Pearl had invited us to join a hike on Bear Mountain, organized by her friend, Richard. Bear Mountain State Park is apparently a very popular weekend getaway, located at the intersection of Route 9W and the Palisades Parkway, and nestled in mountains rising from the west bank of the Hudson River. But I don't believe it has gained reputation as a prominent hiking spot. We planned to meet the group at Bear Mountain Inn within the State Park. DH and I picked up sandwiches, green tea, fruit and snacks (Pearl said they had already bought lunch, but of course, you can never have too much food) and drove 2 hours to the rendezvous.
The others had met at Queens (I think; despite living in NJ, I am a NY-illiterate; all the boroughs sound the same to me!) and had driven down to the trailhead. They had arrived at 11 and were waiting for us, the latecomers. Pearl introduced us to Richard and Sharon, Sharon's father, Winnie and Chung. There were a few drop-outs, so the original group of 11 had shrunk to 8. We felt very safe when Richard, our leader, weighed down by a massive backpack, assured us that he had packed his radio, sleeping bag, binoculars, provisions and emergency supplies. Winnie was dressed for a snowstorm, in multiple layers. Pearl, as usual, had her sleek and elegant backpack. DH and I carried one backpack between us, loaded with food and drink. If we were lost, we would definitely not go hungry! And of course, DH carried his precious binoculars (he does not travel anywhere without them these days).
The historic Bear Mountain Inn (built in 1915) was closed, but the park was crowded. There was a large play field, shaded picnic groves and an outdoor ice skating rink. Oktoberfest was in full-swing by the lakeside, with music, food, beer and vendors hawking painted pumpkins, puppets, books, clothes, jewelry, home-made jam, jelly and fudge.
We could not get a trail map, so we decided to take the paved path on the south side of Bear Mountain Inn. We started at 1 pm, and soon reached a junction of paved paths, marked by a trail sign. Here, we turned right and followed the red-dot-on-white-blazed Major Welch Trail (which I later learned was named after the park's first General Manager, who was instrumental in creating the extensive hiking trail system in Harriman-Bear Mountain Parks). The trail is a 4-mile loop, ending at the same place where we started. We went along a relatively level path, passing several people on the trail.
After about half a mile, the trail bore left and began a relatively steep and narrow ascent. At this point, Winnie and Chung decided to drop out and head back for the parking lot. We persevered, chatting companionably (discussing plans to go skiing in winter and camping in summer) and munching on dried papaya slices. Soon the ascent steepened even more, with the trail following a rocky footpath through mountain vegetation, climbing a vertical distance of about 500 feet in little more than a quarter of a mile. We had to use our hands in some places. Conversation slowed down, as we concentrated on the climb. The total elevation gain of the hike was a little more than 1000 feet. There were much fewer people now. We noticed that Sharon's father was climbing stronger and faster than the rest of us, and not even breathing hard.
As we stopped for sandwiches and fruit, a family with 2 boys (about 3 and 5) bounded past us, climbing energetically. Motivated, we resumed climbing, soon spotting the Palisades Interstate Parkway through the trees. The trail emerged onto a rock outcrop with a panoramic north-facing view over the Hudson River and the Hessian Lake. Imagining this to be the summit, we posed for pictures and soon began what we assumed was the descent. We realized soon that the trail was continuing its ascent, but Richard assured us we were on course. Soon, we reached Perkins Drive, which led to the top of Bear Mountain. We followed the trail along the road for about 50 feet, then continued to climb through mountain laurel.
The trail soon reached the actual summit - the flat peak of Bear Mountain. After crossing a gravel service road, the trail joined a paved road and we followed it to the Perkins Memorial Tower at the top of Bear Mountain. (Richard's notes indicated that the tower was built in honor of George W. Perkins, the first President of the Palisades Interstate Park Commission). Another piece of trivia I just picked up: Bear Mountain was so-named because the profile of the mountain resembles a bear lying down. The tower's inner walls contained informative exhibits. The area was presumably preserved in the early 1900s as development along the river began to destroy much of the area's natural beauty. We climbed the tower, then spent some time at the view point, basking in the sun and snacking on chips. There was a huge crowd here, mostly people who had driven up to see the tower. Among other things, we saw a cozily-bundled baby, snoozing in the sun and a cocker spaniel dressed for the outdoors, in 2 pairs of well-fitted black shoes.
After enjoying the view of the Hudson River and taking a break, we headed back to the tower, but bore right at a fork in the path. Here, the Appalachian Trail, marked by a white vertical rectangle, joined. After wandering off-course for a bit, we continued along the white-blazed Appalachian Trail. About half a mile from the summit, the trail followed the paved road for a while, then descended into the woods again. The trail began to descend more steeply now, down a path, less-defined due to erosion and overuse; and despite wearing hiking shoes, I slipped and lurched along in a few places.
In another half a mile, the yellow-blazed Suffern-Bear Mountain Trail joined from the right, and both trails followed the same path. We followed the white and yellow blazes along the road, which passed the Bear Mountain ice-skating rink below and descended to the trail junction behind Bear Mountain Inn, where Chung met us, yawning and rubbing sleep from his eyes. It was 4:45 pm. We had enjoyed and exhausted ourselves thoroughly (with the exception of Sharon's father, who looked as perky as he did at the beginning), and were longing for hot cocoa and a hot tub. We had covered the 4-mile trail in a little less than 4 hours, breaks included.
We parted at the parking lot, hoping to meet again soon and grateful to Richard for organizing the beautiful hike and for being our fearless leader.
DH and I decided to explore Oktoberfest. It was getting a little chilly as we wandered past the stalls, sampling fudge, buying books and eating warm chilli. And as usual on the drive back, I slept while DH drove.
On another note: Pearl, welcome to the world of running. I am amazed. 6 miles on your first run...that's pure talent!