My favorite hikes are in Harriman State Park, where one can find trails offering great natural beauty and, even on the busiest of days, solitude for miles at a time with elevation changes measured in hundreds of feet. So it was with some hesitation combined with high expectation that I decided to take a train from northern New Jersey into...
My favorite hikes are in Harriman State Park, where one can find trails offering great natural beauty and, even on the busiest of days, solitude for miles at a time with elevation changes measured in hundreds of feet. So it was with some hesitation combined with high expectation that I decided to take a train from northern New Jersey into lower Manhattan to walk the High Line -- a most unusual rail-to-trail conversion, a half mile long and 30 feet above street level.
Because Section 1 of the High Line is so short (it will double in length to one mile when Section 2 is completed in the Spring, 2011), I decided to start hiking at the site of the World Trade Center and make my way along the east bank of the Hudson River. A good map of the financial district is very helpful since street patterns are fluid due to major construction projects. An information booth is across the street from the PATH station exit. There are multiple routes to get to the Hudson River; the directions below indicate one of them.
World Trade Center Site
An unexpected urban trailhead: Begin your hike at the exit of the temporary PATH station, located on Vesey Street where Greenwich Street is interrupted by the WTC site; turn right to follow the crowds walking east along Vesey, away from the Hudson River, one long block to Church Street.
At an extremely busy intersection, turn right on Church Street, where you must walk on its eastern-most sidewalk, and quickly reach the back of Saint Paul's Chapel and its cemetery. It is Manhattan's oldest public building in continuous use and served as a place of rest and refuge for recovery workers after September 11, 2001. Walk four short blocks south on Church Street [name changes to Trinity Place], to Liberty Street. Before turning right on Liberty Street, look for the first of several large orange signs fastened on poles with directions to "World Financial Center, North Cove Marina, Battery City Park."
Walk west along Liberty Street for one block to the NYFD Engine #10 and Ladder #10 Firehouse. Liberty Street is closed at this point, where another orange sign directs you left. [There is no visible street name, a map suggests the continuation of Greenwich Street south of the WTC site]. Once you have turned left the FDNY Memorial Wall comes into view, a 56-foot bronze bas-relief sculpture in honor of the 343 fallen firefighters. What looks like a more homegrown memorial, that includes the firefighters' photographs, is closer to the Liberty Street intersection and attracted the largest crowd the day I visited. This is a place to linger and reflect. At this point, since leaving the PATH station, the walk has covered about a third of a mile clockwise around roughly one-half of the current perimeter of the WTC site.
Continue south one block along Greenwich Street to Albany Street and turn right where another orange sign points out the direction. From here it is a straight walk west along Albany Street across the very wide West Street [ignore the orange sign at this intersection], beyond a cul-du-sac and through what I later realized was an outdoor sculpture, Ned Smyth's "Upper Room" . But at this moment, after the congestion, noise, and twists and turns around the WTC site, the view of the Hudson River overwhelms. Just across the river is the famous Colgate clock and the Manhattan-esque, but newer and shinier, Jersey City skyline; further south are the views of iconic Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.
You have arrived at The Esplanade, which runs along Battery City Park from Historic Battery Park at the tip of Manhattan north to Stuyvesant High School paralleling the Hudson River--it has been called a "pedestrian's paradise." [An excellent on-line map is accessible at The Esplanade link above, which also shows where other public art is sited.] The Esplanade is a wide, leafy, walkway with plenty of benches on which to sit and enjoy the views before undertaking more serious hiking. Bicycles are allowed on the pathway nearest the river, but prohibited on another one running behind rows of park benches.
From the end of Albany Street, go up river on The Esplanade for two-tenths of a mile or so [these distances come from pedometer readings] to North Cove Marina, where the World Financial Center is located, look carefully and you will see it is due west of the WTC site. In the northeast corner of an expansive and beautiful public space is the Winter Garden Atrium, with its towering glass planes reaching 10 stories skyward. The wind and dust storm created by the collapsing Twin Towers blew out practically all the glass, reducing the building to rubble. Upon its reopening in 2002 the Atrium gained the distinction of being the first major structure to be rebuilt after 9-11. There is a very different feeling at this site, compared to the NYFD Memorial Wall, perhaps because the one celebrates the fast return of commercialism and the other the calls attention to the lingering heartbreak of human tragedy.
