Categories: CampingDestinations

A New York Microadventure: West Mountain Shelter in Harriman State Park

The trail runs right through West Mountain Shelter in Harriman State Park. Views of the Hudson River and, at night, the lights of Manhattan.

If you’ve lived the cramped apartment life in New York City, you’ve probably had at least one Extra Room Dream. You know the one: you’re at home, and a door you’ve never noticed before suddenly appears. Beyond, a vast extra room stretches, sometimes with a fountain, trees, even a distant waterfall.

The Extra Room dream is a signal from your deep subconscious that you’ve suffered claustrophobic urbanism one day too many, and it’s time to get out. And for dreamers like me – sometimes car-less, sometimes just wanting to leave the wheels at home and avoid the traffic – the path to the mountains starts at the apartment stoop.

One of my favorite overnight microadventures uses public transportation from New York to Harriman State Park’s West Mountain and the stone lean-to there. There is pure escapism in the meandering Timp-Torne Trail, the solitude of an off-season hike, but especially, in falling asleep in an ancient stone shelter – your primitive “extra room” for the night – high above the Hudson River, built in sight of the far-off lights of Manhattan.

For this 10.3-mile trip, you’ll need basic camping equipment, an adequate supply of water (there’s none along the trail), and some cash if you’re planning to imbibe at the Bear Mountain Inn afterward. Get all your supplies before you take the bus; there’s nothing for sale once the bus leaves you at the trailhead.

Hiker resting, West Mountain, Harriman State Park

Ready? Dreamers, here’s how it’s done:

Catch the Shortline bus from Port Authority to the Tomkins Cove bus stop on Route 9W. Take an early bus; the trip to Tomkins Cove takes 1.5 hours, and you should give yourself three hours to hike to the shelter.

Tip! Download the OpenMaps app for your smartphone. This little gem shows exactly where you are along the bus route and trail (as long as your battery is charged!)

Get off the bus at Tomkins Cove and walk north along the roadside (with the river on your right) for a half-mile to reach the Timp-Torne trailhead. You’ll see a post in the brambles, marked with blue blazes. You’ll follow them for steep, but not daunting, climb to the top of the mountain, enjoying the views of the river along the way.

The blue-blazed trail unspools as a gentle up-and-down along the side of Dunderberg Mountain, rolling out between hardwood forest, sparse pinyon pine, and the ruined tunnels of an unfinished railway. As the trail tops out on “The Timp,” the view widens and stuns. On a recent cold-weather trip, I met a group of Wesley College students cooking Arabic coffee atop the Timp; we sat together for awhile, sharing the coffee, warming ourselves on the open rock above the river.

Wide Hudson River views from “The Timp,” in Harriman State Park.

Tip: Not every meal needs to be cooked over an open fire. As a safeguard against a lack of firewood or an all-out campfire ban, bring a JetBoil or other small stove for easily preparing coffee, morning oatmeal, freeze-dried dinners.

At 4.6 miles from the trailhead, the trail rises sharply ahead and eventually reveals a pitched roof: West Mountain Shelter. Listen for other voices, and pray you’re alone because the experience of West Mountain in solitude is camping perfection.

Raw and rustic, with the smoky-smelling residue of a thousand vagabond fires, the shelter was built in the 1930s as a respite for tired travelers on the trails. It’s a three-sided lean-to made of stone and timber, with two built-in fireplaces on its side walls. For me, its beauty and viewshed, perched on an open mountainside, rival the best of the Adirondack lean-tos. One night in summer last year, I rolled over in my sleep and opened my eyes to a view of distant Manhattan: not the crowded city that I know up close, but the city of my dreams and memories, of twinkling, reflective colorful things, Christmas lights, costume jewelry.

Staying in the lean-to is free, not reservable, and open to all travelers. If you find it occupied when you get there, pitch a tent or hammock anywhere within sight of the shelter. Loads of campsites and fire rings surround West Mountain Shelter, but there are no bathrooms, running water, or garbage cans.

Tip: It’s the middle of the night and you have to “go,” but you’re cold and the last thing you want to do is get out of that sleeping bag. Well, get up and get it done anyway. Holding it in actually makes your body colder. Best to get up, deal with it, and then get back into bed.

In the morning, douse your fires and hit the trail again. At .65 mile from the shelter, the white blazes of the Appalachian Trail join the blue Timp-Torne trail markers. This part of the Timp-Torne is rocky, somewhat open and packed with views, so take your time. Absorb them to the bone.

Stone steps along the rugged face of Bear Mountain.

In .75 miles, leave the blue blazes and follow the white-blazed AT to Bear Mountain. Hike over the top of the Bear, stunning in any weather, then trek the very first completed section of the Appalachian Trail, following the painstakingly restored stone steps and bridges downhill to the historic Bear Mountain Inn.

Long views from the top of Bear Mountain.

The massive stone-and-timber inn is the perfect spot to relax post-adventure with a local beer, ice cream or sandwich at the Hikers Cafe, or upstairs at the Blue Roof Tapas Bar. Or, if you’re coming in from the cold, take a drink to Restaurant 1915, also upstairs, and settle into one of the couches near the fireplace.

Bear Mountain Inn

Return to the city via the Shortline Bus from the Inn. Or, if you can’t get enough of those Hudson River views (but don’t mind hiking another three miles), cross the impressive Bear Mountain Bridge, walk along Rte 9 north, then follow Manitou Station Road down to the Manitou Metro-North train station. The schedule is spare, and you’ll have to flag the driver down, but your reward is a traffic-free riverside glide along some of the most scenic spots in the Hudson Highlands, ending at Grand Central Terminal.

Cross the Bear Mountain Bridge from the Bear Mountain Inn to the base of Anthony’s Nose, then turn north to catch the Metro-North train back to the city.

Suzy Allman disappears on the long distance hike for days or weeks at a time. She shoots professionally for The New York Times, among other publications, and edits www.myharriman.com.

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