SYNOPSIS: While Putnam may seem like a county of gently rolling hills, there are some spots that can get your adrenaline pumping. One of the most adventurous – and rewarding – trails in Putnam County is the hike to Breakneck Ridge. Besides having an impressive name, this hike offers a challenging climb and some of the most striking views of the Hudson Highlands.
APPROXIMATE TIME: Three to four hours. Our trek only covered about three miles, but between a slow scramble up the steep sections and an overall leisurely pace (why rush when you are sans kids?) it took us four hours.
DIRECTIONS: To get there from eastern Putnam County, take Route 301 west into Cold Spring. Once downtown, turn right onto Route 9D and head north for about two miles. As you drive north, the jagged southern face of Breakneck will rise in front of you. Don’t worry, you won’t be scaling this facade, but the trail you do take is fairly steep.
Just after passing through the tunnel that goes under the base of Breakneck Ridge, find a place to park along the road. There are a few pull-off areas that get pretty crowded on nice days. Be careful walking along the road because the traffic zooms by pretty fast.
THE HIKE: To get to the trail walk south. The trailhead will be on the right just before the tunnel. The path is well marked with white blazes, but just to be safe grab a trail map from the small kiosk alongside the road. As you start up the hill, the first of many lookout points will be a short path to the right. Look up the mountain to find the American and POW/MIA flag. Yes, you will be there soon.
The trail crosses over the top of the tunnel and begins a one mile, 1200 foot ascent that will have you scrambling up the mountainside using all four limbs at times. While most of the places in this book are kid friendly, I would not suggest bringing young kids here. The same goes for pets, because some sections of the trail are just too dangerous.
Once at the aforementioned flag, there is a great view but you are not at the top yet. A series of four or five climbs and summits await you, and the views just get better the further up you go. A few times where the trail got too close to the cliff’s edge, I have to admit we took the “alternate trails” that veer away from the precipice. There are sections where I think you could easily tumble a few hundred feet.
We had planned to take a 5.5 miles loop, one of the suggested hikes on the trial map we picked up, but when we came to the intersection with the Yellow Trail, it went the opposite direction of what I expected it to. It took me a while to figure out that we were nowhere near as far into the park as I thought we were. We had barely nicked the surface of the huge Highlands Park.
My wife, while she really enjoyed this hike, was done. I hadn’t really told her what to expect from Breakneck. So instead of the longer loop we had intended, we went a little further on the White Trail and turned left onto the Red Trail to head back. The Red Trail is mostly a long, steady decent over a dirt and gravel path. In some ways, this terrain was tougher on the knees than the climb up.
The Red Trail merges into the Yellow Trail (don’t turn right onto the Yellow unless you want to climb Sugarloaf as well) and in a few minutes you will be back on Route 9D, just a short distance north from the parking area and tunnel.
Breakneck Ridge is a great hike. I knew it would be difficult, and I thought my wife was going to be miserable, but turns out she loved the challenge and the reward. We had a lot of company on Breakneck – from early teens to hikers in their 70’s, people really seemed to be enjoying this popular trail.
HISTORY: According to William J. Blake’s The History of Putnam County, N.Y. published in 1849, Breakneck got its name when local farmers chased a mischievous bull off the cliff whereas he broke his neck.
Breakneck Ridge is part of the 6000 acre Hudson Highlands State Park. The park is unusual in that it is not one continuous piece of land, but rather a number of parcels. The southernmost portion of the park is in Westchester, the northernmost in Dutchess. The largest parcel of the park is the area surrounding Breakneck Ridge.
MAP & ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: My wife and I hiked up Breakneck Ridge in August 2010 while our kids spent the day with their grandparents.
Bring lots of water with you and wear sturdy shoes that have soles that grip well. You may even want to wear gloves. Any of the beautiful viewpoints along the ridge make a great place to stop and have a snack or lunch.
Technically, dogs are permitted in Hudson Highlands State Park if on a leash no longer than 10 feet. However, I would not recommend bringing your dog on this hike. Two people had their dogs with them, but I know there is no way my Labrador would have made it – either his age or his clumsiness would have gotten the best of him.
For more info, including a printable trail map, visit www.nysparks.com or call the Hudson Highlands State Park office at 845/225-7207.