If you need to, the Food Court here provides an opportunity to stop and eat, and use the very clean bathrooms [as NYC visitors and residents know, this is often a very precious find].
The remaining walkway along the Esplanade is utterly delightful, from watching boat traffic on the river to children running around in playgrounds -- even freely rolling on grass in a small park prohibiting dogs. You soon reach the point where the walkway, which actually juts out into the Hudson, turns 90 degrees inland heading east towards West Street. Just before you turn, the Holland Tunnel air shafts can be seen ahead off in the distance. As you approach West Street, Stuyvesant High School is on your right.
At West Street, I thought my planned route was a disaster. Not only is the street extremely noisy, the path paralleling it is relatively narrow and open to bike traffic. Both seemed a little dangerous. Enter the path carefully looking left and right. In three-tenths of a mile, at Laight Street, a pedestrian-only walkway closer to the river heads north. [When it is completed, perhaps early in 2011, it will connect directly to The Esplanade]. Before turning left to leave the shared biker-hiker pathway, look around to avoid being brushed or hit.
The bike-free walkway you are about to enter is not as leafy as The Esplanade, yet it still offers wide open views of the Hudson River and now, from this point, its numerous piers and deteriorated pile fields. Much to my surprise, there is even a slightly elevated Nature Boardwalk-- with native plantings and quiet resting areas, an unexpected anticipation of the High Line, which incorporates similar features. The boardwalk spans three short blocks from Laight Street to Watts Street and serves as a buffer between West Street/the bike path and the wide pedestrian-only path. All three paths are part of Hudson River Park, which extends from Battery Park to 59th Street and is said to be the largest open space project to undergo construction since the completion of Central Park. Click for a map, or pick up a printed copy at one of the comfort station locations.
Some "Pier" highlights as you hike north along Hudson River Park:
- Pier 34, just north of Canal Street: a "U"-shaped pier leading out to the Holland Tunnel air shaft. Southern leg only is open to pedestrians.
- Pier 20, W. Houston Street: an enclosed parking garage with playing fields in an open courtyard -- seeing the grassy playing area inside is rather jarring; the outside perimeter of the structure is open for hiking. Comfort station, food.
- Pier 45, north of Christopher Street: a small park jutting into the Hudson; comfort station; food. For reference, the PATH station for the return trip to Hoboken is three and a half blocks east on Christopher Street.
- Pier 51, Jane Street: children play area. Comfort station, food.
At Pier 51, with the massive NYC Department of Sanitation building just ahead, exit Hudson River Park taking a gentle turn east to Horatio Street. [My pedometer measures three miles from the start of the hike.] Proceed carefully across West Street, and continue on Horatio Street for one block to Washington Street. Turn left and walk one block north to Ganesvoort Street. At the corner the High Line majestically comes into view looming overhead.
Current hours are 7am to 10pm daily [last entrance at 9:45pm], but check the High Line web site in case of changes. No dogs are allowed on the High Line.
Want to look over this section of the hike before you go? Use the "Street View" feature on Google Maps. Either search for "High Line, NYC, NY" using Google Maps in a new window, or click to enlarge the map at the top of this page. If you are unfamiliar with Street View simply drag the orange-colored icon of a person atop the zoom in/out buttons to a desired location along the High Line pathway.
In contrast to its beginning around the WTC site, this part of the hike exudes calm. Even at street level the traffic is lighter and less noisy. From the street level Ganesvoort Plaza, an area paved in concrete underneath the rail bed, rises a wide and gently sloped staircase with two long landings to ease the ascent. A mere 45 steps up is the only elevation gain above sea level on this hike. For those still needing an assist, elevator access is at the 14th Street and 16th Street entrances. You can't take a wrong turn on this part of the hike; I still recommend downloading and printing a High Line Map beforehand. Also look for a similar, but annotated, map in the "flowers" link below; scroll down to "High Line Planting Design and Landscape Zones"--it's a very informative resource.
The High Line is not a "let's-pave-a-rail-bed" project, with blacktop stretching endlessly in front of you. As you emerge from the staircase the first impression is of a carefully designed urban landscape that is paradoxically populated with unruly tall grasses, bushes, small trees, and other native plants. This was a conscious effort to keep the types of vegetation that grew wild during the time the track was abandoned. The flowers [pictured here] must be gorgeous in the spring.
