Best Backpacking Escape from New York City

Just 40 miles north of Grand Central Station, Harriman State Park offers backpackers a unique way to escape the bustle of New York City on more than 200 miles of trails.

By Todd Smith

Best Backpacking Escape from New York City
Photograph by Todd Smith
The trail to Stone Memorial Shelter skirts Pine Meadow Lake—a perfect place to take photos or a lunch break.

When most people think of New York City, they envision skyscrapers, the bright lights of Broadway and the hustle and bustle of Manhattan—hardly a backpacker’s paradise.  Yet, just 40 miles north of Grand Central Station lies a jewel of a backpacking destination called Harriman State Park.

Encompassing more than 45,000 acres with over 200 miles of hiking trails, Harriman is the second largest park in New York state. And the sprawling park offers an amazing getaway for those wishing to throw on a backpack to day hike or spend a few undisturbed nights in woods.

Harriman’s Beginnings

In 1913, the Palisades Interstate Parks Commission built dozens of shelters and camps throughout the park—many of which are still serving the hiking public today. Camping in the shelters is strictly on a first-come/first-serve basis, but if they’re occupied, backpackers may camp within 300 feet of any of these shelters.

On a recent trip, a backpacking friend and I headed to Stone Memorial Shelter. This shelter was dedicated in 1935 in memory of Edgar and Jessie Stone, founders of the Tramp and Trail Club. It’s about a 5-mile hike from the Reeve’s Meadow Visitor’s Center to the shelter along a trail that winds its way beside a nice stream then climbs up to Pine Meadow Lake before dropping down to another stream (your camp water source) then sharply uphill to the shelter’s location. There are several water crossings along the way so waterproof hiking boots are recommended. 

Getting There

If you’re coming out of New York City you’ll want to take the New York State Thruway (Route 87) to Exit 15A. You’ll make a left onto Route 17 North to the intersection of Seven Lakes Drive where you’ll see a sign for Harriman State Park. Follow Seven Lakes Drive to the Reeve’s Visitor’s Center where you’ll find ample parking and the Pine Mountain Trailhead.

Photograph by Todd Smith
Stone Memorial is typical of the shelters found in Harriman, some of which still have small fireplaces that work.

Trails are well marked, but they can be confusing. Hikers are advised to pick up a map online or at one of the Harriman Visitor Centers.

From the Reeve’s Visitor Center, you’ll want to:

  • Follow the Pine Meadow Trail (Red Blaze) to Pine Meadow Lake. 

  • Once at the lake, you’ll continue around the lake on the Pine Meadow Trail until its intersection with the start of the Conklins Crossing Trail (White Blazes). 

  • Take the Conklins Crossings Trail approximately ½ mile to its intersection with the Suffern Bear Mountain Trail (Yellow Blazes). Turn left. 

  • From there it’s a short downhill hike to the stream (your water source) followed by a short-but-steep-uphill climb to the Stone Memorial Shelter.

Things To Do

The shelter sits high above a rushing stream and while we were able to gather enough downed firewood for the night, we had to go quite a ways to find it. Campers are advised to bring backpacking stoves as a backup.

We had the entire shelter to ourselves on the night we were there, but there is an excellent campsite (with a firepit) just behind and above the shelter should you arrive and find it occupied. All water in the park needs to be filtered before drinking, so make sure you pack adequate filtration gear. A small backpack saw also came in very handy for bucking up firewood.

One of the nice things about Stone Memorial Shelter is that it’s more remote, so you’ll likely encounter fewer people. Another nice feature is “The Egg,” a nearby boulder “erratic” left behind by the glaciers that carved the Hudson Valley out of the granite mountainsides.

The Egg is less than a 10-minute walk back down the trail you came in on. Cross the stream that flows below the shelter then walk back up the trail about a quarter mile and you’ll find The Egg on your left.

Climb up on top of the house-sized Egg after dark to star gaze or enjoy the twinkling skyline of Manhattan’s lights in the distance as your stare down the Hudson River to the City.

A Few Essentials

Photograph by Todd Smith
LOWA’s new Innox Ice GTX Mid boots were a perfect choice for late-fall hiking on Harriman’s rocky trails where waterproof boots offering solid ankle support are recommended.

