I haven’t traveled many Amtrak routes in my life, but I have taken one of the most scenic—the one that stretches along the Hudson River in upstate New York—many times over. The two and a half-hour ride from Albany, New York to New York City first held me in rapt attention when I was about eight years old. This was the occasion of my first trip to New York City, a landmark moment I experienced with my mother. We boarded in Albany, just across the river from Troy, the town where I grew up.
Ever since that initial train trip, I have been transfixed by the beauty of this route, one that cuts through predominantly unspoiled countryside where development is sparse and wildlife is plenty. It’s always a good idea to board early so you can claim one of the window seats on the Hudson side since business and leisure travelers appear decidedly smitten with the views as well. Then—no matter what the season—you’ll witness some of our country’s most resplendent scenery unfold before you.
I was out of luck this time since I boarded in Yonkers, a town just outside New York that happened to be only a short drive from my friend Jane’s house in Larchmont where I had been staying. I was heading north to Saratoga Springs and I had had my heart set on taking in some of New York state’s finest views. I decided to head to the Café Car where I was able to locate a window seat. Actually I slid into the booth with a few of the conductors, all of whom were pumped with pride in talking to me about their run.
There are many trains that travel the New York City to Albany route daily, numerous opportunities to take in landscapes punctuated by a mansion off in the distance or a Great Blue Heron preening in the nearby marshland. But there are two considerably longer and more rambling trajectories that also cover this same territory; one known as the Ethan Allen, the other, the Adirondack.
The Ethan Allen transports travelers as far north as Rutland, Vermont. The Adirondack conveys people on a twelve-hour journey from New York City to Montreal, rewarding them with splendid vistas along Lake Champlain and more remote parts of the Hudson River on the way.
I learned from my conductors that Trails & Rails of the National Park Service offers a program that provides highlights on The Adirondack route. Most of these free “tours” are offered on the weekend, beginning at the Croton Harmon-Hudson stop. The conductors informed me that an announcement is made on the train and the talk is given outside the Café Car.
“There’s Bannerman’s Castle,” the conductor cried out. “That guy was an arms merchant. You can see there was a big explosion there that created a bit of damage.”
The train was moving along at a good clip by now and I was enjoying the gentle rocking that can only be associated with this form of transportation. We were going faster and I noticed that the whistle blew whenever we picked up real speed. These sounds and movements created the undeniable rhythm of our ride.
“Now the prettiest part of all is by the Rip Van Winkle Bridge,” one of the other conductors perked up. “That’s where the river is the widest. A lot of history here, too,” he added, almost as an afterthought.
Other bridge names such as the George Washington and the Tappan Zee evoked various chapters of our nation’s past and as I gazed out, I wondered what kind of action took place in these waters as far back as the Revolutionary War.
“There are six known bridges in all that cross the Hudson in these parts,” the conductor continued. “You can even pick up the Appalachian Trail at Bear Mountain Bridge,” he added.
The guys continued to fill me in on the main points of interest, some of which I remembered spotting on my very first trip of this rite of passage. You have the ominous looking, barbed wire fortress of Sing-Sing prison, Indian Point Nuclear Plant, West Point Military Academy (at the thinnest section of the river), a variety of religious orders, a good number of nice homes and some old warehouses.
I stared out the window watching the incessant interplay of windsurfers, boaters, and jet skiers on this glorious summer day. A huge barge chugged along in the midst of it all.
“Yep, they move all kinds of freight on this river,” the conductor remarked as though he was reading my mind.
The river banks rolled gently down into the water here, wide and verdant, abundant with all kinds of waterfowl. I spotted a deer nibbling on the grass. I was enjoying this scene immensely yet like flash cards in my mind, I imagined how it would look frozen in winter, bright and fresh in spring, and soon wan and mysterious in autumn. I felt lucky that I had taken in these panoramas during each season and hoped I’d be able to absorb many more in the years to come.
I bid the fellas goodbye and settled myself into a window seat on the opposite side of the Hudson River, one of the few remaining spots available on this crowded train. I pressed my head against the glass, stared out and discovered that the views from this perspective were lovely enough as well. Someday, I thought, I’ll ride this train as far north as Montreal.
Trails & Rails programs of the National Park Service, www.nps.gov/findapark/tandrtrains.htm