on the blue trail, not far from the shelter or, if it’s already dried up later in the season, you can easily walk further down the Hurst Trail (the same blue-blazed trail) toward Seven Lakes Road — you’ll emerge across the road from Lake Tiorati.
Brien Memorial shelter is further along on the trail. In the spring and early summer, you’ll find a decent water supply just down the hill from the shelter, in a little circular well. But by late August, this spring is already dry, and you’ll be hiking at least to Silvermine Lake for a water refill. I also don’t care for Brien as much as the other shelters, as it’s under the trees, and offers no views like the other shelters. The shelter has two bunks, but no inside fireplace, and I really like those, too! Finally, Brien Memorial is an easy hike in from the Silvermine parking area, and so is popular with party groups and Friday night gangs. It can be noisy and crowded.
West Mountain shelter, 11.8 miles from the start of your hike at Elk Pen, is just lovely, with serene views of the glittering, distant New York City skyline. You can reach it by turning right (south) on the blue-blazed Timp-Torne Trail about a mile after you cross the Palisades Parkway. However, the West Mountain shelter is also really close to the end of your hike in Bear Mountain, so if you’re looking to divide your hike neatly in half, this shelter comes a little too late on the trail! Note: there is no water available at West Mountain shelter.
The Next Day
Pack up and continue on the AT in the morning. You’re still following the white blazes, to the top of Bear Mountain and the Perkins Memorial Tower, and then down the Hudson River side on the newly-renovated Bear Mountain terminus of the AT.
At nearly 17 miles, the grand old hotel greets you at the bottom of the mountain, a great spot to pick up lunch and a drink on the rooftop patio of the Tapas Bar.
Drink up! Because it’s three more miles on the AT as it crosses through the Bear Mountain Trailside zoo and finally the Bear Mountain Bridge and one of the most scenic stretches of the Hudson River.
After the Bridge: Manitou Station, and back to New York City
Once on the other side of the bridge, it’s a two-mile walk to the train station. Turning left once you cross Bear Mountain Bridge, walk along Route 9D for just over a mile (bid farewell to the white blazes that leave 9D on the right, shortly after the bridge crossing), then turn left onto Manitou Station Road and head downhill, toward the Hudson River and Manitou Station, which is little more than a shed and a platform from which to board.
Meet the Metro-North train, from Manitou Station to Grand Central, at either 4:27 or 7:31 pm. (This information is current as of October, 2013). These are the only trains scheduled to leave Manitou Station, so if you miss the 7:31, you’re out of luck and should probably spring for a room at the Bear Mountain Inn.
Important note! You will have to stand on the platform and actually wave down the engineer. The train will only stop if the driver sees you standing at the platform. So wave away.
There is no ticket sales window or machine at Manitou Station, so you’ll pay once you board.
Don’t leave the Appalachian Trail unless you have a trail conference map, or the downloadable app for your iPhone that will help you navigate back to your route. Harriman is famous for not having directional signs on the trails, and it’s easy to get lost (even with a map)!
Plan where you want to be when the sun sets. You’ll have a half hour of twilight once the sun dips — less if you’re in a ravine or east-facing slope — and that’s not a lot of time to set up camp, find wood and get a fire going.
*What we’ve written in red is against the rules of Harriman State Park, and at your own risk.
** Photo courtesy of Instagram user #woomas (http://instagram.com/woomas)