Come visit New York City, one of the biggest and busiest metropolitan areas in the world. Now hop in a taxi and ask the driver to take you to the George Washington Bridge, which stretches across the Hudson River, and which by the way is the busiest vehicular bridge in the world. Stroll across the span into New Jersey and on the far side, in the Fort Lee Historic Park, you’ll find a tree with three aqua blazes. As improbable as it might sound, this is the southern terminus of a rugged hiking trail, which, if you follow the blazes, will take you through some of the most beautiful parks and preserves in the Hudson Valley, and 350 miles later, deposit you on the outskirts of Albany, capital of the state.
The Long Path is a close cousin of the Appalachian Trail, but the Long Path is virtually unknown. It might as well be a secret, like the blank spot in the middle of a map of unchartered wilderness. When I set out to thru-run it in August 2013, only 120 people had completed the entire trail, according to the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference, a not-for-profit organization whose volunteers maintain 2,000 miles of trails in New York and New Jersey. This compares to some 14,000 documented completions of the Appalachian Trail, according to the Appalachian Mountain Conservancy.
For a harried city-dweller like myself, there’s something alluring and mysterious about a trail that starts virtually in my back yard and heads north into the unknown. I had first discovered the Long Path accidentally, while running on the carriage trails of Minnewaska State Park, about ninety miles north of the city. Over the years, as I heard more about this enigmatic path, my curiosity grew. The Trail Conference maintains an excellent website, with detailed notes on each section of the Long Path, photographs, mileage tables, an interactive map, and comments on the history. Perusing this site, I learned that the name was inspired by the first stanza of Walt Whitman’s Song of the Open Road:
Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose
Whitman may not have been a dedicated hiker (and he certainly wasn’t a trail runner). Nor was he a naturalist like John Muir or John Burroughs. Nonetheless, this image of the open road has inspired New Yorkers and many other Americans to hit the trails and experience that sense of freedom that comes from escaping the crush of modern city life.
Inspired by Whitman’s verse, I set out to thru-run the Long Path on August 25, 2013, with a goal of not only completing the entire distance, but also beating the fastest known time of twelve days. To do so, I aimed to travel light, relying on cached food, sleeping in lean-tos, and running as much as I could.
The Trail Conference’s interactive map of the Long Path. Note: The official end of the Long Path is at the John Boyd Thatcher State Park outside Albany, however, this map shows future planned expansion of the trail towards the Adirondack. (The green sections refer to the Shawangunk Ridge Trail).
The author at the start of the Long Path, looking appropriately overconfident. Fort Lee Historic Park, New Jersey, August 25, 2013.
The Hudson Palisades
The first section of the Long Path follows the Hudson Palisades, a stretch of basalt cliffs reaching three to five hundred feet above the Hudson River. On a nice summer day, as I was lucky enough to experience when I set out, the hiker or runner is treated to beautiful views across the river. There are crow’s nests built out over the cliffs, small riverside towns with delis and cafes, and a couple of rocky peaks which offer 360 degree panoramas up and down the valley. Some friends met me at the New York-New Jersey state line and ran with me for the next fifteen miles. Good company put me in high spirits.
On the first day, I covered approximately forty-five miles, ending up at a conveniently located lean-to in Harriman State Park, where I enjoyed a view of the distant New York City skyline as I munched on a rehydrated camping meal for dinner. This adventure was off to a good start.
View south from Hook Mountain, a short scramble outside Nyack, New York, with the Tappan Zee Bridge in the distance.
Harriman State Park
With 46,000 acres and 225 miles of hiking trails, Harriman State Park is New York’s second largest state park after the Adirondacks. From the air, Harriman stands out as a large forested plateau with rippling mountain ridges and lakes. The mountains are not tall, but they are ancient. There are granite rock outcroppings over a billion years old. 15,000 years ago, Harriman was covered by glaciers thousands of feet thick. These glaciers carved out u-shaped valleys, scraped out valleys and smoothed out the ridges, and as they receded left behind thirty-two lakes, countless ponds and bogs, and endless jumbles of rock.
While it is a popular park, Harriman creates an impression of solitude. The traveler meanders through small valleys, each one a separate compartment, quiet, shaded, and isolated by a low ridgeline from its neighbors.
From the lean-to where I had spent the night, I followed the Long Path the next day to its intersection with the Appalachian Trail, then over Long Mountain, past the boundary of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and then up and down a small peak called Schunemunk Mountain, which offers spectacular views up and down the Hudson Valley.
