Three Days on the Empire Trail
Exploring the Hudson Valley on two wheels
The Empire Trai is a multiuse trail system in New York State that incorporates bike paths, rail trails, and existing cycling routes into a 750 mile network. Following the new route, a traveler could pedal from the tip of Manhattan to the Canadian border or from Albany to Buffalo. The trail was officially completed in 2020. I had already ridden much of the western section with my mom and sister in 2009. A friend's wedding in Newburgh inspired me to plan a three day trip to bike from my hometown of Glens Falls to the wedding over the course of three days.
(I wrote a separate post here about planning and packing for this trip since only those whose geek streak runs similar to mine will be interested in such particulars.)
After much planning and anticipation, I was ready to roll out with Rashna cheering me on– or as much as one can do after only a quarter cup of coffee.
Day 1: Glens Falls to Nassau
My first day on the road felt different than my other trips because there was no driving, figuring out where to park, or packing up my bike after a long car ride. Instead, I stepped out my front door and rode out into my neighborhood. I didn't even bring a house key. The first 40 miles were on familiar roads and I had to remind myself that I was starting a three day trip and not a training ride.
Because the scenery was not new to me, I traveled more quickly here than I normally would and took few pictures. I had planned on a stop in Round Lake for a cup of coffee and a pastry at Leah's Cakery, only to realize they were closed for their summer vacation. Luckily, my stepdad Chris was home (and engaged in a bike-related project of his own) and let me snack there before taking on the rest of the day's route.
An irritating clicking noise bothered me during the entire ride to Round Lake and I was anxious to fix it lest it torment me for the next 180 miles. I was convinced that the sound was coming from the front of my bike, but I realized that my kickstand had become loose and was tapping against my frame. This was a reminder that bicycle acoustics are often puzzling, with unwanted sounds emanating from the least expected places.
With bolts newly tightened, bottles topped off, and bladder emptied, I rolled onto the Zim-Smith bike trail towards Mechanicville. From there, I pointed my bike south through Halfmoon and on to Waterford. I crossed a series of bridges connecting Waterford, Peebles Island, Van Schaick Island, and Green Island.
The bike path was well-maintained and well-signed through this section. As I entered the outskirts of Albany, the path widened to almost the width of a road and I started to see more walkers and bikers. After a short detour to check out the destroyer escort USS Slater, I rode over the Dunn Memorial Bridge into Rensselaer.
My route continued into East Greenbush and my energy started to flag. I lay down in the grass for a short rest and charged my bike computer. The hilliest section of the day lay ahead as I pedaled through East Schodack on to the small town of Nassau. I quickly found the Mexican restaurant I had been aiming for and ate an enormous burrito in the shade. The staff graciously filled my water bottles. I set out for my campground just as the dinner rush arrived.
After almost 90 miles of riding, the final (not insignificant) hill of the day felt especially punishing. I was thrilled to roll into Dingman's Family Campground where I soon enjoyed a hot shower in a surprisingly well-appointed camp bathroom. As I air-dried, I perfumed my feet with a walk through the acres of Thyme that was growing wild. There was only one other couple staying in the campground and they graciously invited me to join them at their campfire. John and Priscilla were locals on a staycation and they regaled me with stories of their glory days touring the country on their motorcycles. They also offered me fresh eggs for my breakfast from their small flock of chickens (they were planning to return home each day to collect eggs). After staying up later than I expected to, I returned to my tent and was sound asleep before 10 PM.
Day 2: Nassau to Rosendale
I was on the road before 8 AM and enjoyed a mostly downhill ride through several pleasant rural communities including North Chatham, Kinderhook, and Stockport. These 25 miles were some of the most peaceful of my trip with few cars and pleasantly wooded bike paths.
After a detour due to construction, I found my way into Hudson. I was surprised by the stunning views of the Catskill Mountains before I started the descent into town. The high school sports fields in particular had a spectacular panoramic backdrop. I had chosen Kitty's Market as a stopping place in advance because it was right on my route. Across the street from the Amtrak station, this combination grocery/café had an eclectic selection of provisions and baked goods. I tried a chocolate hazelnut babka that was really wonderful and read my book in the shade while I watched the travelers come and go.
The Empire Trail only traces the outskirts of Hudson and I was quickly riding out of town towards the Rip Van Winkle Bridge and the Olana State Historical Site. I rode up a grassy path to the top of one of the hills abutting the roadway and soaked in the mountain views.
The day was becoming hot and the next twenty miles were sweaty ones with rolling terrain punctuated by dives into valleys formed by creeks (with steep climbs on the opposite sides). Although this day had less overall climbing than my first day, this sort of terrain was actually more fatiguing because it was hard to keep my momentum. I found some relief from the sun in a park in Tivoli, where I sat at a picnic tree under a tree while my tent dried out. An exceptionally friendly squirrel was very interested in my Reese's cup but was ultimately disappointed.
