This time of year, resolutions about maintaining one’s fitness usually require a daily visit to the gym. Some people, however, prefer another option.
“Hiking is great exercise, and since I started going to the Plotter Kill, I canceled my gym membership,” said Guilderland resident Ed Atkeson. “Why should I be working out in a gym when I can be outdoors, in a magical place like the Plotter Kill?”
The Almy D. Coggeshall Plotter Kill Preserve in the town of Rotterdam is Schenectady County’s crown jewel of natural areas, but it’s only one of a handful of places that can get you from downtown to the great outdoors in a matter of minutes.
The Sanders Preserve in the West Glenville hills is another favorite for those who love being outdoors in the winter, whether on hiking boots, snowshoes or cross-country skis. Even closer to the city in the town of Glenville is the Indian Kill Preserve on Hetcheltown Road, smaller than the Plotter Kill and Sanders but still loaded with enough of the same elements — small creeks, rugged terrain and beautiful forests — to keep outdoor hikers happy.
Within the town of Niskayuna, the Schenectady Museum Preserve, now a part of the Mohawk River State Park, and the Lisha Kill Preserve are two more wonderful outdoor areas that give visitors a wilderness-like experience while remaining close to home.
To be sure, there are other fine places in Schenectady County to hike, but none can boast the proximity to downtown as well as an authentic outdoor experience like these five aforementioned areas. Both the Plotter Kill and Sanders Preserve are less than 20 minutes from the middle of the city, the two Niskayuna areas are less than a 15-minute drive and the Indian Kill in Glenville is just 10 minutes away.
As for cold and snowy weather, that doesn’t stop Don Patneaude, who lives on Route 5S just west of the city. Last year, he got out on his cross-country skis on 76 consecutive days, and much of that time was spent at either the Plotter Kill or the Sanders Preserve.
“The Sanders Preserve is at a higher elevation, so it will probably have more snow than the Plotter Kill,” said Patneaude, who has been walking through those two natural areas for more than 60 years now.
“Sanders is a little smaller, so you might hear a car now and then, but they’re both beautiful places, and you can spend quite a bit of time in both. If you want to stop and smell the roses, it might take you five hours, but I’ve been through the Plotter Kill in about three.”
Norm Perazzo of Glenville spends a lot of time in both the Sanders and Indian Kill preserves. While he enjoys hiking and other outdoor winter sports, he’s also a hunter. And in the Sanders Preserve during the hunting season, there are places where people can hunt.
“I’ve had some interesting banter with some of the hikers, and some have snubbed me, but in general it’s very cooperative,” said Perazzo. “The safety conscience of hunters these days is pretty high, so there are fewer and fewer accidents, and if you do hear of one it’s usually self-inflicted.”
Town of Glenville Parks and Recreation Department Supervisor James McFarland said he couldn’t remember a hunting accident in the Sanders Preserve, especially one that involved a nonhunter.
“We have a mandatory sign-in/sign-out sheet, so if there are hunters in there you can know which part of the preserve they’re in,” said McFarland. “It’s worked pretty well. I’ve been up there quite a few times. It’s a beautiful place, and I never feel threatened.”
The Plotter Kill and the Sanders Preserve are big enough places that, if you’re not paying attention, you could get lost. That’s probably not going to happen in the Indian Kill or in Niskayuna’s two natural areas, where John Brown Jr. has been hiking for more than 50 years.
“Well, you could get lost,” said Brown, who lives on Dean Street in Niskayuna, “but you’re never more than 1,000 feet from a road or the bike path and the river. They’re wonderful hikes, but the distances are just not that great. Still, we’re in the process of putting up new signs and markers and creating more trails.”
When Brown says “we,” he means the group of volunteers that has been monitoring the land since long before 2006, when then-Gov. George Pataki announced that the area was to become the first state park in Schenectady County.
“We’ve had to stay active, because unfortunately since all the money has dried up the state hasn’t put a lot of effort into the park,” said Brown. “It was a great idea to connect this state-owned land to the Canal Corp. land running along the river, but it didn’t really change anything. It’s still maintained by a volunteer effort.”
Still, both the Lisha Kill Preserve and what was the Museum Preserve are two wonderful places, according to Brown.
“We have some great natural scenery within the town of Niskayuna,” said Brown, a retired General Electric researcher. “They have nice gorges, and the Lisha Kill is a very unusual old-growth forest, with two [hundred] to three hundred pines and hemlocks in it. Both are special areas.”
While Brown is a bit older these days and doesn’t hike as much as he used to, taking on the preserves during the winter months was never a problem.
“There are wonderful opportunities for outdoor activities during the winter,” he said. “There are plenty of marshy islands, and if you’re watching the river and you know where the ice is solid, there’s this great feeling of open space. You can ski or even skate on the river if you’d like. If you’re worried about falling in, just stay close to the shore where the river is shallow.”
When entering the Plotter Kill, Atkeson is happy to see several inches of snow on the ground.
“It’s actually easier to hike in the winter,” he said. “There’s no question where the trail is, because somebody’s been there and marked it. It’s not muddy so you won’t slip on a wet stone, and you won’t be tripping over tree roots. It’s safe hiking with a lot of snow, and it’s also less wear and tear on the preserve.”
