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A Walk in the Woods

November 10, 2013

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For the past several years, I’ve been making semi-regular trips with one of my best friends to the areas in and around Harriman State Park. Harriman sits about thirty miles north of New York City, bordered by West Point to the north and nestled snuggly against Bear Mountain in the east. It’s an amazing place, featuring hundreds of miles of trails, some spectacular views, and a good deal of interesting history.

In the late eighteenth century, in the years just before the Revolutionary War, descendants of the Huguenots settled the region, where they established the hamlet of Doodletown in a stretch of valley between Bear Mountain and Dunderberg Mountain, just to the south. The town’s funny name likely derives from the Dutch words for “dead” and “valley,” “dood” and “ley.” Where the “town” part comes from is anyone’s guess. What is known, however, is that the village lay directly in the path of advancing British troops as they prepared to attack nearby Fort Montgomery on the Hudson River in late 1777.

As William Myles and Daniel Chazin relate in their history of Harriman, “Nine hundred British soldiers…marched through Doodletown” taking the village entirely by surprise, and then proceeded to occupy it. “Twelve hundred more troops arrived and waited in Doodletown,” Myles and Chazin write, “until the first division approached Fort Montgomery. Then the second division marched to attack Fort Clinton,” immediately to the south.

The British won both battles, though the effort it took ultimately cost them the larger prize of Saratoga further north. As for tiny Doodeltown, some trivia: though likely apocryphal, the village is said to have inspired “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” which the royal army supposedly sang to humiliate Doodlers during the period of occupation. Who knows. What’s left today is a ghost town littered with graveyards and old building foundations. Heading there makes for a great hike—I recommend it.

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In any event, the years following the Revolutionary War saw some of the land parceled off to the continental army and turned into the United States Military Academy at West Point. If I understand the history correctly, the rest was sold to a private investor, and the holding was passed from one group of rich folks to the next before falling into the hands of Edward and Mary Harriman, who owned tens of thousands of acres of forestland north of New York City.

The mountainous terrain was once rich in iron ore, and prospectors began calling in the mid to late nineteenth century. Even Thomas Edison got in on the act, acquiring land to dynamite open for a peek inside. Local protests against the environmental destruction wrought by the mining ultimately brought it to a close, but evidence of the extensive operations remains. Today, the park is pockmarked with tiny mine shafts and exploratory holes, many of which are closed or collapsed, though some are accessible for those that dare to enter.

At the turn of the twentieth century, the State of New York announced plans to build a prison on Bear Mountain. Mary Harriman, who was staunchly opposed to the idea, offered the state a deal. Having already decided to donate the land for public use, Harriman proposed giving 10,000 acres of land to the state and a $1 million of her own money to begin constructing public facilities on the land in exchange for the Albany’s agreement that no prison would be built on Bear Mountain. The park became official on October 29, 1910.

We were back this past week to explore a patch of the parklands I’ve never hiked before, an area in the north of Harriman sitting at the foot of Long Mountain. Here, the Long Path—which runs from Fort Lee Historic Park all the way up to John Boyd Thatcher State Park in Albany—bisects Route 6 before crawling up to the summit of Long Mountain and being forced due west by the southern perimeter of West Point.

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We took the trail to the summit of Long Mountain where magnificent views of Turkey Hill Lake, which sits directly below, unfolded, and the brilliant colors of late-autumn leaves stretched to the horizon. There is a lookout point here, and a memorial dedicated to one of the park’s earliest enthusiasts, though when we arrived, it was hazy. It didn’t matter. Visibility was limited, but the fall colors saturating everything around us were simply astounding. We had a snack, took some photos, and kept on along our way, which soon headed down the mountainside.

About midway through the descent, where the trail begins to snake northeast before taking a sharp turn west, we decided to leave the Long Path altogether and scout our way down to the lake. The slopes here are for the most part gentle and, with some light bushwhacking, fairly easy to navigate. What was most remarkable, though, were the astoundingly yellow leaves matched only by the gigantic sun-yellow mushrooms billowing out high on the tree trunks like psychedelic wall sconces.

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Shortly after we reached lakeside, where the ground became boggy and unsure, the crisp blue skies turned gray and threatening. And a remarkable thing happened: as if reacting to the suddenly low light, the oranges, reds and browns of the turning leaves took on a new intensity, buzzing with bruised persimmon. Someone had been camping here and had abandoned the site not long before. A makeshift fire pit still gave off some heat. Defying the threatening skies and biting cold, we decided to drop our gear here ourselves, break out the thermos of coffee and enjoy the view.

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Turkey Hill Lake itself is serene, unremarkable. Nestled between Long Mountain to the west and Summer Hill directly to the south, the Lake gives way to a stream that empties into Queensboro Lake to the southeast. Not much happens here, save for the occasional ripple disturbing the mirror images reflecting from the water’s surface. Hugging tightly to the water’s eastern perimeter runs the old Summer Hill trail which we accessed by looping around the lake’s northern lip and continuing on after re-caffeinating. The gray clouds broke here, and blue skies returned.

We had been led to believe that the trail was overgrown and difficult to follow. Not true. The path was distinct along its entire length, canopied here and there by drooping branches scarlet with leaves, and intersecting with the trail-blazed Red Path before terminating a few hundred meters further south at the 1779 trail.

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We jumped off on red, and followed the path as it rose above the water’s edge at Summer Hill’s northern base. From there, it’s a little bit of a slog up the hill side and the views become momentarily less interesting (not to mention more depressing—the amount of litter scattered around was upsetting…we even passed an abandoned shopping cart brought into the woods for god-knows-what-reason). Red meets the Anthony Wayne Trail soon enough, though, and ultimately circles north where it joins the Long Path. Thirty minutes later, we were back at the car.

Here’s a map of our route. If anyone has suggestions for other Harriman hikes—especially those off the beaten paths–I’d love to hear about them.

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