Taking A Hike: Relishing hardship, starkness of Fahnestock State Park
When I look back at the hikes I have taken for this column, a good many have unfolded beneath sunny skies. Not all; there was the snowy ascent of Mount Everett, a drenching on the Ives Trail, and an ice-blasted visit to a New Hampshire summit. But does this prevalence of skies of blue make me a fair-weather hiker? Well, yes it does, to a degree. When most of your hiking is day-hiking, and you have flexibility about when to hit the trail, who but a fool wouldn’t pick the finest day in the forecast?
Late last month my flexibility was all dried up. It was hike on Sunday or don’t hike at all. Sunday was set to be overcast and showery. Now, some landscapes do overcast quite well, at least in certain seasons (try a green, summer glen in Scotland). But March around here needs the sun to bring out some cheer from its grays and browns. So, driving to the westernmost edge of Fahnestock State Park, windshield wipers busy, I looked forward to the satisfactions of hardship and a stark landscape, not the joys of brightly lit beauty.
At first, School Mountain Road trail was much as I expected; that is to say, muddy, with areas of leftover snow that did not slow me down. But beyond the first brook — bridge out, cross carefully on the collapsed steel plates and girders — the trail stretched away, straight and fully coated. This snow, a legacy of our nor’easter two weeks before, did slow me; not with honest resistance, but by stealing a pittance of traction from each step, like being robbed penny by penny. After a mile, I turned onto East Mountain Loop trail, and here, on a south-facing slope, walked gratefully on leaf litter.
The trail climbed 600 feet to East Mountain, which offered glimpses of views, obscured by timber. But views of what? I believe I was looking into the gap between Bull Hill and Breakneck Ridge. If I am right, that distant mist was rising from the Hudson River and half-hiding Storm King Mountain five miles away on the Hudson’s western bank.
On the north side of East Mountain snow lay calf-deep on the trail, crisscrossed with deer tracks but no human prints. I must have been the first of my species on this side of the mountain since the blizzard. I followed some long-gone whitetails back down into the valley. On the far side of the valley ran a ridge, wooded of course. My map showed three summits along it. The highest, according to the map contour lines, topped out at 1,200 feet; but this point was unnamed. At the far end of the ridge stood the only named top — Round Hill. Round Hill was now my destination.
I started from a ruined farmhouse in the valley bottom, and climbed with the Perkins trail, meeting a foaming brook cascading through boulders and disorderly forest debris. The snow deepened again, and by the time I turned onto the blue-blazed Fahnestock trail to follow the ridge, my energy was draining away. A rest, leaning against a fallen trunk, and a few calories stolen from my lunch, provided impetus to reach the first summit — a flat, viewless spot distinguished only by the fact that no higher land appeared to lie anywhere around it.
When I started my hike, I planned to climb Round Hill first, hiking the loop counterclockwise. Keen to get cracking after negotiating the collapsed bridge, I had missed a turn and found myself trudging along School Mountain Road instead. Now I was very glad to have saved Round Hill until last. Coming off the nameless summit, big views opened up, all bare trunks sticking out of big, white slopes – Round Hill itself, Bull Hill, and the canyon walls of Storm King Mountain. I am sure this would all have been spectacular under a cloudless sky, but it wasn’t at all bad in March gray either.
(Photos from my hike can be found at “McWilliams Takes a Hike” on Facebook.)
Half an hour later, I was on Round Hill, where the snow had retreated into patches. I found some dry brown grass and sat among cedars for lunch. I was looking at my sandwich when movement on the edge of my vision made me look up. It was a turkey vulture, soaring above the steep valley of Clove Creek. But then, closer, in front of me, another bird flapped into the same skies, and it had the unmistakable white and yellow head of a bald eagle.
The west side of Round Hill, treeless in places, yielded the day’s best views. It was the same basic panorama toward and over the Hudson, but from here it was bigger, grander, unobstructed. And it suggested a new hike. I added Bull Hill’s 1,420-foot summit to my hiking to do list. Some sunny day.
Rob McWilliams is a local resident. Taking a Hike appears monthly. Contact Rob at “McWilliams Takes a Hike”, blog and Facebook. He’d love to hear from you.
IF YOU GO …
Hubbard Lodge, Philipstown NY (41.444478, -73.914883).
I was out for 4¾ hours.
NYNJTC East Hudson Trails, Map 103.
School Mountain Rd, East Mountain Loop, Perkins, and Fahnestock trails in a clockwise loop.
WHAT TO TAKE
Food and water; sturdy, non-slip footwear. Dogs permitted on a leash.