Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Beacons and The Taurus: Hiking In The Hudson Highlands

Approaching the summit of South Beacon, the apex of the Hudson Highlands.

Though I had seen them before while crossing the I-84 bridge over the Hudson River enroute to New England, the first time I hiked in the Hudson Highlands was in 2005. I had a wonderful scramble up the laughably steep Breakneck Ridge, and looked in awe at nearby Storm King, resolving to hike it sometime too. On this same four day trip, I also made my first visits to the Gunks and the Catskills. As fate would have it, back home in Virginia, I soon started dating a wonderful woman who grew up in nearby Kingston and still had most of her family living in the region. So it is that I have been fortunate enough to visit this wonderful area again every Christmas since. Even so, though I did quite a few hikes in the Catskills, Gunks, and Taconics during those holiday visits, I didn’t make it back into the Highlands for Storm King and some other nearby peaks (Schunnemunk, Bear, and Sugarloaf) until 2011. And that’s when the Beacons and Scofield Ridge caught my eye with their rocky outcrops and the steep southeast slope of the latter dropping off abruptly.

This time, there was no six year wait to return to this special little part of the world. Only one year later, the Highlands were one of my priorities for the trip. And, in fact, they were the target of my first hike of the week. For mountains that struggle to top 1,500’ in elevation, and are solidly in the temperate, forested zone of Eastern America, they are surprisingly steep, rugged, and rocky. In fact, I would not be at all surprised to learn that there is more open rock in the Highlands than in all the Catskills which are well over twice their elevation and cover a much larger area. South Beacon, at 1,610’, is the highest and most prominent (1,240’) peak in the Hudson Highlands (slightly higher though slightly less prominent Schunnemunk Mountain nearby to the west is not technically part of the Highlands) and also has a firetower on it’s open summit. This all adds up to great views, or so I was hoping. I was not disappointed!

During the Revolutionary War, the American Militia kept a signal fire on the summit of slightly lower North Beacon as part of an early warning system against British attacks. This is the source of the name for the mountain, and the town at its base. Later, from 1902-1978, the west shoulder of North Beacon was also home to an incline railway that took tourists up to the Beaconcrest Hotel and Casino. The former went out of business and the latter two burned down, with ruins all that remain.

Remnants of the incline railway.
The railway was the steepest passenger funicular railway in the world while in operation, reaching a maximum grade of 74% (about 36 1/2°), so I thought it might make an interesting hike up the mountain. But when I got there, I found it was quite brushy and overgrown and decided it wasn’t worth the trouble, especially since a maintained trail went to the same place, albeit at a gentler grade. It didn’t take long to gain the 1,000’ and 1.3 miles to the former site of the hotel and casino. All that remains are the foundations, but there are several open views from the clifftop location that overlook the towns of Beacon, Newburgh, and the mile wide Hudson River below, as well as the surrounding Highlands. Continuing up the ridgeline, I soon reached the summit of North Beacon and it’s ugly farm of transmission towers and antennas. Ignoring the immediate surroundings and concentrating on looking outward, I found several more great views here and nearby that expanded the view to look far north up the Hudson Valley to include the Gunks and South Taconics. Had there not been some flurries in the air, the Catskills would have been in plain sight too. Actually, I think I could see Ashokan High Point and the faint outline of the higher peaks to its west.

A much zoomed-in and cropped view of the Manhattan skyline 45 miles away. (click on picture for larger view)
 I decided to leave South Beacon as the prize of the day, perhaps a mistake in hindsight, and pushed on to Scofield Ridge. Most of Scofield’s length is just across the Putnam County line, and there are four small closed contours there, all at the same 1,540’ elevation that are contenders for that county’s highest point. These are spread out over a distance of about ¾ of a mile and I made sure I touched the top of each one so I could therefore claim having bagged yet one more COHP. But beyond that, the ridge was most definitely worth hiking and was even better than I had expected, with several more great views and numerous ribs of exposed bedrock reminiscent of Schunnemunk Mountain. Perhaps the most intriguing scene was looking southward across the valley of Breakneck Brook and the continuing ridges of the Highlands to a section of the Hudson River continuing its journey to the sea and finally, 45 miles away, the skyline of Manhattan’s towering high-rises and skyscrapers that, ironically, seem more mysterious and forbidding to me than most of the mountain areas I frequent.

