When you’re driving south toward the Rondout neighborhood of Kingston on the arterial section of Route 9W, near the Delaware Avenue exit, there’s a point where a vista rises up before you that could have come out of a Chinese painting, were it not for the church spire in the right foreground. The hills that enfold the Rondout Creek as it meanders towards its confluence with the Hudson are striking in their precipitous steepness. “What’s up in there?” the passing motorist might well wonder. “Why aren’t there any trailheads where I can go exploring?”
This picturesque land formation, known as the Rondout Uplands, was identified as a priority “conservation target” in the Open Space Plan that the City of Kingston adopted in November 2020. It stretches northward along the Hudson to encompass the new Sojourner Truth State Park and southward along Abeel Street through the hamlets of Eddyville and St. Remy, right down to Bloomington and the wild “hollers” that characterize the eastern flank of the Town of Rosendale. Geologically, it’s the northern prong of the same late-Silurian Rondout Formation of dolomitic limestone that was mined for a century-and-a-half to produce Rosendale cement.
The heart of the most dauntingly steep highlands of this geographic feature lies in the Kingston hamlet of Wilbur, once a separate community that grew up along the Twaalfskill Brook and clustered at the foot of Wilbur Avenue, where it intersects Abeel. In the 19th century, Wilbur was a hive of industry, riddled with cement mines and kilns, as well as a corridor to the Hudson for the shipment of cement, bluestone, ice and other local products. Today, knowledgeable Kingstonians wishing to avoid Broadway traffic often use Wilbur Avenue as an alternative route from Route 32 on the south side of town to the Rondout, or to get to the former Benedictine Hospital. But how many of them have explored the convoluted hills that loom above them here, undeveloped despite being within the City limits?
Until now, there was no way to do it, unless you were friends with a local landowner. But in 2019, Wilbur neighbors alerted the City and the Kingston Land Trust that the owner of a former quarry on Wilbur Avenue, near the Chapel Street intersection, was felling hundreds of trees without a permit, with intent to clear and develop the parcel. The City issued a stop-work order, and a day or two thereafter, an excavator tumbled off the site and landed upside-down on the road, precipitating closure of Wilbur Avenue until it could be removed.
Faced with legal bills, the owner of the property was willing to sell it to the Kingston Land Trust (KLT) for $23,000. The acquisition of the 5.892-acre parcel was finalized by the end of 2020. Right around that same time, a contiguous 8.2-acre property that’s home to Salamander Cave – a natural limestone “relic cave,” not an excavated mine – was donated to the Northeastern Cave Conservancy by Wilbur resident Valerie Connors. The easiest access to the cave from the road is through the KLT property, so the two land preservation not-for-profits are working together to make it possible – and safe – for the public to visit.
Most recently, this past January, KLT was able to acquire another adjacent parcel: 6.3 acres that include more former quarryland and extend toward the railway that crosses the Rondout on the high trestle above Abeel Street. That means that the permanently protected forested land in what KLT has dubbed the Wilbur Uplands now totals more than 20 acres. Even better, from a hiker’s point of view, is that a process is in motion to open these properties to visitors.
“This is not the most accessible place,” admitted Greg Shaheen, director of Conservation and Stewardship at KLT, at a “musical stewardship gathering” last Saturday in Red Fox Ravine, the organization’s unofficial name for the rock-walled “canyon” that was carved out by the Newark Lime & Cement Company circa 1850. “Our goal is to raise $7,500 by November to make that easier.”
Featuring talks, guided hikes, stewardship opportunities, a taco picnic and live bluegrass music from Morgan O’Kane on banjo, Ferd Moyse on fiddle and Zeke Healy on resonator guitar, the gathering was one of a series of events designed to introduce the public to the site, which is not yet officially open for unsupervised exploration. It’s easy to see that liability for accidents would be a concern, as the trails from the road to the central site, from the ravine to the cave site and up to the rim with its spectacular views are all rough, narrow and traverse steep hillsides. KLT has already retained GPI/Greenman-Pedersen, Inc. to do engineering studies for the planned parking lot and access trail and Tahawus Trails, LLC to do trail design for the loop trail that will eventually take visitors up to enjoy the Rondout vistas.
The ravine itself is an impressive space, a steep-sided stone bowl dramatically lit by the late afternoon sun – “like a teeny Yosemite,” observed one visitor, Jerry Berke. With a flat floor and bright acoustics, it’s a post-industrial version of a natural amphitheater that could prove hospitable to concert series one day.
Many of Saturday’s visitors lent a hand to help pull invasive plants that have been taking advantage of the recent excavations. Of these, the most perilous is tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima), the favorite food of the spotted lanternfly; but bittersweet and barberry are also rampant. KLT steward Matt O’Neill said that restoration of sumac, a “more friendly” native shrub that occupies the same ecological niche as bittersweet, is one of the group’s goals for the site.
According to Shaheen, KLT is also considering the site’s potential for a “food forest” similar to the plantings at its property on Gross Street adjoining the Kingston Greenline trail. “In the months to come we’re going to think about what we want to plant in here – maybe hickory, fruit trees, native shrubs.” The alkaline pH of the limestone is favored by at least one regionally rare native species, purple cliffbrake fern, and the caves and former mines provide habitat to several species of bats threatened by whitenose disease. Native tree species include sycamores, sugar maples, Eastern red cedars and Chinquapin oak. On the day of the gathering, children were happily gathering ripe wineberries that grow in abundance at the bottom of the bowl, and wild columbine blooms along the rock walls in May.
The next public gathering at Red Fox Ravine will likely happen in the autumn, Shaheen said. But KLT’s first order of business is fundraising, so that parking lot construction and trail improvements can get underway as soon as possible. To contribute to the restoration and preservation effort, visit https://donorbox.org/protect-wilbur-uplands. For project updates, visit https://kingstonlandtrust.org/news or www.facebook.com/KingstonLandTrust.