Having grown up in Central Jersey, I’ve often ascribed geographic stereotypes to the northern part of the state (dense, urban) and to the south (sparse, rural). When I moved to Hudson County, I was prepared to bid farewell to the active, outdoorsy life of my younger days. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that my new Hoboken nest was mere miles from some of New Jersey’s most picturesque hiking—along the dramatic cliffs of Palisades Interstate Park.
“People are always telling us that they never knew this place existed,” says Eric Nelsen, a park historian. “But that’s not by design. We want people to enjoy the park, because it belongs to everybody.”
Indeed, you can find all sorts of people on the trails: couples on day hikes with newborns strapped to their backs; wide-eyed Boy Scouts bounding along with walking sticks; families and kids picnicking below the cliffs; bird watchers wielding cameras and binoculars; couples gazing hand in hand across the Hudson River to New York City. (Click here or on the thumbnail to the left to see a slideshow of the Palisades’ stunning sights.)
Yet Palisades Interstate Park might never have happened were it not for a collaborative effort at the turn of the 20th century between New Jersey and New York to preserve the dramatic sheer cliffs running along the western shore of the lower Hudson River.
Like their rocky counterparts in western Africa, the cliffs are remnants of the splitting of the supercontinent Pangaea and the birth of the Atlantic Ocean about 200 million years ago.
“It’s almost like having a baby photo of North America,” says Nelsen. “The cliffs are a piece of the creation of this continent.”
But the Palisades were not always revered as a public treasure. In the late 19th century, stone quarries in Fort Lee blasted the ancient walls into gravel and railroad ballast, tearing away at the cliffs.
“The park’s history is this really interesting picture of two streams running through American life,” says Nelsen. “One stream striving to preserve the incredible natural beauty and exciting history of this country, countered against the other stream of economic progress and free enterprise. Not everyone wanted to save the cliffs.”
In fact, it was the women of New Jersey—20 years before they gained the right to vote—who lifted their voices for preservation. Together with the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society based in New York City, where the destruction could be viewed every day, the New Jersey State Federation of Women’s Clubs set out to persuade the legislatures in both states to protect the Palisades. At the time, the movement to preserve public lands was barely 20 years old. In 1900, governors Foster M. Voorhees of New Jersey and Theodore Roosevelt of New York (the future president and creator of the National Parks System) formed the Palisades Interstate Park Commission, and with a $125,000 donation from banker/philanthropist J.P. Morgan, the commission secured an option to buy the largest of the quarries, which it eventually shut down.
Years later, another generous ally—John D. Rockefeller Jr.—helped the preservation effort. The tycoon/philanthropist quietly bought up as much Palisades property as he could, eventually donating 723 acres to the commission. Rockefeller stipulated that all the grand Gatsby-era cliff-edge estates be removed in favor of creating a scenic parkway and camp.
“The cliffs’ survival is not a happy accident or coincidence,” says Nelsen. “People determined that it had to be saved. Now it seems so obvious, but it really was an extraordinary achievement. If nobody had done anything, the quarries would have been happy to keep blowing up the cliffs, and the land would have been cluttered with billions of dollars of [private estates]. It was a fight.” (Click here to learn more about the history of the cliffs.)
Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1965, the park encompasses more than 100,000 acres and 24 miles of Hudson River shorefront, cliffs and uplands. Only 2,500 narrow acres of the park are actually in New Jersey. Our strip of this paradise stretches 12 miles from Fort Lee north to the state line, averaging less than a quarter of a mile wide.
Two main trails run the length of the Jersey section: the Long Path skims the clifftops, and the Shore Trail follows the edge of the Hudson below.
Marked with aqua-blue blazes, the 13-mile New Jersey section of the Long Path traverses easy to moderate terrain. The trail starts south of the George Washington Bridge at Fort Lee Historic Park, gaining a mere 200 feet as it heads north to the State Line Lookout. Along the way, it provides access to a number of 400- to 500-foot overlooks, including Rockefeller Lookout and Alpine Lookout, both offering extraordinary views of the Hudson and beyond.
The Long Path also passes by the Greenbrook Sanctuary, a 165-acre members-only woodland preserve (membership is $35 a year), as well as the Women’s Federation Monument, a minature castle-like structure dedicated in 1929 to honor the New Jersey State Federation of Women’s Clubs for their part in preserving the Palisades. Toward the end of the Jersey section, hikers can spot an abandoned swimming pool, a remnant of one of the mountaintop mansions. (The trail continues another 343 miles to John Boyd Thacher State Park near Albany, New York.)
While the Long Path is dramatic, it tends to get crowded and can be noisy, thanks to passing cars on the nearby Palisades Parkway. The white-blazed 12.2-mile Shore Trail, situated along the river below the cliffs, is a more peaceful alternative.
“A natural instinct for first-time hikers is to go to the top of the cliffs for the views, which are great,” says Nelsen. “But I think the nicest hiking is actually along the riverfront.”
The Shore Path starts at Fort Lee Historic Park, but winds down to the river, where it hugs the shoreline, passing Hazard’s Dock—a boat launch for trailer-towed boats under 24 feet and jet skis ($20 cash) or car-top canoes and kayaks ($10 cash)—and through a series of picnic areas with tables, grills, playgrounds, restrooms and access to fishing and crabbing. The trail also takes you to Kearney House, a 19th-century tavern and homestead that serves as a history museum.
To that point, the Shore Trail is easy to moderate. About three miles beyond Kearney House, it passes over the Giant Stairs, three slippery boulder fields created by rocks sliding from the cliffs above. Sturdy hiking boots are a must.
“Don’t think that just because you’re in Alpine, New Jersey, we’re pulling your leg by saying it’s a challenging hike,” says Nelsen, regarding the Giant Stairs. “We have to pull people off there every year.”
The trail then enters New York State and takes you to Peanut Leap Cascade, a small waterfall, before rising steeply to its end near the state line. Here you can connect with the Long Path and hike back along the cliffs.
Five short trails link the Long Path and the Shore Trail, ranging in classification from moderate to steep. The easiest is the red-blazed Huyler’s Landing Trail, an old wagon route that gradually descends 400 feet from the Long Path to the Shore Trail. The orange-blazed Closter Dock Trail is also an old wagon route, though a bit steeper. It passes through a pair of tunnels beneath the Palisades Parkway and down a series of switchbacks, ending just north of the Alpine Picnic Area.
Though dogs must be kept on leashes and bikes aren’t allowed on the trails, Palisades Park tries to offer something for everyone, with a variety of guided tours that ramp up in the fall, including history hikes, nature hikes, full-moon hikes and children’s hikes. In addition, from September to early November, bird lovers can participate in the annual fall Hawk Watch at State Line Lookout, held every fall since 1997 as part of the national effort to record raptor migration. (In past years, watchers have counted more than a dozen species of hawks and two species of vultures.)
The park continues to welcome visitors in the winter with more than five miles of cross-country ski trails. As Nelson says, the park is “a place for people to come and get exercise and fresh air”—whatever the season.
Palisades Interstate Park is free and open to the public 365 days a year. The park is accessible by car at several points along U.S. Route 9W and the Palisades Interstate Parkway. Parking is available at Fort Lee Historic Park, the Alpine Administration Building and State Line Lookout. Some lots have a $5 per car fee on weekends or holidays. For more information, call 201-768-1360 or visit their website.
Freelance contributor Drew Anne Scarantino is an avid hiker.