Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Hiking Harriman

Hiking flat boulder slabs on the Appalachian Trail in Harriman State Park
Some days ago, I decided I would pay Harriman State Park a visit. This park contains over 46,000 acres of wooded hiking trails, literally dozens of pristine lakes, stone shelters for overnight camping, and well, a schmoozy lodge if you're lookin' for that sort of thing. Several long distance trails pass through the heart of this park: the Appalachian Trail (2,175 miles), the Long Path (356 miles), and the Shawangunk Ridge Trail (71 miles). When I was on my thru-hike this was one of my most favorite sections, primarily for the open woods and for striding across the large flat boulder slabs just below the thin black soil supporting the grassy forest floor.

Heath Aster (Aster pilosus)
I parked at a small parking lot on Arden Valley Road off of Route 17 in New York, clearly marked by a large park service sign for Harriman State Park. I planned on a 26 mile round trip, with a night's stay at West Mountain Shelter. I pulled my trekking poles from the trunk, stashed my car keys, and hoisted my surprisingly weighted pack. While thru-hiking through here, I remembered being alarmed by how even the fast flowing Fitzgerald Falls just a little ways south had turned bone dry because it was late in the summer and a dry year at that. Well, it has been drier than dry ever since I returned home from my trek on the MST, so I made sure to be fully prepared for a possibly dry hike with 4 liters of water. The rest of my weight was food. You see, the beauty of going out for just an overnight, is that you can pack all kinds of delicious heavy foods you wouldn't dare bring on an extended hike: a can of dolmas saturated in olive oil, an instant meal of already hydrated saag paneer, a couple fresh peaches, aged cheddar cheese and sesame seed bagels. Already thinking about what I would eat first, I hopped on the AT going north, that being a slender corridor through a field of tall grasses and wildflowers, some of which can be seen above and below.

Goldenrod (Solidago spp.) - I am uncertain what species of Goldenrod, however if I had to take a guess, I would say Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) because of the cone-shaped flower arrangement rather than stems reaching like tree branches and how the bracts of each flower were non-spreading.
Speariment (Mentha spicata) 
Once past the field, the trail moved into shaded spacious woods and uphill over large rocks easy for stepping and skipping. Towering White Oaks (Quercus alba), Black Birch (Betula lenta), and the occasional smooth trunked American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) spread their branches wide, while Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis) shed shreds of its papery bark all over the forest floor. Both Black and Yellow Birch seedlings sprung abundantly from this floor and shared their space with clusters of Canada Mayflower (Maiathemum canadense).

Black Birch (Betula alleghaniensis) seedlings - these youngin's had some of the most wintergreen flavor I have ever tasted from a Black Birch
Canada Mayflower (Maianthemum  canadense)
Within less than a mile, I traveled into the land of the giant boulders and tall grasses. This is the landscape that I most associate with Harriman State Park. The trees lessen and it looks as if a wandering giant literally scattered a handful of rocks at his feet. These boulders sit amidst a sea of Hay Fern (Dennstaedtia) already rich with spores on their undersides. Island Pond can be seen in the distance from this higher elevation as well. This pond is a "glacially made pothole"
(nynjctbotany.org) and reaches 126 feet at its greatest depths.

Island Pond through the trees

The spores of Hay Fern (Dennstaedtia punctilobula)

Hiking another mile, I reached the infamous Lemon Squeezer. This is a jumble of boulders larger than houses that happen to have been pushed together just so thousands of years ago to create the perfect hiker's obstacle course. Don't try and get through here with a pack too wide, or else you may get wedged until these rocks are forced to shift again!

Entrance to the Lemon Squeezer
Clawing my way through the narrowest portion of the Lemon Squeezer
After shimmying, squeezing, and pushing my way through, I made my way further uphill and over more boulders however many of these lay flush with the soil, making for a lovely smooth hiking path. The sun was bright here with all these glacial rocks cutting through the thin soil leaving none for the trees to dig their roots into and therefore little shade.

The AT headed north toward Fingerboard Shelter over smooth rock slabs
This terrain persists past the Fingerboard Shelter and for a good couple miles past that, however eventually the boulders diminish leading the hiker through thicker woods full of more mixed hardwoods, White Pine (Pinus strobus), Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia) and enough Blueberry Bushes to feed not only a village but a village of Black Bear. I kept my eyes peeled as this would be perfect habitat for this fella, but saw only a few fearless White-tailed deer enjoying the greenery. If walking observantly, all along the trail one can also spy evidence of old mining operations. I have read that the Garfield Mine was located not far from this area, so perhaps these leftover caves and craters, as well as old roads, and rock heaps were a part of this particular iron-ore excavation.