The Top Five:
All of the places mentioned below come with their share of hazards, particularly the Plotter Kill. But while I certainly wouldn’t encourage anyone to hike alone because of the inherent risks involved, I’m not going to tell anyone they shouldn’t go solo. After all, part of the attraction of these places is the solitude they offer. So, be careful and cautious, take a cellphone and no sneakers; hiking boots only. You’ll be fine.
Each description includes a small hike that you might be able to do during a long lunch hour, although it might be more realistic to get up early and hit the trail in the morning before you go to work. Don’t try it after work this time of year. While the late afternoon is a magical time to walk through the woods, give yourself time to get out before dark.
The Plotter Kill Preserve
This place is the granddaddy of all hiking areas in Schenectady County and is only 17 minutes and nine miles from the Gazette’s parking lot. There are three waterfalls within its more than 600 acres of land and various points in the preserve where, especially without leaves on the trees, you can see for miles. A short jaunt I enjoy taking for a good workout is a 40-minute loop in the eastern section of the preserve beginning from the Route 159 parking area. There are enough uphill grades and plenty of rugged terrain within that loop to get your blood pumping, and when you do have a free day, exploring the preserve’s woods, waterfalls and creek bed can take up much of the morning and some of the afternoon.
The main parking area on Sanders Road in the middle of the preserve is 8.8 miles from the Gazette’s parking lot, and the trip there took just 16 minutes. West of Route 147 in the West Glenville hills, the preserve has nearly 370 acres of land divided into three main sections. There is a short, 25-minute loop within Zone 2 at the parking area that is without significant hills or inclines. For those who desire a longer trip with some elevation changes, you can spend three to four hours within the preserve hiking its trails. The preserve does allow hunting. It is the only public land within the town of Glenville that does. Like the Plotter Kill, the Sanders gives you a real sense of being out in the woods.
Mohawk River State Park (Schenectady Museum Preserve)
A small parking area at the end of Whitmyer Drive off River Road is just 4.8 miles and 10 minutes from the Gazette. I went on a 35-minute loop that included some significant inclines — up and down — and some nice views from well above the Mohawk River. There are some side trails that you may wish to explore, and there are people creating new trails, but the loop I went on generally covered the preserve. You do walk along power lines at times, but that didn’t ruin the experience for me. It was an enjoyable trip.
Lisha Kill Preserve
This wonderful piece of property, off Rosendale Road by the old Niskayuna Grange, is just 12 minutes or 5.5 miles from the Gazette and not too far from the Mohawk River State Park. I walked into the preserve and eventually wound my way around to the left, looping back to the main trail and then the parking area in about 35 minutes. There were hills and plenty of rugged terrain, as well as nice views of the Lisha Kill, either from high above its banks or right at the water’s edge. The Lisha Kill is a beautiful little stream, nearly therapeutic. Perhaps it is.
Indian Kill Preserve
This area is a lot like the Plotter Kill, complete with plenty of rugged terrain, steep slopes and waterfalls, although on a much smaller scale. The main entrance at Hetcheltown Road is just 4.2 miles from the Gazette and less than 10 minutes away. The trail takes you down a slope to a dam and a bridge over the Indian Kill, which flows into the Alplaus Creek about a half-mile further east. Once on the other side of the bridge, take a right and then head uphill. There is a small, 25-minute loop for those looking for a quick workout, but if you have another hour or so, check out the waterfalls further west in the preserve.
If you’re over 50, overweight and overwrought about your lack of fitness, do not go to the Plotter Kill or any of the other top five areas. Instead, the Great Flats Nature Trail next to Rotterdam Square or the Woodlawn Preserve in the southeastern section of the city are two good places to begin your drive to decent fitness.
A small windmill at the Campbell Avenue parking lot greets visitors to the Great Flats trail where, approximately 75 feet below, the Great Flats Aquifer produces some of the finest drinking water in New York state. As the name indicates, it is extremely flat, and a 30-minute hike through a marshy area comes complete with an extensive boardwalk and beautiful cattails more than 12 feet high.
The Woodlawn Preserve, meanwhile, also offers a flat trail on which you can loop around a pond and return to the parking area in about 25 minutes. Railroad buffs may also enjoy catching the sight of a speeding train rolling past on the tracks that run parallel to the preserve. Unfortunately, there is also plenty of evidence of vehicular traffic in the preserve — deep tire ruts — despite the signs outlawing it.
To the west, the town of Duanesburg has three natural areas in the Christman Sanctuary, the Schenectady County Forest Preserve and the Featherstonhaugh State Forest. Closer to Schenectady, the town of Rotterdam also offers the Old Maid Woods and the Moccasin Kill Sanctuary, and in Niskayuna there is the H.G. Reist Wildlife Sanctuary and the O.D. Heck Nature Center.
Within city limits, Vale Park, Central Park and the Amy LeMaire Woods also provide hikers with a small escape from city life.
All these natural places are owned by various municipalities (state, county, town or city government) or by either The Nature Conservancy or the Mohawk-Hudson Land Conservancy.