Running the Palisades

he Palisades have beeen popular with runners and especially with bikers for ages. One of the first organized long runs of the New York Flyers nearly 20 years ago and run every year since was a 20 mile run over the George Washington Bridge, out along the park road and back. At the same time, trail runners — rare in those days, but not today — used the Long Path along the top of the cliffs as a great trail run.

There are also a number of trails and roads which connect the top to the bottom. Besides the end of the park road which climbs the steep grade from the Alpine Boat Basin to the Park HQ at the top, there's the road down to the Englewood Boat Basin (with the Dyckman Hill Trail along side), there's the Huyler Landing Trail just north of Greenbrook Sanctuary which connects the top to the botton abnout 8 miles out and lastly, there's the Carpenter's Trail, a steep route with no less that 320 stone steps, which climbs the cliff face about 1/2 mile north of the bridge.

Officially, the park is known as the Palisades Interstate Park, New Jersey Section, and besides the parkland, this includes the Palisades Interstate Parkway which lies along the west side of the parkland for its entire length. There is an excellent web site , which includes maps, detailed descriptions for the roads, trails and public areas and a good deal of interesting historic information. If you have a few minutes sometime, I suggest you check it out.

In this article, I'll attempt to enumerate the many ways you can mix and match these routes to make a perfect run. And no matter how you go, it's all spectacular. If you've never been there, you will simply not believe you're just a hop, skip and a jump from New York City.

And just for your information, the photos were all taken by myself at various runs in different seasons. You might notice the differing levels of vegetation, but you won't fail to notice how beautiful it all is in any season.

The Map (in two parts)

irst, let's look at the map (in two parts above). The Palisades are long and narrow and they are oriented about 30° to the east of north, like Manhattan. Consequently, it's hard to show the whole of the Palisades in a single map, even a very long one. So I've divided it in half as you can see. The Park actually goes about another 5 miles further north than any of our routes, but that area is beyond what we will cover in this report — but yes, it you're a trail runner or a hiker, there's higher cliffs and lots of spectacular terrain in that far northern section.

Take a look at the map, and you'll see the two primary north-south routes are the trail along the top of the cliffs called the "Long Path" (which I've shown as the way out), and the park road which goes along the whole length of the park from Fort Lee to Alpine (shown as the way back).

This is not to imply that you should take the trail outbound and the road back. On the contrary you can run either an out and back on the trail, or an out and back on the road (like the Flyers do on the annual September Palisades run). In fact this post details two complete 20 milers. So mix and match trail and road to suit yourself. I personally like to do the road out and trail back since the trail is easier (at least for me) and the road has a lot more hills, some rather steep. But over the years, I've run the Palisades in all possible combinations.

After talking about the main routes, I'll also talk about are some of the connecting routes between the top and the bottom (I have included a little section on each of those). Using the connectors, you can take short cuts and cut the distance from 20 miles all the way down to 10. So long or short, trails or road, it's all beautiful and it's all just waiting for you.

The approximate distances are 1.4 miles from the bus station to the Jersey side of the bridge, 8.6 miles on the road from the bridge to Apline, and 8.1 miles on the Long Path between those same two points. You can do the math (remember to add in the bridge twice) and by adding a bit here or there you can get a 20 miler which is all roads, all trails (except fo the bridge) or half road, half trail. I've often gone to Coogan's for brunch after one of these runs, so that will give you a chance to top off your mileage (and your thirst). From the Jersey side of the bridge to Coogan's it's just about 2 miles, so figure that in if you like.

I give a section below on each of the main routes and I've included just about a zillion pictues, many of them in slideshows hosted by Picasa, which is a photo hosting site I use and it's free!

Most of the photos were taken during runs on February and March 2012, which I did with some friends. In February we did a loop running the trail out to Alpine and the road back, and in March we ran the opposite way. Each way to do it had some plusses and minuses but both were spectacular and pleasurable runs.

So now it's your turn — what are you waiting for?

Over the Bridge

f you tried to imagine the perfect transition from the urban hustle and bustle of Mahattan to the wild and spectacular beauty of the Palisades, you would be hard put to come up with anything as perfect as the George Washington Bridge (aka the "GWB") spanning the majestic Hudson River. The bridge is so huge it rivals the 400 foot cliffs of the Palisades and so majestic it mirrors the Palisades' natural beauty with the best of human achievement. And when you run across it and experience the river hundreds of feet below you feel just as small as when you look down from the rocky pinacles facing you across the river.

