The Palisades were included on the first European map of the Americas, drawn in 1541. Gerardus Mercator based his portrayal of the grand river ridge on Giovanni da Verrazzano’s description. This cliffy area along the Hudson that is now Palisades Interstate Park was the site of George Washington’s retreat during the American Revolution and of 18 officially documented duels. Read on to learn more about this natural national landmark and discover what you can see + do on a visit to the 12 miles-long and one-mile-wide stretch of wild Hudson River shorefront, uplands, and cliffs.
A Natural Wonder
Beginning just north of Fort Lee, the Palisades hug the river’s edge from Hudson County into Bergen County and, on the East side of the river, through Rockland County, New York. 200 million years ago, during the Triassic period, molten diabase cooled to become the column-like rock structures we see today all throughout our region. The vertical presentation of the massive cliff face is why European settlers began to call it Palisades, a term for a stockade fence. The Lenni Lenape people called the cliffs Wee-Awk-En which translates to “rocks that look like trees.”
Once, the many picnic spots and recreational boat docks that spot the bottom of these cliffs were fishing villages. At the summit were a number of mansions and a massive resort. Today, we can walk, hike, bike, and play up atop these ancient columns of igneous (volcanic) rock that rise hundreds of feet above the Hudson River.
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Saved by the Women
When the proliferation of stone quarries threatened this natural wonder in the 1890s, the New Jersey State Federation of Women’s Clubs led a successful campaign to save the Palisades. In 1900, New York and New Jersey passed bills protecting 12 miles of valuable cliffside from the dynamite blasts of rock mining interests that were quickly leveling unprotected bluffs all around the country. With the bistate measure in place, the Palisades Interstate Park Commission was formed and the future of this spectacular natural wonder was ensured. Theodore Roosevelt, the governor of New York, and Foster Voorhees, the governor of New Jersey, made a universally popular move by signing the bills that open the newly protected parklands to the public.
Help from the Rockefellers
Two generations of John D. Rockefeller (both senior and junior) bought land on both sides of the Hudson for the purpose of conserving it. It is sometimes said that the purchases of the New Jersey parcels first gifted to the Park Commission by John D. senior were led by a desire to ensure a beautiful view from the Rockefeller family mansion and a stunning backdrop for the Cloisters. Whatever, the motivation, the mighty stone precipice that lines the Hudson River is one of our region’s greatest natural assets and provides a spectacular view to all who look upon it.
The Rockefellers’ penchant for conservation put them in good company throughout the start of the 20th century. The family was the largest supporter in a crowd of many when the plan to establish a park along the Palisades was first promoted. The Rockefellers and the women who spoke about the beauty of the wooded cliffs and brought public awareness to the destruction caused by proliferating quarries formed a nonpolitical conservation movement. Such thinking was on the rise in the US at the time. Organizations like the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society helped create a groundswell of support for preserving the Palisades, and the Rockefellers were on the board of the organization. The Rockefeller family remains active in its support of the park to this day.
The History of Skunk Hollow
Signs at the State Line Lookout, high up on the Palisades ridge on the border of New York and New Jersey, tell the story of Skunk Hollow. This unique nineteenth-century settlement of free Black families was just called The Mountain by its inhabitants. It’s thought that the name Skunk comes from the skunk cabbage, which is native to New Jersey and grows in wetlands and on moist hillsides.
Some reports claim that the free Black settlement at Skunk Hollow was established as early as 1806. The land was not considered valuable at the time. Farming the rocky wooded area was nearly impossible. It was, however, a viable hiding place for Black families seeking freedom from enslavers. No documentation exists regarding Skunk Hollow as a conduit of the Underground Railroad, however, this community of free Black people existed in the shadow of slavery with 22 families owning land by 1822 and more than 60 families by the 1860s. The population of the community dwindled after the Civil War and the settlement was largely abandoned by 1911, though a few Black households still referred to their homes as part of The Mountain in 1979. Today, the area that was once called both Skunk Hollow and The Mountain is the Borough of Alpine.
(Sarah Oliver, Resident of The Mountain at Skunk Hollow)
Lux Life Along the Hudson
In the years between 1860 and 1884, the Palisades Mountain House in Englewood served as a fashionable country resort on the beautiful west bank of the Hudson. Set on the escarpment, over 300 feet above the river, the Victorian luxury hotel provided wealthy vacationers with, along with the reputed fresh air and the spectacular view — a telegraph office, billiard hall, bowling alley, barber shop, cigar stand, reading rooms, public and private parlors, reception rooms, stabled horses to ride, boats, fishing docks, a hunting lodge, and even a swimming beach.
