Just across the Hudson River from bustling Albany, Rensselaer County is a dream for hikers, cyclists, artists, nature-lovers, and locavores. Ten wonderful walking trails in Rensselaer County await you, just minutes away from the cities!
Driving east from Albany or Troy, you’ll soon start to notice the hills, and eventually your ears might pop. That’s due to the Rensselaer Plateau, a higher-elevation forested region with features that you might expect only in the Adirondacks. Spruce-fir forests, bogs and lakes, rare plants and animals, and sparkling streams soothe the senses.
Fall in Love with Rensselaer County
Looking for walking trails in Rensselaer county? Fortunately, community-led groups like the Rensselaer Plateau Alliance and Rensselaer Land Trust have conserved many special places in the county and built trails for all to enjoy.
And it’s not only the forests that will make you fall in love with Rensselaer County. Small towns, family farms, art centers, and good food will pull you in, too. Whether you’re a bird nerd, a weekend hiker, or a creative person looking for space to think and feel, come on out and explore.
I asked the volunteers, young parents, and activists—those who know our local trails best—for their favorite walking trails in Rensselaer County.
Seasonal tips: Winter: dress in layers and avoid cotton; wear boots with good tread and consider microspikes, yaktrax, or ski poles. Spring, summer, fall: protect yourself from ticks. Fall/hunting season: wear orange and stay on the trail.
*Follow the hyperlinks for each preserve for trail maps.
Barberville Falls Preserve, Rensselaer Plateau Alliance (RPA)
Rensselaer County’s iconic waterfall, Best meditation spot
Few spots in Rensselaer County are as breathtaking as the 92-foot waterfall at Barberville Falls Preserve. As the centerpiece of a 140-acre pristine forest preserve, the Poesten Kill creek drops 92 feet into a gorge and tumbles down a striking rock face. At the base of the waterfall is a large pool that feeds back into the creek. In winter, you can marvel at the ice and how it sparkles in the sun. In the summer, find your perfect spot for meditation, painting, photography, or just basking on one of the large boulders along the creek.
To reach the waterfall, take the short but steep Falls Trail from the parking area on Blue Factory Rd. If you visit in winter, be sure to have sturdy footwear with good traction (microspikes or ski poles are a plus!) as you climb down a staircase made of wood from the surrounding forest and follow the winding trail down to the falls.
Tips: For a memorable Rensselaer Plateau experience, combine Barberville Falls with RPA’s Poestenkill Community Forest, just about four miles up the road.
Hungry after your hike? Visit downtown Averill Park and stop at Young’s Pharmacy and General Store for homemade soup or sandwiches from Paula’s Country Kitchen and go home with a 4-pack of Nine Pin Cider. For a hearty dinner, Towne Tavern has a lively vibe and a full menu of burgers, pizza, pasta, and delicious vegetarian options, plus 20 beers on draft.
Valley View and Vulture’s View Trail loop
Grafton Forest, Rensselaer Plateau Alliance (RPA)
Ecological gem, Sunset views, Photographer’s choice
Sophie, a young climate activist, recommends hiking up to the rocky overlooks on Valley View Trail and Vulture’s View Trail at Grafton Forest just before sunset. The views to the west are stunning, with the Tomhannock Reservoir—a.k.a. Troy’s drinking water source— in the foreground and the Adirondack and Green Mountains beyond. From Vulture’s View, you can loop back on Whoop-de do Trail, or hike to a third overlook on Rynard’s Roost Trail. “I love the diversity of wildlife and plants at Grafton Forest,” Sophie says. Lichens, rare mosses and plants, and animals like bobcat and moose, make this place extra special and sensitive. Stay on trail as you soak in the beauty of this ecological gem. Photographers, bring your camera.
Getting there is the challenge but just requires an awareness of conditions. The town road leading to the parking area is not graded and is not plowed in winter. When there’s snow, 4-wheel drive with good clearance is required. In warmer months, drive slowly to avoid potholes.
Tips: Before or after your hike, pick up some local food while supporting a family farm at the Laughing Earth Farm self-serve farm store. Annie and Zack Metzger keep it stocked with meats, eggs, milk, some veggies, honey, maple syrup, and a few crafty items like local handmade soap. Open seven days a week, daylight hours.
