Fall Foliage on the Hudson River from New York City to Bear Mountain

On Sunday, November 1, 2015, Rachel and I joined my parents for a sightseeing cruise up the Hudson River.  I purchased tickets a few days in advance (once Dad decided the weather forecast was promising) from Circle Line (roundtrip fare for adults $65, seniors $58, children $40).  Although Circle Line runs many sightseeing cruises around New York City, their Bear Mountain trip is specific to the autumn season.

It was an overcast morning in New York.  We walked west on 42nd St from Penn Station to Circle Line Sightseeing Cruises at Pier 83.  Circle Line is located next to the USS Intrepid aircraft carrier.  We presented our tickets and boarded the Circle Line Queens.  The vessel (I’m not sure what its classification is so I’ll just refer to it as a ferry) has enclosed seating on two decks as well as an open air upper deck aft.  There was a snack bar downstairs and a few bars serving German beers in honor of Oktoberfest (but only after noon due to New York state law).  For an extra $25, passengers can upgrade to Circle Line Premier with comfier looking seats (mostly indoors).

A neat pyramid-shaped building under construction near the Hudson River
A neat pyramid-shaped building under construction near the Hudson River

The scheduled departure was 9:00am EST.  We got underway about ten minutes later, heading north up the Hudson River.  The distance between Pier 83 and Bear Mountain’s dock was 38.1 miles (61.3 km) as the crow flies.  I estimated our average speed as 14-15 knots.  At the south end of the Hudson, the river serves as the boundary line between the states of New York and New Jersey.  City views dominated the first few minutes of the trip on both sides of the river.

George Washington Bridge and Jeffrey's Hook Light
George Washington Bridge and Jeffrey’s Hook Light

We passed under the George Washington Bridge, which brought back fond memories from my childhood.  Growing up, one of my favorite picture books was Hildegarde Swift’s The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge (1942).  Jeffrey’s Hook Light was built in 1889 and moved to its present location in 1921.  Interestingly, it was the popularity of the book that was credited with saving the lighthouse from being scrapped when the US Coast Guard took it out of service in 1948.

The Palisades
The Palisades

To the west, the buildings of Jersey City gave way to the beautiful cliffs of the New Jersey Palisades.  Named for their resemblance to a fortified wall, the Palisades were formed in a process similar to Mont Royal.  Long ago, magma intruded into layers of sandstone underground.  Once cooled, the resulting igneous rocks were exposed when the surrounding sedimentary rocks were removed by erosion.  The Palisades Interstate Park has protected what could have been some very lucrative real estate located so close to New York City.  The park’s foliage appeared to be close to peak and I’m sure it would have been even more impressive if the sun had been shining.

10 Palisades

North of Hastings-on-Hudson, both banks of the Hudson belong to New York and the river begins to widen.  We passed slowly under the Tappan Zee Bridge, a no-wake zone.  Construction is underway to build a replacement bridge next to the existing one.

Hudson River
Hudson River

There was a glimpse of sun through a thin section of clouds.  It was enough to make the Hudson River shimmer briefly, but it would remain overcast for a few more hours.

Open upper level deck
Open upper deck

The river began to narrow again and the Bear Mountain Bridge came into view.  We docked just after 11:30am.  The man who had been narrating the scenery warned us that the platform leading from the dock inland was flooded, ostensibly due to the tide (though it appeared that a creek from up on the hill emptied directly onto the platform).  Regardless, to avoid sloshing through a few inches of water, everyone on board had to walk on an elevated wall (with the Hudson River on the other side) to bypass the flooded area.  Although it appeared quite narrow (it was maybe 2.5’/0.76 m wide) it didn’t look like anyone was having particular difficulty aside from there being a fairly high step down on the far side.  We were told to be back on board by 2:45pm.

The ferry at Bear Mountain (actually taken right before the return journey) illustrating the wall that had to be crossed in lieu of sloshing through the flooded platform
The ferry at Bear Mountain (actually before boarding the vessel for the return journey) illustrating the wall that had to be crossed in lieu of sloshing through the flooded platform

It didn’t look like it would have been particularly difficult to engineer a solution to the flooding or build a railing along the wall, but I guess there’s nobody willing to spend the money to make it happen.  I imagine some elderly or handicapped passengers would have no choice but to wait on the ferry on some journeys.

Bear Mountain Inn exterior
Bear Mountain Inn exterior
Bear Mountain Inn interior
Bear Mountain Inn interior

The passengers headed up a series of switchbacks into Bear Mountain State Park.  My parents wanted to get lunch so we headed to the Bear Mountain Inn, a picturesque, recently restored stone hotel located near the shores of Hessian Lake.  The crew recommended calling ahead to make a reservation, as the restaurants are easily overwhelmed by the arrival of dozens of people on the Circle Line cruise.

Indeed, while we were in line for the Restaurant 1915 and Blue Roof Tapas Bar the manager announced to groups further back in line that there was no more space.  I kind of wish we’d elected for the sandwiches to go at the Hiker’s Café downstairs, since lunch ended up consuming about half the time we had at Bear Mountain.  The kitchen was slow and I wasn’t overly impressed with my Fried Eggplant Panini, which was already cold when it arrived at the table.

Fall colors on Bear Mountain
Fall colors on Bear Mountain

The forecast indicated that the clouds would clear up around 2pm and the first glimpses of sun appeared as we finished our meal around 1:30pm.  I dashed down to Hessian Lake and photographed foliage set aglow by light streaming through breaks in the clouds.

Hessian Lake
Hessian Lake

I walked around the lake with Rachel and my mom.  The views were impressive.  With so little time to explore I felt we’d barely scratched the surface of what the park has to offer.  With more time I would have liked to hike to the top of Bear Mountain.  Maybe a road trip up the Hudson is in order next year…

20 Hessian Lake

With time running short, we headed downhill towards the dock, though we made a detour into the Trailside Museums & Zoo path.

Walt Whitman statue
Walt Whitman statue

Along the path there’s a statue of the legendary poet Walt Whitman.  The zoo (free admission, recommended $1 donation) is rather pathetic.  A couple of depressed looking red foxes sat in a cage that was way too small for them.  A sign indicated they’d been injured by a car.  There are two black bears in a somewhat larger enclosure.

Bear Mountain Bridge (US-202/US-6)
Bear Mountain Bridge (carries US-202/US-6 as well as the Appalachian Trail across the Hudson)

Past the bears is an overlook which provides decent views of the Bear Mountain Bridge and sections of the Hudson River.

25 Foliage Near Zoo

We retraced our steps down to the dock.  Although the crew directed everyone to be back by 2:45pm, the ferry didn’t get underway for the return trip until after 3.

Foliage and hills along the Hudson River
Foliage and hills along the Hudson River

With the sun finally out, the scenery was quite good, although I was sad I didn’t get to see the Palisades in their full glory; it was dark before we reached them.

27 Foliage along Hudson

29 Bridge

The end of daylight savings time the night before ensured that the cruise would arrive back in New York City after dusk.  On the plus side, we were treated to a beautiful sunset as the sun dipped behind the hills lining the Hudson River.

30 Hudson River Sunset

As the George Washington Bridge came into view again, the lights of New York were visible beyond.  The cruise arrived back at Pier 83 around 5:30pm.

Lights of Manhattan and cruise ships docked to the north of Pier 83
Lights of Manhattan and cruise ships docked to the north of Pier 83
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