Harriman State Park. Credit: New York-New Jersey Trail Conference
The Long Path was first conceived in the 1930s, at the same time as the Appalachian Trail, but it took many years before it was fully blazed. During this time, the sprawl surrounding New York City expanded north. By necessity, certain sections of the Long Path venture out onto roads and railways, both active and abandoned.
Coming down from Schunemunk Mountain, the Long Path turns west onto the Heritage Valley Rail Trail, and then traverses a series of rural roads before reaching the Shawangunk Ridgeline. Along the way, it ducks under or crosses over Route 17 and Interstate-84, a reminder that we live in a world dominated by the “long grey path” of concrete and asphalt.
The good news is that this section of the Long Path takes you through the small town of Goshen, New York, home to Kelly Jean’s, a friendly tavern that offered me pasta and a pint of beer and a much-needed break from the trail. At this point it was raining heavily, and I regretted my decision not to pack a lightweight Goretex jacket. The friendly staff at Kelly Jean’s rustled up a heavy duty garbage bag, which did a good job keeping the rain off me. Unfortunately, it was treated to repel animals and stank to high heaven. As they say, beggars can’t be choosers.
A much-needed break for food, drink, and raingear at Kelly Jean’s in Goshen, New York. (K. Posner)
The Shawangunks, or the ‘Gunks’ as they are often called, consist of a 2,000-ft tall ridgeline stretching along the western edge of the Appalachian Valley from High Point State Park in New Jersey all the way to Rosendale, New York. The same geographic feature reaches further south into Pennsylvania, where it’s called the Blue Mountains, and then into Virginia. In New York, the Gunks are one of the most popular destinations for rock climbing on the East Coast.
What makes the Shawangunks so distinctive is the shiny white quartzite conglomerate that forms the cliffs and rocky outcroppings. Also, the thin soil on the summits is home to unusual scrub oak and dwarf pine barrens. It’s a special environment, one which the Nature Conservancy has identified as “one of the Earth’s last great places.” The locals are passionate about the dramatic landscape, and almost the entire ridgeline is protected by state or private preserves.
After I left Kelly Jean’s, it rained steadily all night. Without a tent or tarp, and already falling somewhat behind plan, I opted to keep going through the night, stopping only to tend to my feet, which were wet, wrinkled, and starting to ache. The next morning the sun came out, and the trail took me past the Bashakill, one of New York’s largest wetlands and home to some two hundred different bird species. Late that evening I reached the top of Sam’s Point Preserve, where I stretched out on the damp trail for some sleep.
The next morning I caught the rising sun from High Point, which at 2,289 ft is indeed the highest point in the Gunks. From here on a clear day, you can look to the west and see Mount Ararat in the Moosic Mountains of Pennsylvania, sixty miles away, or Mount Everett in the Berkshires fifty miles to the east. On a very clear day, you can see Mount Greylock, the tallest mountain in Massachussets, eighty-nine miles distant, and possibly a glimpse of Mount Equinox, near Manchester, Vermont, 119 miles to the northeast. When I arrived at High Point, I turned around in a circle, trying to absorb the panorama, but what really caught my attention was the Catskill Mountains, rearing high above the Roundout River valley. They seemed huge and forbidding and impossibly distant, yet according to plan I would reach them later in the day.
The Shawangunks. Credit: OSI
The Catskills were created millions of years ago as sediment from a range of towering mountains to the east gradually accumulated in a river delta. Over time, the delta was uplifted into a massive plateau, while the mountains from which it was formed eroded away (today only the gentle Berkshires of Massachusetts remain). The action of water and ice carved out deep clefts and gorges into the plateau, leaving behind a series of jagged peaks covered in boreal forest.
View of the Catskills from the south. The Devil’s Path traverses this jagged mountain wall. Credit: Wikipedia.
My first day in the Catskills posed a couple of challenges. First, I encountered a section of the path blocked by extensive deadfall, a result of high winds (possibly tornadoes) spawned by Hurricane Irene two years earlier. I clambered up and over large downed trees. When they were too big or tangled to climb over, I bushwhacked around their upended bases, where the roots were torn from the soil, being careful not to lose sight of the trail. The rain returned, and the forest was dark and slippery.
Then it was time to scale Peekamoose Mountain. The trail rises 2,500 ft in three miles along a knife-edge ridge. Night fell, and it was pitch dark. I made it to a lean-to a little after midnight.