Signs of the industry once in these hills - iron ore mining - do any of my historian friends want to chime in on what this may be?
Much to my pleasure, 7 miles in, I reached a trickling stream just before crossing Seven Lakes Drive. So, I was able to refill the liter and a half I'd already drank and take a little break. While walking upstream to make sure that this stream wasn't flowing straight out of a beaver dam, as its possible source looked awfully marshy, I stumbled upon the regal Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis).

Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis) - Streamside is this plant's most likely home and is often but just a blotch of red spotted from across the way until the curious hiker rock hops her way over for closer inspection. Notice this plant is a relative to Lobelia inflata, a plant that has been noted in recent posts.
With the pack again fully filled, I made my way up, up, up, over scree covered trail and up more happenstance rock steps and after some miles found myself walking the edge of this cliff with views of the Catskill Mountains in the distance as well as what would soon be my view for the night, a sure sign I wasn't far from my destination. The late afternoon sun shone bright, and although my pack was water laden, I was glad I'd had a chance to refill with temps in the high 80's and humidity hanging thick in the air.

Walking cliffside along the AT, with a view of the Hudson River in the distance.
But of course, why would the Appalachian Trail take you up, up, up and keep you there? No, this is not the nature of this particular path. It instead dropped me straight down to the Palisades Parkway. Yes, that's right...the hiker must hold her breath and dash across this high-speed thoroughfare to continue on her way north. Let me tell you, after spending an afternoon in the quiet of the woods, to be thrust onto this road is quite the sensory overload. These folks are headed to and from NYC just to give you an idea of the energy of this road. However, pretty cool to think that I could in theory just detour, pack and all, and be hiking the concrete jungle in merely a day and a half.

Crossing the Palisades Parkway, notice the sign "NYC 34 miles"
Once safely across, I had just one more mile to my destination and so back up I went, climbing my way towards West Mountain Shelter. The sun was now dipping low on the horizon and my toes were bruised from banging against the tips of shoes from all the ascents and descents. I was eager to get to camp...plus in the back of my mind I was thinking about that visitor center that I knew was just a half mile down the parkway that housed a vending machine full of ice cold soda that I had passed up due to the dwindling daylight. It was time for the day to be done.

En route to West Mountain Shelter with late day views of the Catskill Mountain Range

In my last mile however, I still noticed now ripe autumn berries of Partridge Berry (Mitchella repens) as well as the Violet (Viola spp.) leaves I now would pass up being that they are so late in the season. I also couldn't ignore the purple hue of the Sedge grasses, the yellowing of the Beech leaves and the strokes of deep red on the Blueberry bushes. Although the day had been hot, it would be a cool night atop the mountain with the coming of autumn just around the bend.

Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens)
Finally, I reached the top of the ridge and then turned off the AT to walk the last 0.6 miles of the day to West Mountain Shelter following a blue blazed trail. The trail rolled up and down, around boulders, and through the trees, until finally I glimpsed the roof of the shelter.

West Mountain Shelter - 0.6 miles off the AT but well worth the hike
West Mountain Shelter sits on an enormous slab and overlooks the Hudson River, the small town of Fort Montgomery, and the lights of New York City on the horizon. When I was last here I was with hiking partners at the time, a couple who went by the names of Moxie and Tecumseh (each 60+ years old), and a couple from France that happened to be spending the night there. I remember well the man telling me about his European hiking adventures to places I can't even remember the names because their names had no place to stick in my head when he told me them. However I remember listening to him speak of these beautiful far away places, while also being in the comfort of friends and watching the tiny boats push their way across the water below leaving blurred streaks of white froth behind them, and later that night all the lights of the city twinkling in the distance. It felt like magic, the coming together of these people, their stories, our surroundings.

Night time view from West Mountain Shelter with the moon high in the sky
However, on this night, I had the shelter all to myself and I had hoped that I would. I wanted to have the opportunity to soak up this place, this time, in absolute solitude. And that I did. I ate dinner with the setting sun and simply sat and watched the skies turned pink, then purple, and finally deep blue and the lights began flicker and shine in the blackness. The moon rose high and I headed to my tent that I set up in the grass to the edge of the shelter. Unfortunately, this shelter has aged in the 7 years since I last saw it. It was littered with trash and the slats in the floor were broken and rotted. Ah well. The view was the same and the magic was certainly still here. I drifted off to sleep that night to the sounds of a far off owl, a singing whippoorwill, and a symphony of cicadas humming, crickets chirping, with the low hum of the Palisades Parkway below.


The view from West Mountain Shelter

I awoke at sunrise and upon exiting my tent, was greeted by a buck in velvet, as shocked to see me as I was too see him. I had coffee and a bagel and gazed at the clouds slowly lifting from the water below and the sky brightening and then began my 13 miles back to Arden Valley Road. I was back to my car by noon. I had began my trip the day before at noon as well, I'd say that was a splendid 24 hour escape.




























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