4 Day Section Hike of the Appalachian Trail (No car needed)
Getting out without a car: Appalachian Trail
It was hard not to feel a little self-conscious standing on the train platform at Harlem-125th Street, bending under the weight of my stuffed GoLite pack (named Frogger because it looks like a grumpy frog from behind) with one collapsed trekking pole in each side pocket. In Colorado, where I lived for most of 2013, I never got strange looks for donning a bandana, trail runners and a giant backpack. I also never had the chance to take a train straight to a national scenic trail. So, I guess it’s a tradeoff.
After about two hours and a quick transfer, my hiking buddy and I arrived at the Appalachian Trail stop on Metro North’s Harlem line. The stop was a small wooden platform literally right next to the trail; I tried to imagine how strange that might seem as an AT thru-hiker, to suddenly stumble upon train tracks running to New York City.
We snapped a few pictures, and then we set off southbound (SoBo in thru-hiker-speak), crossing a wooden boardwalk and then quickly beginning to climb. My hiking partner called to me about halfway up the climb that she needed a break. “I think we might have to seriously scale-back our mileage,” she said, as we both wiped sweat from our foreheads and plopped our packs on the ground. The AT – at least the New York section – doesn’t boast the long, sustained, 1,000-plus-foot climbs I was used to from the Colorado Trail, but the rolling hills and rocks are pretty unrelenting, as we would learn over the course of the next four days.
We spent our first night at the Morgan Stewart Shelter, about 10 miles from the train stop. Our early decision to do fewer miles meant we had more time for rock scrambling, picture taking, relaxing, and general trail frivolity. I strongly endorse that approach, as there were lots of field to lay in, lakes to admire, and trees to climb along the trail.
At the shelter, which is basically a platform with a roof, for those who haven’t been on the AT, we met a few thru-hikers and another pair of NYC-based weekend warriors, who had made the ill-advised decision not to bring any filter or water treatment system. There is plenty of water on the AT, but treating it is important! We shared some iodine with our grateful shelter cohabitants, who reciprocated with chocolate.
The people we met would turn out to be the highlight of the trip. On our second night, in Clarence Fahnestock State Park (the campground was much harder to find than the guidebooks let on, and we ended up hiking 18 miles), an older couple gave us a jug of fresh water, since the pumps at the campground weren’t working. We spent our third night at a ballfield campsite maintained by a friary, and met a SoBo thru-hiker from Scotland, a pair of older guys testing the trail to see if they’d want to do a thru-hike – the answer seemed to be a definitive no – and a young veteran and his girlfriend attempting their first thru-hike.
Meeting great people wasn’t a huge surprise; hikers tend to be a good group. What surprised me more was the amount of wildlife we saw, given that we were no more than two hours from NYC. We saw deer, rabbits, turkeys, and even a snake eating a frog. (This was super cool, and also super confusing at first. We couldn’t figure out why the snake’s head was so big, or why it seemed to have legs. Turned out it was because what we thought was the head was actually a frog the snake had caught in its jaws.) Even though we were crossing roads every few miles, it actually felt like we were in nature. In New York. Really.
End: Morgan Stewart Shelter
Miles: About 10
Notes: Take the Harlem line train to the Appalachian Trail stop. This stop is only functional on weekends, and there aren’t that many trains that run here; check the Metro North schedule. Once you get on the train, though, everything’s easy. The trail is right there once you disembark. You can’t miss it. And there are signs, so just make sure you don’t head toward Connecticut and you’re set. From there, follow the white blazes.
Also: The shelters are great, but can fill up. We carried a tent, and I’d recommend that, especially if you have multiple people to share the load.
Start: Morgan Stewart Shelter
End: Fahnestock State Park
Miles: About 18
Notes: Keep following those blazes! Fahnestock State Park has a beach and a concession stand that’s open until 5, so plan accordingly. Also, the signs to the beach will get you to the campground much quicker than following the AT. (File that in the “things I wish I had known before the trip” category.)
Start: Fahnestock State Park
End: Graymoor Spiritual Life Center
Miles: About 12
Notes: There’s a deli about half a mile south from Graymoor, right on the trail. We stopped there for breakfast after spending the night at Graymoor, but if you get in early (and don’t have a ton of extra food that you want to get off your back), you could drop your gear, walk on down to the deli, and enjoy a giant roast beef sandwich as you try to pretend that the NY section of the AT is anything like actually being in the wilderness.
Start: Graymoor Spiritual Life Center
End: NYC, via the Garrison train station
Notes: The deli (mentioned above) has really good breakfast sandwiches. Once you’re fully fed, stay on the AT until you come to a blue trail marked with the Hudson Highlands blazes. Turn right onto the blue trail, and stay with it until you get to a red trail. The red trail goes in two different directions – go right, unless you want an extra climb (and an extra view). The red trail will bring you down to a road, which leads you eventually to another park with a map that will show you how to get to the train station. I’d recommend bringing along a Hudson Highlands State Park Map (we only had an AT map) and doing some research on the NY-NJ Trail Conference site (http://www.nynjtc.org/) beforehand.
Alexandra Tilsley grew up playing in NH’s White Mountains and still loves to be outside, whether running, hiking, mountain biking, or just walking through the city. A graduate of the University of Southern California, Alexandra has worked as a reporter for a number of publications, including the Associated Press, and spent several summers as a camp counselor in the Rocky Mountains. Before moving to New York to work for an education non-profit, Alexandra completed a thru-hike of the Colorado Trail.