Walk it out

Photo by Dion Ogust

Saugerties, justly famous for its active recreational facilities, has in the past generation added three unique opportunities for passive recreation. First, thanks to the tenacity of a local group of people organized as a conservancy, came the dramatic walk through a tidal marsh to the Saugerties Lighthouse, where a keeper now operates an exclusive tiny bed-and-breakfast establishment at the conjunction of the Esopus Creek and the Hudson River. After that came the Esopus Bend Nature Preserve between Barclay Heights and the village, where the visitor can take a variety of walks through 161 acres of an extremely varied ecology. Finally, the Dominican Sisters property along the Hudson this year will add another dimension to the publicly available natural beauty of the town.

Esopus Bend Preserve

Visible to thousands of travelers each day as they make their way along 9W over the bridge in the village, the 161-acre Esopus Bend Nature Preserve nevertheless remains one of the best-kept secrets in Saugerties. It’s open to the public daily from dawn to dusk, but the single Shady Lane entrance—an obscure little street at the far edge of the a labyrinthine housing development—is easy to miss and has limited parking. Still, savvy Saugertiesians have been making use of the gorgeous trails — it shares a mile of shoreline with the upper Esopus — for walking and running since it opened to the public in 2003.

The preserve is managed by the non-profit Esopus Creek Conservancy. Its president, Susan Bolitzer, recommended the Schroeder Trail. Named for the property’s previous owners, the 1.2-mile trail follows an old farm road and footpath down to and along the Esopus Creek, looping back over a historic Carriage Road once used by travelers to and from Kingston to cross the creek using a scow ferry. The entire property slants down toward the creek. takes about 45 minutes to walk the basic loop; twice that amount if also take the beautiful but steeper South Trail, another loop which splits off about a quarter of the way through.


“I do the Schroeder Trail loop because I feel it’s a real aerobic thing,” said Bolitzer. “You have to go down to go into it, and you have to go up again.”

The loop includes one of the “chillest” places in Saugerties: Shady Glen. “It’s a beautiful spot,” said Bolitzer. “It’s low, and there’s a stream running through it also. And it’s cooler than any place on the preserve, and probably in Saugerties.”

Though many locals still call it Schroeder Farm, the property hasn’t been tilled in over 40 years. Wild turkeys nest there now, foxes and coyotes patrol the woods, songbirds hold court in the meadow and wetland birds nest along the shore.

Approaching and walking through the property, its name seems to manifest everywhere. Coming from the village, 9W, usually a sprawling super-slab, narrows and makes several bends before and after the bridge over the creek. Little streams crisscross the path at multiple points, winding and looping like the creek in miniature. Large vines, several inches in diameter, wreathe trees living and dead. The trail, too, in addition to diving and climbing, also twists and turns.

There to take in some exercise, one can’t help but think of the trail’s origin as a farmer’s path: back then, the notion of needing to inject extra physical activity into one’s day would strike people as madness; like a Nantucket fisherman spending his free time on the water or chain-gang prisoner hustling home to squeeze in some landscaping work before sunset. Were our ancestors who once traipsed this land daily heartier than us? Probably, but of course they were not healthier. Ulster County’s health stats are middling when compared to some other parts of the state, but we are at least thankfully spared of the whooping cough, scurvy, polio, high-infant mortality, death-in-childbirth and countless other afflictions that plagued our forbearers. In a way, we can count ourselves lucky that advanced-age arterial sclerosis is our most lethal problem.

Though it had been raining intermittently for weeks, the trail last week was not muddy or slippery. Its sloping pitch and numerous streams seem to prevent the kind of vast puddles that can make spring hikes miserable. Still, parts of the preserve are wetlands and water is everywhere. You see the Hudson from 9W on the way in, and you realize why people decided to settle here in the first place: the confluence of water and a good harbor to bring people in and natural resources, like bluestone, out. The Esopus Creek dam is a testament to this. Now in the process of being resurrected as a source of hydroelectric power, it was first constructed to provide power for the great 19th-century mills arrayed on opposite banks at the part of the creek. That the Preserve land was spared the subjugation of industrious settlers was a consequence of pitch: it’s just too steep to build on.

From a health perspective, being surrounded by natural beauty is a good incentive to get out and walk. A deeper appreciation and understanding for local flora and fauna can also enrich that prospect, so taking one of the free guided walks with Esopus Creek  resident naturalist Steve Chorvas is a good idea. As writer Lynn Woods noted in a recent profile of Chorvas, “On a butterfly walk, for example, besides identifying the species of the various pairs of brightly colored wings fluttering around, he will point out how the females of some species are larger the males. He’ll distinguish individuals freshly emerged from the chrysalis, unfurling and drying out their dewy wings, from the specimens with tattered wings of advanced old age. And he’ll identify every bird song and flight within range of your eyes and ears; and explain why the stinging nettle is not a noisome weed, but a plant vital to the ecosystem.”

