Before there was a New York State Thruway, US Route 9W was the primary option if you wanted to travel by car on the west side of the Hudson River a considerable distance. Your trip took a lot longer than it would today to get where you were going, but the route presented opportunities for side excursions nowadays more easily overlooked. Taking in the local sights is now a lower priority than making time.
Happily, in the past couple of decades the Town of Esopus and a number of environmental organizations have made considerable headway in preserving parkland along the town’s 9W corridor, in developing trail networks and in installing interpretive aids to enhance the visitor experience. In a way there’s actually more to see along that old highway than there once was, and what is there has become more accessible. Let’s check out a menu from which you can select and easily combine options for a full day’s outing.
Regardless of which stops you decide to make, the first thing you need to take with you for this trip is a copy of the “Discover the Town of Esopus Heritage and Recreation Network” map and guide pamphlet, downloadable at www.scenichudson.org/files/u2/esopus_heritage_trail.pdf.
Heading southward, the gateway to Esopus is Kingston’s four-lane arterial called Frank Koenig Boulevard, which crosses the Rondout Creek not far from its confluence with the Hudson. Your first possible left once you’ve crossed the bridge into the Kingston suburb of Port Ewen is the way to go if you want to visit Sleightsburgh Park, which covers the 79-acre peninsula at the mouth of the Rondout. Head east on North Broadway, then right on First Avenue and left on Everson Street; the park entrance is on the right. If you’re a canoeist or kayaker, the first thing that you’ll notice is that there’s an excellent non-motorized boat landing right by the parking lot, directly across from Kingston’s Strand. Plan to come back another time with your watercraft and explore the waterway, which is fascinating whether you head upstream on the Rondout or downstream into the Hudson.
Today we have too much else to do on our auto excursion, so let’s try a quick exploration on foot. The trails in Sleightsburgh Park are, to put it frankly, a little scuzzy, and offer no extra amenities — not so much as a porta-potty. But they’re worth a visit because they lead out to the long stone causeway called Sleightsburgh Spit — about a half-mile walk.
Popular with anglers, the spit affords excellent views of the Rondout Lighthouse to the north, Rhinecliff across the Hudson (you can spot the big meadow where Chelsea Clinton had her wedding), and to the south the ruins of an artillery emplacement that guarded the entrance to Kingston’s harbor during the Civil War. Keep an eye on the tide tables, as a couple of islands are only accessible on foot at low tide. It’s a great place for spotting eagles, and the river mouth is also full of romantic old wrecks of barges and crumbling piers. Sleightsburgh Park is open year-round daily dawn to dusk. Visit www.scenichudson.org/parks/sleightsburgh or contact the town government at 331-0676 for information.
Town of Esopus Library
Back on 9W, you’ll be heading south a couple of blocks into downtown Port Ewen. On your left, at the corner of East Main Street, you’ll pass the Esopus Library, whose proudest distinction is a collection of books, papers, artworks and memorabilia donated by Elizabeth Burroughs Kelley, granddaughter of the town’s most famous resident, naturalist John Burroughs. Items from the collection can be checked out by Mid-Hudson Library System cardholders. Library hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Wednesdays and 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Fridays. Weekend hours are currently 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays and 1 to 4 p.m. on Sundays, but it closes earlier during the summer. Call 338-5580 or visit www.esopuslibrary.org/jburr2.htm for information about the Burroughs Collection.
Esopus Meadows Point Preserve, Lighthouse Park
Heading south a few miles, make a left onto River Road, where you’ll see signs for both the Esopus Meadows Point Preserve and Environmental Center, run jointly by Scenic Hudson and the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, and for the municipal Lighthouse Park. A visit to either the 96-acre preserve or the tiny riverside park will be rewarded with excellent views of Esopus Meadows Lighthouse.
Built in 1871, the “Maid of the Meadows” is the only wood-framed, clapboard-exterior lighthouse on the Hudson River. While the lighthouse itself was open to the public last summer in spite of it being in the midst of extensive restoration, it’s accessible only by boat. In 2011, boat tours began running from both the Poughkeepsie Yacht Club and the Hudson River Maritime Museum in Kingston in May and continued into October. The Save the Esopus Lighthouse Commission’s website at www.esopusmeadowslighthouse.org had not yet been updated to show the summer 2012 tour schedule, so keep checking the site.
Considering how shallow the Hudson tidal flats are at this spot, it’s a wonder that you can’t wade out to the lighthouse. It’s said that the name Esopus Meadows came from the fact that dairy farmers used to herd their cattle down to the water’s edge here to browse on the thick mat of aquatic vegetation. A kid-friendly park, Esopus Meadows Point Preserve offers 3500 feet of shoreline to explore, as well as two miles of Hudson River Greenway trails and an interpretive botanical trail. The preserve is open year-round daily, from dawn to dusk.
The environmental center housing Clearwater’s Tideline Discovery Program is usually only open for prescheduled school and group programs. Visit www.scenichudson.org/parks/esopusmeadows for information.
