Hudson River regains its role as wildlife habitat Parks, hiking trails appear as communities take action along valley


For most of this century, the Hudson has been a sorry environmental wreck.

Decades of binging on toxic chemicals gradually took its toll, and although the river's grandeur could not be denied, most people, looking at the Hudson, could only shake their heads in sorrow.

The mighty river, once home to porpoises and even reportedly a whale, had entered the final stages of decline, fit habitat only for a few funky fish.

Then, the impossible happened. In an awesome display of willpower, the Hudson took the pledge.

Thanks to the good efforts of environmental and education groups like Scenic Hudson, the Open Space Institute and the Hudson River Valley Greenway, along with large infusions of cash from the Lila Acheson and DeWitt Wallace Fund for the Hudson Highlands and the political push behind the Federal Clean Water Acts and other environmental laws, the river came back from the brink and is on the way to sound health, with two pleasing results.

Return of wildlife

First, a cleaner river has meant a return of fish and other wildlife. And second, heightened river consciousness has led many riverside towns and counties, as well as the above-mentioned organizations, to reclaim land along the riverfront and open it up to hikers, bikers and picnickers.

In the last few years, acres of land that had been languishing in government hands, as well as new parcels acquired by environmental groups, have reconfigured the Hudson's banks.

For daytrippers, fishermen, history buffs, boaters, hikers, bikers and, yes, even swimmers, the Hudson River Valley has taken on a new allure. A decade ago, the hardy traveler had to search long and hard for a decent bed and a good meal. In recent years, dozens of new restaurants, inns and bed and breakfasts have filled the gap.

The grand estates along the banks of the Hudson have always drawn a big audience, but these box-office stars now have a strong supporting cast. Visitors can round out a trip to the Vanderbilt mansion, for example, by hiking downriver to the Franklin D. Roosevelt estate.

Up and down the river, parks and boat launches have been opened and new hiking trails have been marked. Beginning this summer, swimmers were able to bathe in the Hudson for the first time in nearly a decade when the river beach at Croton Point Park reopened.

"In the last 10 years, the area has really come together in a way it never had," said Tim Mulligan, the author of "The Traveler's Guide to the Hudson Valley." "In the next edition of my book, I'm going to have to redo the whole thing."

The Scenic Hudson, a nonprofit preservation group that has acquired many sites along the river, recently opened Poet's Walk, a 120-acre park in Red Hook, N.Y., just north of the Kingston-Rhinecliff bridge in Dutchess County.

In an area dominated by grand robber-baron estates, Poet's Walk competes by appealing to the more lofty human faculties. Billing itself as a "romantic landscape park," it offers a seductive blend of meadow, glade and woodland, with sinuous trails descending to the banks of the Hudson.

The only real estate comes in the form of rough-hewn bridges that cross streamlets, a gazebolike viewing pavilion overlooking the river from a commanding height, and a shelter with benches at the end of a woodland trail.

But who needs real estate? Visitors follow a mowed path across bright meadows scattered with wildflowers: bachelor's buttons, Queen Anne's lace, black-eyed susans and daisies. The silence is thick enough to slice. The viewing pavilion makes a convenient halfway stop. A half-mile downhill, the Hudson rolls along between shapely hills, its placid surface lightly supporting small sailboats and enduring with mild patience the torment of Type-A Jet-Skiers.

The prospect is indeed romantic, with the Catskills floating bluely to the northwest. More pleasure lies ahead, as the path turns rightward and winds through a cool forest downward to the "summer house" shelter, overlooking a small pond, railroad tracks and the river. After a poetic, romantic pause, visitors can pick up the trail and follow it as it loops back toward meadowland with views of the river and back uphill to the starting point.

Anyone with a hankering to see a house can follow River Road north to Montgomery Place, in Annandale-on-Hudson, a 19th-century country estate set on more than 400 acres of rolling woodland, lawns, gardens and waterfalls. The house itself is a gem. The original house, a somewhat austere Federal-style structure built in 1802, was transformed by the architect Alexander Jackson Davis and the landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing into an elegant country estate, with porticos, pavilions, verandas and a spacious north portico with a stunning view of the river.

Happy trails

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