Before heading down the path, turn back around the staircase landing to take a short pathway to "Gansevoort Overlook" and scan the street 30 feet below. A New York Times reviewer noted we are in the historic meatpacking district, and this architectural feature seems to mimic a massive meat cut. The crowds were light so even this narrowing pathway, which ends with several benches then occupied by visitors, seemed secluded. Just to the west is the future site of the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Another view from the top of the staircase was not quite so pleasing to me. The aptly named "Standard Hotel," which straddles the pathway ahead between Little W. 12th Street and W.13th Streets, has a foundation characterized as a "concrete-legged brute." From its foundation rise some 15 stories of green-windowed hotel rooms, giving it a 70's feel. It's an eyesore, although rumor has it, it's also an eye-full at night with all that open glass and guests who are either careless or, ahem, mindful.
- I returned for an evening hike in mid-October after sunset. Sure enough, there were many well-lighted rooms with open drapes, but no one visible. What's more interesting at night is the subdued lighting of the pathway itself. It is illuminated by lights under the many benches, under handrails, under long round tubes near the ground, and vertical three-foot LEDs placed at various intervals. There is very little overhead lighting. You can't see as much as during the day, but it adds to the magic of the place at night.
Also at the staircase landing, as elsewhere along much of the path, the Hudson River is visible in the distance between buildings and over aged and decaying roof tops. By this time if you haven't had your fill of seeing the Hudson River, these partially obscured views won't add much to your experience.
Start to follow the relatively narrow path northward. The walkway itself meanders within the confines of the linear rail way from side to side, not only at this spot but throughout. Approaching Little W. 12th is "Ganesvoort Woodland," with birch and serviceberry trees predominating on either side of you. Look carefully for partially hidden rails embedded among the plantings. These original rails had been tagged and removed during construction and then returned. Keep alert for more rails throughout the hike.
At Little W. 12th Street the walkway divides into center and eastern paths becoming the "Washington Grasslands," featuring a mix of grasses and shade-loving perennials.
If you look down to examine the pathway, the first thing you notice are one- by 12-foot cement slabs that form the smooth pavement. If you doubted these were meant to suggest rails, the raised cement borders around some of the planted areas, elegant in their simplicity, are unmistakably patterned after rails.
Near "The Standard," the walkway opens to its full width for the first time and includes an area to sit at tables and enjoy the outdoors and passersby. If you look down to the street this is about mid-point geographically in what is now officially called the "Ganesvoort Market" [from Ganesvoort St. to north to W.15th Street and 11th Avenue to east to Hudson Street]. According to one source, after the meatpackers leave at the end of the day, "a stream of Sarah Jessica Parker look-alikes take their place" at night. Now I get the rumors about window exhibitionists.
Just before W.14th Street you walk underneath a building into a dark, spare, space with a thick wall dividing it into two large rooms. It seems designed to house long running exhibits like Stephen Vitiello's "A Bell for Every Minute" which was installed from June 2010 to June 2011.
At W.14th Street is another entrance [stairs and elevator] to High Line. Just beyond this point the pathway curves to the right and divides vertically in the "Sundeck Preserve."
- The upper section consists of a sundeck with permanent lounging chairs; a few have small railroad wheels for legs and are mounted on rails. It looks like they were movable at first, but have now been secured. This level has a "water feature" still under construction in 2010.
- The lower section features original rails embedded into the pathway and also raised rails as a border to separate the beds of wildflowers, grasses and sumac trees.
The two levels continue into "Chelsea Market/Public Art" passageway near W.15th Street. There was little public art on the upper level the day I visited, but check the High Line web page "Events" tab.
- The lower pathway juts westward towards 10th Avenue below. This must have been to accommodate a spur line laid on a bridge that spans 10th Avenue. This "Southern Spur" is one of two preserved on the High Line. Note the broad gauge and narrow gauge tracks embedded in the pathway.
- The other "Northern Spur" is at the far end of the passageway, at W.16th Street. It is designated a "horticultural preserve" with a jumble of [official documents call it "impressionistic"] trees, shrubs and grasses. It has its own viewing platform.
