For my independent field trip I took a bike ride on the Dutchess County Rail Trail. Rail trails are popular public spaces across the country and across the world that take old or abandoned railway lines and turn them into multi-use paths for walking, bicycling and more. Since railway lines are for the most part mostly flat paths that have already been established through what might be heavily developed areas in the present moment, converting them to paved or packed-earth paths results in easy-to-use and accessible trails. The Dutchess County Rail Trail replaced Conrail’s Maybrook Line, extending from the former Hopewell Junction train depot to the Poughkeepsie entrance to the Walkway Over the Hudson (and extending the length of the trail into the town of Lloyd in Ulster County). It was built in 5 phases beginning in July 2007, culminating in the final link to the Walkway in 2013, and stretches for a total of 13 miles. I began my bike ride at Vassar, making my way over to the Overocker Road Trailhead through campus and across Route 55. Crossing the big roads was slightly stressful, but turning onto the trail brought a relative degree of serenity. I decided to head south towards Hopewell Junction, and thus began my journey.
The trailhead I entered at was definitely accessible, with a decent-size parking lot right by a main road. In general, I felt as though almost all sections I rode on were pretty accessible to residents of the area. Given that the path used to be a train track itself, there weren’t a ton of easy connections to mass transit, but the Walkway Over the Hudson was likely the most accessible entrance point for someone coming from out of town without a car (more on the Walkway later). One big plus for the Rail Trail and its accessibility is that it’s free to use, and you don’t even have to register or check in with anyone: you just hop on and start going. This was definitely reflected in the makeup of people using the trail, which was very diverse as far as I could tell. There were high-intensity bikers with full cycling outfits and expensive bikes next to people walking their dogs or just going for an afternoon jog; I saw one man with roller blades, a hockey stick, and a street hockey puck who was presumably training for the colder months. The ride was really beautiful; even though it wasn’t “peak” leaf season the leaves had definitely started to turn, and those trees that hadn’t were still lovely themselves.
One thing that definitely stood out to me was the variety of different environments and aesthetic backdrops that the trail takes you through. One minute you could be biking through a shady forest or past a scenic pond, and the next you could be biking over a bustling highway or past a lot full of rusting cars. All of this simply added to the trail’s charm, and it was honestly a lot of fun to ride through so many different spots. The rail trail definitely has an interesting relationship to the Dutchess economy. It’s a non-profit venture that is primarily for leisure and recreation, mostly void of overt commercial activity. However, the trail is definitely an attraction for both Dutchess County residents and outside visitors, presumably driving some additional economic activity to the area. After reaching the super-cute Hopewell Junction depot with its old train cars, I turned around and retraced my steps up past Overocker trailhead and to the Walkway Over the Hudson, soaking in the sights for a second time.
The rail trail is uniquely and, I think, beneficially situated in the Dutchess County landscape. Like most train lines, it’s mostly hidden from public view, but it is its own scenic destination and allows for quick travel through the county and its various environs in a singular way. The connection to the Walkway Over the Hudson is another definite benefit, as the Walkway is a really cool place to visit in and of itself. The views speak for themselves, but it’s also interesting to note how the entire feel of the trail changes as soon as one hits the Walkway. Especially on weekend days, the trail is immediately far more crowded, and bikes are required to slow down (for good reason). The makeup of users also changes, with a lot more casual walkers and joggers (many of whom likely traveled by car or train directly to the Walkway with no intention of using the rest of the trail). I crossed the river and traveled to the end of the Trail in Lloyd before turning around and heading back to campus. All in all, it was a wonderful bike ride that allowed me to see a lot of new places and experience Dutchess County in a novel way, all while getting some exercise!
(the blog won’t let me put any more photos on, but here’s a link to a folder with some pictures from the ride!)