I have planned a long 2-day hiking trip along with a group for next week. We intend on hiking a total of nearly 22 miles on the trip; so, this week I decided to stay close to home and return to the Palisades Interstate Park for the first time since the middle of December.
Months ago, I read about an interesting section in the Palisades called the Giant Stairs. Here, the trail traverses a mile of huge boulders that have fallen to the bottom of the cliffs, shifted by glacial movements over 10,000 years ago as well as the use of dynamite for mining in the late-1800's.
Being so close to the interstate, along the Hudson River, and about a half an hour from my home, I knew the level of immersion into nature would not be ideal, but reviews promised that this relatively short hike (only 4 miles) would be strenuous and the stairs are a unique attraction.
After a busy week at work and a number of assorted stressors making things feel out of balance, I hoped to burn off any undue anxiety I had been harboring.
Although there was an impending Nor'easter expected to roll into the area for Tuesday night, I woke up to a bright, clear sky with the temperatures hanging in the high 30's. I have been extremely lucky over the past few weeks with some incredibly beautiful winter days. I didn't rush out the door since I wasn't traveling too far and took my time to enjoy the solitude of the early morning.
The hike would start on the teal-blazed portion of the Long Path before leading to the white-blazed Shore Trail and over the Giant Stairs. The trailhead was located behind the State Line Lookout Cafe in Alpine. It is a place I am very familiar with as my father used to bring me here when I was a child to take in the views from the cliffs. Since the cafe was still closed, I took a quick detour to the nearby Northvale Diner for breakfast.
Soon, I was parking in the State Line Lookout lot and was on my way. The trail started out routinely enough, a rocky dirt path through bare, mature maple and oak trees. To the right a sustained view of the Hudson River and the New York suburbs rolled along. Unfortunately, the proximity of these trails to one of the biggest population centers in the country has the negative effect of more trash and graffiti marring the beauty of the forest than you would find in other, more secluded locations. However, despite this, the woods here have a charm of their own.
As I made my way along the trail, I stopped on numerous occasions to peer my head over the edge of the cliff down the vertical drop. The path eventually comes to a small monument and a fence that marks the border between New Jersey and New York. The rusted fence, with a section destroyed by a large fallen tree, runs down to the shore.
After making my way down a steep, slippery descent, I crossed through an opening in the fence into NY and onto a narrow portion of the trail at the edge of the cliff. There are many areas where either stone or plank steps have been installed which makes the descent feel much easier.
This portion of the hike passes through an area known as Skunk Hollow, where a community of freed slaves had once settled in the early 1800's. I scaled down the hill here to a small stream to enjoy the gentle trickling of the water and followed it to a set of wooden plank stairs that led me to Peanut Leap Cascade.
This waterfall runs off the face of the cliff and trickles toward the Hudson River. At the bottom of the falls, I found myself standing in the ruins of an old garden that was built in 1900 and was once part of an estate known as "Cliffside". The garden was evidently modeled in an Italian-style with elaborate stone work, a small pool, and statues. Only some of the stone work remains, but it is easy to imagine old-time socialites enjoying parties and events on the banks of the river here over 100 years ago.
This marks the start of the Shore Trail which heads along banks of the Hudson River. Looking up to the peak of the cliffs, I was excited that I would eventually get a good climb when I had to make my way all the way back up. The path starts out as a simple, rocky mud trail through vines and weeds and over or under fallen trees. The river tide washes unimaginable amounts of debris to some areas of the shore which is both disgusting and sad. I passed back through the dilapidated fence and back into NJ.
Soon, I came across a sign which advised that the Giant Stairs portion of the hike would begin in 1/4 of a mile. The sign warned that the mile-long rock scramble would be difficult and that there would be a long ascent after the stairs were completed. 1/4 of a mile later, I came to another sign that marked the start of the Giant Stairs. I could see the huge rocks beyond the sign, protruding out into the water and upward toward the face of the cliffs.
The Giant Stairs are broken into a number of different sections with somewhat level trails between them. Arriving at the first section, I was initially impressed with the sheer size and shape of the pile. I began to move from boulder to boulder, avoiding some very wide gaps and crevices, and worked my way up about 50 feet to a wide, flat rock. Here, I sat down and watched a tugboat slowly makes it way along the river.
As I relaxed on the rock, under a bright blue sky, I closed my eyes and meditated for a few minutes. I felt rejuvenated and spent some time taking pictures of the landscape and the Tappan Zee Bridge in the distance. I completed this portion of the stairs relatively easily and hoped that it would get a bit more strenuous.
After a short, ascendant stint through more wooded areas, I came to the next section of stairs. It was slightly more difficult than the first and just as impressive. Eventually, after a few more wooded areas and a lot more rocks, I came to a portion of the stairs that sits directly at the feet of the cliffs above. It is a longer, more expansive section of the stairs and the cliff rises hundreds of feet vertically as a backdrop.
Although most of the boulders that make up the Giant Stairs have been in their place for thousands of years, some fell from the cliffs in a 2012 rock slide which temporarily closed the trail and completely wiped out a wooded area below. It is a somewhat frightening prospect that, as you climb the pile, an entirely different pile may fall from the sky.
Once I came to the end of the stairs, I began to feel like I was getting my blood flowing and looked ahead for the climb back to the top. After making my way along some more muddy sections of trail, as small waves swept over the weeds and rocks on the shore, I came to a blue & white-blazed trail which led up the side of the cliff. This portion of trail is effectively a switchback, with some stone stairs on the way up. I passed the rusted wreckage of two old cars. I wondered how these vehicles' skeletons wound up here, crumpled on the side of a wooded hill at the edge of a cliff.
The climb took me hundreds of feet in a very short distance and I was satisfied with the exertion when I reached the top. I took a moment to sit atop of a small boulder on the side of the trail. I sipped some coffee and took in a view down the river. The temperatures were in the high 40's and a cool breeze swept through the trees.
I returned to the teal-blazed Long Path toward the State Line Cafe where I had started hours earlier. Minutes later, I emerged from the forest and back into the opposite end of the parking lot; many more cars had parked. Groups sat at picnic tables eating lunch, a few people strolled along the wall at the edge of the cliff, and a number of birdwatchers with binoculars had gathered at a lookout.
I wandered over to the edge and looked down at the Giant Stairs from high above for an entirely different perspective. Four turkey buzzards, their wingspans measuring a few feet, glided in circular formation just below the wall.
I wouldn't quite call this trail challenging, but it does take increased attention and some maneuvers over the rocks might be difficult for those who are unprepared. It is a good workout, but unfortunately you feel the real world lurching into your experience for most of the hike.
On a more positive note, this trail definitely embraces the "act of doing" with its easy and consistent views and low elevation - traversing the stairs is the clear goal here, not necessarily what you will see once you climb them. I'm glad I hiked the Giant Stairs as my 10th hike as I work toward 52 hikes (or more) for the year. However, I really prefer more secluded wilderness areas and I'm sure it will be a long while before I return to the Palisades.