Some of the bearings that permit the handlebars of David's bike to turn fell out when the "head set" holding them broke. This happened on a prior bike ride in the Bloomingdale Bog, and it became nearly impossible to turn the handlebars. When we got to our campground in Saugerties, New York, we found a local bike repair shop that was able to replace the missing bearings and repair the head set. We were so excited that we looked around for a trail to pedal and found the Ashokan Rail Trail, only a few miles away. It is named after the Ashokan Reservoir, along whose northern shore it runs. "Ashokan" means “place of fish” in the language of the Esopus people, a local indigenous group associated with the larger Lenape population that lived in the region.
The Ashokan Rail Trail was designed and constructed by New York's Ulster County. It was partially opened to the public in late 2019. It is wide for a rail trail -- 12 feet -- with a compacted crushed stone surface. It is 11.5 miles long, running east-west between West Hurley and Boiceville. Proposed in 2012 by Ulster County, the Trail was designed as a world-class public recreational trail providing unique public access to the incredibly scenic northern shores of the Ashokan Reservoir, the first without special permit since Ashokan Reservoir was constructed more than a century ago. It was constructed along the former Ulster & Delaware (“U&D”) Railroad Corridor, which was abandoned in 1977.
We found the eastern end of the trail, which starts, almost as an afterthought, at the end of a railroad bridge. The sign on the gate says, appropriately enough, "End of the Ashokan Rail Trail." However, for us it was just the beginning.
Before reaching Ashokan Reservoir itself, the trail runs above and through a beautiful wetland:
Posted along the trail are mile markers which, we understand, were markers for the original line of the Ulster & Delaware Railroad. Even though the tracks in the bed of the trail have been removed, some tracks of spurs and sidetracks still remain:
The U&D was often advertised as "The Only All-Rail Route to the Catskill Mountains." At its greatest extent, the U&D extended 107 miles from Kingston Point on the Hudson River through the Catskill Mountains to its western terminus at Oneonta. The U&D's peak year came in 1913, with 676,000 passengers carried up into the Catskills plus substantial amounts of freight. By the 1929 Depression, most of the passenger traffic had been lost to private cars, and trucks had taken most of the freight business. It was acquired by the New York Central Railroad in 1932. In the early 1950s, it ran one morning train a day except Sundays, westward from Kingston to Phoenicia and Oneonta, and one afternoon train in the east-bound direction from Oneonta back to Kingston. Passenger service on the route ended in 1954.
Within a couple miles, we started out across Glenford Dike, which was completed in 1912 as part of the Ashokan Reservoir project. It is 2,850 feet long, 36 feet wide and 60 feet high, and extends 30 feet underground to bedrock. Before the U&D ceased operations, its tracks ran along this dike where the bike path presently lies, those tracks having been relocated from the Ashokan Valley when the Reservoir was built.
The Ashokan Reservoir is one of several in the region created to provide the City of New York with water. It is the city's deepest reservoir at 190 feet, and was completed in 1915 by impounding Esopus Creek. The impoundment covered 12 communities located in a valley where farming, logging, and quarrying prevailed. Approximately 2,000 residents, along with roads, homes, shops, farms, churches, and mills, were either moved or abandoned, but most of them were torn down. Some relocated communities survive along the reservoir's banks, such as West Shokan, Olivebridge, Ashokan and Shokan. Most, however, such as Brown's Station, are remembered in historical markers along routes 28 and 28A.
At full capacity, the reservoir can hold 122.9 billion gallons of water, and has a 255-square-mile drainage basin, while occupying 8,315 acres itself. Because boats and other recreational activities are strictly limited or completely prohibited on the reservoir lake, and development is not permitted on its shores, it has a pristine look and has been slowly maturing into a complete, wild ecosystem. Today, it had a serene beauty as we looked out over it from the dike:
Once we crossed the dike, we entered a long, green tunnel, shaded from the warm summer sun and hence cooler and friendlier to us as we pedaled. Already, though, Autumn leaves and colors are creeping in. We tried to imagine how breathtaking the colors will be in a couple weeks, and we're sorry we will miss the show:
The trail cuts through (literally, because the construction of the railroad had to blast and cut through these Devonian ledges):
The sandstone ledges and cliffs are soft enough to erode and crack. Plants, including trees, have found openings and appear to spring directly from the rock itself:
In constructing the rail trail, the planners needed to replace several railroad trestles that had been washed away or otherwise failed or were in danger of failing. The newly constructed bridges, primarily of wood, attractively complement the setting of the trail:
One tunnel cuts under Reservoir Road, which crosses the reservoir near its mid-section from Highway 28 on the northern shore to Highway 28A on the southern shore. Follow Reservoir Road south, and you will reach the Ashokan Center (more on that later). Here, Kathy stops in the tunnel to inspect the new construction:
A sign at the tunnel enjoins cyclists and hikers from yelling in the tunnel because it disturbs local residents. We must confess that we didn't think of yelling (there is a magnificent echo in the tunnel) until we read the sign. We did, however, note, in very loud, echo-y voices, that we would never think of yelling in the tunnel.
Shortly after crossing under Reservoir Road, we crossed Butternut Creek:
In this location, a concrete culvert carried the U&D Railroad over Butternut Creek. The structure collapsed in the 1980s. As part of the Ashokan Rail Trail project, a new truss bridge was built over the creek. Removal of the culvert “daylighted” the natural stream bed, restoring habitat for fish and other aquatic organisms. Rainbow and brown trout move between Ashokan Reservoir and creeks that feed it.
At the western end, where we turned around, we were treated to a grand view of the Catskills to the south and west. We could make out Mounts Wittenberg, Cornell and Slide, where we had backpacked perhaps 20 years ago:
Turning our bikes eastward and back toward our trailhead 10 miles away, we couldn't help thinking that we would miss this place. And that made us think of the beautiful tune by Jay Ungar, "Ashokan Farewell,"
which was adopted as the theme song to Ken Burns' documentary on the Civil War. Ungar wrote the piece in 1982, long before the documentary was filmed, to serve as a goodnight or farewell waltz at the annual Ashokan Fiddle & Dance Camps run by Ungar and his wife Molly Mason, who gave the tune its name, at what is now the Ashokan Center located south of the Ashokan Reservoir. Ungar described the song as coming out of "a sense of loss and longing" after the annual Ashokan Music & Dance Camps ended; but, to us, it also called to mind the loss of so many communities, such as Ashokan, which were flooded when the Reservoir was constructed.