Getting there: The traditional meeting place for Palisades Runs is the George Washington Bridge Bus Station. It is connected directly to the A subway line, it's enclosed and it has bathrooms. Until recently, it also had lots of retail shops for candy bars, Gatorade etc., but a renovation just started has dislocated these. Hopefully they will return in the future. It's good to have such a place since meeting others who depend on various buses, subways etc., especially on weekends, can be problematic. Delays happen. Be happy you're waiting inside.

The New York Flyers used to meet there for their yearly Palisades run (usually in September) but the turnout has gotten so large that now they meet outside on the other side of 179th Street.

To get to the bus station, take the A train uptown to 175th Street. Upon leaving the train, walk forward to the front-most stairs and then continue along the passageway that leads to the bus station. At the end of the passage way go up the stairs and you'll be there. If you get on the train along Central park West (72nd, 81st, 86th, or 96th Street stations) you will need to take the C train to 125th, and then switch to the A.

You can also take the #1 train to 181st Street. This is a few blocks away and the #1 is usually slower than the A, so I don't reccommend it unless the A is out of service. You can also switch from the #1 to the A train at 59th Street or 168th Street.

When you're all there and ready to go, go out the Fort Washington Avenue exit, go a half block south and then go 2½ blocke west on 178th Street. There you will see a pedestrian ramp the brings you up to the south pedestrian walkway over the bridge. Next stop, New Jersey!

Occasionally they close the south walkway and open the north walkway. If that's the case, worry not. Just go a half block north to 179th Street, and 2 blocks west and take the entrance to the north walkway opposite Cabrini Boulevard. You'll duck under an entrance ramp on a pedestrian underpass and then you're home free.

The Park Road to Alpine and Back

e recently ran a loop of the road combined with the trail in both directions. In February we ran the trail to Alpine and then the road back to the bridge. Then in March we did it in reverse. If you plan to run only on the roads (or only on the trail), that's fine too. The traditional NY Flyers Palisades group run, usually run every September, follows exactly the same route we did on the road out to the Park HQ in Alpine and then they return the same way.

But first a few details.

It's always nice to run a route forwards and backwards. You see different things and you almost think you're on a different route entirely.

Some points of interest on the way out were going by Fort Lee Historic Park just after getting off the bridge, (you should visit this some time; I've been there a number of times and it's a unique place), passing under the GWB on the park road, passing by the three large recrational areas (we didn't stop), hitting a couple of fairly steep hills, making a quick jaunt to the beach with lovely views where the road came down practically to the river and spotting a huge Red Tail Hawk way up in a tree. Check out the following slideshow which is for the outbound half of the run.

Ther are two hills to worry about on the outbound run on the road. The first is steep but not long. Starting at the Englewood Boat Basin it rises to the traffic circle. The road to the top turns sharply to the left and the park road continues to the north. Ironically, this hill can be nasty on the way back as well, since having risen from basically sea level at the Boat Basin, the road then descends almost the same amount and is nearly at water level just past a place called Undercliff. So you get this hill both coming and going.

But the last hill, from the Alpine circle to the park headquarters is the mother of all hills in the park. It's quite steep and almost a mile long. Luckily when you get to the top there a nice place with facilities for a break.

We have measured the distance with various electronic gizmos several times and got similar, but not identical results. Just for the record, my friend Susan's iPhone claimed the distance from the bus station to Alpine on the road was 10.01 miles. I got 10.20 using my hiking GPS, probably because I had set the interval between sampling points as small as I could set it. This would minimize the effect of "cutting the corners" on a track. And I had lots of corners, alwasy moving across the road for a photo or a view. If you run in perfectly straight lines with no curves, all the measurements would agree, but that's just not how real runs work. Bottom line: stop worrying!

We have always called the park road "River Road", but Google Maps has "Henry Hudson Drive". The Palisades Interstate Park web site also calls it that so I guess I'm outvoted.

hen we went back to the GWB on the road in February, we had run out to Alpine on the trail. And although both Susan and I were tired from the trail when we finally reached the road (trails are more tiring than running on a road), the roads, expecially the down hills felt easy. So instead of getting more tired in the second half, if anything the second half was easier than the first half. That mey not be the case if you run both out and back on the road since at the turnaround point you will have just finished the toughest hill in the park.

The main points of interest were the two Boat Basins — Alpine and Englewood. We usually skip the Alpine Boat Basin since it is about a quarter mile further north off the main road, so the 5 miles to the Englewood Boat Basin was the heart of the return run. But I have occasionally stopped at the Alpine Boat Basin instead of climbing the steep hill to the park headquarters. There's bathrooms and water, and if you're only after 18 miles, this is a good choice. On the other hand, we have often stopped at the Englewood Boat Basin (a bit past the 15 mile point) for a little break since it has bathrooms and water and in season, a snack bar and lies very close to the park road.

