Let's Take A Hike (And Learn Some History Along The Way!)


The Appalachian Trail near Fort Montgomery State Historical Park. (Photo courtesy of the author)

While the New York/New Jersey metropolitan region is well known for its overpopulation, sprawl and congestion, the region remarkably features spectacular state parks that provide outdoor enthusiasts an extensive trail network which traverses picturesque meadows, woodlands, and rugged terrain.   Several of these parks also highlight some of the country’s important historical events that contributed to the creation of the United States.  Sites such as Fort Montgomery, adjacent to Bear Mountain State Park in New York, brings history alive to the public as a comprehensive trail network meanders through the grounds of the old fort with strategically placed signage helping to explain the struggles and hardships endured by soldiers and civilians alike during the American Revolution.  The significance of such public attractions underscores the vital link that exists between the outdoor experience and valuable historical sites insofar as promoting public health and enjoyment while encouraging awareness of past events.

A perfect example for combining recreation with education is located at Jockey Hollow, a former army encampment and now part of the National Historical Park in Morristown, New Jersey.  During the harsh winter of 1779-80, considered the coldest on record for the 18th century, General George Washington chose Jockey Hollow as an encampment because of its strategic location.  Selecting the Watchung Mountains as a natural barrier between his army and the British, stationed nearby at New York City, Washington could keep a close eye on potential enemy movements.

Built between 1772 and 1774 in Morristown, New Jersey, the Ford Mansion was occupied by George Washington during the Jockey Hollow winter encampment. (Photo courtesy of the National Park Service)

As Washington spent the winter at the prestigious Ford Mansion in Morristown, then owned by a wealthy local mill and land owner, 10,000 Continental Army soldiers were forced to hunker down in wooden huts they constructed out of the dense forest.  While the original huts no longer stand, visitors can view today’s reconstructed huts and imagine the hardships endured.  Several trails traverse the 1,200 acre former encampment and drilling grounds, which is heavily wooded once again and absolutely serene.  The Yellow Trail Loop connects the Wick House, a restored 18th century farmhouse, to the Soldier’s Huts, where re-enactors recount chilling stories of the soldiers’ sufferings, and are ready to answer any questions.  Ultimately, the significance of Jockey Hollow allowed Washington to prolong the war and frustrate British attempts to win New Jersey.

Another example is Fort Lee Historic Park, which lies high above the Palisades and is just a stone’s throw away from Manhattan.  Built in 1776, the fort was designed to fortify American defenses in and around New York City.  British army and naval superiority, however, proved too formidable for General Washington to hold on.  Consequently, Washington was forced to abandon the fort and begin the so-called “Retreat to Victory” march across New Jersey-narrowly escaping capture while crossing the Hackensack River at New Bridge Landing-to relative safety on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River.  Though representing a low point in the cause for Independence, the retreat was eventually followed with the famous victories at Princeton and Trenton.

Such events underscore that New Jersey was indeed “The Cradle of the Revolution”, a hotbed of military operations that witnessed despair, defeats and smashing victories for the soldiers of the Continental Army that determined the outcome of the war.  This invaluable history is presented at the visitor center, and trails, which cover the entire 13 mile length of Ft. Lee Park, leads visitors to several highlights, such as soldiers’ huts, gun batteries and a blockhouse.  A carefully reconstructed 18th Century well, woodshed and baking oven serve as the staging ground for interpretive programs, thus providing a hands-on history experience.

Visible here is the foundation of the Main Barracks at Fort Montgomery. Built in 1776, the two-story building was designed to house 160 troops. (Photo courtesy of the author)

Further up the Hudson River that cannot be overlooked is Fort Montgomery State Historic Site, the site of a fierce battle between American and British forces in October 1777.  The Americans suffered an overwhelming defeat, outnumbered nearly 3-1 by the British and their Loyalist allies.  The Americans, however, more than offset this loss with the victory at Saratoga, forcing the British to abandon their hard-fought victory at Ft. Montgomery and ordered to return to New York City, ending British plans to take control of the Hudson and dividing the colonies.

The fort no longer stands but archaeological work in the last forty years has unearthed stone foundations of barracks, gunpowder magazines and redoubt walls.   The new museum is absolutely splendid, displaying original artifacts and weapons while the surrounding grounds combine scenic beauty and history.

Foundations of the soldiers’ barracks at Fort Montgomery State Historical Park. (Photo courtesy of the author)

The footpaths and trails make this a perfect attraction for both history buffs and hikers alike.  Make sure to stroll over to the Grand Battery to observe the unforgettable views of the Hudson River Valley and where reproduction cannons stand guard.  The 1777 trail, which roughly follows the path taken by British forces, runs alongside Ft. Montgomery and leads to Popolopen Torne Mountain, affording a commanding view of the fort below.  Another popular route is following the 1777 trail to the Bear Mountain Zoo, part of the Appalachian Trail (AT) which first opened on Bear Mountain in 1923 and today stretches from Maine to Georgia.  Take the AT across the Bear Mountain Bridge, and then to the top of Anthony’s Nose to relish the breathtaking scenery of this once strategic valley.  Also noteworthy is Long Pond Ironworks State Park, nestled in West Milford, NJ.  Situated in the northern Highlands of New Jersey, West Milford is immersed in history and outdoor fun as hikers and travelers can walk back in time as numerous trails bypass relics and stone structures, evidence of a once thriving iron-ore mining industry that played a critical role in the development of New Jersey’s economy in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Finally, a new park is set to emerge on the banks of the Hudson River in Cold Spring, NY, which will tell the story of the town’s mighty industrial contributions during the Civil War.  A charming village today, Cold Spring is now a favorite destination for tourists and hikers arriving from Hudson Highlands State Park nearby.  In the end, public treasures like parks can and do play a vital role in not only preserving open space for public enjoyment and an appreciation for the environment, but precious historical sites as well for education and learning.