Tag Archives: Palisades Region

Fire On The Mountain

As all park managers know, times of peace and quiet in the park are only temporary.

On a Friday afternoon last month, Hudson Highlands State Park in the Taconic Region felt the transition from tranquil to full-throttle, when after a trail steward with the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference, crossing the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge over the Hudson River, noticed smoke to the south. And it was coming from Sugarloaf Mountain in the park.

Smoke rises from Sugarloaf Mountain. (NYS Parks photo)

It was a little after 4 p.m. on September 20 when the steward reported his sighting to State Parks. Almost simultaneously, Hudson Highlands Park Manager Evan Thompson — elsewhere in the 8,000-acre park — was told by a patron of a potential fire on nearby Breakneck Ridge. That report turned out later to be of the Sugarloaf blaze, but added to initial uncertainty over possibly having two fires at the same time.

Gathering staff to investigate Sugarloaf and knowing that recent dry conditions had increased the danger from wildfires, Thompson also called the New York State Park Police, Parks Forest Rangers, and the Department of Environmental of Environmental Conservation for assistance. He learned that DEC officers were responding to a search at Minnewaska State Park Preserve and another fire at Cranberry Mountain, both several counties distant.

After additional contact with the Park Police, DEC sent Ranger Robbi Mecus to the park. Park Police officer Jeremy Pickering arrived at the trailhead as did Mecus, with the pair leading a crew of eight on a 2.4-mile hike up 900-foot Sugarloaf Mountain. There, they found a fire covering about nine acres at the rocky summit.

A state Police helicopter was called in, dropping water drawn from the nearby Hudson four times before dark in an effort to slow the spread of the fire. The crew stayed on the mountain digging fire lines — areas where dried grass, brush, trees and other flammable materials were cut and shoveled away to create a buffer line difficult for fire to cross. The ground crew only stopped when it became too dark to see safely.

Smoke covers the scorched summit of Sugarloaf Mountain . (NYS Parks photo)
On this map, Sugarloaf Mountain is located at the red trail labeled SL, with its summit marked by the binoculars icon.

By then — perhaps only four hours after the first report of the fire — Taconic’s Assistant Regional Director Tom Watt had asked for additional assistance from DEC and the State Parks’ adjoining Palisades Region. State Parks Forest Ranger Lt. Mickey Cahill from Palisades Region arrived, sharing Incident Commander responsibilities with DEC Forest Ranger Captain Greg Tyrrell.

Watt also started calling State Parks facility managers at home to gather manpower needed for the next day; he soon had a roster of twenty Parks staffers scheduled to report to an 8 a.m. briefing Saturday. Meanwhile, several other agencies and organizations offered help, including the Albany Pine Bush Preserve.

A crew of more than 30 was ready to climb the mountain by that morning, coming from State Park’s Palisades Region as well as from the far reaches of the Taconic Region on the other side of the Hudson. Splitting into two teams, the crews continued the physically-demanding process of hand-digging fire lines — also called fire breaks — around the perimeter of the rugged, rocky mountain top.

Crews on Sugarloaf Mountain use shovels and other hand tools to create the fire break meant to contain the blaze uphill from them. (NYS Parks photo)

At Sugarloaf, crews made these breaks by scraping the ground clean of combustible material for up to four feet, with a foot-wide, 6-inch deep cut into ‘mineral earth’ along the center of the break. Hazard trees nearby were downed, both to protect crews and prevent fire-weakened trees from falling across the fire containment line to act as a bridge for fire to spread. Digging these breaks was challenging due to the steep, rocky terrain and a thick layer of duff, which is decomposed organic material overlaying the soil.

From the air, a State Police helicopter continued dropping water gathered from the nearby Hudson River. And the fire itself was not the only hazard for those working the mountain. Crews had to watch out for fire-loosened rocks that tumbled down cliff faces without warning, as well as for rattlesnakes and ground-dwelling wasps. By Saturday evening, a preliminary line of fire breaks had been created to isolate the blaze, which by this point was estimated to cover about 14 acres.

