The Road Less Traveled: Explore the Region’s Overlooked Fall Treasures

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The Schoharie Valley in the fall. Photograph by Caleb Jacobson.
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Leaves at the Rensselaer Plateau, which has forests, a fire tower, mountain bike trails, waterfalls, eagles, bobcats, and elevations from 1,000 to 2,000 feet—one of the region’s Hidden Places. Photo by Nate Simms.

Access to magnificent fall foliage is one of the windfalls of residing in the Capital-Saratoga Region. Locals and visitors from around the world typically opt for a drive to Vermont, the Berkshires or the Adirondacks in search of fall panoramas and outdoor family fun. Closer by are popular options such as the Helderbergs and Lake George. But closer and much less crowded are the spots right in our own backyards.

Most Capital-Saratoga Region residents view Schoharie County as so, so far away. However, it is one of the six counties—Albany, Schenectady, Saratoga, Rensselaer and Montgomery are the others—that comprise the Albany-Schenectady-Troy Metropolitan Area. Esperance, in the eastern part of the county, is less than 16 miles—or about 25 minutes—from most of the subdivisions in the suburban towns of Guilderland and Rotterdam.

The Landis Arboretum in Esperance is one of the area’s singular fall destinations. Landis is the only arboretum—a botanical garden specializing in trees— in the Capital-Saratoga Region. It is also one of three arboreta in the eastern United States with old-growth forest. Landis also has a complete collection of native New York state plants. Plus, the hillside setting and the sheer variety of trees provide the full palette of fall colors. Of the arboretum’s 548 acres, 40 are cultivated with trees, shrubs and perennials from around the world in garden-like and naturalistic settings. Spread over eight miles of trails, the collections have signage with QR codes and sculptures interspersed among the flora. The 500-acre natural areas include old growth forests with trees dating back to the time of the American Revolution. Best of all, the destination is free (although donations are encouraged). Minutes west of Esperance is the town of Cobleskill, an area with a plethora of great family things to do. If you are heading toward Cobleskill on Interstate 88, slow down to the speed limit as the highway begins the huge downhill stretch into the Schoharie Valley. Savor the spectacular, multicolored fall panorama in front of you.

For generations, fun in Cobleskill meant going to Howe Caverns. If you take your kids or grandkids there this fall, you will find a very different Howe Caverns from the one of your youth. Well, not completely. The Traditional Tour is still available and not changed significantly. The boat ride on the River Styx, the cavern halls and the cave rooms are almost exactly as you might remember. Also unchanged are the knowledgeable guides who explain the rock formations and the history in a way that is interesting to both adults and kids.

New is the Signature Rock Discovery Tour. This tour brings people to the area of the cave that has not been opened since 1900. Sights include undisturbed passageways, formations, tunnels, rooms and relics. All of the equipment including helmets, headlamps and boots are provided.

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Howe Caverns color cave. Image courtesy of Howe Caverns.
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Howe Caverns. Image courtesy of Howe Caverns.
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Howe Caverns. Image courtesy of Howe Caverns.
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Howe Caverns. Image courtesy of Howe Caverns.

Howe Caverns also provides fun that is more adventurous. They have a 900-foot-long zipline, a ropes course set 30-feet above the ground, an air jumper that enables a person to spring up to 18 feet into the air, a 25-foot climbing wall and a 1,100-foot water ride with the participants riding inside an inflatable ball. For those seeking cerebral fun there is the Cave House Museum of Mining & Geology.

Apple picking is a rite of fall. Visitors to Howe Cavern often stop at Terrace Mountain Orchards, a few miles away, and Carrot Barn. In addition to the full range of apple varieties, they offer hayrides on weekends, homemade cider apples and, of course, apple cider. The location is a bonus: The hillside setting overlooking the Schoharie Valley provides stunning views in the fall.

Nearby Carrot Barn at Schoharie Valley Farms offers locally produced specialty foods, including cheeses, organic meats, their own baked goods and local crafts. They also serve lunch. The eclectic menu features items made with their own products as well as those grown and made nearby. Schoharie Valley Farms was one of the pioneers in growing specialty produce for famed restaurants and chefs in New York City. The lunch menu reflects that heritage.

On the way down the road from Howe Cavern is the Iroquois Indian Museum. The museum honors the history and culture of the Native Americans who populated most of the land that became upstate New York. The unique-looking building simulates the shape of the tradi- tional Iroquois longhouses. The museum includes a hands-on children’s section, regular events and even a contemporary collection that honors the creative spirit and tradition of the past peoples.

