The Great Hudson Valley of New York Travel Guide: Part 1 – What is the Hudson Valley and How Do I Get There?

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The fog clearing over Storm King Mountain. The Hudson River beyond with Newburgh to the west and Beacon to the east. PHOTO BY TIMOTHY MALCOLM

[MAP: Here’s my working map for the MalcolmOut Great Hudson Valley of New York Travel Guide]

I wracked my brain for a good nine minutes wondering where I should start at MalcolmOut. Should I write about baseball stadiums? Maybe revisit Cambridge, Nebraska? It didn’t take long: I should start with home. I’ve lived in the Hudson Valley of New York for nine years, and in that time I’ve written so many travel pieces about the area that when I overhear obvious tourists trying to plan their next stop on their trip, I nod, breathe deep and just butt right in. To this day nobody has dismissed me.

So let’s start here. The things I know about the Hudson Valley of New York.

What is the Hudson Valley?

I see a variety of definitions for the Hudson Valley. Some include all of Westchester County. Some include Sullivan County and the southern Catskills. Some include Albany. Sometimes the Hudson Valley goes way out to the Massachusetts border. It’s dizzying. And it’s hard to pin down.

Here’s my definition. The Hudson Valley follows the Hudson River north from Hastings-on-Hudson (the first “rivertown”) to the City of Hudson. The outskirts of that area to the east are included, as the area hasn’t yet run into the Housatonic region. Across the river, the Hudson Valley extends up the Rockland County border into Orange County, but never in Sullivan County. It includes Ulster County and the Catskills of Greene County until it closes back up at Hudson. It’s sort of like a triangle with a western point around Pine Bush, New York.

It’s not Albany. It’s not Massachusetts. It’s not all of Westchester County. It’s not Sullivan County.

Yeah, not a very succinct definition, but there it is.

Now for the non-geographical definition: The Hudson Valley is a wonderland of nature, defined by a fat river that pushes north and the inspiring hills that burst from either side. The entire region is a sustainable playground, from the hiking up in those hills (and mountains) to the farm-fresh food and drinks served at your picnic table. It invites contemplation and spiritual cleansing, and historically has provided just that for millions of people across the world. It’s where the tired idealistic retreat to remember life beyond the deadlines, where every day can be a weekend simply because there’s a freedom to explore something new – from art to music to nature’s bounty – very close to home.

You come here if you want to escape urbanity or stress. You come here to be outside. You come here to learn a little American history (but history isn’t the focus of the trip). You come here if you love to eat fresh food and drink craft beer and liquor. It’s a lot of small towns and relatively small cities, and you can knock off a couple villages or one city in one day. Spend a weekend to knock off a little more and still relax.

How Do I Get There?

On Aug. 25, 2008, I drove Interstate 84 west toward Middletown, New York. I had no idea what to expect, though I noticed green hills growing higher as I continued west. That was my arrival to the Hudson Valley, though I had previously visited Woodstock and the Woodstock site in Bethel, New York, years before. For the uninitiated the Hudson Valley may just look like an open green space. And it actually is. But it’s also much more.

By air

There are a few passenger airports in the Hudson Valley:

  • Stewart International Airport – 1180 1st St., New Windsor; 845-838-8200 – The “international” used to be a joke because Stewart offered a flight to Canada, but now it’s no laughing matter. You can go to the British Isles (Belfast, Bergen, Dublin, Edinburgh, Shannon) on Norwegian Air, and deals abound. Air France flies out of here, too, but typically to and from Detroit. Allegiant, American, Delta, JetBlue and Virgin Atlantic are also here, typically serving Florida points, Philadelphia or, again, Detroit. Usual car rental agencies here, plus taxis and ground transportation to New York City via CoachUSA. A $1 shuttle takes Stewart passengers to Beacon, where there’s a train connection to New York and other cool rivertowns.
  • Westchester County Airport240 Airport Road, White Plains; 914-995-4860 – American, Delta, JetBlue and United fly out of Westchester (which is more often called White Plains). There are typically a lot of southeast flights (to Atlanta and destinations in Florida), while other flights frequently go to either Chicago-O’Hare, Washington-Reagan or Detroit. So, unless you live in one of those destinations, expect a layover. Usual car rental agencies here, plus taxis and a bus service (Bee-Line) that connects to the city of White Plains, which has a train connection to New York City.
  • Albany International AirportAlbany Shaker road, Colonie; 518-242-2200 – So as I’ve already stated, Albany isn’t the Hudson Valley. However, Albany is close enough. Airlines include American, Delta, JetBlue, Southwest and United, and there are regular flights to most major cities. Also, Cape Air provides flights to the Boston area.
  • The New York Airports – John F. Kennedy International, La Guardia and Newark Liberty International are all relatively accessible to the Hudson Valley but, no matter what, are at least an hour away from where you want to be. That said, wherever you’re coming from, you can probably find yourself at one of these three. I’ll write something bigger on the big three in the future; for now, if you’re coming to the Hudson Valley, block out at least 90 minutes after arrival before even thinking about doing anything up here.

By rail

If you live in New York City, this is a good way to go, but only if you’re planning on stopping in only one location. There’s no big rail network here, just the Metro-North running along the Hudson River and further out east, and New Jersey Transit skidding into the way western portion of the valley for about 30 minutes.