A State Police helicopter brings a massive container of water from the Hudson River to drop onto the fire. (Photo by New York-New Jersey Trail Conference)

By Sunday’s 8 a.m. briefing, the fire-fighting crew had swelled to more than 75 people, with many working to strengthen fire lines in temperatures that soared to more than 90 degrees. In some instances, their work meant abandoning a section of line that would be difficult to defend — on a very steep slope, for instance, where burning material could tumble downhill across the line to spread — and dropping back to dig a new section.

Crews also created ‘cupped’ lines by piling material on the downhill side of lines meant stop burning material from sliding over and spreading. By this time, the fire covered about 25 acres.

On Sunday morning,  a complex network of fire hoses was laid out just outside the fire line. The hoses were routed to portable tanks at locations where tanker trucks could deliver water; gasoline-powered pumps provided water pressure to the hoses. Air operations by helicopter continued throughout the day. By nightfall on Sunday, the fire lines were as good as could be expected given the difficult terrain, but hardly impregnable.

A crew member uses a hose to water down the brush fire at Sugarloaf Mountain that has ignited dry grass. This summit is classified as one of the best examples in the state of a Rocky Summit Grassland natural community by the NY Natural Heritage Program. Learn more about this fire-adapted ecosystem in NYNHP’s Conservation Guides. (NYS Parks photo)

Monday dawned sunny and warm, with crewing working to improve the fire breaks. More than a mile of containment line was dug or improved on the rugged western flank of the fire, and by the end of the day, Park Rangers were confident that the lines were good. That evening, Rangers and Parks staff lit backfires on the east side of Sugarloaf to consume combustible material under controlled conditions. During the night, numerous large trees fell from roots being burned and weakened by the fire, with crews cutting trees that crossed the line.

The next day, Parks Rangers and DEC backburned privately-owned land to protect a cluster of houses at the north end of the mountain. With permission of the landowners, crews successively lit fires inside the containment lines and allowed the fires to consume burnable material. Crews then went to work to extinguish flames within 25 feet of the lines. That evening, crews again patrolled overnight to ensure that the fire remained ‘on the black side of the line.’

Crews keep working the fire break line. (NYS Parks photo)
Crews that manned the fire line. (NYS Parks photo)

By Wednesday morning, Sept. 23rd, the most immediate danger had passed, although the fire was still burning inside the break lines, which by this point contained about 50 acres. Secure breaks and less combustible material inside the lines meant that the hardest work was done.

The fire was contained, with no one hurt and no homes damaged. The Wilkinson Trail to Sugarloaf summit has since reopened, although part of the trail at the summit is rerouted to avoid steep, eroded and dangerous conditions.

A smaller team remained at the mountain for several days to conduct “mop-up” operations, like corralling equipment that had been distributed over miles of trails and patrolling for sparks or breaches of the fire line.

Given the nature of the soil and the terrain, the fire was expected to continue to smolder and burn until rains finally put it out. The cause of the fire remains under investigation, although initial reports suggested it might have been an illegal campfire. State Parks rules allow fires only in designated areas under supervision by an adult.


Post by Steve Oakes, manager of Old Croton Aqueduct State Historic Park and Philipse Manor Hall State Historic Site

How will the plants and animals that make up the Sugarloaf Mountain ecosystem respond and recover from this fire? Keep your eye on the NYS Parks Blog for a future post on that subject.

Get Out and Explore … The Palisades Region

With autumn leaves now turned, hiking in the Palisades region of State Parks offers spectacular views of the Hudson Valley and the Catskills to go with a fascinating history that includes an outlaw’s lair, the state’s early iron industry, and a traitor’s secret meeting place.

Located on the west side of the Hudson River, this region between the Capital Region and New York City stretches through Rockland, Orange, Ulster and Sullivan counties, and contains 23 parks and seven historic sites.

As with all hikes, there are few things to remember beyond carrying a mobile phone. Wear sturdy yet comfortable shoes or boots, bring water and snacks, and perhaps carry a camera, to capture what you see. Be mindful of hikes on steep terrain or that go near cliff tops. Having a small first-aid kit available in case of emergency is never a bad idea

Hiking poles are useful, and can transfer some of the stress of hiking from your knees and legs to your arms and back. And use a trail map, which is available online at each park website at https://parks.ny.gov/ and at the main office at each park. Check the park’s individual website to see if its maps can be downloaded to your iOS Apple or Android device, but a paper map is a good backup in the event of device failure.

