By Matthew Young
Storm King Mountain
West Point, NY
2.5 mile loop
Route 9W winds its way through the hills of the Hudson Highlands. It follows the path of the Hudson River as it cuts through the sprawling upstate forests. The parking area for Storm King Mountain is directly off 9W. You’ll descend a steep mountain slope into the bend of a glacial valley. When the road begins to ascend you’ll notice the parking area on your right.
Form the moment you step out of the car, you are rewarded with immediate views of the Hudson River and the surrounding mountain tops. There are a few picnic tables overlooking the valley if you wish to have a quick bite to eat before the hike.
To the left of the parking area is an orange-blazed trail. This trail begins near a plaque detailing the history of Storm King Mountain and sporting a map of the trail system. Follow the orange trail to begin the hike. You will notice a white-blazed trail that also begins at the parking area, this will be the trail used on the second half of the loop.
The orange trail is rocky at first, but the beautiful fall colors line the path with their vibrant reds and yellows. The uphill climb starts almost instantly as the trail parallels the road. It can be helpful to use the smaller tree trunks and branches as hand holds to help pull yourself up the hillside. During peak autumn foliage the orange blazes can be easily missed, so keep a keen eye out for the trail markers. Be aware that some of the orange blazes are actually painted on the boulders.
One of the best things about this hike is that it rewards you with continuous views, while requiring minimal effort compared to other hikes in the region. There are an abundance of rocky outcroppings that provide views of the colored canopy below.
The cars on Route 9W can be heard for the first portion of the trail, though they quickly become white noise as your attention focuses more on the beauty of the dynamic forests.
Much of the orange trail climbs over exposed slabs of rock. You’ll come to a section as you continue to climb that requires some slight rock scrabbling. Take your time at this point. Don’t rush. The orange blazes are clearly marked on the stones.
As the trail cuts away from the road and levels off, you’ll pass some old stone ruins. Only three pillars remain standing. The birds and squirrels have made homes between the old stone symbols of an earlier time. As with the overlook mountain house in Woodstock, the work of man slowly crumbles and returns to its natural state. The mountains always reclaim what is rightly theirs.
Continue following the orange blazes past the ruins. Though this year’s fall colors are starting to fade, there are still traces of autumn left on Storm King Mountain, before winter takes its firm hold of upstate. After the stone pillars, the trail begins to head downhill.
Boulders that have tumbled down the mountainside litter the land around the trail. A nice blanket of orange, yellow, and red leaves cover the forest floor.
Though it may be a welcome descent, it doesn’t last for long. Once again you will start to zigzag uphill, curving around some small stone caves. A short level section of the trail passes a few rock cairns built by fellow hikers, and then continues to climb. The further you walk into the woods, away from 9W, the more peaceful it becomes. This hike provides you with a the opportunity to embrace the solitude of nature as the wind drops more leaves, bringing us closer and closer to winter.
The trail gets steep as you make your way towards the first summit of Butter Hill. You may find yourself having to use your hands at certain sections. The bells from a nearby church can be heard in the breeze. You can even watch distant cars drive along the curves of the mountain roads.
While exploring the rock ledges along the trail, be careful of your footing and steep drop-offs. There are seemingly endless ledges where you can take a break and enjoy the view. These ledges provide some of the best views in the entirety of the Hudson Valley. From certain vantage points you can see down to the parking area. Again, the orange trail markers are painted on the rocks. This could be a good stopping point for those in the mood for a shorter hike. Though for those looking to complete the loop, the trail heads further up the mountain.
As you walk along the crest of the ridge-top, the shrub oaks get noticeable shorter as the trail narrows. Storm King Mountain has some of the most interesting terrain in the area. The scenery is constantly changing throughout the relatively short mileage.
After you break away from the crest of the first ridge top, the orange trail will end at a fork in the road. At this point you will head right on the narrower uphill trail. You will see a blue diamond shaped marker nailed to a tree. As you head up the trail to your right you will also notice some yellow blazes accompanying the blue blazes. Although the trail veering to the left may look more worn and traveled, it will not lead you to the summit of Storm King.
A slightly higher lookout will provide you with similar views from more ledges jutting out over the tree tops. The shrill cries of hawks, as they swoop over the dips in the valleys, echo from one end of the highlands to the other.
Continue to follow the blue/yellow trail markers. Once you reach the summit of Butter Hill, marked with a geological plaque, you’ll be able to see complete 360 degree views. To the northwest you can make out the Shawangunk Ridge, rising from the valley floor like a wall. Beyond the Shawangunks stand the peaks of the Catskills. Almost the entire silhouette of the range is visible on clear days. The Hudson River is also more visible, along with the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge. The rest of the Hudson Highlands roll on northward. It is an incredible panoramic view.
The trail will slowly head downhill for a while. As with the hike at Bear Mountain, train whistles can be heard blowing as they travel along the banks of the Hudson.
At the intersection with the blue/red trail, go to the right and follow the yellow/blue trail uphill. A few yards after that intersection the yellow/blue trail will veer to the left. Remain on that trail, ignoring the pure blue trail that continues straight.
Watch out for fallen tree trunks and branches that block the path. At this point the trail is relatively level as you make your way towards the true summit of Storm King Mountain. You will know you are getting closer when the rock scrambling starts up again.
Even though other places in the Unites states, particularly the American West, may have taller peaks or deeper canyons, the mountains and forests of Upstate New York have a completely different appeal. They feel older, time worn and rich in history. Even with New York City so close, the land feels ancient and unchanged. You can touch the sandstone and limestone that has been rounded out for eons, and walk atop the slabs carved out by glaciers.
As the trail keeps climbing, there are great views of the river. The clearest views of the Hudson River are from the summit. Once you arrive at the top you’ll be able to make out the ruins of Bannerman’s Castle, situated on an island in the Hudson.
Breakneck Ridge (one of New York’s more challenging hikes) rises 1,260 feet above sea level, directly across the river.
After you’ve soaked in the views from Storm King summit, hop back on the blue/yellow trail to complete the loop. At the intersection with the white trail, head right and follow the white blazes over some rocky terrain. The white trail will ultimately lead you back to the parking area. When you approach the junction with the pure blue trail, you have the option of turning right and cutting across to the yellow/blue trail, allowing you to retrace your steps back to the orange trail. I prefer new terrain so I chose to follow the white-blazed trail back to my car. This trail will be mostly downhill or level until one final uphill push to the parking lot.
Before the first significant snowfall covers the slopes of Storm King, take advantage of the last few mild days and experience the beauty of New York’s mountains.
Always be prepared. Stop by Hatchet Outdoor Supply for detailed maps of the Hudson Highlands and all of your outdoor needs.