Date Traveled, June 2013
The sights from the summit of Breakneck Ridge are spectacular. 1260 feet above ground with the scenic and mountainous Hudson Highlands all around. Stunning views of the wide Hudson river with another peak, Stormking mountain, providing the backdrop directly across and this just ninety minutes from New York city. There are even trains directly to the mountain from Grand Central and for a reason, Breakneck Ridge is one of the most popular day hikes in the US. While the view overlooking the Hudson may be nice, they aren't the reason hikers go to there in droves, they go for the hike itself. The southern face of the mountain is quite sheer and it has an extremely steep trail that is both breathtaking and sometimes quite scary, giving Breakneck Ridge its well deserved name.
The Hudson river from the top of Breakneck Ridge
At the trail head
The climbing starts immediately
There is another story about why the peak is called Breakneck. Apparently there was once a Bull that was trying to avoid getting captured and it raced from nearby "Bull Hill" to Breakneck Ridge from where it fell off. And presumably broke its neck =( .I have no idea if this is true or not but I like telling this story to people before a hike up to the ridge ;-)
The actual hike itself is tremendously fun. There is almost no "hiking" at all until you reach the summit. It is quite literally a straight up 1000 foot climb from the get go at the start of the trail head. You do not need ropes or anything, but you will need to scramble up using your hands to negotiate many sections of the initial trail to the summit. And some of those sections can be really steep and scary. Of course it is all relative and depends on your technical skill. I personally was very nervous at three places I distinctly remember and which I will describe in this article, however I saw enough people from young kids to fairly older folks who negotiated those steep scrambles without blinking or slowing down. Just something to consider if you are are worried about trying the hike. The other thing to consider is that it is far far easier to go up a steep scramble than to go back down. So yes, once you are past your first personal hurdle you have no choice but to keep going forward. Overall I strongly recommend giving the hike a shot if you are reasonably fit and have some experience with hikes. Especially if you are visiting New York city, consider including Breakneck Ridge in your itinerary on the weekend when the Metro North trains stop at the trail head. You can leave from Grand Central station in the morning and be back late in the afternoon or evening depending on how much time you want to take enjoy the hike and the sights. I think it is worth it and Breakneck consistently gets ranked high or on the top of best day hikes in America lists.
Taking a break before the first steep challenge
The slope is steeper than it looks here
You get a better sense of the steep section from this angle
Going down is much too risky...only way forward is up
My most recent hike to to Breakneck Ridge this June was after a break of about 3 years so it almost felt like a new experience for me. I certainly did not recall just how intimidating some parts of the trail are so definitely got some added surprises. Was with a quite a big group of 20 people, friends and friends of friends who had all decided to come along for a great summer weekend hike in the outdoors. Many had never hiked Breakneck before or even knew what they were getting into so it was even more fun! The group was itself a new and interesting experience for me. I often do hikes with organized groups or with hiking clubs which actually have a hike leader guiding people or with smaller groups of friends. Those outings are usually more...organized. My ad hoc group of friends this time around was a mix of fast hikers, brave beginners, crazy rock climbers who took their time to test themselves on the most death defying scrambles and even a travel blogger who was constantly taking pictures. Everyone was having fun and moving at their own pace and doing their own things in little groups. There was of course no leader and in any case attempting to lead this group would have been like herding cats. For the most part we stuck together though with everyone taking their time up the scrambles but late in the afternoon on the downhill segment the group basically splintered completely and the last person to finish the trail must have been an hour behind the first.
After the first ascent. The summit is actually further up from here.
Shirley and me
Hiking by the edge of the ridge
The rugged cliffs of Breakneck
Now for a bit about the hike and the trail itself, as I mentioned, you start out with a steep climb right from the trail head which is basically adjacent to the train station and parking lot. For only a very brief period are you under a thick canopy of trees and you cannot see the Hudson behind you, but you gain altitude pretty soon and you will start to see the spectacular sight of the river the rugged cliff faces of Breakneck which will only get better as you go further up. Maybe 20 minutes into the hike, you will come across your first true scary scramble. It is a very steep, near vertical rock face that extends maybe 15 or so feet. It might be a bit longer and at first doesn't look bad at all, until you come right up to it ready to climb up and realize it is not as easy as it looks. And at that point it looks like a long long way up a smooth rock wall. It is almost smooth. There are cracks to the sides and small flat edges along the rock which you can use to get secure grips for your feet as you negotiate your way up. Here and all along the trail you will see people who make it look really easy as they sip up these rocks in a flash. Just do whatever works for you but remember, after you reach the top of this scramble, the only way forward is up. Trust me, going back down Breakneck is not recommended at all. But you can at least relax after this because the trail is relatively easy from here to the first ridge by the flag pole. There are challenging technical climbs available along the way but the trail has easier alternatives as well, until you reach the scariest part of Breakneck in my opinion. But before you reach that, you have an easy time and the first ridge top by the tall flagstaff is a great place for a break. Here you have some of the best views of the trail. The rugged Hudson highlands and the tall and sheer cliff faces of Breakneck make up the scenery on your side of the river, while you see more of the rugged hills and mountains across the river dominated by the dome like shape of Stormking Mountain.
The trail on top of the ridge
This section was pretty intimidating because the other side of that rock was a sheer drop down
The Hudson river itself is a fascinating sight from this part of the ridge. To the south you see it extend a long way with a clear view of Bear Mountain bridge and the river widens significantly from about where you will be standing as it extends northward. A little ways north on the Hudson from where you stand is an island just off the river bank, with a mysterious ruined castle clearly visible on the isle. Not something you would be expecting to see up there. Well it is a castle and it is ruined but don't get too excited about the mystery aspect of the place. It is called Bannerman's Castle and it used to be a warehouse built in the early 1900s before it was abandoned at some point. It is another great and probably the most unusual of the scenic spots visible from the top of Breakneck.
A felow hiker
The trail then continues upwards toward the dominating steep cliffs leading up to the summit of Breakneck. Before you reach that though, you pass some truly stunning views of the cliffs and you can walk right up to the edge of the ridge as well to look down to a straight drop nearly a 1000 feet to the ground below. Not for the faint hearted. Neither is the next scary scramble coming up just ahead of you, but if you are here at this point, you are out of options and have no choice but to negotiate it. This is a steep scramble but it actually isn't as steep or even as tall the first one I talked about above. This is scary because you will be negotiating the climb right next to the edge of the cliff. I was pretty nervous here because I couldn't stop thinking about the drop over the right side of the rock I was climbing and was so so very relieved to get a firm foothold above the scramble. After this we stopped for lunch by one of the cliff edges to enjoy the view while we ate. We mistakenly thought we had reached the summit but there was actually one more steep climb after that which on hindsight we could have completed before stopping for lunch. This climb also has the final scary climb. Probably the easiest of the three but it doesn't look it. For me personally, it turned out to be the scariest part of the day because I tried to go around it before reaching a point that I realized that I wouldn't be able to go further. The way back was extremely steep and as I have repeated multiple in this article, going down is far more difficult than scrambling up. There was one point here that I seriously thought I would slip and have a bad fall down...but made it in one piece. After that, the actual climb seemed like a breeze. A bit further up you reach the true summit and somewhere along here there are even better views of the castle in the island.
It was all downhill from this point
From then on, the major hike is over and you have a long march though some trails before you take a separate trail downhill to head back to the parking lot and station. The downhill trails are far less steep and relatively easy but it will take you a while to get to the trail head. A reminder for just how much altitude you gained quickly by scrambling up. It was personally one of the best hikes I had done in along time and got to meet some new friends.