Directly under the George Washington Bridge on the New Jersey side lies the last thing you would expect would be directly under the George Washington Bridge on the New Jersey side. A park. Not like, a city park with swings and sandboxes and homeless folk. Like, a national park, with hiking trails and campsites and picnic areas. And, apparently, with a view of the Manhattan skyline. Here's the skinny: Palisades National Park is twelve miles long, 1/2 mile wide, and boasts (according to their website), "mile after mile of rugged woodlands and vistas just minutes from midtown Manhattan". Yeah . . . all that and a bag of chips, right? Serious hiking minutes from midtown? Dude. Really? I mean, how rugged could it be when the "miles of woodlands" are sandwiched between the Hudson River and the Palisades Parkway, right? Well, last week, Victor and I endeavored to find out.
Here's how it happened: The Palisades Interstate Park Commission was created by New York and New Jersey in 1900 to keep stone quarries from destroying the cliffs on the west side of the Hudson. The area that is now under the George Washington Bridge and the miles north of it was the first section of land that was acquired by this commission. Basically, it's been there ever since. And nobody has messed with it . . . other than to establish trails, set up a few restroom facilities, and carve out overlooks and parking lots at the trail heads. So . . . Victor and I drove to the northernmost parking area, found the nearest trail head and started trekking. We, I believe, were on the Closter Landing Loop, a five mile trail on the north-westernmost area of the park (meaning, the upper part of the cliff or, for all intents and purposes, the high road). The beginning of the trail was a lovely little stroll through the woods and we chatted and sipped coffee in the brisk early winter air. The interesting thing was, the trail wove from side to side (east to west), so we could view, alternately, the breathtaking, peaceful, and sprawling view from thousands of feet above the Hudson and the very loud and very concrete Palisades Parkway. It was, literally, a slice of nature. A very small slice. As we rambled through the fallen leaves, the terrain became incrementally more raked toward the east. I could see how this hike could get a little scary. There was very little between us and a long slide into the cold waters of the Hudson. Still, though, it was a moderate and very pretty, if from time to time noisily polluted by traffic, hike.
After a while, though, the Parkway receded, the noise receded further and further into the distance, and we came upon what I can only call . . . ruins. Rising out of the fallen leaves was what must have once been a large stone building. The windows and doors were long gone, but the sun slanted through them to reveal a man-made floor and windows to an inner room. Rubble and fall leaves were scattered on the floor and as we explored, we found small enclosed rooms containing debris, leaves, and the remnants of a previous human presence (water bottles, glass, etc.) We climbed stairs to the roof and picked our way over the holes where the roof had caved into the tunnels of the building below. I was suddenly aware of how quiet it had become and how utterly alone we were. I gazed into a dimly lit completely enclosed alcove and wondered who or what lived there in the night-time. Then I wondered if he/she/it was still here during the day and if we were potentially disturbing he/she/its slumber. Suddenly, in my vastly avid imagination, I was Will Smith in I Am Legend and Victor and I were the only two people left on earth and some creepy alien thing was dragging its pale emaciated body out of the rubble to feed on my flesh. I hustled to Victor's side.
"Dude. I'm a little creeped out. Isn't that silly?", I asked hesitantly.
"Nope. I am, too.", he replied, "Let's explore down here away from the trail". Um . . . yeah . . . great.
Now, it's not like you can get all that lost in Palisades Park since it's 1/2 mile wide, but it is pretty significantly steeply set up, so it was a little precarious moving away from the trail and down toward the Hudson. But, if you know me at all, you know that I'm always up for adventure, so I headed down the steep incline after my equally-as-adventurous husband. We encountered more stone structures that I found, after a little post-hike research, were part of what was once called "Millionaire's Row", part of a clump of old estate foundations along the Palisade cliff tops. We carefully picked our way down the steep incline through the piles of stone and vegetation and I nearly missed stepping into a very deep hole surrounded by stone. I peered down to the bottom of what was once a small room or a large well and strained to see the sides of the enclosed area. I couldn't. Yeah . . . anybody seen The Descent? I imagined an assembly of pale, fanged, semi-human Gollum-like creatures reaching their spindly arms out to drag me down from the Palisades into Dante's seventh circle of hell.
I looked over at Victor and realized he was equally as intrigued/creeped/excited by the eerily quiet ruins as I. We explored a bit more and as the sun began to angle toward the horizon, we decided to head back to civilization. It took some picking through high foliage, but we eventually found our way back to the trail and eventually the car safe and sound. As we drove home, we discussed the breathtaking views of the city, the beautifully sunny and crisp taste of nature that we had enjoyed, and, of course, the perfect beginning to a horror flick that we had just lived. And it was all good. And deliciously sinister. Palisades Park is, by far, not a get-lost-and-be-surrounded-by-nature hike, but I would say if you're in the New York area and you want a little perspective (or you want a fabulous place to shoot your Jeepers Creepers-inspired student film), it's worth a little trip across the George Washington Bridge. Just bring an extra friend in case you need to sacrifice someone to the creatures of the forest.