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From the October 2011 Conservationist

A group of hikers on a trail in fall

Home Sweet Home on the Rensselaer Plateau

A discovery hike in my own backyard

By Fred DeMay

It was an absolutely beautiful day. The sky was clear; the air cool and crisp. Fall foliage was spectacular, providing a background palette of colors that has to be experienced in the northeast to be believed. The fifteen people wandering around the Dyken Pond Environmental Education Center parking lot were introducing themselves and anxiously awaiting the vans provided by Rensselaer County to take them to the starting point for the first north to south, two-day traverse hike of the Rensselaer Plateau, a 105,000-acre area of contiguous northern forest. We knew the place was unique, but didn't realize just how much it stood out as a region.

A map of the Rensselaer Plateau showing DEC, State and other recreation lands
The Rensselaer Plateau (Map: Josh
Houghton)

Like many others, I always associated long hikes and climbs with a trip to the Adirondacks or Catskills. I had always thought about the Plateau as an area with lots of interesting places to visit, but not as a large wilderness area. Yet the Rensselaer Plateau, about ten miles wide by thirty miles long, is home to the fifth largest forest in the state.

Part of the Plateau's rugged character lies in its unique geology. Pushed into its current location more than 400 million years ago, the Rensselaer Plateau eroded to form the present day escarpment that steeply rises to heights of 1,000 to 2,000 feet above the surrounding landscape. An extremely hard and erosion-resistant bedrock, called greywacke, is responsible for both the longevity and rugged topography of the Plateau. For us hikers, it meant two days of challenging terrain that gave few hints of being an ordinary "flat-top" plateau.

The idea for the hike began several months earlier with the Rensselaer Plateau Alliance (RPA), a grassroots organization established to promote the long-term health and vitality of the Plateau. During one of the first meetings I attended, Jim Bonesteel, President of RPA, announced that he and several other members were scouting routes for a traverse hike of the Plateau from Pittstown to Stephentown. The goal: to knit together all those interesting places to go, and to help people see the region as a whole.

Because there was no established trail across the entire region, Jim needed to map the route and obtain permission from the private landowners whose land we hoped to cross. The concept struck me as brilliant, because even though I have lived on the Plateau for decades and spent many a happy hour cycling, trail-running, cross-country skiing, fishing and exploring the area, the idea of hiking across the whole thing never occurred to me.

A group of hikers on a leaf-covered trail through the forest

We began our trek near Pittstown State Forest, making a two-mile march up the 800-foot plateau escarpment to Grafton Lakes State Park. Nick Conrad, President of the Rensselaer Land Trust, led the first section, taking us up an old logging trail that turned into a streambed I remembered from a mountain biking trip several years earlier. Our path followed along the western fringe of Grafton Lakes State Park, past Shaver Pond, south over Route 2, to the shores of Dunham Reservoir where we stopped for lunch.

While eating, we spoke with a couple of kayakers who were out for a leisurely meander around the lake, and I made a mental note to get my kayak up here soon. Hearing a loon's haunting call echo off the surrounding hills, talk turned to the birdlife found here. I learned that the Plateau is one of Audubon's Important Bird Areas because it supports a diversity of forest breeders, including many at-risk species such as Cooper's hawk, northern goshawk, red-shouldered hawk, wood thrush and Canada warbler.

Sitting by the reservoir, I discussed with one fellow hiker (a forester by profession) how the Plateau is essential to the forest industry, creating jobs and income while maintaining traditional land-use practices. He pointed out that with more than 80 percent of the Plateau privately owned, the sustainable forestry practiced today by many owners supports the forest industry, protects the environment, and helps make sure the woods on the Plateau stay as a forest. It's the stewardship of private forest owners and state forests, he observed, that defines this unique plateau as a working and protected landscape serving many needs and values.

After lunch, Rachel Riemann, a USFS forest economist, and Lisa Hoyt, Director of Dyken Pond Environmental Education Center, took over navigation duties and led us southeast through undulating northern hardwood forests and dense hemlock groves to the enchanted wetlands and elevated plank trails of the Dyken Pond Center, where we camped for the night. I checked my trusty GPS and saw we'd gone 11 miles. Sweet dreams campers!

In the morning, the aroma of wood smoke and fresh coffee drifted through the air as we stretched tight muscles, yawned and packed up for day two. Trail-master duties fell to Jim Bonesteel who had mapped the route and contacted landowners for permission. We were all appreciative and recognized that the hike would not be possible without landowners' support. Jim was a little anxious and wanted to hit the trail early since he had estimated the distance to be considerably more than what we covered the day before. Some hikers from day one had to leave, while several new folks joined us; overall we had 13 hikers and one dog.

The first few hours took us south out of Dyken Pond through rolling backcountry terrain that skirted wetlands, and then along beech and maple groves on the eastern edge of the popular Pineridge Cross Country Ski Area. Here we followed Old Cropsey Road and emerged onto Plank Road, which we followed east for a bit before turning south on an old logging road that ran through the former Cowee Forest Products' lands. For more than a century, this tract has been managed for lumber and forest products, and our visit let us see firsthand what a good example of traditional sustainable land use looked like.

It was in this area that we reached our highest elevation (a little more than 1,900 feet), saw abundant signs of recent moose activity, and crossed the remnants of the colonial era Albany-Boston road, now mostly reclaimed by the forest. The terrain certainly made me appreciate the challenges of travel 200 years ago!

A fire tower rises above the forest canopy
The recently restored Dickinson Fire
Tower, now maintained by Grafton Lakes
State Park, offers 360-degree views into
Vermont, Massachusetts, the Catskills
and the Adirondacks.
(Photo: James Clayton)

Our route took us from the Cowee tract into the Capital District Wildlife Management Area and Cherry Plain State Park, where there are miles of rugged trails for all-season activities, trout streams, waterfalls and a lake with camping facilities. We encountered challenging rock formations, numerous short, but steep rises and drops, occasional wetlands and constantly changing forest types. After 13 miles, we took a long break for lunch.

With only a few hours of daylight left, we decided to shorten the planned route, and set off past a wetland that fed the Black River (a headwater to Kinderhook Creek). Beyond Buckwheat Hill we stopped briefly to check out an incredible old stone foundation, then crossed some power line access trails and continued on to the southern portion of the Plateau around the shoulder of Turner Mountain. The final push took us down a steep decent on the southern wall before reaching the vans at Garfield Road, just as sunlight faltered. Twenty-two miles for the day!

All totaled, the trip was 33 miles long and had an elevation change (up and down) of about 3,000 feet; my body felt every step. As an Adirondack 46er, I'm used to epic hikes, and I can honestly say this ranks right up there.

I feel like this is a new find for me: a landscape and resource in my backyard that is not only beautiful and challenging to hike and explore, but also steeped in traditions of stewardship and history. What a treasure, and one I'm looking forward to exploring again.

A longtime resident of the Plateau, Fred DeMay is retired from the NYS Education Department.

Rensselaer Plateau Alliance logo

Note: The Rensselaer Plateau Alliance is a not-for-profit, grassroots organization with a diverse membership comprised of local individuals and groups. The organization was created in 2006 to better recognize the unique resource of the Plateau and work cooperatively with landowners and local governments for the conservation of its natural resources and traditional uses. With the help of a grant from the Hudson River Estuary Program, RPA is working with these stakeholders to develop a Regional Conservation Plan. To learn more, visit RPA's website.

Photo: Rensselaer Plateau Alliance