by Hugh Johnson
If you are a hiker in the Capital Region, there is always that quest to find the perfect hiking trail.
Look no further than Thacher Park!
Whether it is a technical hike, a stroll, or something in between, in about half hour of driving time, you can reach the park from Albany, located 15 miles southwest of town. One can even bike up the hill, but it is quite the workout!
Once at the park, you can choose from more than a dozen trails. My favorite is the Escarpment Trail, along the escapement of the Heldeberg Ridge, which sits up over 500 feet off the valley floor. This ridge is composed of limestone shale and is home to a lot of fossils. Over the centuries, this limestone shale eroded forming the escarpment.
The Escarpment Trail, which goes along the ridge, spans about 2.5 miles, starting half a mile south of the large Overlook parking lot and to the north of the parking lot, continues to Hailes Cave, about 2 miles north. Since it is atop of the ridge, there is very little climbing on this trail, but there are many gorgeous views along the way. Actually, this path is part of the Long Path, a much longer trail that literally extends (with a few breaks) all the way to New York City!
You can start at the Overlook parking lot and go either north or south, taking in the many views. During the warmer months you will likely see black vultures or red tailed hawks soaring along the thermals of the ridge and not much higher than you.
You can remain right along the edge where there are a few dips and rocks to encounter or walk across the more gentle grassier areas. Right after the end of the Escarpment Trail, you will be behind a Water Treatment Plant. At this point, you can head back away from the escarpment onto the Perimeter Trail via a dirt road. Or, you can follow an unmarked narrow trail that splits to the right. This narrow unmarked trail was made by mountain bikers and is on private property. However, the owner has allowed the hikers and even mountain bikers to use this section. At any rate, continue along the narrow trail and you can fork off on yet another unmarked trail, to the Hang Glide Overlook in a little over a mile. This small lookout is one of my favorite spots as it has nice grassy area to sit, meditate or indulge in a delicious apple while overlooking the Hudson Valley. To the east, lies the Green Mountains and to the southeast, the Berkshires. On a clear day you can easily make out Mt. Grelylock, the highest mountain in Massachusetts as well as Equinox Mountain. On the clearest of days you can see the White Mountains. Yes, that is correct, you can see the White Mountain range to the east of Walpole, NH, nearly 100 miles away!
Another option for a private view would be to continue on the narrower trail all the way to the High Point Overlook, closer to 2 miles that is rockier. If you are looking for a climb, there is the Indian Ladder Trail, about half a mile north of the Overlook Parking Lot, off the Escarpment Trail as set of stairs, some rock, some made out of wood.
While only half a mile long, it drops several hundred feet and you literally go underneath the Minelot waterfall which you can see along the Escarpment Trail as shown here.
Keep in mind, during rare dry times, this waterfall does dry up, and in the winter, it freezes. Once it gets cold enough for ice, the Indian Ladder Trail is closed, but the Escarpment remains open, and you might get an incredible view of the frozen falls.
If you want more of an adventure, you could go rock climbing that you can access off the Escarpment Trail close to Hailes Cave. I do not participate in this sport. For further information, you can reach out to the Thacher Climbing Coalition. Here is a picture of the entrance to the rock climbing area. You see that opening? You need to fit through it. I am relatively thin but did not, at least not easily!
On most weekdays, there is plenty of spaces to park at the Overlook. Keep in mind you are supposed to only park for half an hour there. Plenty of other parking venues, the closest of which is Mine Lot, are available across the road from the Overlook Parking lot. The cost of a ticket is just 6 dollars, well worth the cost to help upkeep the park. Other choices would be to park at the remote parking areas, which are off Ryan, Carriack and Old Stage Roads. You can park at these for no charge. The first one, Ryan is the closest to the Overlook (about 2 miles) and sometimes fills up fast. The other two are closer to 4 miles away, and usually do not. All these parking lots have Auxiliary Trails that lead to either the Escapement Trail or directly to the High Point or the Hang Glide Lookouts. You can get free detailed maps at the newly build Visitor center which is 1.6 miles north of the Overlook Parking lot and accessible from the Escarpment Trail. This map includes all the available trails and parking areas.
Hiking at Thacher Park can be enjoyed in all seasons. If you come in the summer, bring a head net or lots of bug spray! Spring is often muddy but perhaps the best time to have the park to yourself and no bugs. While autumn is certainly the most popular season, winter can be surprisingly beautiful , especially after a fresh fallen snow. Believe it or not, there are plenty of trails across from the Overlook Parking that while not offering the panoramic views of the Escarpment Trail, have a beauty of their own. You can pick up these trails from the Mine Lot, or Hop Field Lot and they span up to several miles. When a deep snowpack exists, some of these are groomed by the snowmobilers. You can access these trails from Mine Lot and Hop Field Parking areas. Yes, you would be sharing a lot of these trails with snowmobilers, but at least, in my experience with them, they have been very good about sharing the trail. You just have to be cautious and listen for them coming around curves. These trails are so snow packed you probably don’t need snow shoes but should still bring ice crampons on your boots as any thawing and refreezing of the packed snow could produce glare ice. If you want the full snow shoe experience, fear not, there are some trails that do now allow snow mobiles and you can blaze your own trail. Also, the all the trails (besides Indian Ladder) remain open all year long unless there is a physical problem.
The group, Friends of Thacher Park, is a volunteer group dedicated to the maintenance of the park and works hard to do so. Anyone can join for 20 dollars per year. They have blazed and cleaned the trails, usually in the spring. I have worked with Jim and Bonnie Schaller who have marked and cleaned many trails in the park.
If you plan to eat out after your hike, unfortunately food venues are very limited on the hill. There is a snack bar at the Overlook, but it is usually only open in the summer on weekends. There is a nice restaurant called, Maple on the Lake (Warner Lake) , located further up the road in East Berne, but it is only open for dinner. For lunch, try Gracie’s Kitchen in Voorheesville. The staff, including Grace herself, are always friendly, the prices reasonable and food is delicious, especially the blueberry pie and home chocolate chip cookies!
Hugh Johnson is a retired meteorologist from the National Weather Service who wants to get the most out of the "Go years." His interests, besides the weather, include cycling, hiking, walking and yes a LITTLE running! He also enjoys writing and traveling.