There's no denying that New York is steeped in history. As one of the original 13 colonies and the first capitol of the United States, it's been around. While there are museums and thousands of books showcasing the history of this great city, it's sometimes fun to get out and experience it hands-on.
There are many hikes within an hour of downtown Manhattan where you can do just this. There are hikes that let you follow the paths of Revolutionary leaders, and ones that bring you to a 90-year old granite lean-to shelter where you can camp, and still others that are dotted with remnants of the past—cannons, centuries old encampments, and roads that once served carriages.
It's plain to see that New York has plenty to offer the hiker who moonlights as a history buff. If you are interested in adding a little historical flavor to your next hike, here are four spots where you can learn a bit more about New York's history and get in a good workout.
1. Fort Montgomery State Historic Park at Bear Mountain
First stop on this historical hiking tour is Fort Montgomery State Historic Park, located in Bear Mountain. It was the site of an epic Revolutionary War battle, in which sides fought for control over the Hudson. Today, you can hike into the park and visit the the fort's remains. From the visitors’ center at Fort Montgomery hop on a dirt trail that quickly winds through war artifacts and history. Right behind the visitor center as you snap a view of the Bear Mountain Bridge spanning the Hudson River, turn and head down a steep, rocky descent, across a suspension bridge and then wind your way upward until you are in the underbelly of the bridge. It’s less than a mile but it’s a decent down-and-up challenge.
And once your done looking around the fort, you can keep walking and make your way over on the 1777 Trail that runs through Bear Mountain. This trail marks the route followed by the British and American troops during the Revolutionary War. Afterwards, spend some time hiking through Bear Mountain Park, there are plenty of trails here to keep you busy for another few hours or a few days.
2. The Lean-tos at Harriman State Park
Imagine hitting Harriman State Park’s 200 miles of hiking trails and as you get tired at the end of a long day walking headlong into a rugged nearly 90-year old lean-to where you can pad down for the night free of charge? Harriman offers not one but nine of these shelters, each featuring three walls, a roof, fireplace, and fire pits. The shelters have names like Tom Jones, Bald Rock, Big Hill, and Dutch Doctor. The park service started building the lean-tos in the 1920's and today these rugged outposts are a major attraction among hikers and campers.
If you have a specific shelter in mind—or if you want to find them all—grab a copy of the new Harriman-Bear Mountain Trail Map to study the closest parking options. There are copies for sale at the visitor center and bookstore located right on the Palisades Interstate Parkway between exit 16 and 17 on your way in. Some of the lean-tos are fairly close to access points. A new yellow bus service running on the weekends through September from the Tuxedo, New York train station makes numerous stops throughout the park that will put you in proximity of the shelters.
3. Fort Lee Historic Park and Palisades Interstate Park
Fort Lee Historic Park occupies a cliff overlooking New York’s most famous steel overpass—the George Washington Bridge. You can walk across the bridge from midtown or drive over to the park, which offers a paved loop and an outdoor history lesson on the fall of New York City to the British. From the reconstructed battlements you can soak in the New York skyline.
If you jump back in your car and drive just 15 minutes to the Alpine Picnic and Boat Basin at Palisades Interstate Park, you can set out on the Shore Trail (white blaze) heading south about 1.5 miles to Huylers Landing, the site where General Cornwallis and his troops landed in 1776. Once there, pick up the red-blazed Huyler’s Landing Trail and walk the same route the British army followed in November 1776 to invade New Jersey. The Huyler’s Landing Trail joins up with the Long Path (aqua blaze) and heads north through some tunnels and leads you back to the basin for a moderate five-mile adventure.
4. The Carriage Trails at Rockefeller State Park
Rockefeller State Park is the definition of bucolic, and everything you’d expect the one-time estate of the industrial baron John D. Rockefeller to be. One of the highlights of the preserve is miles of carriage roads and paths designed by John D. Rockefeller Jr. For those that gravitate toward legend, hop on the Old Sleepy Hollow Road Trail, a road that has been continuously in use since the 18th century and lies just a few steps from the preserve’s main entrance and parking area. A long descent will take you across Sleepy Hollow Road and over to the western wing of the park. Once across, you’ll want to follow the trailheads for the Pocantico River Trail (it forks north and southwest not far from the roadway). The southwestern spur will meander along and connect with the Gory Brook Road Trail, a colonial road in use until 1979. Head to the southwestern corner of the park and ambitious hikers can pick up trail markers for the steeper Peggy's Way, which links up with the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail, the underground water tunnel built in 1842 to bring water to New York City.