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Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Hiking Bear Mountain - Highlands, New York

It was still peak foliage in the northern/central regions of New England and we only had a day to spend in the woods.  Saturday was filled with pumpkin carving and Adams nephew's birthday party (and my first time to Stew Leonards, still not sure how I feel about).  So with the weekend commitment of Saturday around Connecticut, Sunday had its limitations.  The plan was kind of a "no plan" plan....sleep in and in the morning, find a hike within a 1-2 hour radius with prime foliage and awesome views.

Bear Mountain was a state park Adam kept referring to just over the border in New York.  He had never been but knew it received high marks as far as viewpoints and accessibility went.  We had been toying around with the idea of the Catskills but ended up opting for Bear Mountain, a supposedly scenic hike closer than the Catskills, located just an hour from Adam's house in Norwalk, Connecticut.

Before I get into any sort of trail description, we need to talk about this location.  Well, we need to talk about allt he things I did not take into consideration when selecting a hike.

1)  It was Columbus Day weekend during peak foliage.  A lot of people were off for the three day weekend and spending it outside.

2)  It was a beautiful fall day, like climbing-to-70-degrees-not-a-cloud-in-the-sky kind of beautiful day.

3)  Bear Mountain is only 55-miles north of New York City, making it an easy escape for city-goers who need to leave the concrete jungle in search of fall foliage (if you've ever hiked Mount Monadnock just outside of Boston, it's just like that).

4)  It is one of those "you can drive to the summit" mountains so it will be very crowded from top to bottom.

So if you take points 1, 2, 3 and 4 into the equation, what you get is a very, very busy mountain.  And a really upset Katie.  If you need to know one big important thing about me, it's that I hate crowds of people in general.  I head to the trails to get away from the crowds and the masses, I like to spend time in the woods with someone I love at a pace and conversation of my choosing.  I aptly called this first half of this hike "The Highway to Hell".  

If you too are like that (not a crowd goer, need solitude) you need to avoid Bear Mountain, especially if situations 1, 2, 3 and 4 are happening when you head to hike.

I know this sounds dramatic, but hiking in hoards just about ruined the hike for me.  It wasn't like being in the Whites, on a trail that can get crowded but with people who are avid hikers.  Instead, I was on edge and irritated, surrounded by screaming humans who have never been on a hiking trail before, who do not understand trail etiquette, who drop their garbage right on the trail and when tired, stop to take a break smack dab in the middle.

This would be a great hike mid-week when everyone's at work, but on a sunny prime foliage holiday weekend, it was chaos.

When we arrived around 10am, there was a line to get into the tollbooth ($10 per car) and into the park.  When we left around 1, traffic was backed up down the road for entrance to get into the park.  We were already there and the plans were set in motion so we bit the bullet, grabbed the dogs and headed for the white blazes of the Appalachian Trail.

About Bear Mountain 

Bear Mountain State Park sort of has everything.  The Appalachian Trail travels through the State Park and hiking trails and an auto road climb to the summit, all while offering stunning views of the Hudson River below.

Besides hiking/biking/cross-country skiing trails, the park itself has a large playfield, outdoor rink, shaded picnic areas, lake and river fishing access with boat rentals, a swimming pool, and a  Trailside Museums and Zoo The Perkins Memorial Tower atop Bear Mountain (with an auto road to get there is open from April through late November, weather permitting.  There is a large inn, the Bear Mountain Inn with a restaurant, lodging, and a spa.  

While all that sounds nice, and makes this an impressive state park, I was just here for the trails. 

Need to Know

Trail:  We decided to do the Perkins Memorial tower loop, following the Appalachian Trail (white blazes) to the Perkins Summit area and back down the Major Welch Trail (blazed red/white) past the lake and back to where we started.  We took a little detour at the summit, following the blue spur over to the AT which connects with the Major Welch trail. I recommend doing the loop clockwise (AT to Major Welch) as the Major Welch hike is STEEP.  The AT was an easier hike up but was much more crowded.  Although Major Welch was a steep trip down the mountain, we enjoyed having less people on the trails on our way down.  Trail map linked and the loop highlighted in blue below. 

Trailhead:  At the entrance of Bear Mountain State Park (3020 Seven Lakes Drive, Tomkins Cove, NY 10986).  Park in the parking area (Lot 1) and head to the back corner of the property, across the field.  You will see a bathroom and a sign marking the start of the trail (AT, white blazes).

Distance: 4.33-mile loop

Elevation gained: 1,258 feet

Dog-Friendly: Yes! On-leash

Fee:  $10 per car to enter the park

And we were off, following the white-blazed Appalachian Trail as it made its way through the park.  We also followed mobs of people, taking up the trail and impossible to pass as we made the slow (slow, slow, slow) ascent up Bear Mountain.  Let me be honest, I struggled with this.  

I really struggled with the thing I loved, the quiet in the woods being replaced with so many people who were seven sorts of disrespectful and chaotic.  At some points I could not help myself and told a few people what I thought of their music playing, space-taking, and littering ways.  But that's what I get for picking a hike like this on a weekend like that.  Patience is not my strong point and it was a challenge to try to ignore the humans who seemed like they had never been hiking in their life. 

After we reached the tower and the summit, crowds started to thin out and I instantly felt myself relaxing.  We made our way through the trail, with moments of actual solitude and quiet in the woods, surrounded by the mid-October foliage in the New York Hudson Highlands.  My nerves started to cool as we made our way off the mountain and down less busy trails. 

We made our way down the red and white (Major Welch) trail, forming the loop that would take us down the mountain and past Hessian Lake, back to the trailhead where we started.  We were surprised to see just how steep this trail was and probably why it was much quieter than the AT going up. 

We finished up our hike, following the trail along Hessian Lake, watching paddle boaters enjoying the fall day as we made our way to the car.  My mood was still a little sour as we navigated the busy parking lot, made our way down the speeding road, and drove along angry New Yorkers in a rush to get who knows where.

We had one more stop on our New York journey which was quickly turning into a "get me the hell out of New York" journey.  I had read about the Popolopen Creek Suspension Footbridge, just a pretty little bridge crossing the creek, and dragged Adam and the dogs to see the bridge. 

The Popolopen Creek Suspension Footbridge can be accessed via a short trail directly behind the Fort Montgomery Site and lucky for us, it was virtually empty.  There is a parking area on the right, a little bit past the Fort Montgomery site itself where you can park and walk down the road back to the Site. Behind the visitor's center, you will see a path down the hillside where you can walk over the bridge. If you continue down the path, you will eventually find yourself at the Trailside Zoo.  We made this a quick trip, a walk over the bridge and a photo op before tracing our steps back to the car and back to Connecticut state lines.

Bear Mountain, you were pretty and I love a chance to walk on the AT in a new state but man the crowds got me.  If you are going to visit, I highly recommend going in the week when city folk and weekend warriors are at work.  If you do go on the weekend in the summer or fall months, be prepared for a whole lot of people.

I hate to complain about crowded trails as it's always a win when people are outside enjoying our public spaces and state parks, but here's the difference: you need to understand hiking etiquette,  follow leave no trace principles and understand some hiking 101 standards to protect our public spaces and ensure the enjoyment of not just yourself, but those around you.  If you are a new hiker or just need a refresher, please take a minute to read my tips for the trail hiking etiquette post.

Not every hike is beautiful vistas and solitude, sprinkled in with moments of "I am so happy" "lucky me".  Some hikes are reminders and lessons learned.  This one reminded me that seasons, holidays, weekends and proximity to cities are important factors to take into consideration when planning a hike.

Happy Hiking,
Hope it isn't too busy,

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