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A Native American vegetable garden at the Iroquois Indian Museum.

Just past the Interstate 88 underpass are the duel amusements of Muscle Motors Speedway and Gobblers Knob. Muscle Motors Speedway is a go-kart track that provides a layout and vehicles that are a few steps above what one would find in the typical “funplex” go- kart track. The layout includes climbs, bridges and underpasses. Gobblers Knob, just down the driveway, offers a par-3 golf course, miniature golf, a driving range, a bounce house and, an ice cream parlor.

If you are hankering for a leaf-peeping weekend in the Adirondacks but do not have the time, don’t despair. Just 30 minutes east of Albany is the Rensselaer Plateau. With elevations ranging from 1,000 to 2,000 feet, the vegetation and geologic feel of the plateau is virtually identical to the Adirondacks. Like the Adirondacks, the colder weather and poor, rocky soil made the land unsuitable for farming, so most of the land was left undeveloped for over a century.

There are two major routes for visiting the plateau by car. The routes were created by the Mohawk Hudson Cycling Club for their group bike rides but are suitable for families traveling by car. The primary circuit is approximately 45 miles and includes sights like Rensselaer Plateau Alliance’s 350-acre Poestenkill Community Forest, Dyken Pond Environmental Center, Grafton Peace Pagoda, Dickinson Hill Fire Tower and Barbersville Falls.

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The Rensselaer Plateau. Photo by Nate Simms.
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The Rensselaer Plateau. Photo by Nate Simms.
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The Rensselaer Plateau. Photo by Nate Simms.

The 1.5-mile hike to climb the restored Dickinson Hill Fire Tower starts in Grafton Lakes State Park. The walk up the tower rewards hikers with views of the Berkshires, Green Mountains, Taconics and the Adirondacks. While you are in Grafton Lakes State Park, take your mountain bike off the car rack and sample the large network of trails. A joint effort of the Rensselaer Plateau Association and the Saratoga Mountain Bike Association enables the accessibility of the trails. The trails range from fun family-friendly dirt road rides to gnarly single track. There is even an epic ride that links the park trails with those in the Pittstown State Forest.

The second route, which utilizes Taborton Road, brings you to Cherry Plain State Park. The 175-acre Cherry Plain State Park sits within the 4,153- acre Capital District Wildlife Management Area. Wildlife in the name befits the conservation area. The terrain is rife with wildlife, including larger mammals such as deer, bear, bobcat, coyote, fox and moose. There was even a sighting of a mountain lion in the area (unconfirmed by NYS officials). Birding is a major activity on the Rensselaer Plateau. The myriad bodies of water are on the migratory flyway of many species. Sightings of Bald and Golden eagles are common, as are many species considered rare for the Capital-Saratoga Region.

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The Rensselaer Plateau. Photo by Nate Simms.

Just east of the Rensselaer Plateau, a few miles across NYS Route 22 and the Little Hoosic River, are the Taconic range and the Taconic Crest Trail. The trail meanders between New York and Massachusetts along a ridge that offers many fall views. The most famous destination on the Taconic Crest Trail is the Snow Hole: a crevasse that holds snow well into August. Another popular hike is to the top of Berlin Mountain. At 2,800 feet, it is the highest point in New York state outside of the Catskills and Adirondacks. Be forewarned, the peak is not above timberline and does not provide a particularly memorable view.

However, hiking is not necessary for enjoying the spectacular fall scenery of the Taconic range. The drive on NYS Route 2 up to Petersburgh Pass is filled with fall photo ops. Nevertheless, you would be remiss if you did not walk up the trails of the defunct ski area, where the fall views of the Hoosic River Valley and the Hud- son River Valley are something special.

Closer to sea level in Rensselaer County is the Schodack Island State Park. Part of the attraction is the drive getting there. The primary road to reach the park is NYS Rte. 9J. It follows the eastern shore of the Hudson River and offers many open views to the west. The park’s main attraction is that it offers seven miles of Hudson River shoreline. Kayaking, boating and fishing are the primary activities. The park also has about eight miles of hiking trails and is a Bald Eagle nesting area.

Tucked away in the southernmost part of Saratoga County is the Vischer Ferry Nature Preserve, bordering the Mohawk River. Within the preserve is the Erie Canal, built in 1825, and the Towpath, the trail besides the canal that was used by beasts of burden or humans, typically slaves, to pull the boats along the canal. The main entrance to the preserve is an 1862 Whipple Truss Bridge.