Klyne Esopus Museum
Ready for an indoor respite? Head back south on River Road until it joins up with 9W again, and before long, heading south just past the El Paso Winery, you’ll spot an old red brick building with a cupola on your right. This former Dutch country church, built in 1827 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, houses the Klyne Esopus Historical Society Museum, which offers a variety of exhibits about the town’s culture, commerce and history. The museum opens for the season June 5 and will be open Fridays through Mondays from 1 to 4 p.m.
Last year the big focus was on the Town of Esopus’ bicentennial; the museum website has not yet been updated with what we can expect in 2012, so keep checking www.klyneesopusmuseum.org. You can also find out more by calling 338-8109
Shaupeneak Ridge (plus Freedom Trail side excursion)
Another thing that you will likely notice along the right-hand side of Route 9W by now is a highland known as Shaupeneak Ridge. The 790-acre wildlife conservation area owned by Scenic Hudson, the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the West Esopus Landowners’ Association is accessible via two parking areas. One is located at the foot of the ridge, not far from where Old Post Road turns off 9W, and the other atop it, which you reach by turning right onto Poppletown Road after Old Post Road reaches the crest of the hill.
The lower section of Shaupeneak Ridge Cooperative Recreation Area boasts a lovely, shaded woodland trail that will lead you to a small waterfall. It’s a great place to seek ferns and mushrooms, tiny wildflowers and salamanders – and at least one geocache, if you’ve brought your GPS along. If more sunshine is what you’re looking for, the place to be is the shores of Louisa Pond, a glacial lake filled with water lilies, perched atop the ridge and accessible from the upper parking lot. This is a prime destination for environmental education outings for local schools, with easy trails that feature vistas of the valley below and lots of signs of beaver lodge and dam construction. Animal track identification is a popular wintertime activity.
Shaupeneak is open year-round daily from dawn to dusk. There are currently six miles of trails in total, but expansion of the trail network is planned to take advantage of new parcels recently added to the preserve. Visit www.scenichudson.org/parks/shaupeneakridge for more.
If you’re feeling adventurous enough to leave the 9W corridor for a while, continue on Poppletown Road, a/k/a the Sojourner Truth Freedom Trail, northwest towards Rifton. You’ll be retracing the great abolitionist and women’s rights advocate’s flight to freedom from slavery. A plaque on Route 213 near Sturgeon Pool marks her probable birthplace. Head south on 213 a little further if you want to add Perrine’s Bridge to your Esopus must-see list. The restored 1844 structure is the only Burr arch truss covered bridge in New York State.
Black Creek Preserve
Another Scenic Hudson park has become a favorite spot for family outings in Esopus. The access point to the 130-acre Black Creek Forest Preserve is on the left, at the intersection of 9W and Winding Brook Acres Road. The kids love the slightly bouncy suspension bridge across Black Creek that forms the starting point of any hike here; below it, millions of baby herring run in springtime. While steep in spots, the two-and-a-half miles of hiking trails crisscross in such a way that you can tailor your wanderings to the age and physical fitness of the members of your party.
It’s easy to see why this park is favored for school outings. There’s lots of interpretive signage, and spring is an especially good time to check out the amphibious life forms taking shape in the vernal pools. You’ll also find out about the environmental threat to native hemlocks posed by a tiny insect called the woolly adelgid.
My favorite trail here is the loop that ends up along a tiny, shale-shingled beach with a distant view of the Esopus Meadows Lighthouse. The shoreline is decorated with bright bits of red brick from the Hudson’s long-gone brickmaking days, worn smooth by the lapping of the water. Nearby boulders provide great perches to eat lunch while gazing out over the river. A detailed free trail map is downloadable at www.scenichudson.org/files/u2/BlackCreek_webmap.jpg. Black Creek is open year-round daily from dawn to dusk.
John Burroughs Sanctuary, Slabsides
Beyond the Black Creek turnoff, again heading south on 9W, you will soon leave the Town of Esopus behind for the Town of Lloyd, better-known to locals as Highland. But you just can’t leave Esopus without first paying homage to the nineteenth-century’s natural-history superstar, John Burroughs. His cabin, called Slabsides, is located on Burroughs Drive, just off Floyd Ackert Road, coming up on your right. This place of pilgrimage unfortunately opens its doors to the public only twice a year: from noon to 4:30 p.m., on the third Saturday in May and again on the first Saturday in October.
Even when the doors are locked, you can stand on the porch and peer in the windows of the rustic structure that Burroughs built with his own hands in 1895 to serve as a writing retreat. Much of the handmade furniture inside remains intact as the author left it upon his death in 1921. Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, Thomas Edison and Henry Ford were among the many guests who visited Burroughs here in their time.
Surrounding Slabsides is the 192-acre John Burroughs Sanctuary. You can walk its trails any time of the year, visiting the bog where the great man tried to grow celery or exploring the woods where he drew inspiration for his famed nature essays. New trails have just been added over the past couple of years, so if you haven’t been here in a while it’s certainly worth a return visit. For a free map, visit the John Burroughs Association website.