Going Back to Bear Mountain, With New Eyes
May 22, 2014

A recent trip to Bear Mountain State Park—a mere 50 minutes outside New York City—reminded us just how important it is to return to favorite places, even if there are so many new spots on the map to explore.  

We first visited Bear Mountain in the summer of 2010.  We sat on the expansive back porch of Overlook Lodge enjoying the stunning views of Hessian Lake in front of us, the Hudson River to the left, and the legendary Bear Mountain itself to the right.  It was there that we taught our children, Riley and Halina, then ages 8 and 5, how to play Trouble.  With its signature “pop-o-matic” die, Trouble instantly became a family favorite and we have owned large and travel-sized versions ever since.  Whenever we pull one of them out, we wistfully say, “Ah, remember learning to play this at Bear Mountain?”  The children inevitably respond that “of course” they do, and this assurance made us all the more surprised how little they remembered of Bear Mountain State Park when we returned the other week.
Different Experiences for Different Seasons and Ages
Granted, there were a few significant differences between our two visits, with the season being an important one. On our inaugural visit during summer, we spent a good deal of time in the enormous outdoor swimming pool which was understandably closed on our recent springtime visit. To get to the pool, we had strolled through the very special Trailside Zoo which serves as an animal rehabilitation center for injured mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and birds.  The zoo is open year round, but we didn’t get there during this visit because now, with the children being older, we were able to spend more time hiking in the history-making mountains.  
On October 7, 1923, Bear Mountain became the birthplace of the Appalachian Trail, which now stretches from Maine to Georgia and includes the paved walkways that wend around the Trailside Zoo.  When the children were younger, we followed that easy and information-packed link of the AT, culminating with a walk over the Bear Mountain Bridge (also part of the AT) which spans the Hudson River at an elevation of 360 feet. Now, with the children plenty able to hike high mountains, we climbed the namesake peak itself.  
The Bear Mountain Hike
The trail begins due east of Bear Mountain Inn, a massive stone lodge that is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places and which recently reopened following extensive renovations. The hike is strenuous, going from near sea level to 1,300 feet, but it is obviously geared toward new hikers.  A sign at the base explains the trail-marking system and the paths, bridges, and many, many steps are very well maintained throughout. On the up-and-back journey, we passed hikers of all ages, including several sets of fit parents carrying toddlers and babies in backpacks. 
The trees had not yet begun to bloom during our visit which made for expansive panoramic views at every turn—and of the wide blue sky overhead.  “It feels like we’re climbing into heaven,” observed Riley, who’s now 11.  Halina, for her part, talked the whole way, filling us in on deep details pertaining to any given moment in her school day.  Walking and hiking always get her talking!  
At the top we enjoyed crystal clear views of the Hudson Valley and, 40 miles to the south, the Manhattan skyline. Riley immediately called out the Freedom Tower and helped interested onlookers spot it too. The peak is also adorned with the five-story Perkins Memorial Tower which tells the history of the park and surrounding region though beautiful tile mosaics. From April through December, you can drive to the tower although on the Saturday we went, parking was scarce.  
Ah, the Memories
After our hike, we took the path around the park’s centerpiece Hessian Lake and up to Overlook Lodge.  Given how many times we have referred to the place over the years, it was surprising how little the kids remembered.  Riley recalled the lake, but Halina did not, and neither of them had a firm mental grip on the expansive back porch where we quite famously (we thought!) first played Trouble.  Over the course of the weekend, some of this drifted back for them, but as they said several times, it didn’t matter because they loved the place anyway!  
Memory certainly develops and strengthens as children age, but we now realize that in the natural course of conversation, we should be better asking the kids what they remember about a place or experience, rather than whether they remember it. 
Notes for Future Visits
Despite two action-packed visits, there are still many things we haven’t done at Bear Mountain.  The antique, animal-themed merry-go-round is now restored and operating but we didn’t manage to get there, and we have yet to visit when the ice rink is open, from October to March.  During summer you can also take paddle and row boats out on Hessian Lake and this too remains on our “must do” list, which we look forward to tackling over time!




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