Trail Talk | Oh to Live on Bear Mountain

In this piece from Mountaineer magazine, read how Craig Romano's childhood trips to Bear Mountain State Park instilled a lifelong love for the outdoors.
Craig Romano Craig Romano
Mountaineers Books Guidebook Author
March 23, 2024
Trail Talk | Oh to Live on Bear Mountain
Bear Mountain and Hessian Lake. All photos by Craig Romano.

I wasn’t born into a family of hikers or a lineage of outdoorspeople. I was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut — a largely industrial, multi-ethnic city on Long Island Sound in the greater New York City Metropolitan Area. My neighborhood consisted of two and three family homes in the city’s Little Italy north end. Bridgeport, which had once attracted waves of immigrants, began its decline in the late 60s, prompting thousands to leave for the suburbs. We would eventually leave too, and to a place less disconnected from nature; but living in a dense metropolis didn’t stop me from discovering my love for wild places.

Finding myself at Bear Mountain

In my parent’s busy schedule of trying to fulfill the American dream, they etched out time for occasional trips to the countryside. One of the places we went to several times was New York’s Bear Mountain State Park. Sixty-five miles from Bridgeport (and a mere hour north of Manhattan) it felt hundreds of miles away. The ride there transitioned from city after city of urban sprawl to a magical land of low, rolling forested mountains lining the shores of the Hudson River. These same settings inspired famed landscape artist Thomas Cole and his Hudson River School.

Crossing the Hudson, high on the elegant 1924-built Bear Mountain Bridge (the largest suspension bridge in the world at its opening), and into the park was like entering a portal into the wilderness. The mountain’s name alone fascinated me. Bears must live here, I pondered (they do). It was at once frightening and thrilling.

08. AT at Bear Mountani SP.jpgAppalachian Trail signpost in Bear Mountain State Park.

Bear Mountain was the first place I learned about the Appalachian Trail. My family would walk a mile or so on it heading to the Civilian Conservation Corps-built tower on the mountain’s summit. At the time, I thought I was as deep in the wilderness as it gets. And, being a young child who had only experienced Bridgeport, I was! I couldn’t believe people hiked this trail in its entirety (back then, a lot fewer did). It was unfathomable.

It became apparent to me that I did not want to live in a world without Bear Mountain, nature, wilderness, and wildlife. After bonding with the outdoors, I wanted to live a life centered on the natural world. The city, with all its promises (and noise, crowds, pollution, and pavement), didn’t appeal to me. I wanted to be on Bear Mountain, and someday explore more of the Appalachian Trail that winds over hundreds of natural places with their own Bear Mountains.

07. Bear Mountain Lodge.jpgCivilian Conservation Corps-built Bear Mountain Lodge.

Awakening the wilderness gene

Ecologist Dave Forman wrote of the small percentage of us who are born with the “wilderness gene.” He posited that no shared experience enlightens us to revere the natural world — that some people just get it. But I believe this “wilderness gene” lies dormant in all of us, just waiting to be stimulated. At no time did I want to pursue a life in the city, keep up with the Jones, and race with the rats. I wanted to be in nature, a world that makes more sense to me, a place that brings me satisfaction, self-acceptance, and spiritual connection. I’m convinced there are more children out there with the wilderness gene who aren’t yet aware of their condition.

In our urbanized and digital world, fueled by anxiety and environmental degradation, it is imperative that we help these children reach self-actualization. It has never been more important to expose our children to the natural world with all its beauty, wonderment, and rejuvenating qualities, for their sake and the planet’s.

06. Bear Mountain Bridge.jpgAnthony's Nose and Bear Mountain Bridge spanning the Hudson River.

Conduiting a love for wild places

It didn’t take a trip to Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, or Mt. Rainier to stimulate my wilderness gene. My love for the wilderness was awoken by traveling to a place not too far from home. Yet Bear Mountain, in many respects, is like our crown jewel national parks; places where nature has been allowed to flourish, and visitors allowed to explore and experience it. Young children don’t need sweeping views and superlative beauty in order to be moved. A Mt. Rainier, Yosemite, or Zion isn’t necessary to bond them to nature. For a child in the Bronx, a trip up the Hudson to Bear Mountain can be just as exciting as a visit to Mt. Rainier for a child from Seattle. But in all circumstances, there needs to be a conduit — someone who introduces that child to the natural world.

The urban drabness of Bridgeport didn’t introduce me to the woods nor plant in me the seeds of outdoor discovery. That course was set by the nature classes offered by the neighboring town’s nature center, National Geographic specials, and Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom segments on our black and white TV. It was set by family trips to the Museum of Natural History, learning about Theodore Roosevelt and John James Audubon (not his views on race which were unbeknownst to me, but his knowledge of birds), and reading and looking at pictures in Herbert S. Zim’s Golden Nature guidebooks (I must’ve had them all). Most importantly, it was set by witnessing on my own how a wild place not too far from home can move a person.

02. Bear Mountain SP NY.jpgCraig, his wife, and son enjoying Bear Mountain State Park.

Find your Bear Mountain

Whether a child is growing up in Fresno, Atlanta, Detroit, or Cleveland, there’s a Bear Mountain nearby waiting to awaken the wilderness gene in them. I was fortunate to have a mother who encouraged me to learn about and appreciate nature and go beyond the familiarity of my home environment to experience nature. This has made all the difference in where I am today.

I returned to Bear Mountain State Park this past winter after not stepping foot there for nearly 45 years. I introduced my family to one of the special places of my childhood, and as I shared this park with them and bonded my son to yet another wonderful natural environment, I could still feel the magic of this place. I will forever be in awe of Bear Mountain’s natural beauty and its power to transform lives.

Craig Romano is an award-winning guidebook author who has written more than 25 books, including Backpacking Washington, Day Hiking Central Cascades 2nd edition, and eight titles in the Urban Trails series (Mountaineers Books). Purchase his titles in our Seattle Program Center Bookstore, online, and everywhere books are sold.

This article originally appeared in our spring 2024 issue of Mountaineer magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, visit our magazine archive.