The next few miles followed a bike path linking Tivoli to Bard College. I navigated the patchwork of paths and campus roads, emerging in a rural region with plentiful orchards and more views of the surrounding mountains. I soon crossed the Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge over the Hudson. Although the views were nice, this was a harrowing experience due to construction on the bridge's shoulder.
I had heard that the City of Kingston had recently made some efforts to improve their infrastructure with the goal of increasing safety for cyclists and pedestrians. I enjoyed the well-signed bike path adjacent to a busy city road but was confounded by how to make a right turn in order to continue my route. I ended up misunderstanding a green light from a special bike signal and made an unsafe turn. No harm was done, but I promised myself that I would look into the correct way to navigate a situation like this in the future. This was one time where I wished the Empire Trail had followed a different route through a less busy area.
Feeling a bit bedraggled, I pedaled into the town of Rosendale and located the campground I was planning to stay at. This campground had more of a shoestring feel to it compared to my immaculate (but mostly empty) accommodations the night before. Abandoned car parts and weathered RVs were scattered around a tiered camping area surrounded by forest and adorned with poison ivy vines. But the proprietor was friendly, promising to chase away any bears with his gun before directing me to a perfectly pleasant campsite. I had a hot shower and headed into Rosendale for dinner.
Rosendale turned out to be one of the most interesting towns I visited on this trip. Buildings were adorned with flower-themed murals. The short main street was home to a combination barber-locksmith, a stereo installation company, and an inviting library. I was aiming for the Rosendale Café which had patio seating nestled in a verdant vegetable garden. The menu offered a variety of vegetarian options and I savored a leisurely dinner capped off by a gigantic slice of vegan chocolate-peanut butter cake.
On my ride back to camp, I paused to enjoy the golden hour sunlight pouring onto Rosendale's teal bridge, its reflection painting the Rondout Creek an unnatural shade of aquamarine.
Day 3: Rosendale to Newburgh
An unpredicted 5 AM rain shower caught me unawares and I scrambled to cover my tent. I started my final day damper than usual, but I was unconcerned since more hot weather was predicted. After leaving Rosendale, I entered the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail for a quiet eight miles or so into the town of New Paltz. I chatted with a local mountain biker finishing his morning workout and stopped to look at one of several painted turtles that were meandering across the path.
Even though I had only ridden a few miles, I couldn't resist stopping at the Muddy Puddle Café in New Paltz, conveniently located next to the bike path.
The next ten miles or so were some of my favorite of this trip. The bike path transitioned from crushed gravel to dirt double-track to single-track. Sharp rocks made me grateful for my large tires although the path eventually became a smooth ribbon of dirt winding through low grass. I stopped frequently to enjoy views of the Shawangunk Mountains with their sheer cliffs (and once when a gnat flew into my eye). This section was not part of the Empire Trail network, which I had left a few miles back to travel in a more southernly direction.
The Wallkill Valley Rail Trail ended in Walden where an elaborate series of switchbacks discharged me onto a neighborhood street. My original plan had been to end my trip at Rashna's parent's home in Campbell Hall, but her father tested positive for COVID and Rashna booked an Airbnb for us in Newburgh instead. I decided to travel through the Stewart State Forest as planned but then to travel east instead of west, aiming for Newburgh. Before leaving Stewart State Forest, I took advantage of a quiet gravel road and some intense sunlight to dry out all my gear.
I can't recommend the improvised route I took into Newburgh. It was a white-knuckle ride on busy thoroughfares with tiny shoulders. Roadside garbage and a stretch of road abutting a vast series of cylindrical oil storage containers stood in contrast to the peaceful natural beauty I had enjoyed for most of my trip. But I arrived safely with plenty of time to unpack my gear and clean myself up before meeting Rashna.
I'm proud to live in a state that has taken on a project like the Empire Trail. Throughout my trip, it was obvious that residents found their local trails to be an asset. I saw small groups chatting on their morning walks and children biking without worrying about cars. Although I used a bike computer to navigate, I probably could have simply followed the Empire Trail signage for most of the route. I saw many historical markers and placards with facts about local history and flora/fauna. Road sections were mostly thoughtfully chosen and these had prominent signs for motorists indicating that bikes would be sharing the lane. As a car-less traveler, I gained a new appreciation for municipalities that invest in community resources like parks with clean public restrooms and working water fountains.
Where the trail entered busier areas, I was reminded how far we still have to go to make traveling by bicycle safe and appealing. Even where improved bike paths existed, there was often no barrier separating them from vehicle traffic, a measure proven to increase safety. My experience in Kingston was humbling. Thoughtfully designed bicycle infrastructure can take time to adapt to, even for (maybe especially for) an experienced cyclist who is used to riding in lanes with traffic in such settings. Seeing more cyclists is also an adjustment for motorists (many of us transform into angry, impatient, inattentive trolls when we get behind the wheel).
Overall, this was a great trip and the perfect balance of pastoral beauty and small-town charm (i.e., espresso drinks). I'm looking forward to exploring more of the Empire Trail in the future and even sharing some of my favorite stretches with friends and family.