  • Metro-North Hudson Line – The most popular line for tourists snakes along the Hudson River on the east end. Popular destinations (with estimated weekend times from NYC’s Grand Central Terminal) include Hastings-on-Hudson (40 minutes), Dobbs Ferry (43 min.), Tarrytown (48 min.), Croton-on-Hudson (station is Croton-Harmon; 60 min.), Peekskill (65 min.), Cold Spring (80 min.), Beacon (95 min.) and Poughkeepsie (120 min.). Price starts around $12 for a one-way ticket, higher the farther north you go.
  • Metro-North Harlem Line – This goes up the center of Westchester County and out into the country of Putnam and Dutchess County. Stops include White Plains (40 min.) and Pawling (115 min.; sometimes requiring transfer at Southeast station). Price starts around $12 for a one-way ticket, higher the farther north you go.
  • New Jersey Transit Port Jervis Line – A little different here. The line starts at Secaucus Junction in New Jersey, accessible on New Jersey Transit from Penn Station in New York. The PJ Line heads northwest into Rockland and Orange counties. Stops include Harriman (85 minutes from NYC), Salisbury Mills-Cornwall (95 min.) and Middletown (115 min.). Price starts around $12 for a one-way ticket, higher the farther west you go.
  • Amtrak – Catch an Amtrak train from Penn station and head north to three stops in the Hudson Valley: Croton-on-Hudson (45 min.), Poughkeepsie (90 min.), Rhinecliff (100 min.) and Hudson (120 min.) Price (one way) can be as low as $19 to Croton-on-Hudson, $27 to Poughkeepsie, $29 to Rhinecliff, $38 to Hudson.

By road

First let’s talk about the roads.

North-south roads

The New York Thruway (Interstate 87, but typically called the Thruway) is the major north-south artery, climbing from the Bronx up to Westchester County, then meeting I-287 and pushing west across the Tappan Zee Bridge and new Mario Cuomo Bridge (for now the TBZ has westbound traffic, the Cuomo has eastbound). While I-287 breaks off and heads for New Jersey, I-87 turns north and runs about five miles west of the Hudson River through Woodbury (Woodbury Common Premium Outlets), Newburgh, New Paltz, Kingston, Saugerties and Catskill. Traffic generally moves between 60 and 75 mph here.

In Westchester there are multiple freeways constructed in response to the great mid-century migration to the suburbs. The most iconic is the Taconic State Parkway (called the Taconic), which starts where the Bronx River Parkway ends in Mount Pleasant, then threads north all the way to Chatham (Columbia County) in the most northern portion of the region. It’s a lovely parkway (I drive it a lot) but can be frightening for drivers, as it becomes a two-lane road each direction and, at one point, has no shoulder or median with just a rail separating north- and southbound traffic, which may move anywhere from the mid-40s to 70s.

Also in the Westchester migration-freeway group is the Saw Mill River Parkway (called the Saw Mill), which starts at the end of the Henry Hudson Parkway and ends at Interstate 684 in Westchester. It’s a bit wider than the Taconic and traffic steadily moves in the 60-70 range here.

Interstate 684 runs in the very east of the region, up from Interstate 287 in Westchester to Interstate 84 in Dutchess County. Traffic is 60-75 here.

West of the Hudson, Route 17 branches off I-87 and heads northwest through Orange County before continuing into the western Catskills. It’s a two-laner each direction; traffic moves 60-70 here.

Then there are numerous state routes that are pretty fun to drive, but if you have time. Favorites include routes 9 and 9D (east of the Hudson) and routes 9W, 32 and 208 (west of the Hudson).

East-west roads

The major artery is Interstate 84, which goes all the way to Oregon, but here it slashes right across the center of the region, from Stormville in the east to Port Jervis in the west. It connects to all the major north-south roads (Taconic, the 9s, I-87, Route 17).

South of I-84 is routes 6 and 202. They’re separate in Westchester County until meeting at Main Street in Peekskill. Then they meet up with the Bear Mountain Parkway (basically a way to get around Peekskill) before an awesome mountain drive (that can be very slow depending on who’s in front of you). That drive runs into the Bear Mountain Bridge, which kind of appears from thin air and is – to me – the most iconic thing about the Hudson Valley.

Over the Bear Mountain Bridge, the now joined Route 6/202 winds through Harriman State Park before joining Route 17. It leaves Route 17 in Goshen, moving west toward Middletown and Port Jervis. Traffic moves closer to 50 than 70 on this road. Also, Route 6 is known as the Grand Army of the Republic Highway and runs all the way to California.

State routes going east to west include routes 94, 28, 212 and 23A (west of the Hudson only), and 44, 52 and 55. These routes will typically tap out at the state limit of 55 but go through plenty of villages and cities with much lower limits.

How to do it

Car (or motorcycle) is probably the best way to go, especially if you’re not certain of your itinerary. The Hudson Valley is a “45 minutes” region, as in most destinations you’ll want to hit are about 45 minutes (if not more) from where you are. So having a car, blasting some music and grabbing snacks is the best idea.

Tourists love coming up here in Zipcars ($8-$10 per hour, so grab a couple friends and split it). Or you can always rent a car and just go; don’t rent anything over $100 per day. And as far the kind of car? No, you don’t need an SUV or van (unless you have a giant party and want to do that thing). A simple compact car is completely fine.

There are bus lines, too. Trailways services New Paltz, Kingston, Woodstock and Phoenicia – all popular day trip destinations – starting at about $43 round-trip from New York City.  And CoachUSA services destinations in Orange County like Middletown, Newburgh, West Point and Woodbury Common. Prices are up to $42 round-trip.

And if you wanted to bike it, you can, but you should be in good shape. On weekend mornings New York City bicyclists travel up the roads along the Hudson River to stop at some rivertown for a bite and maybe a beer, but most of those people are wearing neon cycling outfits and know exactly what they’re doing.

Some places do bike rentals, but for an overview like this I won’t go into all of that. We should all be cycling more, but the Hudson Valley isn’t great for such a thing. It’s best enjoyed by car or train, depending on how many places you wish to visit.

***

Part 2 (which will cover targeted cities and villages) will come soon; I’ll be working on travel guides on a rolling basis.

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