I first found myself facing the imposing Palisades – a range of towering cliffs overlooking Manhattan from across the Hudson River – when I was seeking an escape from the overwhelming reality of the COVID-19 pandemic. This newfound desperation led me to embark on a biking adventure, taking me through the labyrinthine city, and eventually, out of it.
One pleasant spring day, my journey took me across the George Washington Bridge into New Jersey. Barely ten minutes into the quaint town of Fort Lee, I was swallowed by a lush expanse of woodland, fringed by a majestic rock face. As other cyclists zoomed past me, I was left stunned by the sight of a bald eagle’s nest, perched atop the cliffs with a spectacular view of the Manhattan skyline.
The Palisades Interstate Park, rising from a patch of industrial surroundings, blankets around 2,500 acres of riverside woodland. The park, elevated around 500 feet from the edge of the water, gets its name from a chain of diabase and basalt cliffs that extend over 50 miles along the Hudson River. From Manhattan’s western periphery, the National Historic Landmark appears akin to colossal wooden barriers, giving the cliffs their native Lenape name, wee-awk-en, or “the rocks that look like trees”.
To many city dwellers, the Palisades serve as a cherished conduit to the natural world. Yet, their sheer accessibility remained unknown to me and possibly many others for years. The cliffs, however, are not just an easily overlooked urban refuge. They stand as a reservoir of profound geological history that was nearly erased under the relentless gears of industrialization.
Understanding the Palisades’ History
Approximately 201 million years ago, as the Triassic era transitioned into the Jurassic, and the massive supercontinent Pangaea began fragmenting, a sequence of volatile volcanic eruptions ensued. This period, lasting under a million years, brought about colossal disruptions in the geological, climatic, and biological fabric over a 4.2-million-square-mile area known as the Central Atlantic Magmatic Province, or CAMP.
The Palisades sit within this area, at the eastern fringe of the Newark Rift Basin, which once resembled a body of water more akin to today’s Lake Tanganyika or Lake Malawi, as per Sean Kinney, a postdoctoral research scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.
As North America commenced its separation from North Africa, lava penetrated the sedimentary rock beneath the Newark Basin, forming the Palisade Sill, a massive magma reservoir that cooled over time, transforming the dimensions and structure of the rock. Kinney draws a parallel with a jelly-filled doughnut, highlighting the conspicuous junction along the cliff base, where the basin’s rugged lake rock gives way to the sill’s vast trunk-like basalt.
Thanks to the rapidity and scale of the volcanic activity, the Palisades offer a treasure trove for geologists to decode the language of rocks. By drilling out cores and studying mineral deposits across different epochs, scientists can glean insights into how the water levels of the Newark Basin evolved. The exceptional speed and scale of volcanic activity during the CAMP event resulted in a geological record dispersed across shorter timescales than what geologists typically work with.
Paul Olsen, a professor at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, was captivated by the Palisades as a teenager after discovering dinosaur footprints at a quarry near Livingston, New Jersey, with a friend. Nowadays, Olsen’s research focuses on the potential influence of Earth’s shifting orbital patterns on climate-driven mass extinction events, largely centered on this often-overlooked corner of the globe. “We have cores here where 25 meters of rock corresponds to a 20,000-year lake cycle,” Olsen says. “So a human lifetime can actually be seen in a few centimeters of rock.”
Formation of the Palisades Interstate Park
Geologists, including Olsen’s team, rely on regulated quarrying to access exposed rock layers. However, uncontrolled mining over a century ago almost wiped out the Palisades, risking the loss of the geological archive and the region’s inherent beauty.
The Palisades provided a source of rock for the burgeoning road and railway networks in New Jersey and New York during the late 19th century. Miners would detonate dynamite to extract the rock, collecting the resultant rubble.
Initial complaints about the frequent blasts across the Hudson originated from affluent individuals with prized backyard vistas. Nevertheless, the formation of the Palisades Interstate Park Commission (PIPC) in 1909 was primarily a result of lobbying by the New Jersey State Federation of Women’s Clubs, a civic organization. Rather than preserving the geological worth, the campaigners were more worried about losing one of the few natural sanctuaries within a day’s reach from New York City and the neighboring towns.
“Many people perceive open space as unused land,” says Carol Ash, former executive director of the PIPC (1999-2006), who currently chairs the nonprofit Palisades Parks Conservancy. “The Palisades is unique and needs to be preserved, which has always required a bit of a fight.”
How to Experience the Palisades
The absence of informative signboards about the region’s history is one of the first things you notice when visiting the Palisades. Although certain areas are maintained, the overall ambience feels wild, augmenting the stark contrast from urban life to nature. The dearth of signs might not be intentional, but it’s clear that exploration is the primary objective.
“There’s no visitor center or signs explaining what you’re seeing along the way,” says Joshua Laird, the current P