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Hiking the High Line

New York's re-purposed elevated railway has become the darling of Manhattan hikers
By Peter Potterfield - June 30th, 2013

I found myself in the heart of Manhattan looking, of all things, for an outstanding hiking route. The irony was not lost on me: I had been invited to New York to speak at the storied Explorers Club about my favorite backcountry routes around the world. I'd be describing such epic hikes as the Everest Base Camp Trek, New Zealand's Routeburn Track,  Patagonia's Torres del Paine Circuit, and even the Shackleton Crossing in Antarctica's South Georgia Island. And here I was, in between speaking obligations and meetings with my publisher, ready to try the  best hikes I could find in the city.

The surprise turned out to be the High Line, an elevated railway line carrying cargo through New York's West Side that fell into disuse in the 1980s. But, in a private and public collaboration, the old track was saved and turned into a walking route. The popularity of the High Line exceeded all expectations. New Yorkers, starved for a place where one can walk block after block without stopping for traffic and stop lights, flocked to the High Line when the first, short, southern section opened in 2009 as a city park. Since then, the northern section has opened creating an approximately 1.5 mile route (three miles if you do it both ways)  from 13th Street to 33rd Street. Yet a third section, on the northern end, is planned.

Walking this dramatic route--designed by architects from James Corner Field Operations, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and Piet Oudolf--along the entire length from the Meatpacking District to Chelsea, is unlike any other. Passing installations of public art, meandering through dramatic plantings, and past panoramas of the busy neighborhoods below, manages to put the hiker above all the activity but within the embrace of city at the same time. Think of the High Line as a park, and on a sunny afternoon, with the setting sun off to the west, there's not a better walk in New York.

And being in the city means that the High Line needs amenities (which accounts for its multi-million dollar price tag). Nine access points (think of these as on ramps and off ramps) allow access to the elevated platform, and  three of those have elevator access, making the route accessible for people with disabilities. Rest rooms can be found every three or four blocks, without leaving the High Line. And while there are cafes and restaurants along the route (notably the famous Blue Bottle Coffee and the recently opened restaurant, The Porch), many more options lie just below on the neighborhood streets.

On my round trip, I exited the High Line about midway, at 23rd street, for a quiet, inexpensive lunch just at the access point, before continuing to the northern terminus. Here, the third and final segment of the High Line is envisioned. The route will curve west toward the Hudson, where the popular walkway will meet the extensive development known as the Rail Yards. This section of the High Line will allow for views across the river near what is one of the biggest single developments to happen in New York in decades.

And this being New York, the adventure doesn't end with the hike. Other activities, such as star gazing, are available at night, and there's even an outdoor theater showing art films projected onto a building at 22nd Street. It's easy to see why more than 4 million people visit the High Line every year. But for a fish out of water, a wilderness hiker caught in the city, the High Line offers a genuinely interesting walk and respite from the heavy urban vibe.

It matters how you go, however, and in fact the right strategy can greatly enhance your experience. I wanted to combine the High Line with another of New York’s best walks, the Hudson River Park. So with my lecture over, and my meetings completed, I checked out of the iconic Waldorf Astoria in busy Midtown, and headed downtown—all the way downtown—to spend a couple of nights at the modern Conrad New York. The change from congested Midtown to the open, sunny and surprisingly quiet shore by the Hudson could not have been more dramatic.
The Conrad is strategically located right on the Hudson where ferries from New Jersey arrive, where the PATH commuter trains enter Manhattan, and just blocks from the new World Trade Center and it’s 9-11 Memorial. It’s a stunning property, with a 15 story open atrium, and rooms that overlook sunset on the Hudson River. Winner of multiple accolades, including that for best luxury hotel in New York, the Conrad was perfect for my purposes for yet another reason: It makes the perfect base camp for my rather serious search for the best hike in New York. I could walk out of the soaring lobby of the hotel,  down the dramatic steps toward the river, and enjoy the ambience where parks and marinas line the Hudson south of the ferry terminal. The expanse of green space and blue sky is unique in New York. At this point, you are very near the southern tip of Manhattan, and  the views out to the Statue of Liberty prove the point.
This was my starting point, the very threshold of the Conrad. From there, I walked north along the Hudson River Park, a continuous strip of parkland with trails and bike paths that parallel the river, with the busy West Side Highway comfortably to the east. The park walkway weaves in and out among ball fields and benches between the highway and river, offering striking views across the Hudson to the skyline of Jersey City and trendy Hoboken. A two mile hike from the Conrad takes you to the southern terminus of the High Line at 13th Street, making a delightful walk without a single pause for a pedestrian traffic light.
Combining the Hudson River walk with the High Line, and then back again to make a round trip, delivers a seven mile urban hiking route that may be unrivalled in the city. This hike makes for an interesting day on the trail right in the heart of New York. And it’s an honest day’s work. On my return to the Conrad, I wandered through the soaring lobby, quiet and luxurious, but not pretentious or stuffy. This is a fun hotel, and a great place to call home for a walking tour of New York. Tomorrow, I'll go check out the 9-11 Memorial, just a few blocks away. But today it was time to take a seat in the Atrio wine bar and restaurant, right off the lobby, to enjoy the fine food and drink, and reflect on what I had found. My hike got me to me thinking: There are more ways to do New York than I had imagined.


Getting There

 For more information on the High Line, check out the Friends of the High Line website, and that for the Conrad New York.



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