Dickinson Hill Fire Tower Trail
Grafton Lakes State Park, park at end of Long Pond Road
360° view, Most impressive views
“Fire Tower Trail is one of my favorites and great for families,” says Dick Gibbs, mountain biker and forest conservationist. “We’ve taken our grandkids on this trail since they were toddlers and they still love it.” Dick was a force behind restoring the fire tower over a decade ago. Thanks to him, you can now climb the tower to get a 360° view of the Rensselaer Plateau and Taconic Mountains, and the Adirondacks to the north and west.
Getting there: Don’t enter the main Park entrance. Instead, take North Long Pond Road from route 2. Drive to the end of Long Pond Road to the parking area. After parking, backtrack on foot down Long Pond Road to the historic Fire Tower Road on your left. Hike up Fire Tower Road for a little over a mile (steep and rough, but worth it!) to the service road gate on your right. If you choose to climb the 60-ft fire tower, you’ll be rewarded with one of the best views in Rensselaer County.
Tips: Combine your trip with a visit to the Grafton Peace Pagoda—one of seven in the world! It’s a Japanese Buddhist temple built on Mohican sacred land. The grounds are open from sunrise to sunset, every day, year-round. (note: Due to Covid, the temple and bathrooms are closed.)
Extra info to use if interesting: Along the way up Fire Tower Road, look for info kiosks that honor Grafton native Helen Ellett, who, in the 1940’s, was one of the 1st female fire tower observers in New York.
Bloomingdale Brook Waterfall Loop Trail
Rensselaer Tech Park, Closest to Albany and Troy
Waterfalls, easy loop, public transportation
If water is your happy place and time is of the essence, try this short and lovely loop hike that’s close to Troy and Albany. You’ll see a beautiful waterfall and cross two bridges over the brook. “It’s a great short hike for kids or people just starting to discover the wonders and peace of the outdoors,” says Tanja, an RPA volunteer who hikes with her daughters, husband, and three dogs. “In the summer, it’s quiet and the waterfall trickle is calming. In winter, with the leaves down, the traffic of 90 and 787 and the train are present, but I still enjoy a quick dog walk on the loop.” Budding botanists, be sure to visit in early spring when you can see ephemeral wildflowers such as blood root, trout lily, and mayapple, in bloom.
To get there, drive into the Tech Park as far as the WMHT building, then left to the trailhead parking. Or, take CDTA bus #224—it stops right outside the Tech Park.
Dorothy’s Equal Access Trail
Most accessible, Mixed use, ADA-compliant accessible trail
“We love hiking at the Rensselaer Plateau Alliance’s Poestenkill Community Forest, and especially appreciate this new mixed-use trail,” August, a new dad, says. “With our young family – we had twins in March 2020 – getting outside is more important to us ever. We strap the kids on our backs when we can all hike together. When it’s just one of us we can put them in the stroller and walk Dorothy’s Trail. We can take in the sights, sounds, and smells of the forest and still be close to the car—and the nice big restroom for changing a diaper!” As a millennial who is working from home during the pandemic, August is more grateful than ever for the peace and tranquility that’s just a short ride away.
If you’re up for a longer excursion, Poestenkill Community Forest is a treasure trove of hiking trails and ecological wonders. Big Beaver Bog Trail is a must if you like bogs … and carnivorous plants. Pitcher plants, anyone? And mountain bikers, you can test out the MTB trails and skills course!
Most Family Friendly, Old stone walls and foundations, Nature Play Area, a hempcrete eco-cabin
Peter, a volunteer trail worker and outdoorsman, highly recommends the Homestead Trail at the Albert Family Community Forest. “This route will take you through beautiful hemlock forests and 200-year-old stone walls, by an abandoned homestead with a crumbled foundation and hand-dug well, along a cascading brook, and skirting a large wetland.” A bonus is the new footbridge over the brook, recently built by an Eagle Scout. If you finish Homestead Trail and are looking for more, take Susan’s Ramble or the Cascades Trail loop (with a series of small waterfalls).
While you’re at the Community Forest, check out the cabin (soon-to-be Nature Classroom) just beyond the parking area. It was restored by two Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute students (Cam Kasper and Sam Berrigan) in 2020, using hempcrete, a regenerative natural building material. Behind the cabin, you’ll find a Nature Play Area where kids can swing, practice their balance, and explore primitive shelters.
Tips: Once you’re done playing, drive south to Blueberry Hill Market Café in New Lebanon for a tasty breakfast or lunch, and tea or coffee from their barista menu. Their turmeric chai latte will warm your belly after a winter hike!
