But the 212-feet-high former railroad trestle itself is just the keystone of a much larger plan to make the Highland/Poughkeepsie corridor the nucleus of a pedestrian paradise that will be able to occupy active vacationers for a stay of more than just a day or two. Walkway was just recently linked to an extension of the Hudson Valley Rail Trail (HVRT) via a pedestrian bridge over Commercial Avenue, and week by week, exciting, visible progress is being made to expand access to that hiking corridor.
There’s now a wheelchair-friendly ramp leading up to the sidewalk from WVRT, right where it passes under Route 9W in the Highland hamlet – although this requires a drop-off by auto, since there is no parking immediately nearby, except for a sort of ad-hoc spot off Tillson Avenue just south of the Atlas Motor Lodge. There are, however, several better alternatives for parking, depending on how far you want to walk. You can hike the entire length of the WVRT – a little under four miles – by parking at Tony Williams Park, off New Paltz Road not far beyond the point where it diverges from Route 299. The next-farthest designated parking area, at the Highland Rotary Pavilion, is located at about the halfway point of the trail, on New Paltz Road near the intersection with South Chodikee Lake Road. (Note that at present, construction has closed New Paltz Road to through traffic near the Pancake Hollow Road crossroads; so if you’re coming from New Paltz via 299, make your right at South Chodikee instead.)
Those seeking a shorter amble are in luck: A brand-new parking area has just opened in the hamlet on the west side of Commercial Avenue Extension, adjacent to the Rail Trail. But it’s a little tricky to find if you’re not a Highlander. Commercial Avenue, whose name changes to Phillips Avenue at the Grove Street intersection, is a shortcut linking New Paltz Road with Vineyard Avenue (Route 44/55), bypassing Main Street. On a Google Map, Commercial Avenue Extension is that thing that looks like an appendix sticking out from Commercial Avenue at the point where WVRT appears to dead-end.
Finally, you can leave your car right nearby the Walkway entrance to access WVRT from the east. There used to be just a small parking lot right at the entrance, with additional parking spaces lining Haviland Road; but a brand-spanking-new larger lot abutting the Rail Trail has just been opened to cars within the past couple of weeks, less than a quarter-mile westward along Haviland. Reportedly, the original lot right by the entrance will henceforth be reserved for handicapped access to the Walkway.
When additional connector paths are completed on the Poughkeepsie end of the Walkway – a process pending negotiations between Dutchess County and the CSX Transportation Corporation, which still owns key parcels of the right-of-way – you’ll be able to continue into the eastern wilds via the Dutchess Rail Trail. In the meantime, the more ambitious hiker or cyclist can already do a nice long double trans-Hudson loop: A half-mile walk along Haviland Road from the western Walkway entrance will lead you to the pedestrian lane that crosses the Mid-Hudson Bridge, in Johnson/Iorio Park, which also provides a small parking lot.
Just to the left of the beginning of that Mid-Hudson Bridge walkway is a stairway that leads down underneath the Bridge itself. Follow it a few hundred yards south and you’ll find yourself heading into Franny Reese State Park, named for the spunky, petite woman who spearheaded the triumphant campaign to save Storm King Mountain from being dynamited by Con Edison to build a power plant back in the 1960s. The court decision that settled that battle, known as the Scenic Hudson Decision, made history by establishing for the first time that ordinary citizens have standing in environmental lawsuits – a legal precedent that made possible some of the early triumphs of the movement like the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts.
This uphill Yellow Trail, improved in recent years by the Park’s stewards at Scenic Hudson, offers payoffs that reward the effort of a brisk climb. Bear right at the Blue Trail junction and, after a short series of switchbacks, you’ll come out onto an overlook boasting a bird’s-eye view down onto the Mid-Hudson Bridge and across to the Poughkeepsie waterfront. Or stay on the Yellow Trail a little further until it joins the White Trail; suddenly you’ll be in the midst of a cluster of ruins of a once-handsome manor house called Cedar Glen and its outbuildings.
Cedar Glen was built in the 19th century by a man named Charles H. Roberts – a poor farmer’s son who worked his way through medical school, then hit paydirt by pioneering “painless dentistry” in Poughkeepsie through the use of an anesthetic concoction of tannic acid, morphine and arsenic that killed off oral nerve endings. He invested successfully in railroads, paper mills and Western real estate, and used his newfound wealth to create a haven for his family on these bluffs overlooking the Hudson. Unfortunately, after his death, the estate quickly fell into disrepair.
But the scenic drives that Roberts built through the property remain accessible today as the White Trail loop, affording several spectacular Hudson River viewpoints and a stroll across a tiny stream just above the point where it plunges into a twisty ravine. Great picnic spots abound along this well-marked path. The entire trail network in Franny Reese State Park is less than four miles in length, passing through varied terrain and mostly open, parklike deciduous woodlands. It can be traversed in less than two hours by a reasonably fit hiker, but the frequent elevation changes make the walk a good workout.
Besides the trailhead in Johnson/Iorio Park, you can access the other end of the Yellow Trail from a tiny parking area at the spot where Mack’s Lane makes a sharp bend to the right, less than a quarter-mile from Route 9W. (It’s worth noting that neither way into Franny Reese State Park offers sanitary facilities of any kind, so plan your pit stop in advance; the Walkway entrance does have composting toilets, but no public water except for thirsty dogs.) Mack’s Lane is the road just south of the Highland hamlet that accesses the Wingate at Ulster nursing home; on the west side of 9W it becomes Chapel Hill Road, familiar to many New Paltz folks as the “back way” from Route 44/55 to 9W south of the Mid-Hudson Bridge.
And so the pieces are falling into place, one by one, for Highland to become a walkers’ destination to rival the Gunks or the Catskills. Why wait? You can download a map of Franny Reese State Park and its access points on the Scenic Hudson website at www.scenichudson.org/whatyoucando/visitourparks/frannyreese. The Wallkill Valley Rail Trail website at www.hudsonvalleyrailtrail.net/about is a little bit behind the times, and the trail map that it offers appears to depict a parking lot on Vineyard Avenue, which does not exist; but the site does offer some useful background and links. Also pay a visit to www.townoflloyd.com/pdf/cedarglen.robertsestate.pdf for more details about the history of Cedar Glen. Happy trails!