Work continues apace on the visionary project to link Ulster County with Orange and Dutchess via a decades-long process of converting disused railway corridors into rail trails. It may take another five or ten years before you can hop on your bike in either the Catskills or the Taconics and end up at the other (cheering the hearts of local innkeepers with your tourist dollars along the way), but the links are inexorably falling into place.
At this point, the most obvious gaps forcing cyclists and through-hikers onto the shoulders of heavily trafficked roads are concentrated in and around New Paltz. Work is supposed to begin next year on an off-road connection between the Hudson Valley Rail Trail, on the Highland side of the Walkway over the Hudson, and the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail, which will now take you all the way up to the outskirts of Kingston.
But if you’re coming to New Paltz at all, your primary sightseeing destination is likely the Shawangunk Ridge. Bicycling up there via busy Routes 299 or 44/55 or Mountain Rest Road means taking your life in your hands. Avid cyclists in the New Paltz area have been agitating for decades for an alternative route west of the Wallkill River to the Shawangunk Ridge and now the Open Space Institute (OSI) is making it happen. The first section of the River-to-Ridge Trail, while not yet officially open or fully landscaped, is now walkable. The rest of it is projected to be completed in 2018.
OSI’s specialty is temporary acquisition of threatened parcels of land – or conservation easements thereon – to protect scenic viewsheds, farmland, wildlife habitat and recreational resources, before turning them over to municipal governments and/or local conservation trusts for management in perpetuity. In 2013, OSI protected 400 acres of the Wallkill Flats. That’s the area just west of town that now actually resembles a trail, work having begun shortly after completion of the reconstruction of the Carmine Liberta Bridge.
This section of trail heads out due west along the north side of 299, then zigzags back northeastward a bit toward the riverbank, turning north to parallel the Wallkill alongside a cornfield that in autumn whispers in the wind off the Ridge. In June, OSI installed the largest piece of infrastructure associated with the trail: a large concrete box culvert, 15 feet in width and weighing an estimated 70,000 pounds, on the west side of the Wallkill. This culvert is built to withstand flooding while safely carrying the trail over the floodway channel. If you have taken a walk through this area recently, you may have noticed a mysterious padlocked mailbox standing nowhere near any dwelling or place of business. Turns out, according to OSI’s communications director Eileen Larrabee, that it has served as the temporary home of stormwater permit documents and inspection reports that are required to be kept at the physical jobsite. “We expect the mailbox to be removed this week,” Larrabee told Almanac Weekly on October 30.
The next phase of construction heads west from the point where the River-to-Ridge Trail crosses Mountain Rest Road, along the so-called “New Paltz/Foothills conservation corridor,” much of which consists of the 135-acre property that OSI acquired from the Watchtower organization for $2.1 million in 2015. A parking area, picnic benches and informational kiosk are planned for the trailhead area adjacent to Mountain Rest. As the trail wends its way uphill toward the Ridge and crosses Lewis Lane, it will split in half, with a “fast lane” for cyclists and a “slow lane” for pedestrians. Just after entering Mohonk Preserve lands, the trail, now rejoined, will cross Butterville Road and link up with two alternate routes up to Mohonk’s Duck Pond area: Pine Road and Lenape Lane. From there, you can access 90 miles of carriage roads and foot trails that will take you all over the Gunks, including the Minnewaska State Park Preserve and Sam’s Point.
This western segment of the River-to-Ridge Trail is now on target for completion sometime in 2018, though the rate of progress is “obviously weather-related,” says Larrabee. As of presstime work was still underway, with two culverts installed on October 19. “The culverts improve drainage, wildlife connectivity and wetland habitat,” Larrabee adds. In addition to wooden fencing and buffer plantings, finishing touches will emphasize the agricultural heritage of the corridor, including the addition of live cattle to three paddocks being constructed alongside the trail.
The completed River-to-Ridge Trail will extend for six miles, providing stunning, ever-changing views of cliffs, fields, woods and wetlands. Sounds like it will be worth the wait. Meanwhile, take a peek at OSI’s map: www.openspaceinstitute.org/places/river-to-ridge-trail.