Love the Mohawk Hudson Bike Hike Trail but ready for a change of scenery?
There are great options for all-day off-road bike trips — 36 to 52 miles each — within a 60- to 90-minute drive from the Capital Region.
Each runs on a grade that once carried a railroad, so hills are few, gradual and gentle. Parking is usually easy, and the surrounding scenery ranges from pleasant to spectacular. When you’re done riding, there’s plenty more to see and do nearby.
From north to south, here are three to consider: The Catskill Scenic Trail, the Walkill Valley Rail Trail and the three-part trail centered on the Walkway Over The Hudson.
BEGINNINGS OF THE DELAWARE RIVER
The Catskill Scenic Trail is my favorite among the three trails for the riding experience: quiet, rural and uncrowded.
The trail totals about 26 miles as it stretches from Roxbury northwest to Stamford then southwest to Bloomville. It’s an adaptive reuse of the middle section of the old Ulster and Delaware Railroad, which snaked its way through the Catskills from Kingston to Oneonta.
What I usually do, and suggest to anyone who asks, is park in the middle of a long trail. That way you can ride to one end, come back, and reload your bike bag with chocolate, jerky and water before riding the second half. Alternately, you can quit and go home if you get tired, or if something on the bike breaks. (Photo by John Cropley/Gazette Business Editor: A local resident gives a bicyclist the once-over along the Catskill Scenic Trail.)
Neither is an option is possible if your turn-around point is 20 miles from the car.
So I park in Stamford next to the original railroad station and head south to Bloomville. The grade is smooth and fast as it winds through mostly open farm fields. The West Branch of the Delaware River, little more than a creek at this point, is right nearby for the entire ride down to Bloomville. State Route 10 is nearby as well, mostly out of sight.
Bloomville is the smallest and quietest of the quiet little hamlets along the trail. There’s a little general store for any refreshments you may want before the 13-mile ride from Bloomville back to Stamford.
Back in Stamford, you head east to Grand Gorge, another pleasant ride through open fields and woods. The old South Gilboa passenger station still stands along the trail here.
The Catskill Scenic Trail is unpaved but smooth for almost its entire length. The only bumpy and sometimes muddy section is in Grand Gorge, a roughly one-mile stretch that cuts through the woods between state routes 23 and 30. If you’re on a thin-tire hybrid bike, take it slow.
Across Route 30 and heading south from Grand Gorge, the trail is smooth and dry again. On the east side of the trail, you’ll see a few waterfalls trickling out of the rocky hillside, and eventually a little creek running nearby. That’s the East Branch of the Delaware River.
The trail concludes without any obvious finality at the southeast end, in Roxbury. I kept going once, because I could and because I wasn’t sure the trail had ended. Eventually I ran into overgrown unused train tracks. Had I gone far enough, I would have been on a clear stretch of track used for a tourist railroad.
It’s about 13 miles back to Stamford. Along the way, Grand Gorge is your only option for refreshments.
For most of its length, the Catskill Scenic Trail is dotted with benches and stone markers indicating the distance to Kingston. There are no bathrooms or porta potties … but the wooded stretches of trail are isolated enough that one can improvise if needed.
Back in Stamford, you can put the bike on the car and head on to your next adventure.
Right in the village, up Mountain Avenue, is a road to the top of Mount Utsayantha. Broadcast towers notwithstanding, there’s a superb 360-degree view of the surrounding valley and mountains from a fire tower at the peak.
Nine miles northeast of Stamford, heading back to the Capital Region on a short stretch of Route 30, you’ll come to Mine Kill Falls, Mine Kill State Park, and the Blenheim Gilboa Pumped Power Project visitors center.
Want to spend some more time on the rail trail? But in a train, rather than on a bike? The Delaware & Ulster Railroad runs an excursion train on 12 miles of track between Arkville and Roxbury.
(Photo by John Cropley/Gazette Business Editor: This short siding in New Paltz is the only remaining piece of track on what is now the Walkill Valley Rail Trail.)
RIDING THROUGH HISTORY
The Wallkill Valley Rail Trail stretches 21-plus miles from Gardiner north almost to Kingston along the former Wallkill Valley Railroad right of way. This one is another nice mix of good scenery and good riding, with a lot of history sprinkled along the way.
There’s not a good midpoint parking spot, so I park at New Paltz (eight miles from the south end) or Rosendale (six miles from the north end).
All around in Rosendale, you’ll see remnants of the once-massive cement industry that blossomed here in the 1800s. Rosendale cement was used for many of the great construction projects in that era, from the Brooklyn Bridge to the U.S. Capitol. But by the early 1900s, the faster-setting Portland cement became the standard, and the industry collapsed in Rosendale.
The trail parking area on Binnewater Road is lined with old cement kilns, big ovens built into a massive hillside wall. Riding north, you’ll pass caves and mines, some of them fenced off for safety’s sake. On a warm spring day, you’ll feel blasts of cool air where it’s wafting out of the still-cold interior of these underground spaces.
Off in the woods north of Rosendale you’ll see the remains of more kilns and a small factory, then pedal through the grounds of the former Williams Lake Resort.
The northernmost stretch of the trail, east of the Thruway, is nice but unremarkable; I’d turn back if time is short.
Heading south from the Binnewater Road parking lot with all the kilns, you’ll soon cross the circa-1870 Rosendale Trestle, 940 feet long, 150 feet high and gracefully curved. Nice view!
