Under Construction on the Appalachian Trail

A view from the black locust footbridge, on the ascent up the Bear Mountain section of the Appalachian Trail.

A view from the black locust footbridge, on the ascent up the Bear Mountain section of the Appalachian Trail.

It goes without saying – but I’ll say it anyway – that if you’re going to be taking on the Appalachian Trail, especially the bit that goes through Bear Mountain in New York, you’ve got to be ready to do a lot of climbing. Lots and lots of climbing.

It was National Trails Day on June 6, and the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference was presenting a series of trail-maintaining activities at Bear Mountain (see my previous posting about the great barberry battle).

One of the conference’s longer-running projects has been a rebuild of part of the six-mile Bear Mountain stretch of the AT, including overhauling some of the many flights of stone steps you’ll find on the mountain. So one of the activities was a hike along the trail, and a visit to the parts that were being or had just been rebuilt.

Just after 1 p.m. or so, a group of us assembled near the Bear Mountain Inn, under the leadership of the excellent Ama Koenigshoff, who is one of NYNJTC’s trail builders. (This was her second trek up and down the mountain for the day, so give the woman a medal.) There were about seven or eight of us in the group in total, I’d say – some newbies, others returning visitors.

Mile-wise, it wasn’t a long hike. But elevation-wise? According to the elevation charts over at whiteblaze.net, the Bear Mountain section of the AT goes from 175 feet above sea level down by Hessian Lake, to 1,305 feet up at Perkins Memorial Tower. (We didn’t get all the way up to Perkins, but we definitely got most of the way up the mountain.)

If you have hiking poles, bring them. Trust me, they help. One guy actually looked at me and my poles and said to his companions, “I wish I had a set of poles like that.” And bring LOTS of water. It was a warm day; between the AT hike and the barberry removal, I drank at least three liters of water that day and sweated most of it off.

*

Because of the high levels of foot traffic the AT sees each year, and the fact that the soil on Bear Mountain is rather thin, the rock stairs are crucial for helping to stave off erosion. In some cases, stone retaining walls are necessary to keep the trail and the stairs from crumbling. In fact, it is because of the erosion and foot traffic that the rebuild project was being done.

Some of the stone for the stairs is trucked in, but a lot of it is quarried and chiseled right where it is found on the mountain. Ama noted that in some cases, trail builders can find a stone that is more or less square-shaped, but that’s often more trouble than it’s worth.

In addition to the rock, other components of the trail are selected for their durability; about a quarter of the way up there is a wooden footbridge; Ama told us that it was made of black locust, a wood chosen for being able to take lots of wear and tear.

Quite a few people were out taking the trail, both the casual hikers and the members of Thruhikeris mainetogeorgius (see my posting about the Field Guide to Outdoors People). They were the ones with the trail-rated packs and the trekking poles. (There was one bearded guy in a kilt doing the trail that day, as I recall.)

A stop for a photo op at the overlook facing Iona Island.

A stop for a photo op at the overlook facing Iona Island.

Got a glimpse of the top of the Bear Mountain Bridge over the Hudson River through the trees. Eventually we came to a clearing and scenic overlook overlooking the river and Iona Island, with Dunderberg Mountain off to the south and Peekskill across the river to the east.

We eventually came up to the active work site, near the approach road for the Perkins Memorial Tower. We were introduced to the trail crew volunteers, who were building a new set of stairs. The edges of the rock stairs were still sharp, and the air had that distinct freshly-hewn rock smell.

Local flora and fauna: we saw lots of pink-and-white mountain laurel, and just above one of the stair sections under construction, a huge patch of blueberries. This being early June, the berries were only just starting to form. As of this writing, it is now the very start of blueberry season, and the bushes are probably now going into full fruit – so keep an eye out for the bears.

A couple of the trail crew members told us that there had been a yearling black bear wandering around on the woods road below the work site at one point. We didn’t see any bears when we were up there, but we did see a deer off grazing in the vegetation; she was apparently used to humans, because as we came by, she continued grazing without batting an eye.

Came to the end of the project section, a rocky glade with more berry bushes. And now, it was time to turn around and go back down. Naturally, gravity was on our side, so we made pretty good time down the mountain – and I was able to stop and take some photos of that waterfall and that giant striated boulder we’d passed on the way up.

The hike definitely put things in perspective – there’s a lot of grunt work involved in keeping a trail in shape and able to withstand all the feet – human, canine and otherwise – that go walking over the AT each year. Those bridges, stairs and bypasses didn’t just appear by themselves overnight.

So, yeah, we were basically visiting a construction site on this hike. But what a construction site it was.

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