The Casino Trail to Mount Beacon is a popular hike to a popular destination. Both are not as popular as they were in the early 20th century, when one had to simply hop on the Mount Beacon Incline Railway to ascend the mountain, and there was a resort waiting on top.
But that’s good. I don’t like popular things.
However, thanks to its proximity to both Beacon and New York City, the Casino Trail still attracts a huge gaggle of inexperienced hikers most nice days, and the day my father and I chose to mount the trail was VERY nice — a slam-dunk golden coin of a day after a lethargic and protracted winter that made the trees explode in leaf, starting at the base and running up the incline like a string of firecrackers.
As we walked towards the trailhead, a particularly loud and inexperienced gaggle of young hikers gathered for the ascent. They seemed to be in their late teens and took a lot of pictures. One of them wore a black felt top hat and hiked with his hands stuffed in his pockets.
The trail begins at the base of what was once the Mount Beacon Incline Railway. A mid-century advertisement for the railway now found at the Beacon Historical Society claims it is the world’s steepest incline (which can’t be true), but it is rather steep. The path the railway car took is still cleared of trees, and the cable sits slack and rusted at the bottom like a geriatric snake.
A couple of minutes into the hike, the trail leads onto a long, solid metal staircase with landings. At the top of the stairs, the trail begins a series of long switchbacks, which the inexperienced group was having a LOT of trouble with.
A mile into the hike, the trail spreads wide to the site of the former Casino, the bare ground leading to a cliff with Beacon spread out below it.
In “Historic Beacon,” by Robert J. Murphy and Denise Doring VanBuren, the Casino is described as a two-story building with a wrap-around piazza, restaurant and dance hall, with limited sleeping quarters on the second floor. The roof had an observation deck with coin-operated telescopes and a powerful searchlight capable of illuminating boats on the Hudson, more than 1,500 feet below.
Mount Beacon’s summit “was laid out like a park, with fountains, walks, pavilions, and summer cottages,” according to the book. The cottages were privately owned with land leased from the Casino.
At the summit, the ruins of the incline railway’s powerhouse were still visible, shattered red brick opening up to the blue sky.
The Mount Beacon Incline Railway’s construction began in 1901 and was completed the next year, according to “Historic Beacon,” and 60,000 people rode the trolley in its opening year. The popularity of the incline railway and Mount Beacon increased with the building of the Beaconcrest Hotel by the Casino’s owners, a three-story, 75-room affair just feet from the casino.
The Casino and Beaconcrest Hotel burned to the ground on Oct 16, 1927, but a new resort was built the next year. However, the Great Depression decreased patronage, and the incline railway and resort never fully recovered. The final ride of the incline railway occurred in 1978. The powerhouse and casino were burned to the ground in fires in 1981 and 1983, according to the book.
The Casino Trail is very urban for a hike. Graffiti splashes the exposed rocks, and many of the trail markers are tagged with black and gold marker. Hikers rest on the way up, sitting in circles. Music leaks out through various portable speakers.
The popularity of the hike has wrecked a lot of the surrounding forest. Trash was strewn around — water bottles, beer cans, disused napkins, and an entire dissembled car (well, that one was kinda cool). The hikers don’t stick to the trail, so most of the switchbacks had paths stomped through their middles, and random side-trails twisted around each other.
More than half of the hikers who begin the Casino Trail stop at the ruins. However, the trail continues to the Mount Beacon Fire Tower, sprouting from the graffitted rock into the pure sky like a tree seeking light.
Populated trails irritate me. I’m aware of the irony, in that the only reason I’m aware the trail was populated was that I was there, populating it.
However, the climb is pretty challenging for how un-remote it is, so the trek might be good for a novice hiker looking for a more intense climb. Or anyone who wants to come upon the spray-painted image of a climaxing dick during their hike. Because, who doesn’t?