Come late September into early October, even the most ordinary journey around the Hudson Valley and/or Catskills becomes a visual feast. The crisp fall air and the slanting gold light of autumn washing the reds and oranges of the leaves are especially breathtaking and poignant. Having shaded us and given us the very air we breathe all through summertime, the trees amaze us with a last glorious gift before resting.
The leaves in any given locality take about two weeks to complete the cycle from green to fallen. Naturally, the various high peaks and the north end of the valley come first. Trees atop the Catskills can be fully shed while the Westchester riverbanks are still lush with green. The peak colors in any given spot last for three or four days. To help you time a leaf-peeping mission perfectly, the nice people at iloveny.com issue a foliage report each Wednesday.
Check the weather forecast too, but remember that overcast skies make a glorious backdrop for fall colors.
Layers are a good idea; an outfit just warm enough in the morning will probably roast you like a turkey by 2pm, although you’ll be again glad of that fleece jacket come evening. And do plan your journey to include either early morning or late afternoon. The golden light of what photographers call the “magic hours” does wonderful things to all those reds and golds. Finally, bring the camera; a wide-angle lens is nice, but there are other techniques that can help you get good foliage shots, and pro photographers share them generously on the Internet.
Three great foliage rambles
for eager peepers:
· The Shawangunk Loop
· Heart of the Cats
· Peep the Mighty River
The Shawangunk Loop.
From New Paltz (New York State Thruway exit 18) head west on Route 299. Once you’re past the village, you’ll be driving straight into a stunning backdrop of forested mountainside, set off by the gray of the rock faces. At the end of Route 299, take a right onto Route 44/55, and head up the mountain.
You may want to schedule a stop at the Mohonk Preserve Visitors Center, where you can learn about the unique ecosystem you’re about to be immersed in. Look for it on the right, just as the road begins to climb. After the hairpin turn, you’ll shortly come to scenic overlook parking where you can stop and admire the Wallkill Valley spread beneath you like a gorgeous quilt.
Leaving the overlook, you pass under a footbridge and are now engulfed in the Gunks. Lucky you! You may well feel the urge to get out of your vehicle and immerse yourself even further, and this is highly recommended. Mohonk Preserve will sell you a hiker’s day pass for $12 at the aforementioned visitor’s center or any of the staffed trailheads. After a few more swooping curves, you’ll see the entrance to Minnewaska State Park on your left. For $8 a car, you can drive in and up to a parking lot overlooking a gem of a lake; the hike around it takes about an hour and is replete with stunning viewsheds.
As the serpentine drive through the mountains concludes, you’ll find yourself at yet another spectacular scenic overlook (actually, there are two parking areas available) revealing the glories of the Rondout Valley with the Catskills as a backdrop to the northwest.
Continue down the mountain until you reach Route 209 in about ten minutes. You are now in the middle of some of the best farm country anywhere, and it’s harvest season. Congratulations! Consider an apple- or pumpkin-picking stop, or just visit a farm stand for a good coffee and something freshly baked. The website of the Rondout Valley Growers Association offers a user-friendly guide to the local agricultural scene.
Making a right on 209, you’ll be headed north through lightly developed farm country with the mountains to your right. To maximize your leafy rural bliss, we suggest keeping a sharp eye out for Lucas Avenue—it will be on your right—a secondary road that runs deep through the farmlands and brings you out on Route 213 just west of High Falls. You can also stay on 209 and access 213 at a traffic light right before you come into the postcard-pretty hamlet of Stone Ridge.
Either way, heading east on 213 will take you through High Falls and onward to Rosendale. Nearing the town, you’ll be traveling along the Rondout Creek through a series of sinuous curves. Just before you run out of curves, the road passes under a railroad trestle; immediately before the trestle, take a left up the hill on Binnewater Road. One-quarter mile in, you’ll find a parking area and a trailhead where you can get out onto the trestle.
Rosendale's trestle is a stop well worth making.
Soaring 150 feet above the creek, the 950-foot-long trestle is the most spectacular feature of a lovely rail trail. For leaf peeping purposes, it’s hard to choose a favorite between the western view upstream into the countryside or the eastern vista, with the steeple of St. Peter’s church and the sweet little creek-hugging hamlet spread before you.
That little hamlet, on whose Main Street you will be once you continue your eastward trek on 213, offers eats and drinks, unique shops and galleries, and a movie theatre. Watch carefully on the left-hand side of the road, and you’ll see a sign for the municipal parking.
At the east end of Rosendale’s Main Street, you can make a right onto Route 32 and in fifteen minutes you’ll be back in New Paltz—another great place to stop, shop, nosh or just meander a bit.
Heart of the Cats.
Route 28 slices through the Catskill Mountains from Kingston to Oneonta and offers yet another set of splendid swaths of foliage interspersed with quirky places to stop and enjoy.
Thruway exit 19 spits you out onto a traffic circle on the western fringe of the city of Kingston. Immediately, you’ll see the exit to Route 28 west. The highway is four lanes for the first few miles, but don’t get tempted to speed up; the sign says 45mph, and they mean it.
