If you are looking for one of the most glorious 10- to 20-mile bike rides you can do in the Hudson Valley, look no further than the Ashokan Rail Trail. This trail was recently opened in the fall of 2019 and is one of the region’s newest and best constructed trail facilities. While the trail is unpaved, the surface is a smooth crushed stone that is suitable for most bikes. The trail is also very wide, ranging from 10 to 12 feet in width, which is a lot wider than most bike paths in our region. The result is a beautiful trail experience that feels uncrowded. It’s also a great trail to do over a weekend when you combine it with our Catskill Scenic Trail bike tour.
Perhaps the best part of the Ashokan Rail Trail is its views of the Ashokan Reservoir. The Ashokan is one of the largest reservoirs in the NYC water supply system. However, access to the water is very limited, with only a few roads and pathways going up to the water’s edge. This trail has several stunning viewpoints of the reservoir, often with the Catskill Mountains in the background. There are many places to stop and enjoy the view. In between the lakeside viewpoints, the trail is mostly shaded by surrounding woods. This makes the Ashokan Rail Trail a nice place to ride in summer. And of course in autumn, the trail is an explosion of fall color!
The Ashokan Rail Trail has a very good website that explains all aspects of the trail along with providing a map of the trail. The map is very useful in guiding you towards the three parking lots along the trail, which runs east to west. The Boiceville Bridge Trailhead parking is at the west end while the Woodstock Dike Trailhead is at the east end. Both trailheads have scenic viewpoints near them and all parking lots have portable toilets. A third parking lot is located in the center of the trail in Shokan. When you park, be aware that some of the spaces in the lot are reserved for anglers. Many of the creeks which feed the Ashokan Reservoir, including the Esopus Creek, have excellent fishing. All parking lots have excellent signage directing you to them from NYS Route 28, which is the main corridor route through this part of the Catskills, connecting Kingston to Belleayre.
Despite its rural location, the Ashokan Rail Trail is also served by public transit, since the trail follows the general alignment of Route 28. Ulster County Area Transit Route Z provides this service, and the bus has bike racks for you to use. In addition, you can also take Pine Hill/Adirondack Trailways buses to this trail on any route that travels down Route 28. However, you would need to put your bicycle in some kind of box to do this.
If you aren’t lured to the Ashokan Rail Trail simply for its magnificent views or great riding conditions, the fascinating history of this area is another reason to visit. The trail is built on top of the rail alignment for the Ulster and Delaware Railroad. This railroad, which initially began construction in the 1820’s with the intention of connecting the Delaware and Hudson Canal in Kingston with Oswego along Lake Ontario, was ultimately scaled back to travel between Kingston and Oneonta. As the only railroad that went entirely through the Catskills, the Ulster and Delaware played a crucial role in transporting agricultural products, timber, bluestone and coal. It also offered robust passenger service for tourists vacationing in the Catskill Mountains. While the final train ran in 1976, there are still portions of the line that are used by scenic railroads, such as the Catskill Mountain Railroad which operates in Kingston, and the Delaware & Ulster Railroad which operates in Arkville. The Trolley Museum of New York also maintains and operates trains on the easternmost portion of the line along the Kingston waterfront. In between where these railroads operate, there are sections of the railroad that have been converted into bike paths, such as the Ashokan Rail Trail, the Catskill Scenic Trail and the Kingston Greenline. The Catskill Rail Explorers also offers unique pedal-powered rail cars on a section of track as well. Along most of the line you can still see many railroad artifacts as well as some station buildings which have either been abandoned or repurposed, such as the Empire State Railway Museum.
In addition to railroad history, the Ashokan Rail Trail also offers insight into the history and construction of the Ashokan Reservoir, which was constructed between 1907 and 1915, and displaced twelve communities containing 2,000 residents. While some of these communities were relocated to upland locations, you can still see the foundations of some of the buildings from the original communities in the reservoir when the water levels are low.
The Ashokan Rail Trail has several interpretive panels along the length of the trail that tells the history of both the railroad, the reservoir and the surrounding area. You can view the panels before you make your trip on the website.