Jan. 16, 2024

Iconic Locations: Bear Mountain Bridge

Bear Mountain Bridge sits just north of the oldest section of the entire Appalachian Trail and on today's Iconic Location episode we are what was once the world’s longest suspension bridge.

Bear Mountain Bridge sits just north of the oldest section of the entire Appalachian Trail and on today's Iconic Location episode we are what was once the world’s longest suspension bridge. 


MILLS KELLY: Welcome to The Green Tunnel, a podcast on the history of the Appalachian Trail. My name is Mills Kelly and I’m your host.

KELLY: If you conjure an image of the Appalachian Trail in your mind, you’re likely to visualize beautiful foliage, a brown footpath beneath the trees, granite boulders covered in lichens, and beautiful views from trailside overlooks. 

KELLY: What you probably don’t conjure up is a long highway bridge over a huge river. But if you plan to hike north from New York into New England, or south from New England into the mid-Atlantic, you’ve got to get across the Hudson River. And the Hudson is not a small river. Not at all. 

KELLY: Since the trail’s founding, the Bear Mountain Bridge has been the only viable option for hikers headed north or south over the Hudson River. On the west shore, Bear Mountain looms over the bridge and Anthony’s Nose is the closest peak on the east shore. 

KELLY: When AT hikers cross the Hudson River, they are crossing what was once the world’s longest suspension bridge. The bridge span itself is almost one-third of a mile across and when you’re standing in the middle, you’re more than 150 feet above the river. The bridge has a dedicated lane for hikers, so you don’t have to dodge oncoming cars and trucks. But like all long suspension bridges, it does kind of jump up and down a little if a big truck passes by. Me? I’m not a fan of bridges that jump.

KELLY: Hikers headed northbound on the AT descend more than one thousand feet from the summit of Bear Mountain to the entrance to the bridge. Hikers headed southbound descend about 700 feet from the summit of a smaller peak called Anthony’s Nose to get to the other side of the bridge. From either summit, the views up and down the Hudson River valley and of the bridge itself are pretty spectacular.

MELANIE SHUCK: it's just an incredible bridge. It's incredible suspension bridges to walk across and the AT literally goes across it.

SHUCK: It's just an incredible view because you're so high up there's so much activity, trains, barges going by

WALT DANIELS: I don't know. It's a very good view. It's very different view from the get from the top of either the Bear Mountain or from Anthony's Nose. It's more more down to the river view. But you see the the traffic on the on the river, which frequently they're big barges and other things going by underneath.

KELLY: You just heard from Walt Daniels and Melanie Shuck, two volunteers with the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference. 

KELLY: Bear Mountain Bridge sits just north of the oldest section of the entire Appalachian Trail. Shortly after Benton MacKaye published his proposal for the trail in 1921, leaders of the Palisades Interstate Park Commission and the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference agreed to start building sections of the Appalachian Trail in Bear Mountain State Park. And one of the first sections they built headed uphill from the Bear Mountain Bridge.

SHUCK: that was one of my favorite spots to work because I'm just in love with the history of that spot and was really cool because that was where the first section the the AT was opened and built. And we actually just passed the 100 year anniversary. So that was really cool to be able to work on that section.

KELLY: Fortunately for the creators of the Appalachian Trail, the Bear Mountain Bridge opened that same year, so it was possible to get hikers across the Hudson right at the north end of Bear Mountain State Park. At the time, the only other bridge options were either close in to New York City or all the way north in Albany. Needless to say, neither of those options would work for hikers wanting to cross the river. 

KELLY: The trail AT hikers use today is quite different from the one those original trail builders created. 

DANIELS: Going just from Rockland County on the west side to Putnam County, near Westchester County on the east side, then there's a bit of roadblock in the way back in the 50s or so the trail used to go right straight up to the end of from an off the bridge straight up the hill. But that is really steep. And I would not I can scramble up but I would not want to carry a pack up. But they did. The now goes up a route that's been in place for Oh, since these roughly since the 70s. It's moved around a little bit a few times.