Two miles west of Kingston, you’ll see the intersection with Route 28A on your left. This is a 20-mile loop that mostly follows the shoreline of the Ashokan Reservoir, the mainstay of New York City’s water supply, and brings you back out onto 28. Consider taking this loop, either on your way up into the hills or on your way back; it leads through deep, enchanted forest, and there’s a place where you can park and take a walk along the spillway between the reservoir’s two halves, a spectacular spot to enjoy the interplay between colorful foliage and water.
Along both 28 and 28A you will notice slightly eerie historic markers for lost towns. “Former Site of the Town of Olive,” is just one example. The towns in question were more or less forcibly relocated in the early 20th century to make way for the reservoir.
28A rejoins 28 at Boiceville. Continue north. You are in leaf-peeper heaven as 28 crosses and re-crosses the Esopus Creek, winding deeper and deeper into the hills. You’ll come to Mt. Tremper, home of the world’s largest kaleidoscope, and shortly after that you’ll see signs for Phoenicia, a terrific spot to stop and grab a bite, stretch a bit, or shop for Catskills souvenirs.
Back onto the road, you’ll soon come to a worthwhile scenic overlook on the right. Shortly after that, you’ll arrive in Big Indian, named after a legendary Native American of enormous size and strength. The original Big Indian was shot, supposedly for sheep thieving, but more likely because he rescued his European-American love Gertrude from the abusive piece o’ work her family wanted her to marry. Either way, you’ll see a statue intended to commemorate him beside the Big Indian post office.
North of Big Indian, the road slopes into a long, steady climb. You’re approaching Highmount, the northernmost tip of Ulster County and the location of Belleayre Mountain, a not-for-profit ski center that hosts events and festivals in the off season. There are nice hiking trails of all difficulty levels, whether you want a relaxing stroll or a high peaks adventure.
One of the most spectacular views of the entire journey awaits as you crest Highmount and begin the descent into Delaware County with the central Catskills opening before you. Soon you’ll see signs for Margaretville, another nifty and historic little Catskill town worth exploring. On Margaretville’s website, you’ll find directions for a self-guided walking tour.
Heading back down 28, take a left as though you were headed back into Phoenicia, but stay on Route 214 as it winds up the mountainside. You’ll pass charming funky properties in the hamlet of Chichester as you climb and traverse the Phoenicia Wild Forest between Hunter and Indian Head mountains.
After you’ve crested the mountain and descended a ways, make a right onto Route 23A. Views are spectacular. You’re entering one of the most spectacular areas in all of the Catskills, the Kaaterskill Clove. Kaaterskill Falls was originally created just to mess with Rip Van Winkle’s mind after he awoke. Well, not really. It’s part of a post-glacial ravine, but Washington Irving imagined it that way. Stop in at the trailhead marker and walk to the falls; you’ll see why one Hudson River School painter after another rendered this stunning spot. Cautionary note: Don’t go beyond the end of the trail. Erosion makes it an extremely dangerous hike past there, even for the experienced. But what you’ll see is plenty lovely enough.
Driving down 23A, you’re traversing some of the most dramatic and fascinating terrain anywhere in the Catskills. Devil’s Kitchen, they call it, and intrepid mountain bikers will tell you they don’t lie. You will be bombarded by a succession of gasp-out-loud gorgeous sights.
At Palenville, you can turn right onto 32A, which will take you back out to 32 and comparative civilization. Your next town will be Saugerties, a great place to stop, stretch, eat, drink, antique, and generally make merry.
Peep the Mighty River.
Hudson River viewsheds are glorious in leaf season, and from Route 9 in Dutchess County you will find many opportunities to enjoy the views once coveted and inhabited by the rich and powerful, now open to the public for free. These are homes built by folks who could have built homes anywhere in the world. These are the places they chose, and you’ll see why.
First, though, take some time to explore Walkway Over the Hudson in Poughkeepsie. The Walkway has swiftly become a premier leaf peeper destination and for good reason. There’s no better place from which to marvel at our mighty river, dressed in her autumn glad rags.
In Hyde Park, visit the Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site. You can take a guided tour or just enjoy the grounds, which are free and open every day. Frederic Vanderbilt loved trees and formal Italianate gardens, and looking out at a colorful swath of the Hudson and Catskills from among them will make you feel like a million. Or maybe a billion.
Hyde Park is also where you’ll find Springwood, more familiarly known as the Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site, also offering guided tours and free access to gardens and grounds with stunning river views and picnic potential.
In nearby Red Hook, you’ll find the glories of Poets’ Walk, a two-mile trail through artfully executed stunning landscape, an inspiration to the greats. Legend has it that the view of the Catskills from here inspired “Rip Van Winkle.” The park is open from 8:30am till 7:30pm through October 31.
From any of these spots, you’re within convenient reach (and a pretty drive) of the town of Rhinebeck, where you can feast, drink, shop and enjoy hospitality as brilliant as the very leaves themselves.
Check Out I Love New York's
Fall Foliage Report Here