Great Hudson River views from the Mills Mansion and Norrie Point trails

Like most of the east-bank Hudson estates, these lands were once the playground of the Livingston family. (photo by Will Dendis)

The opulent interiors of the Gilded Age mansions that line the Hudson’s eastern shore are often eclipsed by the beauty of their surroundings, laid out by the likes of Calvert Vaux expressly for the purpose of revealing surprising new vistas around every bend.

Among the better-known grand homes in the Estates District Scenic Area of Statewide Significance, a 27-mile stretch of the Hudson River’s eastern shorelands from Germantown to south of the FDR sites in Hyde Park, is Staatsburgh, a Beaux Arts palace also known as the Mills Mansion. It’s the primary destination point in the Ogden Mills and Ruth Livingston Mills Memorial State Park. Adjacent to the Mills parklands is Margaret Lewis Norrie State Park; together they comprise about 1,000 acres (including Esopus Island, where notorious archmage Aleister Crowley once took a meditation vacation [http://bit.ly/2DAQP4T]).

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Like most of the east-bank Hudson estates, these lands were once the playground of the Livingston family, some of whose descendants intermarried with the Astors. But as personal fortunes tanked during the Great Depression, some of the properties were donated to New York State to avoid tax debt. The 323 acres that became the core of the park became public property in 1934, at which point FDR sent in the Civilian Conservation Corps to build a camping area and a restaurant called the Point Inn, which served diners from 1937 to the 1960s. In 1938 the park expanded with the addition of 190 acres of land and the Mills Mansion, a gift of Gladys Phipps.

A popular marina called the Norrie Boat Basin opened in 1952, its 145 slips serving mainly powerboats until the relatively recent construction of a canoe/kayak launch, from which Atlantic Kayak Tours now leads expeditions to Tivoli Bays and Esopus Island. From 1952 to 1961 the park was further enlarged with the addition of 125 acres, including a private nine-hole golf course donated by Helen Huntington Hull and enough land to expand to it 18 holes. The Dinsmore Golf Course is considered the third-oldest golf course in the US. Its clubhouse includes a restaurant called Eagles’ Nest II.

The Land Acquisition Bond Act allowed the park to absorb another 265 acres of land, including the Lewis Gordon Norrie Playground, which was built on the ruins of an old icehouse and named for a local 19-year-old killed in an automobile accident in 1924. The former residence of Lydig Manson Hoyt, The Point, was added in 1963. Better-known locally as Hoyt House, the Vaux-designed Gothic Revival mansion is still awaiting restoration.

New York State acquired the former Staatsburg School property in 2003; it now serves as the Taconic Regional Offices of the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). Today, the former Point Inn is home to the DEC’s Norrie Point Environmental Center and headquarters for the Hudson River National Estuarine Research Reserve. It’s a popular site for Environmental Education field trips for local schools, and sporadically open for programs for the general public.

One of the unusual amenities of the Norrie part of the park complex is that it offers overnight use during camping season, from late April through October. There are 46 tent sites and ten cabins – half of them built by the CCC, the other half in the 1950s – available for rental at the campground. There’s also a pavilion near the playground, built in 1925, equipped with charcoal grills and suitable for family gatherings on a first-come, first-served basis, no rental fee required.

Combined, the parks boast a total of 11.6 miles of trails, suitable for hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding. (Cross-country skiers and snowshoers more typically use the golf course.) Walkers can make a great day’s outing by making a loop of about five miles combining the white-blazed River Trail (a designated Hudson River Valley Greenway Trail and part of the Hyde Park Trail System) with the blue trail, slightly farther inland and at a higher elevation. Both offer splendid views of the Hudson, and the River Trail features benches where you can contemplate the Esopus Meadows Lighthouse, Esopus Island and other scenic points of interest. These trails can be accessed from parking areas near the Staatsburgh mansion at their northern end and the environmental center at their southern end. There’s also a “bluebird trail” of some 55 nest boxes maintained by the Ralph T. Waterman Bird Club.

Oh, and in wintertime, the hill at Staatsburgh is a primo sledding location. For more information about Norrie Point, visit www.dec.ny.gov/lands/92349.html. For a trail map, visit https://parks.ny.gov/historic-sites/attachments/staatsburghtrailmap.pdf.

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