“No bike trail parking” reads the sign, hand-painted in spindly letters on a red barn in pastoral North Chatham, New York. On a Tuesday morning, off a side street few would think to plant a car on, the Empire State Trail (EST) is quiet, save for the distant lowing of cows and a chestnut mare who lifts her head to snort at a passing jogger.
Measuring 750 miles, the EST, a T-shaped path linking New York City to the Adirondacks, and Albany to Buffalo, is the longest multi-use rail trail in the United States. It’s emblematic of the state’s push to encourage residents to get outdoors and improve their health. The trail also aims to reconnect communities, many in rural areas which have become increasingly isolated.
According to Andy Beers, director of the EST, the $200 million project—which secured another $93 million in grant funding after New York Governor Andrew Cuomo championed it in 2017—is “the single largest state investment in trails anywhere in the country.”
It’s also inextricably linked with rail history. Once the lifeblood of New York State, railroads drove economic and community growth through the Industrial era, mainly during the 1800s in the U.S. Following the proliferation of the automobile in the early 20th century, many railroads folded.
In 1920, New York State boasted 8,400 miles of railway. Today, only 3,500 miles remain. Of the numerous abandoned corridors, Beers says, “They’ve been sitting there, unpolished gems in the woods, for decades. Now there’s this great energy and enthusiasm for reclaiming and repurposing them.”
Enthusiasm spiked last year; the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy reported a 200 percent increase in national rail-trail usage early in the coronavirus pandemic. Since then, rates have consistently been 60 percent higher than in previous years.
The EST—four years in the building, and longer in the planning—was completed, fortuitously, in December 2020. A shrewd co-branding exercise, it stitches together 20 regional trails into a continuous, year-round corridor for walkers, cyclists, hikers, and cross-country skiers. Ten feet wide and gently graded, it’s also ADA compliant, a rarity in rural areas.
The trail is divided into three main segments, with the state capital, Albany, in the center. It sweeps through many of the state’s iconic landscapes, from the historic river towns of the Hudson Valley to the Catskill Mountains, the manicured cities of the Erie Canalway, and the shrouded old-growth forests of the Adirondacks. Trailheads and parking are well marked, some with signage detailing town history, and easily identified on the Empire State Trail website.
From east to west: The Erie Canalway Trail
At 350 miles, the Erie Canalway Trail is the EST’s longest segment. Starting in Buffalo, it follows portions of the original Erie Canal, which revolutionized life in 1800s America. Along this leg, riders and walkers encounter historic features like lift bridges and the Flight of Five locks, an engineering marvel constructed to heft boats over the Niagara Escarpment—the same rushing waterway that plunges 180 feet over a cliff at Niagara Falls.
The trail also passes 800-acre Genesee Valley Park in Rochester, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. Additionally, several sites significant to the Underground Railroad, which made extensive use of New York’s canal systems, are close to the route.
Just 300 feet from the trail in Albany, Nine Pin Cider was founded in 2013 by Alejandro del Peral. It’s the first cidery in New York since Prohibition and one of many players in the state’s robust craft beverage movement. Its tasting room seems ideally positioned to reap the economic benefits from some of the 8.6 million visitors projected to use the trail this year.
Del Peral believes the EST is good for more than just boosting his business. “It’s an exploration of the cultural centers of these small upstate New York towns that have all this history,” he says.
Points north: Champlain Valley Trail
Stellar Hudson River views headline as the EST heads north from Albany along the 10-mile Mohawk Hudson Bike-Hike Trail to Peebles Island State Park. Located at the confluence of the Hudson and Mohawk rivers, the park offers hiking with memorable water vistas.
From here, the EST parallels several towns that were strategic during the French and Indian and Revolutionary wars. The most famous: Ticonderoga, home of the star-shaped Fort Ticonderoga, captured by forces under Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold in 1775.
Nature enthusiasts will appreciate the changing ecology, from woodland to wetland and farmland. It’s prime habitat for wildlife including songbirds, bald eagles, barred owls, osprey, great blue herons, beavers, red and gray foxes, white-tailed deer, Eastern coyotes, and snapping turtles.
The trail continues, mostly on-road, hugging the craggy bases of several Adirondack peaks—awe-inspiring in any season, but especially fall. Near Keeseville, plan a stop at Ausable Chasm, the “Grand Canyon” of the Adirondacks. Here you can swim, hike, and paddle through a two-mile gorge sculpted during the last Ice Age.
River redux: Hudson Valley Greenway Trail
On the opposite end of the EST, the Hudson Valley Greenway Trail begins at The Battery Manhattan. Its middle winds east to west over the Hudson River, atop the Walkway spanning the Hudson in Poughkeepsie, and back again over the Kingston Rhinecliff Bridge. Once a powerhouse of industry and commerce, the region is now home to a rich local-foods scene, nearly 100 craft beverage producers, and a growing community of artisans.
Of the EST’s total budget, $45 million went toward the Albany Hudson Electric Trail (AHET). The 36-mile path is built along a defunct, early-1900s trolley line that transported 1.5 million riders per year to attractions like Electric Park—an early, long-shuttered amusement park with a Ferris wheel and vaudeville shows.
Ronald Rich is the president of Columbia Friends of the Electric Trail, one of several volunteer networks that maintain the regional corridors. For him, the trail is the most exciting development in the county in nearly 50 years.
“This reconnects communities,” Rich says. “It’s a profound opportunity for Columbia County to get some real economic advantages and tourism.”
The AHET meanders through a surprising range of landscapes. In the southern towns of Stockport and Stuyvesant, the trail wends along Claverack Creek, past a pair of waterfalls that formerly powered turn-of-the-20th-century mills and a hydroelectric plant.
As it crosses into Kinderhook—one of the oldest towns upstate and the birthplace of President Martin van Buren—the scenery changes, particularly for those who detour into Kinderhook Village. The town holds beautifully preserved Dutch, Victorian, and Federal architecture plus a handful of cafes and restaurants.
On the way back to the trail, at Rothermal Park, walkers and bikers find the Persons of Color Cemetery, established in 1816. Though only 15 headstones survive, it marks the burial ground of an estimated 500 Black Americans, both free and enslaved, and is now on the National Register of Historic Places.
From here, the trail traverses farm country in towns like Chatham and Nassau, before crossing into commercial hubs East Greenbush and Albany.
The EST is accessible even for those who don’t have a car. Twenty segments of it are close to Amtrak stations, and the national train system allows passengers to BYOB (bring your own bike). From those stops, travelers can set off on two wheels or two feet, sampling different towns along the way.
Deborah Gallant, who lives in Columbia County, has cycled several chunks of the EST. “I feel like there’s a bucket list item in there, where my husband drops me in Albany and I meet him in New York City in a day or two," she says. “It’s exciting to think there’s an opportunity, and it’s doable by a 60-year-old woman.”
Even after the COVID-19 crisis subsides, Beers believes there will be demand for the type of safe outdoor experience the EST provides. “Two or three years from now, hopefully the pandemic is in the rearview mirror,” he says. “But I think people who have gotten out there [will have] realized what a great asset these trails are.”