As foliage season draws nigh, consider a gently paced ride through the Catskills via Rail Explorers: The Catskills Division. This new modality for hands-free touring via custom-built pedal-powered rail bikes along the historic Ulster & Delaware Railroad tracks winds up its 2019 season on November 3. Embarking four times daily, Thursdays through Mondays from the historic Phoenicia Railway Station, the Rail Explorers tours travel eight miles along the spectacular Esopus Creek and through the beautiful woods of the Catskill Mountains.
Rail Explorers vehicles come in two-seater and four-seater models, each equipped with four steel wheels, hydraulic disc brakes and pedals for each seat. Riders (except for toddlers) have to pedal, but don’t have to steer because you’re following the rails. So, you can snap photos or shoot videos to your heart’s content.
All the Rail Explorers leave at the same time, with a tour guide in the lead and another in the last vehicle. Each vehicle must have at least one rider aged 16 and up to operate the brakes. The group spreads out along the track, so that there is up to 500 feet between you and the Explorers ahead and behind. This allows each group to enjoy the freedom of the outdoors and the magic of the railroad at their own pace and in their own space. There’s no passing, obviously.
The tours are timed so that all Explorers have reached the destination before they are turned around for the next tour. There’s a picnic spot at the creekside turnaround where you can hang out during the change of direction. Since the return trip is slightly uphill, the Explorers feature optional electric motor assistance for less vigorous pedalers. Allow two hours for the full round-trip tour.
Rail Explorers operate rain or shine, provided it is safe to do so. The tours run in light-to-moderately-inclement weather, but will not run in heavy rain that is unlikely to stop, or if threatening weather appears imminent. A decision to cancel a tour because of a thunderstorm is typically only made 30 minutes before departure. Umbrellas are provided on every Rail Explorer and ponchos are available. Each vehicle has a basket for bags and backpacks, cameras, phones or water bottles.
Many tours sell out quickly, particularly on weekends, so booking ahead is strongly recommended. Tickets cost $85 for a Tandem and $150 for a Quad. There is also a special Beer & Pretzels Tour on Fridays at 4:30 p.m. in autumn, featuring special edition beer from Woodstock Brewing and soft organic pretzels by Bread Alone. That price is $95 for a Tandem and $160 for a Quad. Parking at the Rail Explorers depot at 70 Lower High Street in Phoenicia is free. To reserve your tour, visit www.railexplorers.net/tours/catskills-ny.
Rail Explorers: The Catskills Division, Thursday-Monday through Nov. 3, 9 & 11:30 a.m., 2 & 4:30 p.m., $150/$85, Phoenicia Railway Station, 70 Lower High St., Phoenicia, (877) 833-8588, www.railexplorers.net/tours/catskills-ny