There are a few guided tours coming up, including a wildlife walk on May 7 and a breeding birds and butterfly walk June 18. Go to www.esopuscreekconservancy.org for directions, a trail map and info on upcoming events.


Lighthouse Trail

The Lighthouse trail is easy to find: just take Lighthouse Drive until you come to a dead-end, where a large parking area and conspicuous signage greet you. The half-mile trail starts out as a gravel path before giving way to sandy spots and boardwalks over wetlands. (Some of the walks are solid, others are loose wooden pallets: watch your step!) Trail conditions vary: you can be marooned if you get caught at the Lighthouse during high-tide. Helpfully, saugertieslighthouse.org provides links to tide charts for planning purposes. According to the site, tides rise and fall at a rate of nearly 1/2 foot per hour. For example, a high tide of five feet will cover the trail for two hours before the time of high tide and remain for 2 hours afterwards.

The environment is that of a tidal marsh. The lighthouse sits at the tip of a precarious peninsula with the Hudson on one side, the Esopus Creek on the other, the it is very wet here. Reeds, cattails, purple loosestrife are abundant, as are broadleaf marsh plants like spatterdock, pickerelweed, golden club, and arrowhead. This little of sliver of land also plays host to a diverse array of birds; I saw dozens of redwing blackbirds and a very enthusiastic woodpecker, and heard an aviary’s worth more.
At about the half-way point, the trail splits off to a “picnic area,” where a few wooden picnic tables sit on sand. Here, you gaze out over a vast cul-de-sac of the Hudson, with the main shore on your left and the tip of the peninsula on your right. In the winter, huge blocks of ice pile up here. (There are some excellent old photographs, taken in the days before refridgeration, of Saugertiesians collecting ice here.)

A good hike is all about the pay-off, and you can’t do much better than the stately Saugerties Lighthouse, built in 1869. Originally owned by the Coast Guard, the lighthouse came into the possession of the Saugerties Lighthouse Conservancy for a dollar’s consideration in 1986. Thanks to the efforts of that group, it’s been saved from the ravages of time and today serves as a bed and breakfast.

According to the conservancy, tours are available on Saturdays and Sundays from Memorial Day through Labor Day, from 2- 5 p.m., as well as other times during the year by appointment.


Dominican Sisters property

For more than 80 years, the Dominican Sisters of Sparkill have enjoyed the bucolic beauty of their unspoiled Hudson riverfront property. Soon, thanks to a deal worked out with Saugerties-based Esopus Creek Conservancy (ECC) and Scenic Hudson, area residents, nature lovers, and birders of all stripes will be able to enjoy it as well.
This July, 192 acres of prime real estate abutting the Hudson will be opened to the public for “walking, hiking and quiet contemplation.” The land is on the south side of town, accessible from 9W, and stretches from the Bishop’s Gate housing development north to Spalding Lane.

The sisters, who take inspiration from St. Francis, that most nature-loving of all the saints, have long used the property as a retreat. Care will be taken to maintain the sisters’ privacy. According to Sister Mary Murray, president of the group, opening up a portion of the property is in keeping with their mission.

“Over the years, we began to look at the property, to see how it could serve out mission,” Sister Murray said last September. “We wanted to show people how fragile the environment is, and how the earth struggles much like the poor struggle to survive.”


To that end, by opening the land to the public, people will be able to see the beauty of the land and the river, and see the importance of preserving and protecting it, Murray said.

Trail-work by volunteers overseen by Scenic Hudson is ongoing. A 2.4-mile loop will be created by joining an old foot-path near the river with a maintenance road, more inland. Kate Kane of Scenic Hudson said the trail conditions will reflect this: the maintenance road is gravel and flat, while the footpath is more of a hike. Conditions are similar to Poet’s Walk on the other side of the river, said Kane.

“Overall it’s quite tranquil across the whole preserve; [the sisters] had such a light touch throughout all this time that they’ve been there,” said Kane. “So it really is a quiet a sanctuary, a quiet escape.”

Several little offshoots from the main loop lead down to the Hudson, and two more spurs lead to the property’s two gorgeous waterfalls. Though it is predominantly a wooded path, with old-growth hemlock and ash rising to majestic heights thanks to the sisters’ excellent stewardship, a portion of the loop opens up as it passes through a hayfield. From here, one can see the Catskills; it is a remarkable piece of land where one can get see both the river and the mountains.