Take a Hike!

Where to take a bunch of party jaded 10-year old boys to celebrate my son’s birthday? I wondered… Sports Center, Laser Tag, Gymnastics…been there, done that. Then it occurred to me, the perfect antidote to the planned party circuit might be to get back to basics and do something retro, unstructured, and off the beaten path. A party with plenty of time doing what kids love best - exploring and getting dirty. But what?

Then I remembered a beautiful fall day about 20 years ago. My husband and I lived in Manhattan, and we often liked to head out for quick day excursions. On one occasion, while driving north on the Palisades Parkway, we saw a sign, “Stateline Lookout.” Sounded good, so we turned off at the exit, parked our car, and began to explore. We walked a bit, leaving the park’s concrete path behind as we found ourselves deep in the woods on a rugged dirt trail leading down to the Hudson. When we reached the end, our eyes feasted upon a wondrous sight…a serendipitous find…the remnants of an old garden replete with columns, stone walls, and circular walkways. The backdrop was a cascading waterfall. Additionally, we were charmed to come upon an engraved wooden swing for two. “How romantic,” we thought, as we swung out and over the river. (Just so I don’t forget, if anyone knows who installed the swing, I'd love to hear the story.)

Fast forward 20 years, we now live in Palisades with our son, Ben, and very close to that special place. I didn't realize how close nor exactly how to get there from our home. Asking around, however, yielded the answer to the proximity question, but no one I asked seemed to know the current condition of the site. What still existed? How much would have decayed with the ravages of time? I thought I'd call on one of our gracious local historians, Alice Gerard, to get an update. She wasn't sure herself as to the present state of the "Tonetti Gardens and Waterfall." However, she did mention that I might want to write an article for 10964 about what I uncovered. What a clever lady!

Fortuitously, I already owned the book, Palisades & Snedens Landing by Alice Munro Haagensen and a pamphlet, "Mary Lawrence Tonetti” by Barry Falconer, both purchased from the Palisades Community Center. I went back and reread them. Each provided detailed answers to my long ago queries about the "gardens by the river.” By they way, the Palisades Library also has copies of these on their shelves, and I suggest you check them out.

While reading, I was fascinated to discover that preserving our bucolic area and thwarting "development” has been an issue for far longer than I had realized. Haagensen’s book states, “Mrs. H.E. Lawrence bought the Cascade and land around it in 1884 to forestall a proposed pier and picnic ground for excursionists.” Subsequently, Mary Lawrence, her daughter, was given enough money by her father to counter another threat, the plan to build a railroad along the west side of the Hudson. By developing the property they hoped to hold the Palisades Interstate Park Commission at bay. In 1909, Mrs. Lawrence did, however, give the Park Commission the top of the cliff.

Haagensen continues “...Mary soon began to plant flowers and bushes around the Waterfall to enhance its natural beauty. With the help of her friends, Stanford White, Charles McKim and Augustus Saint-Guadens, she designed the exedra, or pergola, near the river, copied after one she had seen in Amalfi in 1887. Later she and her husband Francois Tonetti built pools at different levels, with steps in between and niches for flowers and shrubs.” Haagensen also refers to pools with goldfish, box-bordered pebbled walks, and potted oleanders which completed its beauty.

Despite these wonderful resources, I knew I’d have to get out there and do some trekking in order to learn more about the garden as it stands today. I also needed to evaluate the possible trails so I could find which ones would be appropriate and acceptable to all the kids’ parents. So about a month before Ben's party I headed out for a test run with Ben and some friends.

This time, unlike 20 years ago, I was grateful to be able to just walk out my back door and stroll onto Lamont’s paved roads where I looked for the new Geochemistry building. Since there were no signs or indication of a trail, I just stayed close to the right of the building. Eventually, staying relatively parallel to the building for a few hundred feet, I met up with tree markers as I descended. I got to the proverbial fork in the road where a sign indicated that Peanut Falls, leading to the Waterfalls and Garden, was to the left, the “Giant Stairs” hike straight ahead over the manmade wooden bridge and, if you want a much easier walk through the woods, just turn right to end up at 9W near Lamont's gatehouse. This last trail, though unremarkable to my eyes, is recommended for those with little ones or for those interested in a quiet walk without much exertion. The other two trails, however, can be quite strenuous if one is out of shape. In my opinion, all the trails can be done in under one and a half hours…though I'm sure you'll want to linger.

