WinterFest returns Highland Rail Trail with chili cook-off, family-friendly winter fun

Kelly Reeves and Tim Kosteczko of Wallkill sample chili offerings at Highland's annual WinterFest in 2012. (photo by Lauren Thomas)

Kelly Reeves and Tim Kosteczko of Wallkill sample chili offerings at Highland’s annual WinterFest in 2012. (photo by Lauren Thomas)

The Hudson Valley Rail Trail depot at 101 New Paltz Road in Highland will be the scene for the 19th annual WinterFest on Saturday, February 6 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Admission costs $2 with kids under age six admitted free. The “Best of Fest Chili Cook-Off” is a big part of the outdoor event every year, with more than 20 local eateries donating a minimum of three gallons of chili each to vie for the People’s Choice award. The tasting is done “blind,” with even those dishing out the samples unaware of whose chili they’re serving. The volunteers are mainly Highland Rotary Club members, who no matter what the weather, bundle up and take charge of a slow cooker under the pavilion, offering samples at 50 cents a cup ($8 buys a “try-them-all” ticket). Tasters are invited to vote for their favorite out of the many varieties available, which include mild, spicy and vegetarian options.

All proceeds benefit the Hudson Valley Rail Trail Association, which manages and maintains the Rail Trail. Board members Lillian Mertes and Marie Sidgwick are in charge of enlisting local restaurateurs to donate chili for the event and bringing slow cookers to them. The eateries fill the slow cooker with the savory stew on the morning of the event and deliver it to the Rail Trail site of WinterFest where hungry chili fans await.


Sidgwick and Mertes are also responsible for tallying the votes to determine the winner of the Best of Fest Chili Cook-Off, with voting to be done “by the letter” this year rather than “by the number,” as in years past. The system of labeling each chili-pot with a number was creating some confusion as to what number belonged to which restaurant, Sidgwick says, with the numbering system changing each year, so this time around it’s the letters of the alphabet that will determine the most coveted chili.

Last year, the People’s Choice “Best of Fest” first prize award went to On A Roll Deli of Highland. Erik Sorensen is the manager there, and he makes the chili, too. But he’s keeping quiet about his secret for prize-winning chili — “C’mon, I can’t release that information!” — although he will divulge that the meat-based chili “kind of hits you sweet at first and then kicks in with spice at the end.” On A Roll Deli will be one of the participating restaurants again this year, although with their identity unmarked, one might just have to try them all to be sure and taste this one.

Eateries that participate every year include Highland’s Coppola’s Italian Restaurant, Sal’s Place and The Would along with New Paltz’s P&G’s restaurant. As of press time, it was too soon to confirm all the chili-makers, but each is guaranteed to put their own spin on their chili and bring something delicious.

WinterFest also offers scenic tractor-pulled hay wagon rides up and down the Rail Trail — courtesy of Dave DuBois of DuBois Farms — roasted chestnuts and a fire pit to roast marshmallows over. Another big attraction for families is the heated kids’ activity tent sponsored by Lowe’s of Highland, who supply the materials and their employees to supervise little ones in making some DIY projects. In addition, there are a number of games designed for the kids inside the tent, helped along by the Highland High School’s Interact Club and Boy Scout Troop 70 of Highland, and hungry visitors will find hot dogs and beverages available for purchase. (And with all that chili on hand, one can easily make one’s own chili dog.)

As many as 1,000 people are expected to come to the event, although that number will likely be weather-dependent, says Eric Norberg, vice president of the Hudson Valley Rail Trail Association and chair for this event. But rain, snow or no-snow, “We’ve had all ranges of weather at WinterFest over the years,” he says, “from subzero to really beautiful days.”

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