Fun on Scofield Ridge.
Much to my chagrin, I noticed that the snow in the air to the north and west had become heavier and closer, and was quickly reducing my views. I made a dash for South Beacon and took the direct trail up its rocky Northeast Ridge to the open summit of grass and rock, complete with a refurbished firetower. It was breathtakingly, eye-wateringly windy up here and I added some layers and battened down the outer shell before taking the last few steps into the open to revel in the still awesome views for as long as I could stand it while the snow blew around me and the wind buffeted me around. The Hudson, being barely above sea level, was the full elevation of the mountain below me and the now shrouded peaks of the rugged Highlands disappeared into the distance, though I could still see mighty Storm King across the river and several other peaks. And though I could still see the modest towns below me, I was completely alone on this great little mountaintop with nothing to suggest there was a metropolitan area of 19 million people just to the south.

Snow-veiled peaks of the Highlands from South Beacon.

The hike took a little longer than I anticipated and I had to be back in Kingston by 5 p.m. so I reluctantly realized I did not have time to do everything else I had hoped to do, which included going up Anthonys Nose as well as a repeat climb of Breakneck Ridge with a continuing loop over The Taurus. I decided I did have just enough time to do only The Taurus (a.k.a. Bull Hill) though. This peak had also caught my eye when I was on Storm King and it sounded like a great hike in its own right.

Storm King (left) and Breakneck Ridge (right) form the Gateway to the Hudson Highlands.
South down the Hudson.
After driving just a few miles farther south, just beyond the scrambling temptation of Breakneck Ridge, I parked and started up the Washburn Trail at as good a pace as I could maintain up its steep Southeast Ridge. There were a couple of good views lower down but after I got up above 1,200’ is when the views began to get great. The Taurus isn’t as open as some of the other peaks in the area, but it still has its share of outcroppings that allow views in most directions. By now, the blowing snow had stopped and I had wider visibility once again. From various overlooks on either side of the wooded 1,420’ summit there were scenes south down the Hudson to West Point and beyond, as well as north to the Beacons and Scofield Ridge. But the absolute best scene I found was when I missed a turn in the trail on the way down and followed a herd path to some outcrops with an awesome view of the “Gateway” to the Highlands, that being the rocky sentinels of Storm King and Breakneck Ridge with the Hudson flowing between them, probably the most iconic place here. Here the steep, bare rock buttresses of both peaks drop practically to the river’s edge and  present an almost fiord-like scene, especially when seen from upriver. Adding to that allusion was the huge barge that was just entering the gate, looking like a picture out of a tourism brochure for the Alaska Ferry cruising in the Inside Passage. Well, that may be just a bit of a stretch, but the similarities were there. Regardless, I can’t wait to get back and hike up The Timp, The Torne, Anthonys Nose, and all the other great places calling to me.

The route of The Beacons and Scofield Ridge hike. To see a larger map click here.

The route of The Taurus hike. to see a larger map click here.

Hike Stats:
The Beacons and Scofield Ridge: 8 miles, 2,380' cumulative elevation gain
The Taurus: 4.7 miles, 1,400' cumulative elevation gain

More pictures from these hikes 

The Beacons and Scofield Ridge gpx file and topo maps
The Taurus gpx file and topo maps 
SummitPost - Mount Beacon
NYNJTC - South Beacon and Scofield Ridge
Scenic Hudson - Mount Beacon - Scofield Ridge - The Taurus
NYNJTC - The Taurus

Trailhead coordinates:

The Beacons and Scofield Ridge: 41.4936,-73.96011
Google map for trailhead
Scan QR code to navigate to trailheads with Google Maps on your smartphone: 

The Taurus: 41.42657,-73.96553
Google map for trailhead
Scan QR code to navigate to trailheads with Google Maps on your smartphone:  

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