An interesting point of interest comes just before the hill on the road which lies a bit before the boat basin. It's an area called "Undercliff". Looking down on the river side of the road you can see various old stone structures and on the uphill side there is a picnic area. It was originally a colony of fisherman which disappeared when the park was created

The last hill on the road is from the Englewood Boat Basin, all the way south under the GWB and then up and around to the park entrance in Fort Lee. But that's not the end of it — the last half mile up Hudson Terrace to the bridge can be a killer especially after you've run close to 19 miles. Just do it.

The Long Path to Alpine and Back

hen we ran out on the Long Path, we actualluy came back on the road. We used several of the options to get from the top to the bottom or vice versa. Melissa used the Huyler Landing Trail down to the park road and then returned all the way back to the bridge on the road. Susan and I went all the way to Alpine on the trail, then returned via the road — but cut off the last mile of road by climbing the Carpenter's Trail. But for simplicity's sake, you can ignore those details and just imagine running out along the trail and then returning the same way.

It's pretty easy to stay on the trail. It's marked throughout its length with light blue paint blazes on trees. There are lots of lookout points and several places where paved roads intrude, allowing muggles of all ages and sizes to intrude on the wilderness. I'll mention a few of these.

Once over the bridge, turn right and go under I-95 on the local Street (Hudson Terrace). The entrance to the trail is at a stairway on the right, just after the underpass. You have to go up, and then cross over an exit road, and then you are in the Palisades Interstate Park and the beginning of the trail. There a good web site for this park which includes some good maps and I recommend you check it out: .

Soon after getting started on the trail, you'll pass a gas station on the Palisades Parkway on your left. The park is sometimes a very narrow strip between this highway and the cliff edge, and so sometimes you are very close to — or even ON — the margin of the highway. The first major interruption comes soon thereafter where you enter Allison Park in the Town of Englewood Cliffs. You used to have to skirt around and go in the front entrance, but a storm last year brought down a section of the park fence, so now you can run right in where the trail first encounters the park. It's a lovely little park with a water fountain, bath rooms and a dramatic lookout. Spend a few minutes enjoying this place — you don't have to run every d*mn inch of the way! . After leaving the park, you come to St. Peter's College and you are forced to run along a very narrow strip between the Highway and a chain link fence. But soon after, you enter a fairly wide section with rather beautiful ponds,

Next up is a brief crossing of the Englewood Boat Basin Road, aka Dyckman Hill Road. Runners doing a very short route can go down the hill here (there's a walkway with lots of stone steps that parallels the roadway) and take the road back to the Bridge. After this there is a fairly long trail section with more ups and downs until you hit the Rockefeller Lookout, one of two such places on today's route. Luckily, today there were no families of fat children eating fried chicken and climbing on the fence by the cliff edge , so this place was a fairly attactive place to take a break.

Greenbrook Sanctuary is the next in-holding and it's the largest such in the entire park (see ). It's run by a non-profit (I'm a member) and consists of 165 acres of bogs, ponds, streams and upland wooded areas whose aim is to preserve and protect native flora and fauna. It's a marvelouss and beautiful place where I have enjoyed many hours exploring and enjoying the area. But not today. Soon after passing the northern end of Greenbrook, we came to the intersection with the Huyler Landing Trail where Melissa left us. It's a short, steep route down to the road (and beyond to the Shore) and takes about 2 miles off the total mileage.

After that there are a few things to mention: 1) the Alpine Lookout, much like the Rockerfeller Lookout, and 2) remnants of several estates which were bought out by the Rockefellers before they donated the land to the State of NJ for the park. But our outbound trail run had ended and it was time for a little break at the park headquarters (which also serves as the Palisades Interstate Parkway Police station).

e actually made our return journey along the trail two weeks later. Both of our recent runs involved the trail one way and road the other way. But feel free to do the out-and-back on the trail alone. You'll be surprised how different the route will seem running in the opposite direction.

At the Park HQ, we both ate something — I had a Snickers Bar: the best trail food in the whole world and Susan had a bagel: not bad but not up to the Snickers level . This place has bathrooms, water and if you are very lucky, a lovely picnic area out the back, This is normally closed to visitors, but we were fortunate to hit the place on a day when there was an "open door" policy.

The first thing we saw after getting back on the trail, was a pair of deer off to the side. We watched them (and they watched us) for a couple of minutes and I got some good photos. It was a pair of does. Susan thought they might be mother and daughter. A precious moment indeed. Did I ever mention that you should not be overly obsessive about your running: if you see something special (a hawk, a deer) stop and look for god's sake. This is not the olympic trials!

