Hiking Breakneck Ridge: Advice from a Trail Steward

By Malachy Cleary, Breakneck Ridge trail steward

Breakneck Ridge Scramble

Breakneck Ridge is as challenging as it is beautiful. (Photo credit: Audrius Juskelis)

The Hudson Highlands are steeped in as much mystery as they are in history. It was in these hills that the Lenape hunted and fished the Muhheakantuck—“the river that flows both ways.” It was here that the Headless Horseman terrorized Ichabod Crane, years after some of the most important battles of the American Revolutionary War were fought on both sides of the mighty river’s shores.

Now, it is in Hudson Highlands State Park that nearly 2,000 adventurers come to answer the call of the wild every weekend. Breakneck Ridge has become a pilgrimage of sorts for those looking for an escape from the overwhelming modernity of urban life. Only 60 miles north of New York City, Breakneck is now one of the most popular day hikes in North America, outfitted with its own train station and parking lot to accommodate visitors. With its dramatic escarpments, stunning mountain vistas, and breathtaking panoramas of the river valley, the mountain is considered by many to be the most beautiful hike in the Hudson Valley.

There is no denying that Breakneck Ridge is a special place, home to incredible natural splendor. But visitors must not forget that the aptly named Breakneck is an extremely challenging hike. As a Breakneck Ridge trail steward, it is my duty to stress preparedness.

Being prepared means that you have:
1. Proper footwear
2. Plenty of water
3. Adequate means of navigation (i.e. map, GPS, sextant, etc.)

The stewards acknowledge that Breakneck possesses immense beauty while also presenting an immense challenge. Typically, hikers who are lacking in one of these areas are more at risk of injury or getting lost, but Breakneck has a way of humbling even the most seasoned climbers. Our job as stewards is to equip the ill-equipped to the best of our abilities. Informed hikers are happy hikers, and if the mountain sees that its visitors have taken the time to educate and prepare themselves, then it will shine favorably upon them.

“To respect the mountain, one must acknowledge its ability to destroy you.”*

Perhaps part of the mountain’s allure is the danger associated with climbing it. But Breakneck is only as dangerous as you make it. At first glance, Breakneck Ridge is simply a mountain to be climbed; at closer inspection, it is an awesome entity to be reckoned with. Stewards serve as intermediaries between the mountain and the people who climb it. We can communicate the respect Breakneck demands, but we cannot enforce it—that is the mountain’s job.

As a Breakneck Ridge trail steward, I have had the honor of serving the mountain and the joy of helping people discover it in a safe and rewarding way. Do not let the mountain’s intensity discourage you from exploring this jewel of the Hudson—Breakneck is a challenge, not an adversary. The stewards are always happy to give advice and answer any questions that you might have; just don’t ask us where the bathrooms are located.

*These words came to me in a moment of lucidity as I sat stationed in the Breakneck Ridge parking lot. Breakneck spoke to me not in English, but in the deliberate quiet of its ancient stone. With the delicate hush of the wind in the leaves and the creaking limbs of the boughs in the trees I could decipher a kind of symphony of silence unique only to a voice so eternal that it does not speak in mortal tongue.

You, too, can help improve the hiking experience on Breakneck Ridge and in Hudson Highlands State Park.  Find out how to join our Taconic Crew for a work trip or workshop.

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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7 Responses to Hiking Breakneck Ridge: Advice from a Trail Steward

  1. Ken Malkin says:

    Well said and beautifully written.

  2. Victor G says:

    The first time I climbed Breakneck had to be 50 years ago ~ what an awesome thrill! I’ve been back several times since, including as a former NYNJ TC trail crew leader doing work on various sections of the trail. It’s been a long time and I miss it.

  3. Sam Gellens says:

    Well-done! I’ve hiked Breakneck Ridge more than a few times and the video made me yearn to go back. NY-NJ TC Life Member.

  4. Albert says:

    I hiked Breakneck about 30 years ago when it wasn’t the destination it apparently has become. I took my Great Dane with me as I usually did on hikes and although we made it without mishaps the one advice I would add is don’t bring your pets along for the “walk”.

  5. Robert says:

    Very helpful and interesting. I thought the suggestion of a Sextant for navigation was quite amusing. As I read your piece, I thought that perhaps you might want to acquaint your audience-future breakneck Trail hikers- with the Wilkinson Memorial Trail alternative, so that instead of ascending Breakneck they may descend and enjoy other views from Sugarloaf as well. Just a thought. http://gonehikin.blogspot.com/2011/09/hudson-highlands-state-park-ny.html

  6. Tim Burrows says:

    Nice piece, Mal Cleary! Maybe I’ll see you up on the ridge someday. – from an old friend

  7. George S says:

    Great article. What I found amusing was the following: “… nearly 2,000 adventurers come to answer the call of the wild … looking for an escape from the overwhelming modernity of urban life.” So much for that escape lol!

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