Growing up in the Hudson Highlands, for me, has been a gift. There’s something about those peaks plunging down to the mighty Hudson River. I have enjoyed trips to far off places, but there is nothing quite like coming home. Not too big, not too small and never short on adventure, they always deliver.
Freebird grew up here and knows this place too. He was on a brief visit from his home in the North Country so, with good weather and a full moon, we decided to go on a mission. The plan was straightforward. Paddle across the Hudson from Cold Spring, climb Storm King Mountain, paddle across again and climb Breakneck Ridge, then paddle back. With two climbs and two crossings we decided to nickname it the Double Double.
It was Columbus-now-Indigenous-Peoples-Day and we weren’t sure exactly what all of that meant, let alone how to celebrate it. Maybe with our adventure we could somehow pay homage to both. With that in mind, around midday, we were off to Little Stony Point in Cold Spring to launch from Sandy Beach. With the holiday, it seemed everyone was up for an adventure. Lucky for us, we snagged one of the last parking spots. We watched the parade starting the march up Bull Hill as we pumped up our inflatable paddle boards. We turned away from the crowd and made the quick walk to the beach with no one around.
We triple checked everything. Boards, paddles, PFDs, whistles, lights, phones with back-up batteries, food, water and filters, extra clothes and dry bags, check. How about checking a tide chart? Nope. “We’ll figure it out.”
Everything changed when we got out on the water. The force of the river and the size of the mountains were now a sobering reality. Conditions were calm and after negotiating the wakes from a few passing boats, we made a break for the other side. It turned out the tide was high and in our favor so we lucked out, making it across nice and easy.
Laying down on the boards, we had just enough room to pass under the bridge of the railroad causeway to gain access to a large cove. Just south of the imposing Storm King buttress, the area now above us between Crow’s Nest and Butter Hill is known as the Clove. Some old texts refer to it as the Valley of Hope. It is here that history tells the tale of native artifacts, Revolutionary War settlements, abandoned farms with a cemetery, old mines and Civilian Conservation Corps camps.
Most recently and notably, it is where the fight against a proposed hydro-electric plant by Con Edison started in 1962. Scenic Hudson was then born by local activists and in a landmark decision gave legal standing to environmentalists to bring action against the federal government. Fortunately for us, the work to preserve these open spaces continues today.
We switched to hike mode and started the uphill bushwhack following the stream up into the Clove. We soon found a tunnel that passes under the road of the scenic Storm King Highway. We dug out our headlamps and Freebird discovered that his was dead. Uh-oh, no charging cable either. I went in with mine and soon realized we were not passing through without a tight squeeze and wet feet. No tunnel for us. We decided to go up and over and keep moving.
We made our way up through the woods cross-country and found a blazed trail leading towards our goal. We put our heads down and went to work. Payday came when we arrived on the rocky summit at over 1,300 feet. We were rewarded with incredible views, first to the south where we started and then to the north.
The river stretches far below. On the other side, Breakneck Ridge forms the Wind Gate with Mount Beacon beckoning beyond. Looking over the great Newburgh Bay you can see the Shawangunks and the Catskills in the distance with a ribbon of river trailing off towards the North Country.
From this vantage point you can easily imagine the first explorers sailing up river discovering the New World. Here, Juet’s Journal entry from 1609 aboard Henry Hudson’s Half Moon is clearly understood.
This is a very pleasant place to build a Towne on. The Road is very neere, and very good for all winds, saue an East North-east wind. The Mountaynes looke as if some Metall or Minerall were in them. For the Trees that grow on them were all blasted, and some of them barren with few or no Trees on them.
Unfortunately, the journal also describes the brutal killings of native people, who were called savages. Their home for thousands of years was about to change. A harsh reminder that the history of humanity is often bloody and cruel.
We lingered on the summit for a bit, taking it all in. Then made a circuit of the crowd free trails and bushwhacked back down to the cove. I found an extra flashlight in my dry bag for Freebird, which was good. The cove that was previously flooded from the tide was now a muddy flat. Not good. We shwacked out on a peninsula to find a trickle large enough to float the boards. After some frustrating mud paddling we made it out back under the bridge just in time to watch a passing freight train. We signaled with a fist and pumping arm and the engineer signaled back. No matter how old you are, the sound of a train horn never fails to make you feel like a kid, when you get them to blow it.
We then turned our attention towards Breakneck in the alpenglow on the other side of the mighty river and paddled out into the deep.
With great effort we battled the strong current disguised by placid water. Adrift in solitude we marveled at the beauty of the setting sun and the power of geological time. The Hudson Fjord holds tremendous energy. A half mile wide between one thousand foot walls of rocks over a billion years old, we tried to soak it all in, but this was no place for hanging out. A complete absence of boat traffic added to the feeling of being alone. We continued the effort towards our destination, scoping our line along the way.
We landed on the rocky shore with a plan to take a direct line. We took in the last rays of the day and stashed our paddling gear. Scrambling around on the rocks we looked for a way to get over the tunnels to the hiking trail. With no herd path to be found and no climbing gear for protection we opted for a thrash through the bush.
The thicket read like a list of Who’s Who of non-native invasive plants. Knotweed, mugwort, tree-of-heaven, wineberry, winter creeper and bittersweet were all vying for the top spot. At one point I was not even touching the ground. Freebird improvised with trekking poles as anchors. It was only maybe 50 feet but it proved to be the toughest part of the day and a frustrating reminder that the newcomers did not just bring themselves.
It was now dark and we found our way to the graffitied trail with years of broken beer bottles sparkling in our lights. We were now at the start of one of the most hiked trails in the country. It is one of our most hiked trails too. Years of experience did little to prepare ourselves when we read the new warning sign.
This is Not Just a Walk in the Park. You are about to ascend 1,250 feet in only 3/4 of a mile.
“Woah, it’s about to get real. Let’s do this.” We marched up the well worn path and were careful on the exposed sections. Hand over hand we made it to the memorial flag at the first summit in time to watch the full moon rise.
We continued on to the remaining false summits and said hello to a couple of other parties who were enjoying the moonrise too. Although this area is known for crowds, they were the first people we had seen since we waived to the engineer driving the freight train. We pressed on and soon came the bailout trail leading back down. The true summit of Breakneck Ridge laid above and beyond. Freebird was brief in the decision. “It’s the Double Double, not the Double One and Three Quarters.”
The light of the moon lit up the woods to the tippy top. We hiked back around through the remains of the old Cornish Estate talking about misadventures of the area over the years along the way. We made it back to the road and ran through the auto tunnel. With no clear route to be found, we thrashed our way back through the thicket. Great, now the tide was back up covering the rocks to get to the boards. It was a swim or monkey crawl. We picked crawl with some wild grape vines providing a lifeline.
Exhausted, we were happy to find our gear had not floated down to West Point. We jumped back on the boards and back out into the big deep. The full moon was now directly above us illuminating the way. We hugged the shoreline back to the beach. There was no traffic around so we felt safe enough to turn off the lights for a bit. Floating along my mind drifted with the river.
With no signs of civilization it was easy to imagine what it was like for the first people and the early explorers. There are still places in the world where the wild shines through. Sometimes you can discover them in your own backyard.