We made brief stops at the Alpine Lookout, the entrance to Greenbrook Sanctuary, The Rockefeller Lookout and Allison Park. All with great views (except the Greenbrook entrance). We also saw a friend Deanna with a group of her friends at the Rockefeller Lookout who were heading out just as we hit our 15 mile point. They looked fresh but by then we were beat (and I'm sure we looked it).

Breaking News: I found out a few days later that Deanna and her friends were doing a celebratory 32 mile birthday run! And here I thought 20 miles was a big deal! Happy birthday Deanna, and congratulations. And I guess I won't be doing my birthday mileage any time soon!

When we finally reached the GWB at about mile 18 we were exhausted, but happy to be (almost) done. Somehow the last 2 miles to Coogan's seemed easy.

Bottom line: GREAT RUN!

The Carpenter's Trail

he Carpenter's Trail is one of the wonders of the Palisades. Built, I think, in the 1930s, we used to call it "The 1000 Steps". Well, if you know me you will not be surprised that I actually counted the steps, and I did it 2 or 3 times to make sure. It's 320 steps with a few places where you're not sure it's a step or just a rock. But the thing goes up the sheer cliff. It's the closest you'll get in the real world to what Frodo, Sam and Gollum faced when they climbed the stairs to Cirith Ungol.

I've used the stairs numerous time over the years, always from the bottom to the top and almost always as a short cut and avoid the long climb on the park road the climbs under the GWB and swings around to Hudson Terrace in Fort Lee. You're actually climbing the same elevation but it seems easier to climb steps than to go up the 1.5 mile long and tiring hill on the road. That's not to say the stairs are not tiring. They are true quad killers, climbing about 300 feet in a bit over ¼ mile.

The Carpenter Trail has in two sections. The lower section goes from the shore up to the park road, where it crosses under the road (actually two roads) in a tunnel. You don't get to climb that section on this run (but it's shown in the accompanying slideshow). The upper section, starting at the road, climbs the rest of the way to the cliff top.

You can pick up this trail from the park road right before the road coming up from the Ross Dock picnic area joins the park road at a small traffic circle. The GWB is in front of you and about mile away. The slideshow cover picture (left) shows this point on the road (looking backwards from the direction of the run) and the stairs going up (northward) along the cliff. If you have very strong quads, you might try running up the stairs. I'm satisfied if I make it in a fast walk without any breaks. You'll never see the likes of anything like this in Central Park, and that's for sure.

The distance saved over going all the way on the road is less that you would think — about 1/2 mile. That's because there lots of switchbacks and a goodly amout of the Long Path to do once you get to the top.

The Huyler Landing Trail

he Huyler Landing Trail is another potential shortcut of you're running the Long Path. The trail starts shortly after passing Greenbrook Sanctuary (northbound), soon after the end of the chain link fence. If you're heading south and you get to the fence, you missed it. See the southbound trail slideshow which shows the trail intersection. But why would you want to take it going south anyway? You already did the full loops distance. Whatever! If you take the trail down to the road you can save about 2 miles from a loop to Alpine and back.

The trail is very well graded and it's obvious that it was once a road, probably in the 19th century. Huyler's Landing, on the shore, is still evident — there's an old stone jetty that survives. This was one of only a few a crossing points of the Hudson since the topology afforded this as the only place where a road could be built between Fort Lee and Alpine. The current Englewood Boat Basin Road, aka Dikeman Hill Road would obviously have been impossible to build before the 20th century.

And on to Coogan's

o matter which way you went on the Palisades, trail, road or both, you gotta refuel when you're done. On our February 20 miler, we thought we needed about another half mile or so to make it to 20, so we decided to run the rest of the way to Coogan's Restaurant and Bar at Broadway and 169th street. So help me, that's the only reason we ended up at a bar.

So we zig-zagged along Cabrini Boulevard and then Fort Washington Avenue and finally got over to Broadway at 170th Street and in one more block we were at Coogan's, the final stop. And the beer I had (see the last picture in the slideshow) was not bad at all. Truth be told, this was not the first time nor I expect the last time we will visit this great Washigton Height's establishment.

I would say if there's any other bar in the city that supports runners more that Coogan's, I have yet to find it. The walls are literally covered with photos of famous and not so famous runners and the rafters are hung with hundreds of team singlets. It's proximity to the Armory has determined the focus of this establishment for many decadses.

he Palisades is a great and beautiful place where you can have a fantastic run! Just do it!

Papa Bear