The namesake Chelsea Market District on the streets below extends east from 10th Avenue to 9th Avenue, and north between W.15th Street and W.16th Street.
Continue to follow the pathway northward beyond the W.16th Street entrance to where it turns gently left passing over 10th Avenue at W.17th Street. Here, at Tenth Avenue Square, is one of the most unique "viewpoints" I've encountered on any hike. A cut has been made into the High Line's deck directly above 10th Avenue, with steps, ramps, and long benches added to allow visitors to descend down several layers into and below the structure. The lowest level has been fitted with upright windows overlooking 10th Avenue; it all has the feel of an amphitheatre where "The Show" is traffic travelling up the avenue. No timber rattlesnakes or brown bears to worry about here, at least the wild animal variety. The original sub-structure itself can be viewed through vertical wooden slats and is lighted at night [caution: the steps are dark at night]. The Square also features a grove of three-flower maple trees providing shade for the benches underneath.
Leaving The Square you enter a wide section of the pathway. On its Hudson River side, vines being trained on tall trellises together with continuous benches for resting and observing make for a pleasant garden feeling. The pathway curves again and narrows as you approach W.18th Street [another entrance point], then meanders back and forth along the "Chelsea Grasslands." This remaining section felt the most open, and oddly barren, in spite of the dense plantings of prairie grasses and bushes. A view of the top of the Empire State Building framed through this vegetation captures the unique setting of the hike.
The High Line ends abruptly at W.20th Street at a chain link fence blocking the way. According to my pedometer this point is somewhere short of four miles from the start of the hike at the WTC. If you decide to exit here and came via PATH, there are stations at 6th Avenue and either 23rd or 14th Streets. See High Line Map for subway information.
The day I visited, workers were actively preparing Section 2 which will to extend up to W.30th Street and is scheduled to open the Spring 2011. Development is still pending for the 3rd section at the West Side Rail Yards.
Note: Section 2 opened to the public on June 8, 2011. The Friends of the High Line marked the occasion by observing:
"The opening of the new section doubles the length of the public park. After years of planning, design and construction, the High Line is now one mile long, running from Gansevoort Street to West 30th Street, connecting the Meatpacking District, West Chelsea, and Hell's Kitchen.
New access points are located at West 23rd Street, West 26th Street, West 28th Street, and West 30th Street, supplementing the five existing access points at Gansevoort Street, West 14th Street, West 16th Street, and West 18th Street, and West 20th Street. All access points will be open daily during the public park's summer operating hours, from 7:00 AM to 11:00 PM." Click for complete text
A video peak at Section 2 during construction in December, 2010 can be viewed by clicking here
On the return trip back down the High Line walkway, stop again at Tenth Avenue Square. At this point, standing in the grove of trees, it is possible to look south down the Hudson River to see Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty [for a second time] off in the distance.
Continue on the pathway back to the Ganesvoort Street exit and the street-level plaza. Proceed south along Washington Avenue to Christopher Street [the first broad two-way street], on the way observe that many of the narrow cross streets are still paved with bricks. Go left on Christopher Street, turning away from the Hudson River and walk one and a half blocks. In the middle of the block between Greenwich Street and Hudson Street, on the north side, is the unassuming, easily missed, entrance to the Christopher Street PATH station. From one PATH station to another, the hike is probably a quarter mile short of five.
The deeply felt wounds but energetic rebuilding enveloping the World Trade Center site, the natural beauty of the Hudson River with its historic views, and the inspired design and unique setting of the High Line all make for a most thought provoking and thoroughly delightful hike. When I'm on the trails in southern Harriman State Park I can only see the tip of Manhattan; on this hike I experienced it on the ground.
Listen to a walking tour of the High Line by Joshua David and Robert Hammond, the Co-Founders of Friends of the High Line. They were interviewed on NPR's "All Things Considered," September 3, 2011. The tour begins as the High Line does, at the corner of Gansevoort and Washington Streets in the Meatpacking District. [This verson is 80 minutes; at the NPR site is also a 12 minute interview.]
Date of hike: August 26, 2010
Turn By Turn Description:
1. Exit temporary WTC PATH station at Vesey and Greenwich streets, turn right [east] away from the Hudson River towards Church Street
2. Turn right on Church Street, walk four blocks south [name changes to Trinity Place]
3. Turn right on Liberty Street [look for orange directional sign "World Financial Center, North Cove Marina, Battery City Park"].