These maps include Park facilities such as parking, park offices, nature centers, campsites, and boat launches in addition to the location, name and distance of each designated trail in the park. For some facilities, data is available as a Google Earth KML file or a map is available to download to your iOS Apple and Android mobile devices in the free PDF-Maps app. Learn more

For the Palisades region, more information on hikes is also available online from the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference, and at the bookstore near Exit 17 on the Palisades Interstate Parkway.

It’s smart to know how long a trail is and how long it ought to take to finish. Since daylight is not an unlimited resource, especially in fall as days grow shorter, tossing a flashlight or headlamp into your backpack is a good form of insurance, should you unexpectedly find yourself on the trail as dusk approaches.

And, as the incidents of tick-borne diseases surge in the state, it is always important to check yourself for ticks after being outside, even if it is only time spent in your own backyard.

Rockland County

Rockland Lake State Park, 299 Rockland Lake Road, Valley Cottage, (845) 268-3020: The Nyack River Trail runs along the western short of the Hudson River between Haverstraw Beach State Park and Nyack Beach State Park. About five miles long, the level trail offers excellent river views. It is lined with crushed stone, and so is easy on the knees for a run, and also makes for an excellent bike ride or walk with a dog (must be leashed per NYS Parks rules). This trail also passes a county historical marker for the infamous “Treason Site,” where during the American Revolution in 1780 American General Benedict Arnold meet secretly with British spy Major John Andre to hand over plans for the capture of the strategic Patriot fortress at West Point. Thankfully, the plot was thwarted, with Arnold becoming one of the fledgling nation’s most despised figures.

Find a trail map here

Strolling along the Nyack River Trail.
A historical marker for the Treason Site erected by the Rockland County Historical Society (Photo from Wikipedia Commons.)

Harriman State Park, Seven Lakes Drive/Bear Mountain Circle, Ramapo, (845) 947-2444: At more than 47,500 acres, the second-largest State Park has more than 200 miles of hiking trails. At its northeastern edge, it borders Bear Mountain State Park as well as the U.S. Military Academy’s forest reserve. To the southwest lies the 18,000-acre Sterling Forest State Park. This vast park includes a large rocky shelter that was the remote hideout for a bandit named Claudius Smith, who led a gang of pro-British marauders during the American Revolution, known at the time by terrified local residents as “Cowboys.” To find it, go to the parking lot at the end of Old Johnstown Road, and look for the Blue Trail. Follow this steep trail to the top of Dater Mountain for its views, and then continue until you reach the rocky den, which had enough room to shelter both the gang and their horses. After taking in the panoramic views, which allowed the gang to see anyone coming, head down on the Tuxedo-Mount Ivy Trail to return to the parking lot. The hike is a five-mile trip, with one very steep section.

Find a trail map here

A vintage photograph of hikers exploring Claudius Smith’s Den.

Ulster County

Minnewaska State Park Preserve, 5281 Route 44-55, Kerhonkson, (845) 255-0752: Take in Catskills from atop the Stony Kills Falls at the northwestern edge of the park on this short, but challenging one-mile hike. Start at the parking area at the end of Shaft 2A Road and follow the gravel trail that crosses two wooden bridges on its way to the base of the 78-foot waterfall. Follow a set of stone stairs upward, using iron hand holds and railings for safety, to reach the top of the falls and its sweeping northerly views. You can either backtrack to the parking lot, or connect to the Stony Kill Falls carriage road atop the Shawangunk escarpment to make a longer hike.

Find a trail map here

Taking in the view at Stony Kills Falls.

Orange County

Bear Mountain State Park, Palisades Parkway or Route 9W North, Bear Mountain, (845) 786-2701: Take in the view of four states and even glimpse the Manhattan skyline from the Perkins Memorial Tower atop 1,289-foot Bear Mountain. Take the completely rebuilt Appalachian Trail, which features about 1,000 stone steps along a steep granite face. It took crews, including members of the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference, seven years of arduous labor to renovate the 1.5 mile trail up to the top. There is a new wooden bench at one of the lookouts for those who might find themselves in need of a breather on the way up.