Boots: While trails in Harriman are well traveled, they are quite rocky and slippery in spots, so ankle-height boots are recommended. Fall was well over when we took our hike, so I wore a pair of LOWA’s new Innox Ice GTX Mid boots. These are built for winter hiking and snowshoeing, but they are also lightweight making them an ideal everyday boot for wearing to work on slushy city sidewalks.

They are completely waterproof so sloppy stream crossings were not an issue. And the Innox Ice GTX Mid’s offered excellent ankle support for negotiating rocky trails with a full pack on. I even took them to Europe over the Christmas holiday where they kept my feet toasty warm while providing total comfort during the miles of walking we did each day on ancient cobblestone streets.

Photograph by Todd Smith
All water In Harriman State Park needs to be filtered. HydraPak’s 2-liter “Seeker” bag with Katadyn’s screw-on filter clips right onto your backpack harness. Simply unclip and sip.

Water Purification: While there is ample water in Harriman, you’ll need to filter it. My buddy, who is an ultralight backpacking expert, gifted me a HydraPak 2-liter “Seeker” water storage bag (compatible with the Katadyn EZ-Clean Membrane Filter Cartridge just before our trip. I was blown away.

I’ve used all kinds of filtration units from gravity pouches to UV water purifiers, but this one is the easiest and it collapses down to a bundle about the size of your fist. Simply fill up the water pouch, screw the filter on and drink right out of the bag. No muss; no fuss. And the bag can clip right onto the front of your pack harness with two small carabiners, so you don’t have take your pack off or go fishing around for water bottles. Simple, easy and effective.

Photograph by Todd Smith
BioLite’s rechargeable Model 330 is an ultralight headlamp that’s designed not to slip on your forehead. Running time is 3.5 hours on high.

Headlamp: Having your hands free to find your way around camp after dark makes a headlamp an indispensable part of anyone’s hiking gear. On this trip I tried BioLite’s new Headlamp 330. This rechargeable headlamp is one of the most lightweight models out there (69g), but what makes this model unique is that it fits flush to your forehead, so there is virtually no slippage. This makes this headlamp ideal for runners, but I found it equally at home on the trail.

The manufacture claims the 330 will run 40 hours on low and 3.5 hours on high. I didn’t test the low-output setting, but 3.5 hours is consistent with high-output usage results I found on my trip. Max output is 330 Lumens, which was extremely bright.

A Word About Food

Photograph by Todd Smith
Short hikes, like those found in Harriman, allow you to pack in fresh ingredients like the makings for these incredible skirt steak sandwiches.

One of the beauties of short hikes like this is that even on warm days you can pack fresh ingredients into camp for lunch or dinner. So, get creative.

I’m a huge Francis Mallman fan, so we packed in fresh skirt steak, red peppers for roasting, fresh watercress, beefsteak tomatoes, onions, fresh Ciabatta rolls and Coleman’s hot mustard to do a variation of Mallman’s incredible skirt steak sandwiches found in his book Mallman on Fire.

There was an old grill top at the shelter, (we also packed a small one of our own), so we just built a huge fire and got a nice bead of coals going. The rest was easy:

  • Grill the skirt steak, onions and peppers (I marinated the steak in Italian dressing overnight before we left then packed it in double Zip-lock bags for easy, no-mess, transport into camp)

  • Split 4 rolls, brush with olive oil and toast

  • Slather the toasted rolls with Coleman’s hot mustard (be careful, this stuff is hot)

  • Add grilled skirt steak, peppers, onions, watercress and hefty slices of beefsteak tomato

  • Drizzle with olive oil, season with salt and pepper and dig in.

About 3/4-pound of skirt steak made 4 amazing sandwiches—enough to leave my hiking partner and myself grinning ear to ear.

Heading Home

Photograph by Todd Smith
While some stream crossings in Harriman are done via bridges, many require you to make your way across on foot, which is why waterproof hiking boots are a good idea.

Even at a leisurely pace you can easily do the hike from the Stone Memorial Shelter back to the Visitor’s Center in three hours, so it’s easy to hit the trail in the morning and be back in the City in time to catch dinner and a show. While any season is a great time to hit Harriman, fall is a wonderful time to enjoy the autumn colors and you may even spot an Eagle or hawks migrating south along the Hudson.

Subscribe for future Step Outside News!