Fall is the best time of the year for visiting the preserve. The flood-prone land, in proximity to the Mohawk River and the stagnant waters of the Canal, make for a mosquito haven in the summer. In the fall, the bugs are gone, the air is fresher and the brilliant colors from the huge variety of trees and bushes make for a special hike or bike ride on the preserve’s myriad trails.

When the owners of Hoffman’s Playland decided to retire in 2014, many who visited the Latham amusement park during the 60 years it was in business feared that a childhood rite of passage might be gone. But then Jeff Sperber, the owner of Albany’s Huck Finn’s Warehouse, purchased all of the rides and moved them to a lot adjacent to the store.

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Huck Finn’s Playland. Photo by Thom Williams.
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Huck Finn’s Playland at night. Photo by Thom Williams.

While not exactly what one thinks of as a fall activity, taking the kids or grandkids to the Playland (now Huck Finn’s Playland) before it closes for the winter is something many families have traditionally done. Besides, it is a better place to visit in the fall. It is less crowded and the temperatures are less oppressive for adults standing and watching the kids enjoy the rides.

Your reward, beside the kids’ laughter, comes at the end of the day. Nearby is Druthers Albany, where you can grab a seasonal brew, or Nine Pin Cider Works, which has hard cider, perfect for fall. Druthers Albany has a Beer Cheese Dip with Bavarian-style pretzels that is beloved by adults and kids.

These are just a small sampling of the local opportunities for family fun in the fall. There are many more. Just ask a neighbor or friend who starts smiling when the leaves begin to change.

 

RESOURCES
For more information on the Capital-Saratoga Region’s overlooked treasures:

Barbersville Falls
Blue Factory Rd., Poestenkill
poestenkillny.com

Berlin Mountain
localhikes.com/Hikes/Berlin_0160.asp

Capital District Wildlife Management Area
dec.ny.gov/outdoor/86016.html

Carrot Barn—Schoharie Valley Farms
5605 NY-30, Schoharie (518) 295-7139
schoharievalleyfarms.com

Cherry Plain State Park
10 State Park Rd., Petersburg
(518) 733-5400
nysparks.com/parks/173/details.aspx

Dickinson Hill Fire Tower
259 Fire Tower Rd., Petersburg
theoutbound.com/new-york/hiking/hike-dickinson-hill-fire-tower

Druthers Brewing Company
1053 Broadway, Albany (518) 650-7966
druthersbrewing.com

Dyken Pond Environmental Center
475 Dyken Pond Rd., Cropseyville (518) 658-2055
dykenpond.org

George Landis Arboretum
174 Lape Rd., Esperance (518) 875-6935
landisarboretum.org

Gobbler’s Knob Family Fun Park
3793 NY Route 145, Cobleskill (518) 296-8008
gobblersknob.us

Grafton Lakes State Park
100 Grafton Lakes State Park Way, Grafton
(518) 279-1155
nysparks.com/parks/53/details.aspx

Grafton Peace Pagoda
87 Crandall Rd., Petersburg
(518) 658-9301
graftonpeacepagoda.org

Howe Caverns
255 Discovery Dr., Howes Cave
(518) 296-8900
howecaverns.com

Huck Finn’s Playland
25 Erie Blvd., Albany
(518) 242-7575
hucksplayland.com

Iroquois Indian Museum
324 Caverns Rd., Howes Cave
(518) 296-8949
iroquoismuseum.org

Mohawk-Hudson Cycling Club
mohawkhudsoncyclingclub.org

Muscle Motors Speedway
3791 NY Route 145, Cobleskill
(518) 296-8777
musclemotorsspeedway.com

Nine Pin Cider Works
929 Broadway, Albany
(518) 449-9999
ninepincider.com

Rensselaer County Tourism
1600 7th Ave., Troy
(518) 270-2900
renscotourism.com

Rensselaer Plateau Alliance
(518) 712-9211
rensselaerplateau.org

Saratoga Mountain Bike Association
saratogamtb.org

Schodack Island State Park
1 Schodack Island Way, Schodack Landing
(518) 732-0187
nysparks.com/parks/146/details.aspx

Schoharie County Chamber
143 Caverns Rd., Howes Cave
(518) 296-8991
visitschohariecounty.com

Taconic Crest Trail
taconichikingclub.org
berkshirehiking.com/hikes/taconic_ crest.html

Terrace Mountain Orchard
158 Apple Blossom Ln., Schoharie
(518) 295-7755
terracemountainorchard.com

The Snow Hole
berkshirehiking.com/hikes

Vischer Ferry Nature Preserve
(518) 371-6677
parksrec.cliftonpark.org