As many as five hundred guests could stay at the hotel. Guests came most often by steamboat from New York City to arrive at a private dock at the foot of the cliffs and travel in a stagecoach up a winding road cut into the cliff face. Others came by train or by horse-drawn carriage. Tragically, the Palisades Mountain House burned down completely in 1884. St. Michael’s Villa, built in 1939, sits there today, a notable brick building nestled within the wooded palisade cliff ridge.
Today, on the New York side of the Palisades, in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, looking west upon the beautiful cliffs of New Jersey, sits Wave Hill. Before Wave Hill became the beautiful public gardens, galleries, cafe, and greenhouse that are now there, it was where, in his childhood, Theodore Roosevelt’s family came to summer. Surely, the future US President was moved by that childhood pleasure to sign the bills protecting the ridges as parkland when he had the opportunity to do so as Governor of New York in 1900. Author Mark Twain said of his stint there, from 1901 to 1903: “I believe we have the noblest roaring blasts here I have ever known on land. They sing their hoarse song through the big tree-tops with a splendid energy that thrills me and stirs me and uplifts me and makes me want to live always.”
A Very Different Forest Now than Then
The forests of the Palisades were, at the turn of the century, made up of mostly chestnut and oak trees. The American chestnut’s fast growth rate, early nut production, and quality of timber make it a valuable tree. This tree species tolerates a wide range of ecological conditions and absorbs and stores more carbon dioxide to fuel growth than any other tree. Sadly, The Palisades’ chestnut trees proved more difficult to protect than the cliffs.
A tragic American chestnut tree blight began in 1904, starting right here. A Blight Commission was formed to fight the problem. Yet, by the end of World War I, the iconic North American “chestnut-oak forest” was a thing of the past. The Palisades, like all of the chestnut-rich forests of America, was a standing graveyard. Their prized wood was harvested and much of it was used in the structures built by the New Deal Works Progress Administration (WPA) during the 1930s. Today, chestnut logs cut a century or more ago are still sought after by craftsmen and builders. In the absence of the American chestnut, oak, and maple trees have come to dominate the Palisades, with sweet gum and tulip trees also prevalent.
Things To Do at Palisades Park
More than 30 miles of walking, hiking, and biking paths make up the Palisades trail system. The trails range from easy riverside strolls to challenging rock scrambles. Check park advisories before heading out.
Our region is full of bird-watching and bird advocacy groups. For the ardent bird lover, Palisades Park is primo. In autumn, from September through mid-November, volunteer observers record the migration of raptors at the Palisades State Line Lookout. They call it the hawk watch and all are welcome to come and try to spot the fourteen species of hawks and two species of vultures that come to the park each fall. Several species, such as the red-tailed hawk, are year-round park residents and can easily be spotted just by looking up.
For parkgoers who aren’t able to or are interested in hiking or biking along one of the many park trails, signage is posted to make driving from one scenic overlook to another easy and fun. The Palisades New York and New Jersey scenic byway includes Henry Hudson Drive, a seven-mile scenic roadway built in the early 1900s.
A visit to the State Line Café & Bookshop at the Lookout Inn is mandatory. The darling window-walled cabin was built in 1937 by the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Visitors can get toasty while drinking hot cocoa around the stone fireplace in winter. In summer, ice cream and other cold treats are the rewards for a day of hiking. It’s a nice spot for lunch, a snack, or to pick up a book about the area or a stuffed toy for the child who hasn’t asked to be carried yet.
There are about five miles of designated cross-country ski trails within the Park. The trails are various lengths with their difficulty marked A-F. The trails are maintained for winter use but are not groomed and the park does not provide ski rentals. Skiers are advised to wait for at least four inches of snow before using the trails.
Intrepid sea glass hunters can hike to a small beach along the Shore Trail in the borough of Alpine in search of whatever treasures wash up along the riverbank. Eagle-eyed children and adults with childlike wonder can gather colorful hunks of glass, very old oyster shells, and pottery shards, their sharp edges worn smooth by the river.
Avid history and nature enthusiasts might be interested in taking on a paid weekend gig within Palisades Interstate Park in New Jersey’s new Interpretive Ranger Program. Interpretive rangers will share what they learn about the Palisades — its past and future — on at least one day of each weekend between April and October.
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At Wave Hill, on the New York side of the Hudson, horticultural lectures (online and in person), family craft-making events, guided walks, and house tours all happen year-round. Visiting each and every park that lines the Hudson River is a worthy goal that isn’t likely to be accomplished quickly.