4. Walk one block west on Liberty just pass the NYFD Engine #10 and Ladder #10 Firehouse and turn left [look for another orange directional sign]. The FDNY [9-11] Memorial Wall is on the west wall of the firehouse.
5. Continue one block to Albany Street and turn right [follow yet another orange directional sign]. Stay on Albany Street going west across very busy West Street [here ignore the orange sign] until you reach the Hudson River and the broad pathway of The Esplanade.
6. Turn right, going up-river, passing North Cove Marina and the World Financial Center and several smaller parks along Battery City Park.
7. The Esplanade ultimately turns right [east], leading to a bike/pedestrian path just before West Street. Using caution, turn left [north] entering Hudson River Park on the pathway.
8. In four blocks [The Borough of Manhattan Community College takes up two of those across West Street] at Laight Street turn left, again cautiously, towards the Hudson River.
9. Continue north up the Hudson River Park to Pier 51 just before the massive NYC Department of Sanitation, exit right onto Horatio Street [at roughly three miles from the start of hike, if my pedometer is to be trusted].
10. Cross West Street again, stay on Horatio for one additional block to Washington Street, then turn left [north] for one block to Gansevoort Street.
11. Climb the steps from the street level Gansevoort Plaza to reach the High Line.
12. Once on upper stair landing, turn left and back to Gansevoort Overlook where the High Line pathway ends abruptly 30 feet above street level
13. Return to stair landing; continue north for approximately one-half mile to the end of Section 1 at 20th Street
• Approaching Little W.12th Street: "Gansevoort Woodlands"
• Little W.12th Street to Little W. 13th Street [and beyond]: "Washington Woodland"
• Just before W.14th Street in a passageway is an exhibit space [Vitiello's, A Bell for Every Minute, June 2010 thru July 2011]
• W.14th Street: wheelchair accessible entrance
• Just beyond 14th Street: two-level "Sundeck Preserve"
• W.15th Street: Chelsea Market/Public Art Space passageway - Southern Spur on lower level
• W.16th Street: wheelchair accessible entrance, Northern Spur
• Tenth Avenue Square at 17th Street with "viewpoint" amphitheatre cut down into rail bed structure and small tree arbor
• W. 18th Street: entrance, stairs only. "Chelsea Grasslands" extending north; views of top of Empire State Building.
• W. 20th Street - northern terminus at chain link fence; entrance/exit [roughly 60 stairs up and over guard railing].
14. Retrace steps along the High Line from 20th Street to the Gansevoort Street exit at Washington Street .
15. Once back at street level, follow Washington Street south to Christopher Street, turn left away from the Hudson River
16. In the middle of the second block on the left [north] side is the Christopher Street PATH station with transportation back to Hoboken.
Hectic activities and painful memories around the World Trade Center (WTC) construction site, delightful views of and along the Hudson River, and the calming, almost spiritual design of the High Line comprise a unique and splendid three-part hiking experience that can be found only in Manhattan.
Whether you are going for a day hike or backpacking overnight, it is good practice to carry what we call The Hiking Essentials. These essentials will help you enjoy your outing more and will provide basic safety gear if needed. There may also be more essentials, depending on the season and your needs.
Hiking Shoes or Boots
Water - Two quarts per person is recommended in every season. Keep in mind that fluid loss is heightened in winter as well as summer. Don't put yourself in the position of having to end your hike early because you have run out of water.
Map - Know where you are and where you are going. Many of our hiking areas feature interconnecting network of trails. Use a waterproof/tear-resistant Tyvek Trail Conference map if available or enclose your map in a Ziplock plastic bag. If you have a mobile device, download Avenza’s free PDF Maps app and grab some GPS-enhanced Trail Conference maps (a backup Tyvek or paper version of the map is good to have just in case your batteries die or you don't have service). Check out some map-reading basics here.
Food - Snacks/lunch will keep you going as you burn energy walking or climbing. Nuts, seeds, and chocolate are favorites on the trail.
