Attack of the Giant Stairs – 10 July 2016

Info

  • Map: NYNJTC Hudson Palisades Trail (Map 109)
  • Trails: Long Path (teal), Shore Path (white), Forest View Trail (blue & white)
  • Type: Loop
  • Distance:  4+ miles
  • Time: 2.5 hours
  • Exertion: Strenuous

Getting There

Palisades Parkway South, past Exit 3 look for a U-turn for the State Line Lookout.  Take that, and move to the right ASAP once you’re northbound because the Lookout’s entrance is practically on top of you.  If you’re coming from the south, just look for the Lookout signs once you get past Exit 2.  Lots of parking to be found, even on a pleasant summer Sunday like this one.  From the lot, walk toward the edge of the cliff for some views before you begin the hike.

The Hike

It’s been quite a few years since I attempted this hike, which according to the Palisades Interstate Park Commission, is the most difficult one in the park.  So what are the Giant Stairs? Basically it’s a quaint misnomer for a rock slide that starts about a third of the way up the cliffs of the Palisades and sweeps right into the river.  When I say “rock slide,” I really mean boulder slide because these “rocks” vary in size from a breadbox (dating myself here) to a small automobile.  There really are no “stairs” per se here, rather a jagged miasma of stones you have to tread upon carefully lest you do terrible injury to yourself.  This talus extends for about half a mile along the river with a few small breaks.  When I first did this hike I made the mistake of seeing “The Giant Stairs” on the map and thinking, “Gee, I wonder where the Giants lives?”  (Not really.)  I never figured that wending my way through this field would take over an hour.

When you look at the Stairs from the other side of the river you say to yourself, “Oh look, part of the mountain came down,” not realizing that the pieces of that debris are mostly larger than you are.  I’ve yet to find out the source of the rock slide, although the Palisades were in the sights of the trap rock industry for quarrying until conservationists managed to shoo them away early in the 20th century.  So this might have been a section that had started being quarried, or perhaps it slid naturally.  Either way, it presents today’s hikers with quite a challenge.

Most of the rock fields are barren of vegetation, but there is a significant stretch toward the southern end that has had quite a lot of tree growth.  This give you a few more handholds, but it also makes for a moister terrain, and wet is a very bad thing while trying to traverse the Giant Stairs.  I sincerely advise anyone attempting this to not consider it after a recent rainfall, and never during snowy or icy weather.  The park does close the Stairs for parts of the winter, although it’s not like they can put a gate across it.

We start from the Lookout parking lot.  It’s probably a good idea here to stop an enjoy the view looking across at Hasting, Yonkers, and the Bronx.  There’s a nice informational marker with a panoramic photo pointing out what you can see from the precipice in beyond Westchester:  the Whitestone and Throggs Neck Bridges, a sliver of Long Island Sound, Astoria Queens, and some power station in Northport, LI.

Yonkers from the Lookout

Yonkers from the Lookout

You can also get a nice view of the talus below that awaits you:

Part of the Talus Below

Part of the Talus Below

Once you’ve had your fill of the great view, head north on the concrete road that used to be part of Route 9W until it goes off to the right into the woods on our old pal, the Long Path.  This well-trodden trail is pretty easy going as you head toward the state line and go past the New Jersey marker that warns you of your impending exit from the Garden State:

Last Exit in NJ

Last Exit in NJ

You pass through a rusty cyclone fence and enter the Empire State, and the path gets pretty steep downhill and rocky.  I had to pass by a couple and their dog who was try his best to negotiate the turns with his four stubby legs.  There are some good viewpoints along the way and the crags of the Palisades come in some interesting shapes:

I Think I'll Just Stay Here, Thanks

I Think I'll Just Stay Here, Thanks

You can also see the Tappan Zee Bridge as its successor is being build alongside it:

Old Tap Foreground; New Tap-Coming Soon

Old Tap Foreground; New Tap-Coming Soon

After some sharp turns and descents the LP incongruously turns left, away from the river.  There’s evidence that a lot of people have gone right in search of a shortcut, but I’m pretty sure they’ve all retraced their steps.  After a short stretch you cross over a boardwalk and hit the junction with the Shore Trail:

Your Destiny Awaits

Your Destiny Awaits

The LP goes left, but we go right as the white-blazed Shore Trail descends quickly to the bank of the Hudson and the moderately disappointing Peanut Leap Falls.  (The name is somehow uninspiring, IMHO.)  From the extensive remnants of stairs and walls around the falls it seems like there must have been a time when this was a popular shore destination, so maybe it would be better after a big rainfall.  I seem to have very bad luck with the falls on the Palisades (see Three Hudson Palisades Hikes), so it was no surprise that Peanut Leap was underwhelming.  No biggie–we’re at the shoreline and off to attack the Stairs.

Within 10 to 15 minutes you arrive at the first section of the Stairs, and they look challenging, but not scary:

Northernmost End of the Giant Stairs

Northernmost End of the Giant Stairs

This is a nice scramble–nothing too awful, you’re out in the open, and as with the entire trek, the path through the boulders is very well marked, so you should not worry about getting lost.  After this first little stretch you might get a little overconfident because, hey, it wasn’t so bad.  But that’s just the Giant (wherever he is) messing with your head.  There are two more rock fields ahead like this, albeit a bit longer, and then the last stretch is a long run without a break, in the trees with slippery footing.

End of Field #2

End of Field #2

End of Field #3

End of Field #3

Entering the fourth and longest field is pretty much the Giant Stairs telling you, “OK, no more Mr. Nice Guy.”

And the Rest of It Is This Kind of Crap

And the Rest of It Is This Kind of Crap

The first time I did the stairs, I started from the south, so I went through this section first.  I don’t recall feeling it was any easier then, not to mention I had no idea what I had gotten myself into.  It might be better to get the hard part done first because after almost an hour of this (55 mins. by the time stamps on my photos) my knees, ankles, and back had taken a pounding.  I suppose if you take it slower and are more precise in where you take your steps you might reduce the stress on your skeleton, but there is a sense of urgency to get the job done and get back to that nice soft dirt path along the shore.

This too, does pass, and you wind up back at the shore, and get to tell the northbound people you run into, “Good luck!”

Out of the Rocks

Out of the Rocks

Needless to say the drama of the hike abates to a significant degree at this point.  As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, there are quite serene sections of the shore trail where you hear almost nothing except the splash of the Hudson along the rocks and sand.  This is one such section:

Serenity at Last!

Serenity at Last!

What’s a bit disconcerting here, although not so evident in the picture, is the complete infestation of vines (kudzu?).  Everything down here is overgrown with what I assume is an invasive species of plant life.  I know very little about this sort of thing, but I understand to some degree this is quite a problem locally.  These vines are literally smothering the natural vegetation.

In less than 10 minutes from your egress from the Stairs, you’re at the junction with the Forest View Trail:

The Way Out

The Way Out

It’s a bit of a kick in the shorts that the descent on the Shore Path was 250 ft., while the ascent up this trail is more than twice that.  (OK so it really all washes out in the end.)  I guess the northbound option might be better in the final analysis.  The slog back up Forest View is not so bad:  a lot of switchbacks, and many blocks of stairs which have seen better days.  Hanging a right at the LP, there’s still more stairs to negotiate, and then an easy stroll back to the Lookout and your car.

In closing, The Giant Stairs:

  • Not even close to real stairs
  • Not recommended for anyone with balance issues
  • Will probably make you sore for a few days, depending on how hard you bounce through them
  • Definitely a no-go in wet or icy weather
  • Good hiking boots or shoes a must
  • AFAICT, no Giant to be seen

Leave a Reply