Ancient History Above the Hudson: The Story Behind New Jersey's Palisades Interstate Park

Palisades Interstate Park at State Lookout
Palisades Interstate Park at State Lookout Stephanie Cohen
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Stretching high above the Hudson River for a dozen or so miles, and featuring roughly 2,500 acres of rugged cliffs, scenic waterfront, and 200 million-year-old vertical columns of rock, Palisades Interstate Park is easily one of the New York City area's most dramatic natural outdoor destinations.

From the moment you pull off the Palisades Interstate Highway and begin your descent down the Alpine Approach Road you'll start to feel a Jurassic Park meets Stonehenge vibe, as soaring formations take over your entire view. The Lenape Indian Tribe supposedly described the cliffs as "rocks that look like rows of trees."

You might think this rough, intense terrain would make Palisades a dark, unappealing place—especially during the winter months—but once you step out onto the cliffs at State Line Drive, your mind is stretched to come up with any other feeling besides sheer, stunning, towering bliss. The sun glints off the icy Hudson water as it laps right up to the rocky shores of the cliffs far below; barges move up and down the river; and life in Manhattan distantly hums along on the other side. You are standing atop a staggering wilderness periphery looking out at civilization, soaking it all in.

Barges heading up the Hudson River
Barges heading up the Hudson River Bogdan Migulski

Dubbed a “geological phenomenon,” Palisades Interstate Park lies on the eastern side of the Hudson River, mostly in New Jersey. The park’s best artifacts are its fortress-like rock walls—dating back to the Triassic Period—which were formed from volcanic rocks and further shaped by years of glacial activity during the Ice Ages. If you ask the Museum of Natural History in New York city about the park’s finest artifact they might refer you to the dinosaur-like skeleton found in the park in 1910 by a group of college students. The remains, believed to be part of a 200 million year old animal ( Clepsysaurus manhattanensis ), wound up in the  museum ’s Hall of Vertebrate Origins.

One of the park's unique geological scars is at Twombly's Landing near Alpine, where at low tide, it looks like tons of rocks were dropped out of the sky and dumped at the bottom of one of the cliffs. In reality, it was formed by a great rock fall in 1938. The granddaughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt purchased property just below Twomby's landing in the 1890's and her family basically created a park of their own on several dozen acres. The family later gifted this property to the park commission that was formed, and Twombly's Landing became a great escape for plenty of New Yorkers during the hot summer months.

The history of the park is littered with the names of the 19th century's most prominent families and financiers who were building homes outside New York City, and who became starkly opposed to the on-going demolition of the Palisades' cliffs and natural resources by local-area quarries.

One of the Palisades' most famous geological spots—a 200-foot vertical rise known as Indian Head—was actually destroyed in a planned blast in 1898. By the turn of the century, these prominent residents, along with a local woman’s club, a future president (Theodore Roosevelt), and an insurance millionaire banded together to urge New York and New Jersey officials to form a park commission. After negotiations with the quarry owners, the states took over property of the quarries—and stopped the blasting—with an initial (generous) check from famed financier J.P. Morgan.

State Line Lookout at Palisades Interstate Park
State Line Lookout at Palisades Interstate Park Stephanie Cohen

Today, the park features frozen waterfalls, rock walls, rock tunnels, and plenty of rock ledges to sit on while you're out on the trails. With a peak height of over 500 feet, 30 miles of hiking trails, and a fairly bustling calendar of events, the park is made for single-day and half day outdoor journeying in any season.

In winter, the park is often blanketed in snow. When the snow falls, it means the park’s five miles of cross country ski trails (marked A-F) are ideal for a weekend session, and snowshoes are another great way to explore, but be prepared to occasionally take a slide on your rear on some of the steeper trails.

The park's trails are easily navigable—imagine a long, stretched out oval, with looping trails. The two main trails are the Long Path (aqua blaze) and the Shore Trail (white blaze), both of which can be picked up at Fort Lee Historic Park, and which let you start out with up-close views of the George Washington Bridge.

Manhattan-ites can start the Long Path in New York City (at the 175 Street subway station in Washington Heights) and make their way across the George Washington Bridge. Jersey folks can start the Shore Trail in Alpine, heading to the northern wing of the loop, which brings you close to the Hudson River.

If you are looking for maximum height and vistas, you'll want to try the Forest View Trail (blue-and-white blaze) which has a steep 520-foot elevation gain. For a little less intensity, try Huyler’s Landing Trail (red blaze) with its 440-foot elevation gain, Closter Dock Trail (orange blaze) with a 360-foot elevation gain, or the Dyckman Hill Trail (yellow blaze) with a 340-foot elevation gain.

For more challenging hikes: try the Bombay Hook/Forest View Hike, which will take you across eight miles with spectacular views of the city and the Bronx. Most of these trails overlap with the Long Path and Shore Trail at various points.

Views of New York from Palisades Interstate Park
Views of New York from Palisades Interstate Park Stephanie Cohen

Over the past century, Palisades has gone from a battle-scarred blasting site to a majestic park with some of the Hudson River Valley’s most prized views on display year-round to hikers. The slabs of stone, the curving cliffs, the steep descents, the summits, the plateaus, the rock pillars all add up to make Palisades an intense -- and intensely satisfying--destination for anyone seeking some rugged outdoors with prehistoric flavor.

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