KELLY: In fact, that change of route Walt just mentioned is a great example of the critical work that trail club volunteers do for the trail. Working with local and national park authorities and the ATC, local clubs are constantly re-routing and improving the trail to make it more accessible for all hikers. In the case of the Bear Mountain section, that has meant stairs. Lots of stairs.

DANIELS: We're in the process of massively rebuilding the trail for people who've made with the trail over Bear Mountain that was took 10 years to rebuild all the steps on that. We have a similar flight of steps that needs to build probably mine up was 600 or 700 steps.

KELLY: That’s a lot of steps. And if you’ve been, you know they’re made out of large stones that will resist erosion, will frustrate bears that might want to roll them over to look for bugs, and will stand up to thousands and thousands of hikers every year going up and down that long staircase. I’ve built a few stone steps on the AT in my day, but only a few. The idea of putting in hundreds and hundreds is more than I care to think about.

KELLY: On the east shore of the river hikers pass through the grounds of the Trailside Museum and Zoo. In addition to being the only zoo on the Appalachian Trail. It also happens to be the lowest point on the entire Appalachian Trail. If you go, when you pass by the Black Bear exhibit, you’ll be just 120 feet above sea level, which is as low as the AT gets. And, in case you were wondering, the summit of Clingman’s Dome in North Carolina is the highest point on the trail at 6,643 feet. 

KELLY: Trail volunteers like Walt and Melanie do a lot more for hikers than build steps, take care of shelters, cut back brush, or pick up trash left on the trail by other hikers. Sometimes trail club volunteers have to help save lives. And for Melanie, one of those life saving moments will always be tied to the Bear Mountain Bridge.

SHUCK: One particular situation I had that where I had an emotional response but was calm by it quick story was my first season stewarding which was 2020. It's just very interesting. Let me tell you the very end of the season on Labor Day myself with my colleague had a serious medical emergency where we had to evacuate a kid off the trail. He got seriously hurt: paramedics, State Park police, everything. And so it was just a chaotic day. He went up to take care of the kid I had to reroute hikers off the trail. And so after all was said and done at the beginning of the weekend, we're like we're so getting ice cream on Labor Day. And then we're like, yeah, we earned it. So we got ice cream from the vending machine just sat looking at the Bear Mountain bridge just being like we got through the day. And it just was a cool feeling just to for some reason, the bridge gave me comfort. And just after dealing with a chaos of that day of just it was so frustrating and horrifying. And oh boy because this kid was seven and was seriously hurt. But seeing him get into that ambulance was a cool feeling too because we like we helped him get to safety. [rework based on audio]

KELLY: I think it’s safe to say that Melanie will never look at the Bear Mountain Bridge again without thinking about that little boy and her role in getting him to safety.

KELLY: The Green Tunnel is a production of R2 Studios at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. Today’s episode was produced by me. Jeanette Patrick and Jim Ambuske are the executive producers. 

KELLY: We want to offer a special thanks to Melanie Shuck, Walt Daniels, and Zach Cole from the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference for sharing their stories about Bear Mountain Bridge and the oldest section of the Appalachian Trail. 

KELLY: Original music for our show is performed by Scott Miller of Swope, Virginia, and Andrew Small and Ashley Watkins of Floyd, Virginia. 

KELLY: We’re able to bring you this show through the generosity of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and many individual donors like you. To help us continue to produce the world’s best podcast on the Appalachian Trail, please visit our website at R2Studios.org and click on the Support Us link to make a donation of any amount. We really appreciate it. 

KELLY: Thanks for listening and we’ll see you soon.

Walt Daniels

Walt Daniels volunteers with the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference. He has been a supervisor on a section of the Appalachian Trail, the ATC’s first webmaster and developed its website three times. At the same time, he spent time in the field designing and building trails. Outside of the Trail Conference, he has served on the Town of Yorktown’s Conservation Advisory Committee, the Open Space Advisory Committee, and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s Board of Managers.

Melanie Shuck

Melanie Shuck volunteers with the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference.