There are four major geological features in the immediate Capital Region. Two of them are rivers, the Hudson and the Mohawk, and a third is the Great Cohoes Falls. None of them completely satisfy the avid hiker.
But the fourth, the Helderberg Escarpment, is in John Boyd Thacher State Park, where people who enjoy walking in the great outdoors won’t be disappointed, and where the view, barring a trip to the Adirondacks, Catskills, Berkshires or Green Mountains, is unmatched.
“I have a college background in geology, so of course when I first saw Thacher Park I fell in love with the place,” said Nancy Engel, who is director of the Emma Treadwell Thacher Nature Center on Thompson’s Lake “I grew up in south Florida and came up here on vacation with my kids. I loved it so much I stayed.”
Saturday morning, the Thacher Park state site will hold a “Solstice Hike to High Point,” a two- to three-hour expedition led by Engel through the newest portion of the park, a section still relatively unknown to many in the Capital Region.
‘A Solstice Hike to High Point’
WHAT: A two- to three-hour hike in John Boyd Thacher State Park
WHERE: Meet at the Emma Treadwell Thacher Nature Center at Thompson’s Lake State Park
WHEN: 10 a.m. Saturday
HOW MUCH: Free
MORE INFO: 872-0800
Purchased in 2006 by the state, the acquisition increased the size of the park to 2,155 acres and ensures that the northern most part of the escarpment — about two miles to the northwest of Thacher Park’s popular overlook — will remain free of development.
However, unlike the overlook area, which is easily accessible just off Route 157, getting to a view in the new northern section of the park requires a bit of a hike.
“We try to schedule something for the solstice every year, and a nice walk in the woods — the new section has some trails that are personal favorites of mine — is a great way to get people in the park,” said Engel.
“Of course it’s the shortest day of the year, and it’s close to Christmas so you can never tell how many people you’ll get. It’s pretty level, so it’s a fairly easy to moderate hike.”
Engel’s expedition will begin near the Carrick Road parking area, head into the park to the overlook at High Point, and then loop back to the parking area.
“It’s about 1,300 feet up to High Point, the highest point along the escarpment, and there is a wonderful view of the village of Altamont and the fairgrounds,” said Engel. “It’s a different view than what you see from the [Route 157] overlook, but you can still see well off into the distance, and if you look to the right you can see Albany.”
Engel is asking anyone who’d like to participate in the hike to call ahead and register. The group will most likely meet at the Treadwell Nature Center and then carpool to the trail head. The nature center is in the town of Knox in Thompson’s Lake State Park, less than two miles from Thacher State Park.
“There is a small, physical separation between the two parks,” said Engel, “but we’re managed under the same umbrella. Thompson’s Lake is pretty much the nature center and the public campground on the lake. We have some trails, but Thacher is much bigger and has a lot more trails and picnic areas.”
Thacher’s northeastern boundary is basically the escarpment, made up predominantly of layers of shale, sandstone and limestone. It is at the northernmost extent of the Allegheny Plateau, an area of land that covers western and central New York, northern and western Pennsylvania, northern and western West Virginia, and eastern Ohio. To many, the park’s major attraction, other than the view, is Indian Ladder Trail, a small and sometimes precarious walkway that covers a section of the escarpment about 100 feet or so below the top of the cliff.
The area now making up Thacher Park became public land in 1914 when the widow of John Boyd Thacher, Emma Treadwell Thacher, donated 350 acres to the state. Her husband, formerly the mayor of Albany, had a summer home in the area and had been purchasing land along the escarpment with the idea of creating a public preserve. A Ballston native, Thacher died in 1909 before finishing his project, but five years later his wife’s gift to the state secured that initial 350 acres for public use.
While state budget concerns nearly closed the park two years ago, that doesn’t seem to be a concern these days, thanks in part to the work of the Friends of Thacher and Thompson’s Lake State Parks.
“We were at the forefront of the effort to keep the park from closing, and our job now is to help the skeleton crew that staffs the park in just about any way we can,” said John Kilroy, a Colonie High science teacher, a resident of Berne, and the president of the Friends group. “We support all the activities in the park, whether they are educational or just fun outings for family and friends.”
Kilroy was first introduced to Thacher Park and the Helderberg Escarpment when he moved to the Albany area in 1992.
“I was going to grad school and I headed up to the overlook with another student,” he remembered. “My initial reaction was ‘Holy Toledo!’ It was just this incredible spot with this great view. The escarpment also has all this evidence of what was here during the Devonian period. There are an incredible amount of fossils throughout the area, and if you’re into geology it’s a wonderful place.”
Thacher Park is also a popular destination regardless of the season. Engel was hopeful that this Saturday’s solstice hike might turn into a snowshoe expedition to either High Point or maybe Burnt Rock, another clearing just east of High Point that is also referred to as Hang Gliders Cliff.
“Hopefully this year will be much better for snowshoers than last year,” she said. “Typically we get more snow up here than they do in the valley, but last year it was bad. We also have plenty of cross-country skiers who come here, but we stay away from the cliffs when we’re skiing.”
There are plenty of trails in Thacher Park, and some in the new northern section are not always marked adequately. Of course, the possibility of getting lost can add a little excitement to the hike.
“My wife and I have been coming up here regularly for 10 years now, and we’re still discovering new places in the park,” said Kilroy. “Now, with more than 2,000 acres, we just haven’t been everywhere yet and that’s one of the nice things. The park is big enough, you always feel like you may discover something new.”
Chris Fallon, the manager of the park, said he and his staff are busy preparing a master plan to address the future of both the Thacher and Thompson’s Lake sites.
“We’ve had a few public meetings and we have an online patron survey, so we’re trying to get as much input from the public as we can,” said Fallon. “Things kind of run the gamut right now. There are a lot of different things that people have concerns about, and we’re hoping to have a final draft sometime in 2013.”