The next day I reached Slide Mountain, at just over 4,000 ft, the tallest peak in the Catskills. On a nice day, the visitor is treated to splendid views across the Hudson Valley, including the Ashokan Reservoir, which feeds water to New York City. Today was cloudy. I stopped and admired a plaque commemorating John Burroughs, the New York naturalist whose essays were extremely popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He had climbed Slide Mountain in 1887 and described the view from the top:
We saw the world as the hawk or the balloonist sees it when he is three thousand feet in the air. How soft and flowing all the outlines of the hills and mountains beneath us looked! The forests dropped down and undulated away over them, covering them like a carpet…All was mountain and forest on every hand. Civilization seemed to have done little more than to have scratched this rough, shaggy surface of the earth here and there. In any such view, the wild, the aboriginal, the geographical greatly predominate. The works of man dwindle, and the original features of the huge globe come out. Every single object or point is dwarfed; the valley of the Hudson is only a wrinkle in the earth's surface. You discover with a feeling of surprise that the great thing is the earth itself, which stretches away on every hand so far beyond your ken.
Author on the summit of Slide Mountain, standing next to the plaque commemorating John Burroughs. (K. Posner)
View from Slide Mountain, with Ashokan Reservoir in the distance Credit: Catskill Mountaineer
Descending from the mountains, I treated myself to pizza and a giant chocolate milkshake at Brio’s, a popular restaurant in the small town of Phoenicia. Then it was back into the mountains to face the Devil’s Path, which has been called one of the most difficult hiking trails in the country. According to legend, the Devil himself had created this treacherous terrain as a refuge from the affairs of mankind. Indeed, the path requires constant scrambling up, over, through, and around large boulders and ledges. It’s not technical climbing, but you’re constantly grabbing onto rocks, roots, or trees to haul yourself up or lower yourself down. It’s hard work and slow going. According to a ranger I met on the trail, hikers average about one mile per hour. My GPS log shows I was going a little faster than that, but not by much.
A typical rock scramble along the Devil’s Path (K. Posner)
Another night in a lean-to, and I finished off the Devil’s Path, only to encounter more steep climbing. The Long Path passes across the top of a mountain wall, where two deep gorges, the Kaaterskill and Plattekill Cloves, drop a thousand feet into the plains of the Hudson Valley. These gorges inspired the romantic landscapes of Thomas Cole, a 19th century painter, who is widely viewed as the founder of the Hudson School of Art. This is also the area where, according to Irving Fisher’s story, Rip Van Winkle took his twenty-year nap after meeting the ghosts of Henry Hudson’s crew and sipping their liquor.
Thomas Cole (1801-1848) A View of the Two Lakes and Mountain House, Catskill Mountains, Morning. 1844. Oil on canvass. Brooklyn Museum
I struggled up and over Blackhead Mountain, the second tallest peak in the Catskills after Slide, notorious for an especially steep scramble leading to the summit. One more night in a lean-to, and then it was finally time to escape from the mountains, hopefully for easier terrain.
Schoharie Valley and Capital District
The last hundred miles of the Long Path follow the Schoharie Creek as it drains northward out of the Catskills and eventually brings you to the Capital District near Albany. For a New York City dweller like myself, these areas are remote and unfamiliar. The Long Path goes by beautiful waterfalls, through quiet forests, across fields, past beaver ponds, and follows a few rural roads. The trails get less use out here, and in some places the path is a little overgrown. I didn’t encounter a single hiker on the trail.
At this point in my adventure, things were starting to go wrong. I had underestimated the amount of calories I would need and as a result my energy was now sagging. There was only one cache bag left, and there was nowhere to resupply. My feet were blistered, and I must have strained my calf while scrambling through the Catskills, because my left ankle swelled and stiffened. The rain returned. I seriously considered aborting.
With some help, I managed to persevere. My wife resupplied me with extra food. Then a friend who was following my SPOT GPS signal guided me back onto the trail when I became disoriented during a nighttime rainstorm. I clambered slowly up and over a 600-ft protuberance called Vrooman’s Nose and arrived in the small town of Middleburgh, where I had arranged to spend the night with friends.
With my condition deteriorating, and under the accumulated fatigue of three hundred miles, the last fifty miles were neither fast nor graceful. I even had to fight off an unfriendly skunk. Nonetheless, I finally arrived at the Heidelberg Escarpment, a series of cliffs with dramatic views of Albany, the Adirondacks, and the mountains of Vermont. This is the northern terminus of the Long Path. I was done. And with a total time of 9 days 3 hours and 6 minutes, I had set a new fastest known time. Of course, this time, too, will be eclipsed, as soon as someone a little faster takes an interest in the Long Path.
