Background you can feel free to skip: Until recently, I didn’t understand why Breakneck Ridge was such a wildly popular hike. It had been many years since I’d climbed it, and my most vivid memory from Breakneck was our friends hoisting their black lab over some rocks that were too steep for their poor pooch to climb. Nearby Bull Hill offers similar views without Breakneck’s crazy steepness. Why would anyone want to climb an elevator shaft when they could just take the stairs instead?
In preparing this write-up, I gave Breakneck another shot, taking half a day off work to meet my buddy Rob, who hopped the train from Grand Central up to Cold Spring, about a mile south of the trailhead. (For New York City hikers, there’s also a Breakneck Ridge MTA stop right across the street from the trailhead, with a limited weekend-only schedule. See this very nice Breakneck write-up from nycdayhiking.com for more information on that stop. UPDATE May 2019: And for another hike with its very own weekend-only MTA stop, check out the Great Swamp in Pawling!)
After hiking the loop up Breakneck again, I can’t understand why I ever thought this place was anything short of spectacular. A few weeks after our hike, Rob sent me this link to a very cool, 2.5-minute video he put together from our day at Breakneck, which helps to show why it’s such a popular place. With multiple cliff overlooks and ever-expanding views the entire way up, this hike is not to be missed.
It is extremely difficult, though, and I’d be very hesitant to recommend this hike for small children. I’ve done most of the hikes in Hike the Hudson Valley with a baby on my back, but I’d never attempt that here. And I’d only bring a dog that I could carry.
I didn’t see any other dogs there that day, but a fellow hiker assured me that she sees dogs here all the time. There were several spots where my pooch Memphis needed a boost, and I honestly don’t see how a dog would get over some of those spots without being picked up and placed on top of the rocks.
The point I’m trying to make: This hike is steep.
It is also gorgeous and unforgettable. If you have a chance to pay a visit to Breakneck Ridge, don’t pass it up. And if you don’t have a chance, you should probably make one anyway.
**UPDATE October 2014** A friendly first responder reached out to me with this message: “Our local volunteer first responders do a lot of rescues at Breakneck. Amazing how ill-prepared some folks are when they attempt any outdoor adventure.” She recommends that everyone review this list before attempting this hike. Good advice! Let’s make sure your day at Breakneck is memorable for the right reasons.
**UPDATE October 2021** If you’re interested in taking a shorter hike at Breakneck, the Nimham Trail (opened in 2021) offers some great new options. Please see my Breakneck Ridge: Short Loop trail guide if a 1.5-mile loop sounds more like your speed. Or distance. You know what I mean.
1. From the parking area by the tunnel (or the overflow parking just north – see “Directions to the trailhead” below), head to the northern side of the tunnel and grab a map from the box at the trailhead. If you’re the preparing type, you can also print this PDF trail map from the NYS Parks dept.
2. Climb up and over the tunnel that runs over Rt 9D, following the White Trail markers.
3. Keep climbing. Up and up and up. After what feels like quite a climb (because it is), you’ll come to a flagpole with a great overlook. Across the river is Storm King Mountain. To your right is Pollepel Island with Bannerman’s Castle perched on the side, and the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge beyond. Incidentally, has anyone ever called this bridge the Hamilton Fish Bridge, like it says on the sign as you cross it? If you pointed to it right now and called it the Hamilton Fish Bridge, you’d probably be the first.
4. Enjoy the view toward the river, and try not to think too much about what’s waiting behind you.
Oops, you thought about it, didn’t you? Oh well, might as well start climbing again. Just keep following those white markers.
There are a few spots where you can choose steeper or less steep options, which you’ll see marked with an X pointing left and right.
See that guy on the cliff in the picture above? He was heading down, and when he popped out beside a rock to my left (I was looking right – he surprised me), I realized that the trail was less steep the way he came down. That guy saved me at least one dog-carry.
