If you’re an Ulster County resident who crosses the Kingston/Rhinecliff Bridge now and again to take in a movie at Upstate Films, there’s a good chance that you have driven past the sign on Mount Rutsen Road that advertises the entrance to Ferncliff Forest. Maybe you wondered what attractions it held, and told yourself that you’d come back some other time in daylight to check the place out. Consider this a nudge to take that curiosity a step further.
This 200-acre parcel, occupying the tongue of land between Mount Rutsen Road and River Road, started out as an oak forest in the days when only the Sepasco Indians lived in what is now Rhinebeck. After European settlement, several small farms were established in the vicinity, which were bought up and consolidated around 1853 by William Backhouse Astor, Jr. The holdings eventually grew, spreading east to Old Post Road and Route 9. Somewhere along the line, the estate acquired the name of Ferncliff.
In 1878, a 125-acre tract owned by Thomas Suckley and described as “a farm colony with a cluster of cottages near Rhinebeck” was offered to the New York Methodist Conference to be used as a retreat for retired clergy. The Conference organized a farm, built cottages and constructed a stone chapel, described as “plainly but richly furnished.” But by 1900, the Mount Rutsen farm colony facing financial failure, attributed to “the isolated area and the fact that the ministers had to share one horse” to travel into the Village of Rhinebeck. So the Conference sold off 106 acres for $5,500 to John Astor IV, the owner of neighboring property. The chapel served as a Sunday school for a few years, beginning in 1902, while the frame cottages were torn down, their materials used for other buildings in or near the village, at Southland Farms and to widen local roads.
After John Jacob Astor’s death on the Titanic in 1912, Ferncliff Farm was inherited by his son, William Vincent Astor, whose adjacent holdings totaled 2,800 acres in 1940. In 1959, Vincent Astor died, leaving Ferncliff Farm to Brooke Russell Astor, who was later persuaded by Homer K. Staley Sr., president of the Rhinebeck Rotary, to donate 190+ acres to the Rotary for a forest preserve and game refuge. Her 1964 deed stipulated that the land must remain forever wild.
Staley became Ferncliff’s first forest ranger and founded a not-for-profit organization, Ferncliff Forest, Inc., to be steward of the land. His son, Homer K. Staley, Jr., serves as the ranger today. The game refuge and forest preserve holds only one fundraising event each year: a Thanksgiving Turkey Trot run.
But what lies beyond that gateway, you ask? About four miles of gently rolling hiking trails, in total. The interior loop – the yellow trail on the map that can be found at www.ferncliffforest.org/page1/index.php – leads most directly to the Ferncliff Forest’s main attraction: a fire tower built in 2007 to replace a decrepit former structure that had been used during World War II by the Civil Air Patrol to watch out for enemy aircraft cruising up or down the Hudson River corridor. While structurally very sound, the new tower is 80 feet tall and a bit daunting to folks with acrophobia.
But the view at the top is worth the slog: a stunning 360-degree panorama that takes in the Catskills, the Hudson River, the bridge, the Rondout Lighthouse, Tivoli Bays to the north and the Shawangunk Ridge on the southern horizon. Try to time your visit for just before sunset on a fine day with just enough clouds to make the sky interesting. There are, however, rules and regulations involved: Climbing the tower after dark or in the rain or snow is prohibited, or under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or accompanied by a pet or a baby.
Alongside the trails you can find the remains of the former chapel, as well as hand-dug wells, cisterns, root cellars and old foundations from the site’s farmsteading days. The trails offer access to a fishable pond and a wetland that shelters wild waterfowl, plus a wide variety of picturesque picnicking spots.
You can even camp there, in one of Ferncliff Forest’s lean-to structures (the map shows five of them). There are rules about camping as well – maximum of five people to one permit, maximum stay of seven days – but there seems to be no charge for the privilege. You just need to fill out and submit the form found online at http://ferncliffforest.org/contact/index.php, in order to obtain a permit.
So now you know why Ferncliff Forest bills itself as “Rhinebeck’s Number-One Free Attraction.” Even in winter, it looks like a promising site for an ungroomed cross-country ski outing. See you on the trails!
Ferncliff Forest’s entry, whose parking lot will accommodate about a dozen cars, is located at 68 Mount Rutsen Road in Rhinebeck. It’s open from dawn to dusk year-round. To find out more, visit www.ferncliffforest.org or http://hikethehudsonvalley.com/ferncliff-forest.