During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, I was desperate to escape and explore. So, I hopped on my bike and rode deep into the city and then out of it. One spring day, I crossed the George Washington Bridge into New Jersey and found myself in the town of Fort Lee. Soon enough, I discovered the Palisades, a set of massive cliffs towering over Manhattan from across the Hudson River.
As I rode through the town, I suddenly found myself surrounded by dense woodland, right next to a soaring rock wall. Cyclists whizzed past me as I slammed on my brakes to admire a bald eagle’s nest with a breathtaking view of the Manhattan skyline. This was Palisades Interstate Park, a sprawling 2,500-acre forest along the riverfront.
The park is famous for its 500-feet-tall diabase and basalt cliffs that stretch for 50 miles along the Hudson River. From the western edge of Manhattan, these cliffs resemble giant wooden fences, earning them the Indigenous Lenape name “wee-awk-en” or “the rocks that look like trees.”
For many New Yorkers, the Palisades serve as a rare gateway to nature, a much-needed escape from the densely populated city. Surprisingly, there are still plenty of people who don’t realize just how accessible this natural wonder is. But the Palisades offer more than just an easily overlooked retreat. They hold a significant geological history that almost fell victim to industrialization.
About 201 million years ago, during the transition from the Triassic to the Jurassic period, a series of volcanic eruptions occurred in the region. This volcanic activity, known as the Central Atlantic Magmatic Province (CAMP), shaped the geology, climate, and biology of a 4.2-million-square-mile area, including the Palisades.
As North America started to separate from North Africa, lava intruded into the sedimentary rock under the Newark Basin, forming the Palisade Sill. This sill acted as a container for magma, slowly cooling and altering the composition of the rock. The contact point between the lake rock and the sill’s basalt can be clearly seen along the base of the cliffs, resembling a doughnut filled with jelly.
The Palisades offer an ideal place for geologists to study rock formations due to the speed and scale of the volcanic activity during the CAMP event. By studying mineral deposits over time, geologists can gain valuable insights into the changing water levels of the Newark Basin.
The history of the Palisades is also intertwined with the efforts of conservationists and activists. Over a century ago, rampant mining operations threatened to destroy the cliffs and erase their geological record. The establishment of the Palisades Interstate Park Commission in 1909 was a direct result of lobbying by the New Jersey State Federation of Women’s Clubs, who recognized the importance of preserving this natural refuge near New York City.
Today, the Palisades Interstate Park offers over 30 miles of interconnected hiking trails, providing visitors with the opportunity to explore the cliffs, woods, and shoreline. Giant Stairs, a challenging rock scramble, is a popular route that takes hikers over the very boulders that were once coveted by industrialists and miners.
Water activities are also available, with outfitters offering kayak rentals from the Alpine Picnic Area. Cyclists can enjoy the wide shoulders and scenic climbs of 9W or explore Henry Hudson Drive, a car-free road that runs along the bottom of the cliffs.
While there may be limited information and signage about the history of the region, the lack of direction enhances the sense of exploration and discovery in the park. Palisades