View of Middleburgh and Vrooman’s Nose in the Schoharie Valley. (K. Posner)
If you’re looking for a lightweight thru-running or thru-hiking experience, I encourage you to check out the Long Path. It’s a mysterious, beautiful, and challenging trail. It’s got a quirky New York personality, where one moment you’re admiring a spectacular view, the next passing underneath a highway. Regardless of your pace, if you follow the aqua blazes, you will discover the stunning natural beauty of the Hudson Valley and you will experience the magic of Walt Whitman’s long brown path. I hope you’ll give it a try.
September 2, 2013. The author at the northern terminus of the Long Path at the John Boyd Thatcher State Park, having covered 350 miles in 9 days 3 hours and 6 minutes, and having lost 8 pounds in the process. (K. Posner)
The Trail Conference issues end-to-end certificates to hikers or runners who complete the entire Long Path, either at once or over time in sections. (K. Posner)
Some Comments on Logistics
With the goal of setting a new fastest known time, I was determined to carry as little weight as possible. For safety, and to document the fastest known time, I carried a SPOT GPS Messenger, as well as a cellphone (be advised that coverage is intermittent along the trail). I documentated my thru-run , otherwise, I wanted to keep things simple. As Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden, “Men have become tools of their tools.” I was determined to avoid that fate.
Fully loaded with 100 oz of water and a day’s worth of food, my kit weighed fifteen pounds. Without the water, it was only seven.
There’s plenty of water along the Long Path, but as with almost anywhere, you’ve got to assume it is contaminated. To filter water, I carried a Sawyer Products squeeze filter, which consists of a 32 oz bag you fill in a stream, and then a filter with nozzle which you screw onto the bag and through which you squeeze out the water. I found the bag was easier to fill in a briskly running stream, but otherwise this filter worked well for me, and it weighs only a few ounces.
There are numerous lean-tos on or near the Long Path, and these are clearly identified in the notes maintained on the Trail Conference website. I thought long and hard about bringing a light-weight sleeping pad, even perhaps cutting it down to make it easier to carry. But I was determined to keep weight to a minimum. While the hard wooden floors were not especially comfortable, I was able to get by.
For warmth at night, I carried a U.S. Army specification poncho liner. For those not familiar, a poncho liner is a quilted nylon blanket designed to tie onto a poncho to create a cover that is both waterproof and warm. At some points in the mountains, the Long Path reaches elevations of three to four thousand feet, and it’s not impossible that temperatures could drop into the 40s at night. To supplement the poncho liner, I also carried a warm long-sleeve shirt and a knit hat.
August is generally a very comfortable time of year in upstate New York. According to the Weather Channel, the average high temperature during August for the town of Phoenicia (elevation 827 feet) is 81 F, with a record high of 101. The average low is 57, with a record low of 37. Average precipitation in August is 3.37 in.
As a runner, I’m usually looking down. That makes it easy to go off course - especially at night. And there are few things as bad as getting lost at night. To help at night, I invested in a high-tech flashlight by Fenix. It cost a pretty penny, but it can put out up to 900 lumens, which is almost ten times more illumination than a typical headlamp. It’s a big confidence booster to light up the night, when you’re searching for the next blaze and unsure which way to go. The power output is adjustable, so you can also dial back the brightness level to make the batteries last several days.
My diet consisted of freeze-dried camping meals, nuts and dried fruit, and dark chocolate. I purposely avoided sugary bars, gels, and sports drinks, not wanting to manage through blood sugar surges and crashes. I considerably underestimated the amount of calories I needed. Next time, I would add canned meats and other high-calorie options to my caches.
There are several towns where you can stop for food in a restaurant or resupply from a deli, including Piermont Landing, Nyack, Haverstraw, Chester, Goshen, Wurtsboro, Phoenicia, and Middleburgh.
As noted above, I cached six drop bags, generally at trailheads convenient to the roads (I retrieved all six drop bags after the conclusion of the run). I was careful to stash the bags underneath rocks to make sure hungry animals wouldn’t get to the food before I did. Next time, I might use hard plastic containers, just to make sure an energetic porcupine couldn’t chew through a bag and create a mess.
Footgear and feet
For shoes, I wore minimalist zero-drop TrailRoc-235s by INOV-8. These gave me good traction and protection from rocks. I would have liked them to dry faster, but maybe that’s unrealistic when much of the trail is wet.
To help manage wet feet, I brought along climbers balm recommended by the lightweight thru-hiker Andrew Skurka (and available for purchase on his website). A bag of foot powder would have been a good idea, too, as would taller hiking socks, rather than low-cut running socks.
About the author: Kenneth Posner is a financial analyst, ultra-runner, and author. Follow his adventures on Facebook or on twitter at @PosnerKenneth.
Drying wet shoes and socks in the sun, while taking a break in Wurtsboro, New York. (K. Posner)