Bear Mountain: More Than a Trail; a Gathering Place

By Caitlyn Ball, AmeriCorps member of the Bear Mountain Crew

Bear Mountain Field

Bear Mountain offers more than just great hiking trails. (Credit: Caitlyn Ball)

Every section of the Appalachian Trail is unique. The approximately 2,180-mile trail extends from Georgia’s Springer Mountain to Mt. Katahdin in Maine. It brings its determined hikers across rolling hills, meadows and towns, up jagged rocky slopes and high majestic peaks, over boulder fields and bug-infested regions, and through state parks and thunder, hail, and snow storms. On Oct. 7, 1923, the first section of the trail, from Bear Mountain west through Harriman State Park to Arden, N.Y., was opened. Since its completion in 1937, the AT has experienced re-routes due to varying factors, erosion being one of the most prevalent. The trail section at Bear Mountain is currently in the process of its eighth relocation. As a member of the Trail Conference crew working on this project, I thought this number to be astounding.

I was also surprised by the specs of the job – the grade percentage of the slope, width and height of the stairs implemented, and depth of the surfacing we are putting down – compared to that of back-country trail work. But when I took a break from the job itself and made a leisurely evening visit to the park last Saturday, it all made sense.

Bear Mountain is much more than an option for hiking; it is a gathering place. The park hosts over 3 million visitors a year. THREE MILLION!! The mountain serves as a backdrop to a large, lush grassy field surrounded by spots to barbeque with charcoal grills. The park headquarters is to the left, and the beautiful Bear Mountain Inn flanks its right side. A carousel is nestled in the rear left corner of the field, which kiddies (and adults) can ride for a dollar. Beyond the inn you’ll find the picturesque Hessian Lake hosting canoers, paddle-boaters, and possibly a fisherman’s line. Done? Hardly. There’s also a pavilion/concession area which stages numerous events (think Oktoberfest), and across the road are more options for picnicking, volleyball, and, oh yeah, a zoo and Olympic-size swimming pool.

I was floored by the number of smiling people so contentedly enjoying one another’s company on a warm summer evening. The ethnicity of the crowd romping around the field was as diverse as the games being played – from soccer to badminton to Frisbee and catch – and the eclectic music leaking out of the individual gatherings. As I made my way toward the trailheads, I noticed couples holding hands. I strolled the paved path lined by tart wine berries and swung my head to follow the high-speed descent of a practiced skateboarder.

The Major Welch Trail was an excellent choice for this time of day. The deer munching on their dinner seemed to be enjoying the ridgeline that followed the setting sun just as much as I was. I met a young man who’d recently come to Bear Mountain as a respite from the harried bustle of NYC and was ecstatic to have company until reunited with his friends at the top. People of all ages were taking pictures, reading books, stretching limbs, and heartily laughing in the sun’s evening glow. I felt the desire to sit longer in the warm breeze and people watch, but ventured down the unfinished section of the AT that the Bear Crew and I are working on. I could see the importance behind the specific way in which it is being built. It is a work in progress, and for the three million-plus visitors a year and the generations of thru-hikers to come, we strive to make it beautiful and, most importantly, sustainable.

You can be a part of the Bear Mountain Trails Project! Check out the crew schedule and find out how you can join a work trip.

About Trail Walker

Since 1920, the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference has partnered with parks to create, protect, and promote a network of more than 2,100 miles of public trails in the New York-New Jersey metropolitan region. The Trail Conference organizes volunteer service projects that keep these trails open, safe, and enjoyable for the public. We publish maps and books that guide public use of these trails. The Trail Conference is a volunteer-driven nonprofit organization with a membership of 10,000 individuals and 100 clubs with a combined membership of 100,000 active, outdoor-loving people.
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