The view from the top.

Also at Harriman, photographers will enjoy the trail to West Mountain that starts at the Anthony Wayne Recreation Area. Start on the Fawn Trail to the Timp-Torn Trail, which takes you to the mountain ridge to the West Mountain Shelter. From there, return using Timp-Torn to the intersection of the Appalachian Trail westbound, which will lead to Beechy Bottom Road that returns to the main parking area. The moderate hike is about five miles.

Find a trail map here

Looking out from the West Mountain Shelter.

Sterling Forest State Park, 116 Old Forge Road, Tuxedo, (845) 351-5907: For larger groups or school trips, there is the Lakeville Ironworks Trail Loop, which takes in the remains of an iron industry that once dominated the area. At about a mile long, the easy loop includes views of Sterling Furnace, the Lake Mine, and other mining remnants. This trail is among more than 30 trails, including the Appalachian Trail, within a 21,935-acre park in the midst of the nation’s most densely populated areas.

Find a trail map here

The former cable house at the ironworks.

Cover Photo of West Mountain summit view by Abigail Leo Parry, manager of Beaver Pond Campground at Harriman State Park.

All photos from NYS Parks unless otherwise credited.


Post by Brian Nearing, deputy public information officer at NYS Parks

Endangered Species Parade

On Saturday, September 27th, 2014, Bear Mountain State Park celebrated biodiversity with an Endangered Species Parade.  Volunteers created their own homemade costumes, puppets, and signs representing New York’s native endangered wildlife.  Costumes included a Karner Blue Butterfly, Indiana Bat, and Canada Lynx, to name just a few.  After a ride on the merry-go-round, over 60 parade marchers engaged visitors throughout the park and raised awareness about endangered species.

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This event was inspired by the 100th anniversary of the extinction of the passenger pigeon this year.  Rather than dwelling on extinction, the parade was a fun way to celebrate the biodiversity still present here in New York.  Following the parade, families visiting Trailside Museums and Zoo played an interactive game in which they learned about specific endangered animals and conservation issues affecting their habitats.  There was also a special museum exhibit about the passenger pigeon and art on exhibit from local students.  This event was made possible by the generous efforts of many dedicated volunteers.

The featured photo is a parade volunteer dressed as a Canada lynx, by Karen Parashkevov. Post by Renee LaMonica.

Wildlife Spotlight: the Bee Fly

The bee fly is an adorable insect which can be seen buzzing around wildflowers in spring and summer. The one in this photo was seen near the shoreline at Harriman State Park. Bee flies are named for their round, fuzzy bodies and habit of flying from flower to flower in search of food. Unlike bees, however, these flies don’t sting! That long nose is called a proboscis, and it serves the same function as a hummingbird’s beak, allowing the bee fly to sip nectar from flowers. But as cute and harmless as the adult bee flies are, they start their lives as ferocious little larva! Bee Flies lay their eggs in the same burrows solitary bees dig for their own eggs. When the fly larvae hatch, they eat the bee’s winter cache of pollen, and then they eat the baby bees, too!

We think these guys are the cutest fly species! Photo by Paris Harper
We think these guys are the cutest fly species! Photo by Paris Harper

95 Years of Environmental Education

This August, the Regional Nature Museums at Harriman State Park, Orange County, will be celebrating 95 years of environmental education. Instituted in 1919 by Benjamin “Uncle Bennie” Babbit Talbot Hyde, the nature program at Harriman is one of the longest-running in the country. Currently, the Regional Nature Museums consists of four facilities at Tiorati, Twin Lakes, Kanawake, and Stahahe, supported by the Trailside Museum and Wildlife Center at Bear Mountain State Park.

Celebrate 95 of nature education at Kanawake Museum at 10am on August 8th. This free event will feature programs and games run by the museum staff, including storytelling, animal demonstrations, museum tours, local history, and much more!

For more information, see the NYS Parks events calendar