Exploring New York State’s magnificent 10-county Hudson Valley is a bit like that adage attributed to Nelson Mandela: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”
And that is how I’ve come to know this amazing part of the world: one “bite” at a time. My fascination with the Hudson Valley – which draws some 25 million visitors annually – started several years ago with a visit to Hyde Park in Dutchess County. This is where you’ll find many of the region’s “big ticket” attractions: the FDR Presidential Library and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s childhood home, Springwood; the Culinary Institute of America, and one of the famed Vanderbilt mansions. Dutchess County is also home to an amazing County Fair each August that draws half a million people over six days. It’s also where hundreds of people come to the popular Omega Institute, a holistic retreat for adults that’s set up a bit like a summer camp.
Taking annual summer trips to this fabulous part of New York State has been made easier and more fun through the discovery of an ideal “jumping off” point for our adventures: the charming community of Saugerties, on the west side of the Hudson River. The hometown of comedian Jimmy Fallon, this former milling town in Ulster County is an unpretentious place with an array of boutiques, shops, and some great restaurants. From the expansive, privately owned Inquiring Minds bookstore, complete with an impressive collection of vintage vinyl records; to the popular Alleyway Ice Cream – located in, yes, an alleyway, and named by EatThis.com as New York State’s best ice cream – there’s no shortage of things to experience right in town.
Home to nearly 20,000 people, Saugerties is also home to two of the Hudson Valley’s most spectacular sites: the 1869 Saugerties Lighthouse, which today houses a small B&B, and the amazing Opus 40, a mind-boggling environmental sculpture located on more than 14 acres of verdant landscape. Built over several decades by the late pioneering artist Harvey Fite, Opus 40 seems a shrine to nature itself, inspired by Mayan Ruins. There is even a nine-ton monolith that Fite – who died during an accident during his 37th year of working on the project – installed on his own. It’s a real “you have to see it to believe it” place.
The Hudson Valley — rising from the tip of Manhattan and running all the way to the state capital of Albany — is spread out on both sides of the mighty Hudson River, with towns and small cities that often seem frozen in time.
Staying in Saugerties has become, in recent years, our “go-to” place in the region – providing easy access to sights on both sides of the river and some of the best cultural, culinary and scenic experiences imaginable. A few highlights include:
• Woodstock, about a 15-minute drive from Saugerties, is a fun and funky little town filled with quirky boutiques and some great eateries. Since the pandemic, it has become more popular than ever – so best to set off in the morning before traffic becomes a problem. (Note that, despite its name, Woodstock is not the actual location of the famed 1969 music festival. That would be an hour’s drive west, to Bethel).
• The Ashokan Rail Trail. Open from sunrise to sunset year-round, this 11-mile recreational path runs along the scenic Ashokan Reservoir. The ADA-compliant rail trail is popular with everyone from dog walkers to bicyclists to runners, and offers some spectacular scenery by glistening water nestled amid the Catskill Mountains.
• Kaaterskill Falls, located in nearby Greene County, is one of the Catskill Mountains’ most famous sights and, at 260-feet, the tallest waterfall in New York State (nearly 100 feet taller than Niagara). This two-tiered waterfall has been the subject of countless paintings and photos dating back to the 1800s. It is a magnificent natural wonder, not to be missed. Be sure to stop along the way at the Circle W Market in Palenville. Housed in an original 1909 general store, this is a charmingly quirky combination café (with yummy breakfast and lunch offerings), gift shop and grocery store.
• The Hudson River School style of landscape painting – considered America’s first art movement (1820 – 1890) – has left its mark on the region. Check out Cedar Grove in the town of Catskill, former home of British-born painter Thomas Cole, founder of the movement. There you can tour his house and studio – as well as enjoy a stunning view of the mountains from the front porch. (One of Cole’s most famous paintings is his 1826 masterpiece, “Kaaterskill Falls” – which is depicted as looking virtually untouched today).
• The Walkway Over the Hudson, is a former railroad bridge that spans the river from the town of Highland (in Ulster County) on the west bank, to Poughkeepsie (in Dutchess County) on the east bank. Originally opened as a railroad bridge in 1899, it sat unused for decades, until it was renovated and reopened in 2009. It’s about a three-mile walk roundtrip, and dogs are welcome. On a clear day, there is no better place to get a sweeping, dramatic view of the Hudson River Valley.
• Heading south, into Orange County, check out The Storm King, a 500-acre world-renowned outdoor sculpture park and museum that provides visitors with a unique melding of art and nature. With more than 100 outdoor sculptures, the Storm King also offers bicycle rentals, tram tours and an open-air café.
• This a great part of the world to see by water: There’s a two-hour sightseeing cruise leaving from Kingston, the capital of Ulster County, offered by Hudson River Cruises, that runs through October. A bit further south, in Orange County, check out the Pride of the Hudson, which takes visitors for a two-hour ride through the majestic Hudson Highlands and goes around the famous Bannerman Island, which houses a now-empty home, built in 1901, and styled after a Scottish castle.
As you can see, there is an endless array of things to see and do in the Hudson Valley – especially in the summer months. To me, it’s a little slice heaven, here on earth.