The first hike we made was to Peanut Falls. The trail begins to get difficult as the dirt beneath your feet gives way to only boulders. At that point there is no ground to walk on, so be sure to have solid shoes. Hopefully you possess fairly good balance. As you get closer to the river you once again find ground, albeit the path is narrow. Continue on and around the bend where you will find stairs made out of railroad ties that head down toward the river. Be forewarned, it's a bit of a leg stretch in between risers. As you descend, the Waterfalls and Garden begin to unfold. One can easily imagine how beautiful this area must have been over a hundred years ago. Unfortunately, I found quite a bit of decay. Additionally, it seems as if this area has been used as a hangout, as evidenced by beer bottles, garbage, and two campfires. Although on subsequent trips, Ben and I have cleaned up and cleared out what we could, I would not be surprised to find the site in less than pristine condition.

The elegant swing, which was obviously added after Mary's time, has been replaced with a rather unattractive makeshift one. Notwithstanding, the site is still lovely and yields surprises. There is an exquisite semi-circular stone seat hidden at the water's edge. And if you walk under the low hanging canopy of a tree on the right side of the swing, as you face the river, there's a clean patch of sand where Ben and I happily liberated our feet and stepped in up to our thighs.

There is a walking trail along the river, though I don't know how far it extends south and north. Ben and I walked it southward and met up with a fence and a swinging gate that I assume is the NY/NJ border. The door was unlocked so we walked on, but turned around after a couple of miles. I can only speculate that it might lead to the George Washington Bridge.

The next trail across the wooden bridge leads to magnificent stone steps formally called “Giant Stairs” that Ben and I dubbed “Snedens’ Macchu Picchu.” I surmise the stairs were built by the Park Commission but would welcome an accurate history of how this path came to be.

These steps might pose a challenge for the short-legged person. But if one persists, one will be rewarded by a sweeping view. There is a guard rail built along much of the cliffs, but there are still many precarious spots. Keep your kids near and on the inside while hugging the cliff. As you veer away from the cliff, there are steps that take you down back into the woods. Take the trail to the left as you approach the boundary marker. This trail will eventually lead you to the Stateline Lookout. Treat yourself to a well earned beverage at the cafe there and take a look at the interesting books for sale while you cool down.

The unremarkable hike, which I mentioned earlier, heads off to the right at the fork. There’s not much to say, except it’s quick, quiet, safe for kids, and therefore still worth taking.

In summary, I can't say which of the two major trails I enjoy better-the one that leads to the grander view atop the cliffs or the one below with its marvelous artifacts. If you're wondering which is the tougher workout, I can assure you that both will have you using muscles you didn't know you had. Both trails have enough stairs so you won’t have to feel guilty the next time you skip your Stairmaster workout.

I have introduced these trails to quite a few of my girlfriends, all of whom have responded with equal enthusiasm. Now, instead of our previous periodic breakfast/lunch gatherings, we hike. Despite the lack of great snow, it was nevertheless a long winter, so our recent return to the trails has been a delight for us all.

Lest I forget where all this started, when we took the hike for Ben's party, we ended up on the “Macchu Picchu” trail. The “Giant Stairs” beckoned the kids luring them up the stairs. Throughout the hike, they had a blast catching frogs at the bridge, identifying birds and behaving like naturalists (albeit rowdy ones), and of course walking, walking, walking.

In retrospect, I can unequivocally say that the party was a huge success. However, if I haven’t made it clear enough, the two better hikes are not for the faint of heart or for kids who are difficult to control. Adult supervision is critical.

The many hikes with Ben and my girlfriends have added a new unhurried, sweet dimension to the list of things we all like to do together. At the risk of sounding trite, keep in mind the wealth of opportunities in our own backyard that are free for the taking. When it comes to your kid’s next party, forget the sports center and maybe skip the health club once next week. Perhaps our paths may cross.

Happy Hiking!

Interesting Facts about the Trails
Distances from the 1st fork:

Peanut Falls - .3 miles 9W/Lamont - .4 miles Giant Stairs - .8 miles

From the 2nd Fork (Shore Trail):
Forest View - 2.2 miles (Descent 250 ft.)

The New Jersey Boundary Monument was erected in 1882. It lists the commissioners and surveyor.

I’d like to give a bit of credit to my fellow hikers for their inspiration (and perspiration): Helen Nelson, Louise Amico, Ginger Bennett