Most of the ride is under a tree canopy, with more shade than you’ll find on many rail trails. It’s a good choice for a hot, sunny day. But with that shade comes encroaching greenery: The trail is wide enough for two bicyclists to ride comfortably side-by-side, or for one to pass another, but that’s about it. It’s narrower than some trails.
The trail runs right through the village of New Paltz, and you’re likely to see a lot of local residents out for shorter walks, runs or rides than you are taking. Some will have children or dogs in tow, so it’s a good time to slow down. Snacks are available here, too. South of New Paltz, the crowds soon thin out and you’re riding in the countryside again.
Two miles short of the end is the little hamlet of Gardiner. A bike shop sits right off the trail, and just beyond that, a deli selling food and drink. The food looked good the one time I stopped in to get caffeinated, but I don’t like to eat a lot of food while riding.
The Wallkill Valley Rail Trail seems to end before it should: The flat, level railroad grade continues behind a barbed wire fence. The reason for this is that there’s a maximum security prison just beyond the treeline.
It will take an hour or two to get back to Rosendale, depending how fast you ride and how often you stop. The trail is unpaved except for a short stretch in New Paltz, but generally smooth enough to ride fast.
(This is another trail without bathrooms, but here again, you can always make like a bear in the woods.)
Once your bike is loaded on the car, there are many options for the rest of day. There’s the Huguenot historic district in New Paltz and the Mohonk and Minnewaska preserves. There’s food and drink in New Paltz and Kingston, and in between. There’s also a museum on the concrete industry in Rosendale — the Century House Historical Society — with a remarkable limestone mine-turned-performance venue on the grounds.
(Photo by J Rozell/NYS Parks: The Walkway Over The Hudson in Poughkeepsie connects two bike trails to create a pleasant 18-mile ride.)
FLOATING 212 FEET ABOVE THE HUDSON
Here’s a nice 36-mile round trip on three connected trails in Dutchess and Ulster counties, smoothly paved and well equipped with restrooms and nearby places to sit, eat and drink.
The 13-mile William R. Steinhaus Dutchess Trail and the 4-mile Hudson Valley Rail Trail would be worth a visit just for those reasons, but in between the two you have … The Walkway Over The Hudson!
This magnificent footbridge soars 212 feet above the river in a region where it flows between steep hills. It’s worth a visit just to walk across, which is exactly what my son and I did shortly after it opened in 2009. There’s a great view, and usually more wind than you’ll find on either shore.
The Walkway is a nice adaptive reuse of a span that was a key link to the New England states when it opened in 1889, particularly for coal coming out of the Mid-Atlantic states. By the time the bridge caught fire in 1974, coal was out of favor and the major Northeast railroads were in a financial death spiral.
The bridge stood unused for a generation, then was converted to its current use.
While biking I usually like to start in the middle of a rural, isolated trail, but this is a paved trail in a populated area, so the easiest thing in to park close to Thruway Exit 18 (New Paltz). This is near the west end of the Hudson Valley Rail Trail at the town park at South Riverside and New Paltz roads. Then you can pedal as far as you like, turn around, and come back.
It’s a pleasant-enough ride, breeze in your face with nice scenery flowing past and no need to worry about cars and trucks. There’s nothing exceptional about it aside from that one hugely exceptional thing: The Walkway Over The Hudson!
The Walkway itself is free, but you’d have to pay to park right nearby. It’s quite crowded on nice days, so don’t be the ugly bicyclist by racing across.
When the biking is over, there’s plenty more to see and do nearby. Orange County Choppers is 20 miles south in Newburgh if you’d like to see a different breed of two-wheeler. If you head back to the Capital Region on the east bank of the river, you’ll come to the Culinary Institute of America, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Hyde Park and the Vanderbilt Mansion within 10 miles of the trail.
THREE TRAILS SOUTH OF SCHENECTADY
There are several other options for rail trails south of the Albany-Schenectady-Saratoga region. Some I don’t mention because they’re too short to be worth a special trip. Others are works in progress or uneven. Here are three of the best of them:
The Albany County Rail Trail: This is a nice nine-mile ride from the Port of Albany to the village of Voorheesville, already attracting more than 200,000 users a year despite being very new and only partly complete. The last few miles from Slingerlands to Voorheesville are unpaved but have been compacted smooth enough to ride at high speed. County officials say it will be paved this summer. They’ve already installed free sunblock dispensers, which I think is the first time I’ve seen those. There’s a porta-potty at the west end, in Voorheesville.
The O&W Rail Trail: This runs from Kingston to Marbletown between Route 209 and the Walkill Valley Rail Trail, but I’ve never ridden it. First, it’s partly paved and partly dirt, and I like to ride one or the other (not both) because neither of my bikes is good on both surfaces. Second, it’s reportedly a little rough in some of the unpaved parts. Still, it’s an obvious and easy stop if you’re nearby with a bike … I’ll probably ride it, someday.
Harlem Valley Rail Trail: This is a potentially superb ride, 46 miles from Chatham to Wassaic on the east edge of the state. The first piece opened in 1996, then others in 1997, 2000, 2005, 2014 … but it still totals less than 20 miles, not counting the gaps. A big chunk could get paved this year or next, creating an unbroken 23-mile stretch of off-road trail through a quiet and beautiful stretch of countryside from Wassaic to Taconic State Park. That would be worth a special trip. Like a lot of these dreams, getting the trail completed all the way to Chatham will take more time, money and luck. But the trail association has been at it for a third of a century and it keeps making progress. I bet they’ll get it done someday. I hope they do. I’ll be there to help break it in.