I encountered scattered snow flakes and temperatures in the 40's during my hike last week at Sterling Ridge and then found myself removing layers under the hot sun, with temperatures tiptoeing toward 80 degrees on this week's hike of Mount Beacon. It is perplexing to the senses. Although I have recently grown quite accustomed to winter hiking over the past few months, I happily welcomed this gorgeous day.
Beacon, NY is actually named for the imposing mountain which looms over the city. During the Revolutionary War, the mountain (along with others up and down the Hudson River) was home to signal fires of American militiamen. In the late 1800’s, the Beaconcrest Hotel & Casino was built at the summit and could be accessed by the Mount Beacon Incline Railway until 1975; remnants of the railway are still intact and can be viewed at the beginning of the hike.
I pulled into the car lot at Mount Beacon Park on the edge of town at about 9:00 AM on the most ideal hiking day so far this year. At this early hour, the temperatures were already in the mid-60's, a refreshing breeze clipped the air, and the sun shone brightly in the crisp, blue marble sky. The mountain dominated the horizon and a wide trail led upward ahead of me.
I grabbed my gear and started moving. Within moments, I came to the rusted skeleton of the former railway and traced its route up into the mountainside where it abruptly ended a few hundred yards away amidst the trees. An immense metal staircase has been erected alongside the old railway to take hikers the couple of hundred feet up Mount Beacon to the true trailhead.
Even before I began following the red blazes of the Casino Trail, simply turning around at the top of the stairs treated me to a lovely, but obstructed, view of the city of Beacon below. The trail immediately begins to ascend along rocky, strenuous switchbacks, the view partially visible through the trees the entire climb. The rise above the tree line occurred sooner than I imagined and minutes later I arrived at the decrepit ruins of a small building. Through one crumbled wall, rusted machinery that once powered the rail cars is still present.
Just past this dilapidated structure on North Beacon Mountain, I came to one of the most magnificent views that I have ever seen. Although I have gotten different vantage points of Beacon during previous hikes, none were ever as sweeping as this one. A view of Breakneck Ridge and Hudson Highlands State Park opened to the south and a picturesque view of Beacon opened to the northwest. The silhouette of the Shawangunk Mountains was visible on the distant horizon. The Hudson River could be followed from Storm King Mountain to the south and as far the eye could see to the north. The sky above, decorated with strokes and blotches of clouds, was vibrant. I briefly wondered if anything else on this hike would rival this sight.
The Casino Trail led me back into the forest and ascended further up the mountain. I removed my coat and continued moving along the trail with just a t-shirt. The temperature had begun rising to an even more comfortable temperature and I was struck with a very strong sense of satisfaction, ease, and relaxation. Leaves had started to sprout on some of the trees on either side of me and eventually, after a brief rock scramble, I came across a small area where several small cairns had been assembled by previous hikers. I picked up a stone from the ground and added it to the top of one of the towers before carrying on.
Further ahead, I came to the familiar white blazes of the Breakneck Ridge Trail and took a brief deviation to visit the summit of South Beacon Mountain. Breaking off the trail to the right, I climbed up nearly vertical rock slabs before arriving at the foot of the fire tower perched atop the mountain. Here, the wind whipped around violently, bending the rich green pitch pines that were sprinkled along the mountaintop. An obstructed view of Beacon was again visible from yet another vantage point. However, the vast, panoramic view of the countless surrounding mountain ranges was simply breathtaking.
I took another break here for more pictures and took this opportunity for some deep breathing and meditation. Although I considered climbing to the top of the observation tower, I found the wind to be a bit too strong for my taste and only traveled about halfway up before planting my feet back on solid rock. As I have mentioned in previous stories, I don't always trust man-made structures and the views from the mountaintop were amazing enough for me.
I briefly returned to the Breakneck Ridge Trail before moving onto the yellow-blazed Wilkinson Memorial Trail. The yellow blazes moved deeper into the forest and the trail ascended and descended a few times, providing a number of partial views of Scofield Ridge and Fishkill Ridge. At one point, as I climbed atop a large outcrop, I found that I was able to trace the ascent to South Beacon Mountain very clearly to my left and could see Beacon Reservoir in the distance ahead. The reservoir was such a deep shade of blue that it contrasted sharply with the pitch pines among the many (still) leafless trees of the surrounding woods.
Later on, as I continued to follow yellow blazes, I stopped for a moment to remove my pack and take a sip of water. I lingered for a few minutes and took my phone from my pocket to check for any messages. Looking up, I spotted an unusual looking bird gliding toward me just off the edge of the cliff. I am accustomed to hawks or turkey buzzards circling the skies, however, as the bird came closer, I could make out its white head and dark body. It was moving in what felt like slow motion as it passed me on my right; it was a bald eagle. Although I had made that some bald eagles called this region home, I had never seen one before. I fumbled to remove my camera from my pocket, but I was only able to snap a blurry shot of the majestic creature as it dove and disappeared behind a wall of trees.
A quick trip along a blue-blazed connector trail would lead me to the white-blazed Overlook Trail on the way back to my car. The highlight of the connector trail turned out to be an abandoned bulldozer from which the trail's intersection gets its name, Dozer Junction. Once I began following the white blazes and started to take in more views of Beacon and Beacon Mountain, I came to the realization that I had been on this same trail recently.
Back in January, while hiking Fishkill Ridge, I ended my hike by climbing up the face of the mountain through almost 2-feet of snow to arrive on the Overlook Trail. This time, I was approaching from the opposite direction, heading down the mountain. I was struck by the differences between the seasons and was excited to look back into my gallery to compare the shots.
The landscape was bleak and frigid during my last visit. However, now the cold hues had been replaced by bright green trees and moss with the hot sun beaming down. The trip down the mountain, although rocky and sometimes precipitous, was far easier this time around as I had to blindly slide down through the snow back in January.
I hiked along Dry Brook, the lushest and liveliest portion of the hike so far, surrounded by vivid green moss, the rushing water of the brook, and bold viridescent weeds and flowers sprouting up out of the ground. A few waterfalls worked down cliffs and into tributaries leading to the brook which required some rock hopping to traverse. Unfortunately, before arriving at Dry Brook Falls, which I had found completely frozen over back in January, I had to cut to my left for one last gradual ascent to follow yellow blazes back up the mountain to the top of the staircase I had originally climbed hours before.
Standing back at the top of the stairs, I looked through the trees at the city of Beacon below. This week, when planning my hike, I had made a last-minute change in plans and decided to come to Mount Beacon instead of my destination, the Shawangunk Loop. Whatever I may have found on the Shawangunk Loop, I am confident that it would not have compared to this near-perfect hike, on a nearly perfect day, of Mount Beacon.
From the level of difficulty and the ideal weather to the many marvelous vistas and the sheer beauty of the forest, I could not have asked for a better hike. Plus, I even wound up with a nice tan. Recently, I have been very fortunate and so taking some time to contemplate and appreciate my situation under such perfect circumstances had me repeating the mantra, "life is good", over and over again. Mount Beacon has certainly not seen the last of me and has been added near the top of my list of favorites, reaffirming that the Hudson Highlands region has some of the most interesting hikes in my area.