5. Keep climbing, and the flagpole becomes a distant memory.
6. Take some time to enjoy the next cliff overlook.
7. Keep climbing, and eventually, this mountain will run out of bluffs to throw at you. Really, it will. When it feels like you’re at the top and you can’t see any more bluffs in front of you, you’re probably there. You’ll have traveled about a mile, though it seems more like ten. The next three miles on the loop fly by in comparison.
At the top, above a couple of nice little pine trees, enjoy the view and munch a granola bar or two, if you packed ‘em.
8. It wouldn’t be a bad hike to just go straight back down the White Trail from here. That’s really where the best views are. Most hikers like a good loop, though, so if that applies to you, let’s keep trekking. (Also, the rest of the loop doesn’t require any dog-carrying. The thought of carrying my dog back down some of those White Trail sections again was enough to keep us pressing forward.)
9. In the small saddle after the last big bluff, ignore the Yellow Trail as it departs to your right. Keep heading straight on the White Trail.
10. You’re looking for a turnoff on your left to the Red Trail, after you pass one last small summit and a little marsh on your right (the frogs were going nuts in there when we walked past in late March – I thought we were coming upon a flock of turkeys. Also, the Internet tells me that I should have said “a rafter of turkeys,” but somehow that seems like the only way to talk about turkeys and be pretentious at the same time.)
The turnoff to the Red Trail is very tough to miss. The only thing it’s lacking is a flashing light, and perhaps some sort of siren. When you see it, take a left.
11. Follow the Red Trail (aka the “Breakneck Bypass”) down a much more gradual descent through the woods, with occasional northerly views of Sugarloaf and the river.
12. After 30-60 minutes, depending on how leisurely you’re strolling, the Red Trail dead-ends into the Wilkinson Memorial Trail, marked in yellow. Take a left onto the Yellow Trail and keep following it downhill.
13. The Yellow Trail continues its gradual descent for 15 minutes or so, ending abruptly and dumping you unceremoniously onto Route 9D, which can be a pretty busy road.
Normally, I hate road hikes, and don’t consider a loop trail that has a large road section to be much of a loop. But you can actually see the parking area from the dump-out point, so we’ll let this one slide, especially since it kept us from having to carry our dogs back down the mountain.
Take a left onto Route 9D and walk carefully on the well-worn path beside it.
14. Carefully cross the street once you get back to your car. Boom! You did it. Congratulations on knocking out one of the toughest hikes in the area. Now find someone to show all your awesome pictures.
Directions to the trailhead: From the village of Cold Spring, head north on Route 9D for about one mile. At the far end of the tunnel, turn left immediately into the small parking area. If there aren’t any spots there, head north just a couple hundred more yards to find a larger lot on the left.
You can also get directions by checking out the Breakneck Ridge entry on the HiketheHudsonValley.com Google map.
Sorta nearby address for your GPS: The intersection of Fair St and Route 9D in Cold Spring, NY is about a mile south of the Breakneck Ridge trailhead (the parking area is immediately north of the only tunnel around on Route 9D).
GPS coordinates of parking area: 41.44327, -73.97801 (Clicking will open in Google Maps or the Apple Maps app, depending on your browser/device.)
Super-cool Google Earth flyover of hike route:
Google Terrain Map of hike route:
Related resources: If you’re looking for actual facts and/or useful information, visit these pages:
- New York State’s Hudson Highlands State Park page
- New York State’s Hudson Highlands trail map
- Some great preparation advice in this blog post from a Breakneck Ridge trail steward
- Breakneck’s Wikipedia page
- Train schedule for Breakneck’s MTA stop
- Nycdayhiking.com’s very nice Breakneck write-up (and description for a longer loop trail)
- The page to buy the awesome New York-New Jersey Trail Conference map for this area
- Another nice Breakneck write-up from the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference
- My Breakneck Ridge: Short Loop trail guide for a new (as of 2021) 1.5-mile hike option
Want to support trails in the Hudson Valley? Here’s one great way: Visit the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference homepage and click on Volunteer, Donate, or Shop! (Then you can volunteer, donate, or shop, depending on your mood.)