New 11.5-mile rail trail promises great fall foliage views

(Photos by Dion Ogust)

Behold, I will do a new thing. Now it shall spring forth. Shall you not know it? I will even make a road in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert.
— Isaiah 43:19

The Ulster County-built Ashokan Rail-Trail, a long-awaited public recreational walkway (the county prefers the term “shared-use path”), will be opened to the public on Friday, October 18. First proposed in 2012, the 11.5-mile trail is ten to twelve feet in width, with a compacted crushed-stone surface that allows accessibility to persons with disabilities and limited mobility. 

Constructed on the historic right-of-way of the Ulster & Delaware Railroad, bought by the county in 1979 and located on New York City watershed land, most of the pathway will become open to permit-free public access beginning on the afternoon of October 18. Ulster County executive Pat Ryan wanted to make the rail-trail available to the public for the fall foliage and harvest season. It will be open dawn-to-dusk year-round for non-motorized uses, including hiking, bicycling, running, nature observation, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.

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A study by the Saratoga Springs consulting firm Camoin Associates has estimated public visitation to the new attraction at 100,000 annually. As the original low estimate for the Walkway Over the Hudson proved a few years ago, such projections can be wildly inaccurate, with both overestimates and underestimates common. The county believes Camoin’s projections generally underestimate.     

A key component of an interconnected state rail-trail system linking the Walkway Over the Hudson to the Catskill Park, the Ashokan trail provides the first public access without a New York City Department of Environmental Protection access permit to the scenic northern shores of the New York City-owned reservoir and the views of the Esopus Valley in more than a century. The experience is spectacular. 

The trail along the northern edge of the Ashokan Reservoir between Basin Road in West Hurley and Route 28A in Boiceville manages to provide an authentic engagement with the Catskills wilderness without the strenuous climbing thought of since the days of the mountain houses as a prerequisite to the true Catskills experience (even though access to these hotels was usually by railroad as well as by wagon). The new attraction will encourage flatlanders to explore woods surrounded by modest mountains within a watershed that supplies unfiltered water to the largest metropolitan area in the United States. Part of the message is that new arrangements for cooperation and interdependence can result in the better use of resources for multiple purposes.

According to Ulster County government sources, the authorized budget for the entire project is $16,842,421, of which about $6.110 million comes from county funds. $4.381 million from New York City Department of Environmental Protection grants (DEP), $3.630 million in state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) funds, $500,000 from state parks (OPRHP) funding, $2.221 million in federal disaster assistance (FEMA) funding, and $26,000 from the Catskill Watershed Corporation. At the present time, county project manager Chris White hopes to complete the scheduled work about $200,000 below budget.

The last freight train on the rail line ran in October 1976, so a lot of rehabilitation work was needed on the long-neglected right-of-way. The project started with removal of thousands of rotten railroad ties and twisted rails, initial clearing of the rail right-of-way, and the installation of new culverts (46 of them) and drainage ditches to manage stormwater. 

Construction had begun in January 2018 after many years of debate and planning. A very considerable amount of trail work was required. The project included drainage improvements, railbed regrading, installation of fencing and signage, plus trail amenities such as walls and benches. An 880-foot stretch that had evolved into wetland required trail realignment. A 525-foot boardwalk was constructed at a second wetland. A major culvert was replaced with a new 75-foot truss at Butternut Creek and a new 360-foot steel girder bridge was built near Boiceville to replace the collapsed trestle bridge there.

The county improved road connections at three major trailheads and is creating parking lots accessible from Route 28 and Route 28A. There are also four emergency egresses along the way. 

Numerous smaller structures like a generous number of park benches on concrete slabs, handcrafted stone walls and protective wooden fencing were constructed. A missing mile marker was located and half-mile markers were created. Interpretive signage has been developed and will be installed in the near future.

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