Having heard enthusiastic reports from friends who’ve walked or biked the Ashokan Rail Trail since the October 18 opening of the West Hurley trailhead, I was curious to get a look at the western section, which opened on Thanksgiving Day. I live in Phoenicia, so the trailhead on Route 28A near Boiceville is only eight minutes away.
The trail is the result of years of often acrimonious negotiations between, on the one hand, Ulster County and trail enthusiasts, and on the other hand, the passionate supporters of the Catskill Mountain Railroad (CMRR), which was using the tracks at the east and west end of the county’s Route 28 corridor. CMRR still operates at the Kingston end, but the stretch along the Ashokan Reservoir has been repaired, resurfaced, and opened to the public.
I started my exploration by taking a stroll from the newly opened Shokan trailhead, arriving on Sunday, December 1, just as the first big snow of the season was starting. The parking lot at West Hurley has reportedly been packed on weekends, but on Sunday, visitors to the region were heading out to beat the storm, so there were only four cars in the Shokan lot.
As I walked west, the corridor ran between solid ranks of trees until, a few minutes’ walk from the trailhead, a wooden boardwalk appeared, crossing a wetland. According to the sign next to the fence, the boardwalk is 520 feet long. On one side, phragmites reeds tower overhead, and on the other side, water trickles among smaller plants. Straight ahead in the distance was the elegant archway of an underpass, where the trail travels beneath Reservoir Road. Other than these two structures, this section of trail was, to my mind, monotonous, perfectly straight and with no scenic relief.
However, David Congdon, of Phoenicia and Brooklyn, has been biking the trail and has a completely different take, having ridden the nine miles from West Hurley to the marker just west of the boardwalk that indicates 17 miles from Kingston. “I think of it as being in the world’s longest cathedral. There’s a beautiful green arch overhead, and when you look down the trail, it goes for miles. I find it humbling. So few access points means that for miles, there’s almost nobody on the trail on a weekday. You pass pedestrians for the first mile, and then virtually no one, just people on bikes, either going in the same direction, or they pass you, and that’s it. You get long stretches of solitude — you and the trees and Route 28. You can hear it behind the trees, but the long stretches with no intersections — for a cyclist, it’s wonderful.”
I was twenty minutes past the 17-mile marker when the snow began in earnest, and I turned back. Two women caught up with me, and I was delighted to recognize them. Connie Kieltyka of Olivebridge said she much prefers walking her energetic eight-month-old dog on the rail trail than in the woods. Dogs aren’t allowed on the “Frying-pan” trail along the reservoir. “I hope people will make sure to clean up after their dogs,” she commented, “or they’ll ban dogs from the rail trail too.” She likes standing on the boardwalk, watching the fluffy reeds sway in the wind.
Her walking companion, Mary Riley, recently moved from Bearsville to West Hurley, regretfully leaving Cooper Lake behind but happy to have the eastern trailhead nearby. “I run into people I haven’t seen for years. It’s good for community.” She’s concerned about the bikers, who sometimes fail to warn walkers they’re coming. “They’re supposed to ring their bell or call out ‘On your left,’ so people know to stay to the right.” Cyclists, take note.
I drove to the Boiceville trailhead on the day after the storm ended, when the ground was freshly blanketed in 18 inches of snow. I’m glad I waited till late afternoon, as the snowshoers had packed down a trail for me. I had heard that the far western end, like the stretch near the Woodstock Dike in the east, had spectacular views, so I set out with eagerness.
Barely three minutes’ walk from the parking lot, I reached the new Boiceville Trestle, which replaced the flood-damaged bridge that formerly conveyed trains across the Esopus Creek. The new trestle is six feet higher and 60 feet longer than the previous structure, to accommodate future floodwaters. Upstream, the creek curves picturesquely through the mountains, and downstream, it rushes toward the Ashokan Reservoir.
As I was reentering the corridor of trees, a man came towards me, walking a bicycle. Tony Coretto of Mount Tremper, an avid cyclist, was out for the first time with his fat-tire bike, which has wide, deep treads designed for riding in snow. “It doesn’t work too well when the snow is this deep,” he reported. In places, he’d been able to ride on the snowshoe-packed trail, but with the temperature just at 32 degrees, the surface tended to soften. However, he’d been enjoying riding the rail trail on his gravel bike before the snow hit. “My expectations were really low,” he said. “But once I got out there, it blew me away. And it’s exciting to see lots of people using it.”
I continued into the woods. Up ahead, a deer bounded across the trail.
Walking was sometimes challenging, due to the unevenness and slight give of the snow. While the hard-packed gravel of the trail makes a consistent surface for walking or riding when bare, winter conditions will be variable, as traffic and temperature alter the snow from hard to soft to icy to smooth to rutted. Just be prepared.
Before long, the trees thinned out, and water was visible on both sides of the trail, as the Esopus widened, merging into the reservoir. To the right, ice made swirling patterns on the water’s surface, and mountains rose from the far bank.
A couple on snowshoes approached. They turned out to be Kingston residents Pat Johnson and her husband, Steve, who is a volunteer trail steward. He’s been walking the corridor several times a week and finds it “the most beautiful trail, end to end.” He commented approvingly on how the smooth twin tracks of the cross-country skiers, alongside the snowshoe trail, had not been trampled by pedestrians. Pat had just photographed a pair of swans near the shore.
The last people I saw were a pair of skiers, who glided past just as the half moon was coming into focus overhead, against a sky of royal blue. I decided it was time to turn back, although I hadn’t reached the broad expanse of the reservoir, which I expect provides the best views. I like to leave something to look forward to, for next time.