Sunscreen and insect repellent
Rain Gear and Extra Clothing - Rain happens. So does cold. Be prepared for changing weather. Avoid cotton--it traps water against your skin and is slow to dry. If you are wearing wet cotton and must return to your starting point, you risk getting chills that may lead to a dangerous hypothermia. Choose synthetic shirts, sweaters and/or vests and dress in layers for easy on and off.
Compass - A simple compass is all you need to orient you and your map to magnetic north.
Light - A flashlight or small, lightweight headlamp will be welcome gear if you find yourself still on the trail when darkness falls. Check the batteries before you start out and have extras in your pack.
First Aid Kit - Keep it simple, compact, and weatherproof. Know how to use the basic components.
Firestarter and Matches - In an emergency, you may need to keep yourself or someone else warm until help arrives. A firestarter (this could be as simple as leftover birthday candles that are kept inside a waterproof container) and matches (again, make sure to keep them in a waterproof container) could save a life.
Knife or Multi-tool - You may need to cut a piece of moleskin to put over a blister, repair a piece of broken equipment, or solve some other unexpected problem.
Emergency Numbers - Know the emergency numbers for the area you're going to and realize that in many locations--especially mountainous ones, your phone will not get reception.
Common Sense - Pay attention to your environment, your energy, and the condition of your companions. Has the weather turned rainy? Is daylight fading? Did you drink all your water? Did your companion fail to bring rain gear? Are you getting tired? Keep in mind that until you turn around you are (typically) only half-way to completing your hike--you must still get back to where you started from! (Exceptions are loop hikes.)
Check the weather forecast before you head out. Know the rules and regulations of the area.
The Leave No Trace Seven Principles
- Know the regulations and special concerns for the area you'll visit.
- Prepare for extreme weather, hazards, and emergencies.
- Schedule your trip to avoid times of high use.
- Visit in small groups when possible. Consider splitting larger groups into smaller groups.
- Repackage food to minimize waste.
- Use a map and compass to eliminate the use of marking paint, rock cairns or flagging.
- Durable surfaces include established trails and campsites, rock, gravel, dry grasses or snow.
- Protect riparian areas by camping at least 200 feet from lakes and streams.
- Good campsites are found, not made. Altering a site is not necessary.
- In popular areas:
- Concentrate use on existing trails and campsites.
- Walk single file in the middle of the trail, even when wet or muddy.
- Keep campsites small. Focus activity in areas where vegetation is absent.
- In pristine areas:
- Disperse use to prevent the creation of campsites and trails.
- Avoid places where impacts are just beginning.
- Pack it in, pack it out. Inspect your campsite and rest areas for trash or spilled foods. Pack out all trash, leftover food and litter.
- Deposit solid human waste in catholes dug 6 to 8 inches deep, at least 200 feet from water, camp and trails. Cover and disguise the cathole when finished.
- Pack out toilet paper and hygiene products.
- To wash yourself or your dishes, carry water 200 feet away from streams or lakes and use small amounts of biodegradable soap. Scatter strained dishwater.
- Preserve the past: examine, but do not touch cultural or historic structures and artifacts.
- Leave rocks, plants and other natural objects as you find them.
- Avoid introducing or transporting non-native species.
- Do not build structures, furniture, or dig trenches.
- Campfires can cause lasting impacts to the backcountry. Use a lightweight stove for cooking and enjoy a candle lantern for light.
- Where fires are permitted, use established fire rings, fire pans, or mound fires.
- Keep fires small. Only use sticks from the ground that can be broken by hand.
- Burn all wood and coals to ash, put out campfires completely, then scatter cool ashes.
- Observe wildlife from a distance. Do not follow or approach them.
- Never feed animals. Feeding wildlife damages their health, alters natural behaviors, and exposes them to predators and other dangers.
- Protect wildlife and your food by storing rations and trash securely.
- Control pets at all times, or leave them at home.
- Avoid wildlife during sensitive times: mating, nesting, raising young, or winter.
- Respect other visitors and protect the quality of their experience.
- Be courteous. Yield to other users on the trail.
- Step to the downhill side of the trail when encountering pack stock.
- Take breaks and camp away from trails and other visitors.
- Let nature's sounds prevail. Avoid loud voices and noises.
The Trail Conference is a 2015 Leave No Trace partner.
(c) Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics: www.LNT.org.