Ridge Top Trail
Kinderhook Creek Preserve, Rensselaer Land Trust
Most playful “workout hike,” swinging benches, pull ropes, and water
For Molly, a social worker and nature meditation guide living in rural Rensselaer County, Ridge Top Trail at Kinderhook Creek Preserve is the perfect place to let off steam. “It’s steep enough to get the heart pumping and is also really beautiful with interesting rock formations,” she says. The higher you climb, the better the view, especially when the leaves are off the trees in winter. Then hang on tight to the guide rope and take the Up & Down Trail (also steep) down to the creek. Walk back along the creek on SAY Trail, or, in summer stay a while and dip your toes in the cool water. There are swinging benches and picnic tables at various spots all along the way. There are also vernal pools, and “in spring, you can hear the spring peeper tree frogs singing their hearts out,” Molly says.
After your workout hike, sample some beer made with sustainable and local ingredients atS & S Farm Brewery. As you sip and relax, relish the beauty of this 6th generation family farm.
The Long Trail
Best example of Rensselaer Plateau ecology, Lush moss & boardwalks
Amanda, an environmental educator with a green thumb, loves the trails at Dyken Pond for the lush moss and rich plant life. Try the Long Trail, which winds its way for about four miles through the forests and wetlands of the DPEEC. Head up the hill across the field at the main parking area for the northern section, which will take you through hardwood forest, a fern meadow, a small fen, and past an incredible glacial erratic (a boulder deposited by glaciers long ago) nicknamed “Grandfather.”
The southern section of the Long Trail passes through a series of spectacular wetlands as you cross a 300-foot boardwalk. The Long Trail is also open for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing in a back-country setting. Check the website at www.dykenpond.org for current trail and road conditions. Hungry after your hike? Stop by Grafton’s Town Store (2436 NY-2, Cropseyville, 12052) for a tasty grilled cheese and tomato sandwich. Or, combine your Dyken Pond adventure with a walk or mountain bike ride at Grafton Lakes State Park.
Petersburg Pass to the Snow Hole
Part of the Taconic Crest Trail
More strenuous, great views
For a longer hike, sample a stretch of the 37-mile Taconic Crest Trail, which passes through New York, Massachusetts, and Vermont, following the Taconic Range. Marked by white diamonds on a blue square and maintained by the Taconic Hiking Club, the trails that lead off both north and south are easy to follow.
From the parking lot at Petersburg Pass, head across Rt. 2 and up a steep but short ascent, entering Hopkins Forest. Stop at a hang glider overlook just ¼ mile up on the west side for a spectacular view and then continue 2.5+ miles to a sign for a short detour off the trail to the east. There you’ll find a deep crevasse, called “The Snow Hole,” where year-round cold holds onto snow even into the summer. This section of the Taconic Range is marked by mature forest, frequent views, rocky outcrops and ledges, and several side trails.
Post-hike, enjoy the best and only Mexican food in Stephentown atNorte Azul Cantina. “Great food, good for vegetarians, tasty fish tacos, and don’t forget the spicy Margarita,” says Fran, a local leader in conservation and trails.
2nd “tips” option if you include Waterfall Trail (see below):If you have energy leftover, head east on Rt. 2 and into Williamstown for The Clark art museum and a fine selection of town restaurants and shops.
Fran Egbert, a local leader in conservation and trail building, has a soft spot for the Waterfall Trail in Cherry Plain because it’s beautiful and interesting in all seasons. In winter, the ice formations glisten, and in summer you can hop across the Black River to cool off. “After a hike I love sitting at the end of the lake, with minimal company other than in July or August. Without cell service, I’m forced to be present and observe all the sounds and smells around me. She also likes the Mill Pond Trail, which brings you to an old dam and Mill Pond and house site. Cherry Plain has several challenging loops for hiking, snowshoeing, biking, so check out the park map for more ideas. The park is surrounded by the Capital District Wildlife Management Area, with more than 4,000 acres of forest and wildlife habitat.
IF YOU USE THIS TRAIL, use 2nd option for Taconic Crest meal tips.
Fran suggests you follow up with a stop at Norte Azul Cantina, the best and only Mexican Restaurant in Stephentown. “Great food, good for vegetarians, tasty fish tacos, and don’t forget the spicy Margarita,” she says.
Written by: Annie Jacobs
Annie Jacobs is a naturalist and adventurer, poet, and artist living in Troy. As Communications Director for the Rensselaer Plateau Alliance, she loves telling stories about the inspiring people who are safeguarding our wild places for future generations.