The Alander Mt. Trail out of Mt. Washington follows old charcoal roads in switchbacks up the western rim of the Plateau. Along the way, it passes above a dark ravine with old growth Hemlock in its secluded depths. A few back-country campsites lie just off the trail while a venerable, smoke-stained cabin perches near the summit of Alander itself, but that's it for overnight use on this side of the Plateau. The entire western ridge along the Taconic Crest Trail offers nowhere else to camp, and the Taconic Park itself has camping only at the Taconic Park headquarters at the base of the Plateau or at some RV sites at distant Rudd Pond. This is no problem for day hikers, but represents a significant challenge to those making a circuit of the Plateau using the AT and Taconic Crest. I began my morning's hike way back at Laurel Ridge on the AT, and it was mid-afternoon when I reached the Taconic Crest: too early to set up camp, but too late to reach the Quarry Hill trail-head before dark.
Water proved another challenge. The deep gorge at Bash Bish Falls is the only perennial drainage along the Taconic Crest. The few intermittent streams and their upland catchments on this side of the Plateau were bone dry in September. I tried without success to filter enough stagnant water from one small stream-bed to fill a single nalgeen bottle. The two liters I picked up in Ashley Hill Brook had to last to the trail-head at Quarry Hill: a distance of about 6 miles with several peaks to summit and descend along the way.
Inconveniences and second-day grousing aside, I prefer the Taconic Crest trail to the AT. Although it runs along the ridge from Catamount Ski Area to Quarry Hill, very few people hike the Taconic Crest as a through trail. Significant sections are in Massachusetts, and although long a dream of NYS Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (OPRHP), the trail does not yet extend to Rudd Pond at the south end of the Plateau.
Conservation entities have been dreaming big about the Taconic Plateau for nearly a century. Back in the 1920s, New York State apparently had a policy of only acquiring new conservation land where it was adjacent to existing open space. A resident of Copake, New York bought Bash Bish Falls-the highest waterfall in Massachusetts- to spare it from hotel development. The new owner of Bash Bish Falls promptly gave it to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, thus enabling the Taconic Park Commission to start protecting adjacent lands in New York. Today, the Taconic State Park protects more than 5,500 acres along and 11 miles front, while just across the Massachusetts border lie Bash Bish Falls State Park and Mt. Washington State forest.
For a time there was talk of a massive, Tri-State Park encompassing much of the Taconic Plateau. This proved unworkable - state boundaries are deeply entrenched administrative units - but one still finds echos of this dream from time to time in some of the literature and web sites of conservation entities that refer to the potential Tri-State park. The residents of the Plateau, particularly in Connecticut and Massachusetts along the Appalachian Trail Corridor, are wary of such schemes and are quite naturally concerned about the taking of private property that could accompany such a move.
The western views from the Taconic Crest make the hike worth the effort in almost any weather. Viewed from the summits of Alander, or North or South Brace, the Catskills loom above the Hudson Valley. Glimpses of the great river itself gleam like polished silver in the afternoon sun. The rural landscape of southern Columbia and northern Dutchess counties is a mosaic of farm fields and wetlands and rolling hilltops still in agriculture instead of reverting to forest. South of Mt. Alander, the Oblong Valley of Ancram and Northeast, New York is as gorgeous from above as when experienced in the shadow of the Taconics below. A planned extension of the Harlem Valley Rail Trail from Millerton to the terminus of the existing section at Boston Corners will run through this valley, and one hopes that NY OPRHP will take the opportunity to protect its buffering lowlands as thoroughly as it has conserved the western slopes of the Plateau. For views are deceiving, and on closer scrutiny the pastoral idyll overlooked from the Taconic Crest Trail shimmers like a mirage.
There are empty silos and collapsed barns scattered across the valley floor. Henry Beneke's Holsteins still graze in the Oblong, but active dairy farms are in free fall and show no sign of slowing their plunge. Those vast corn fields, almost 3,000 acres in all, were until recently leased by Odyssey Farms. Odyssey Farms is now for sale and it is extremely unlikely that the buyer will be another dairy farmer. The landowners of the valley are eligible for an agricultural tax abatement only as long as their fields are farmed. Without that abatement, the highest and best use of the valley lands is residential development. No dairy farmer in this area will buy cornfields at $8,000 /acre, but developers will, and large houses now rise in the middle of the fields.
There is also a tremendous amount of gravel just below the surface of the rolling fields. The "Big Dig" in distant Boston drove up demand for gravel across New England, and prices for bank run gravel rose by 300% in some parts of this region. The gravel is here because the valleys were once flooded by glacial lakes, and the terraces they left behind were thick with sand and crushed stone. Farther south along Rte 22, in Amenia and Dover Plains, the valley has been extensively mined and industrialized.
There have been notable successes in preserving the rural character of the lowland communities on the western side of the Plateau. The community of Ancram successfully fought off a proposed 79 acre gravel mine in the heart of the valley, and established a scenic overlay for the Rte. 22 corridor that its northern neighbors in Copake have recently extended as part of their own zoning. The appalling, coal-fired cement plant proposed upwind of the Plateau in nearby Hudson was recently denied its permits after a massive campaign waged by both opponents and supporters of the plant. Both the Columbia and Dutchess Land Conservancies have protected thousands of acres within the viewshed of the Taconic Crest Trail.
Despite these encouraging developments, the region is caught in the vice of rural sprawl extending north from Manhattan and south from Albany. Acid rain falls heavily on the Plateau. The high price of land is prohibitive both for 1st time home owners and for conservation organizations to buy at fair market value. Some farms have gentrified, others have been developed and cut into ever smaller parcels. New York has weaker wetlands regulations than either Connecticut or Massachusetts, and habitat destruction is an acute problem for species like the federally threatened bog turtle, which persists in seepage wetland pockets up and down the valley.
I reached the Taconic Crest at 3:00 p.m. and decided to strike out for Mt. Brace before sunset. Postponing the decision of where to spend the night, I trudged along the trail, pausing to look out over the landscape and look for water in the dry ravines but otherwise pressing to reach the summit with daylight to spare for my descent. Looking out over the scrub oak on the ridgeline, I was startled to see parasails hovering over the valley. They were launching from the top on North Brace and cruising above the ridge and out over the valley without apparent loss of altitude. I turned my earthbound feet toward them, wishing I could soar across the ridge on their wings, and reached the summit an hour before dark. There were five gliders, four of whom launched from the west face of the peak and a fifth who decided the winds were beyond his skill and started to carry his parasail back down the trail as I arrived at the top. I suspect these gliders use North Brace without official sanction, but what a sight they made, swooping down like buzzards into the shadows of the valley and landing in a farm field as the sun dipped behind the Catskills.
I pushed on down the trail in the twilight, and found a place with cellular service to call my wife and family. We arranged for them to pick me up in the morning at Rudd Pond, extending my hike a few miles along the roadside in the valley floor. I spent the night as best I could and was up before dawn. Climbing down the steep ravine to Quarry Hill, the waterfall was dry and lifeless. I trudged through the Quarry Hill development, along the wetlands of Webatuck Creek, and dropped my pack at the Rudd Pond entrance road about five minutes before my family arrived. All told, I hiked about 25 miles in 48 hours, and was pleased to find I still had the stamina to make such a trek after so long off the trail.
It is now November, and the leaves have piled in my yard. I can see the mountains through the trees, and will carry the memory of my journey around the Taconic Plateau until Springtime, when I'll ascend to heights again.