Cycling from Hurleyville to Liberty via Rail Trail: A survival story

by Angelee Santillo

“All the rail trails connect,” they said.

As a girl from Liberty who grew up on Yaun Avenue, right across from the Chestnut Street rails-to-trails trailhead, I had always heard about how all the rail trails in Sullivan County connect in one way or another. But once I’d attempt to venture down that path, I would just begin to hit my stride when something odd would happen – I’d end up behind Agway without any direction. What now?

Sure, I knew I’d have to traverse commercial roads at some parts of the journey, but exactly how one was supposed to do that was not intuitive. There were no trail markers hinting me in the right direction, no signs indicating I was even on the right trail anymore.

Thus, like so many other recreational hobbies throughout my childhood, I quit rail-trailing for good.

That is, until I moved to Hurleyville as an adult. Exploring the rail trail in town has been a favorite pastime of mine the last few years, partially because – let’s face it – it’s one of the only things to do here. But my Hurleyville rail trail experience has been limited to the “Local Loop,” as I like to call it. I start on foot or on bike down Mongaup, take the right at Krum Road past Valley Golf Club, and either make the right down the Rail Trail to end up back on Railroad Ave, or continue on pavement down Mitteer, eventually crossing Main Street to Brophy where I take the road down until reaching the “end” of the Rail Trail, and work my way backwards to finish at the basketball courts. As great as the Local Loop is, you’re really only on a few miles of actual rail trail. As sports editor for the Sentinel, I needed to do better.

The Rail Trail from Hurleyville to Ferndale is a great place to hike or bike all year round. PHOTO BY J. JAMES WALL

And so, on one of the warmest days at the beginning of April, my partner & I decided to set out on bicycles, one mountain and one hybrid, and make the left onto the rail trail after Krum Road instead of the right that takes you back to Railroad. Armed with only my local-girl knowledge of Sullivan County geography, I knew that some way, somehow, that left would take us to my old stomping grounds in Liberty.

At first, nothing was out of the ordinary. For a couple of miles, we rode the rail trail over mostly smooth terrain, although the farther along we got, the rockier it became. For the average-to-experienced cyclist, the first part of the ride was mildly challenging but enjoyable, although having a good bike really does make all the difference. As we felt we had to be reaching a clearing of some sorts, we could feel we were navigating the path-less-traveled, as more branches, roots, and rocks seemed untouched and posed greater obstacles.

Nevertheless, we eventually reached a clearing, having not really broken a sweat yet. At this clearing, we were on a town back road, and we could see that the rail trail continued across the street. But to the right, I saw a familiar four-way intersection, one I’d been on countless times throughout my childhood – it was Twin Bridge Road. I wondered if we should turn right at this clearing towards the intersection and take a left onto Twin Bridge, or continue down the real rail trail in front of us.

My partner, an Ellenville local who admittedly could not contribute any knowledge to our navigation of Sullivan County, read the uncertainty on my face.

“Do you know where you’re going, or should we look it up?” she asked.

“We don’t need to look it up,” I said, too proud to accept help and refusing to use a cell phone in order to maintain the authenticity of our old-fashioned cycling adventure. “I know these roads, but if we go straight, it looks like it’s going in the same direction as Twin Bridge Road anyway, and it’s still rail trail.”

Across the street we went. This part of the trail became a bit more challenging, and there were parts strewn so deep with gravel that our bikes nearly stopped in their tracks. But we pressed on, my partner enjoying the light workout while I panicked internally about getting us lost. Where could this take us out in Ferndale?” I wondered. I didn’t think any other path connected the two towns besides Twin Bridge Road.

I was right. As we zoomed through the wooded area and past residences in the distance, sounds were growing louder from where we could see a clearing. They were the sounds of traffic, which was encouraging at first, because at least we weren’t driving towards the middle of nowhere. Then, as we exited the trail, I saw a familiar sight in the near-distance. We had reached Route 17 West.

As I watched commuters and tractor trailers speed by on the highway, I couldn’t bring myself to glance at my partner, the one I’d just reassured I knew where I was going. She was a good sport, though, and feigned confidence in me while exploring the grassy expanse next to the highway by foot, looking in vain for any signs of a continuing trail. But as I glanced across the highway, I saw the familiar Prestige Auto billboard and knew exactly where we were. We’d have to cross 17 to get to Ferndale, and we obviously couldn’t do that on the highway. We should have taken Twin Bridge Road.

Backpedaling, we retraced our path and revisited the four-corners, where we began the steep journey up Twin Bridge Road into Ferndale, officially kicking off what we later called “the pavement portion” of our trip. Conquering the steep hills completely on bike, we finally got the intense workout we’d been looking for. One might say we even got more that we’d bargained for. After conquering all the menacing hills while making ourselves safely visible to passing cars, we reached the overpass on Twin Bridge that crossed the highway, and I knew we’d made it to Ferndale and halfway to Liberty.

The most confusing part of the trip came after we got off the busy Old Route 17 and were at the bottom of Ferndale-Loomis Road by the antique shop. Looking up at that insane hill, one I’d driven down many times at illegal speeds because of the sheer momentum taking hold of my vehicle, it was clear that we would not be riding up it. Giving in and grabbing my phone, I looked up a map of New York State rail trails, but somehow, I couldn’t understand where they were telling me the other trailhead was for the Liberty path. It said it was located somewhere near Sullivan Avenue, but I definitely did not want to cycle through Fast Food Alley, one of the more heavily-trafficked areas in town. And so, abandoning the idea, I informed my partner that we were going to walk our bikes up the beast of a hill.

“Seriously?” she said, her patience wearing thin. “That hill is massive!”

“I know,” I said, “but once we get to the top, we take one more residential road and then we jump on the Liberty rail trail.”

Hey, reassurance had gotten me this far.

Walking bicycles up Ferndale-Loomis Road is worse than you could ever imagine. Even for two relatively fit and outdoorsy people like us, the hill’s relentless gradient paired with the sheer terror induced by the speeding cars is enough to make one write off that hill for good, and a pretty big deterrent to taking the rails-to-trails across towns. Nevertheless, we reached midway up the hill and took the quick right onto Upper Ferndale Road, the last main road we’d have to use before reaching the Liberty trails. It felt great to jump on our bikes again, and once the wooden sign welcoming us to the Liberty Rail Trail came into view, I was overcome with emotion, partly because I was proud we’d made it to Liberty, but mostly because I knew a visit to my mother’s house would mean a great meal, and we were so unbelievably hungry.

I must say that the Liberty Rail Trail, although short, is very well-marked. It clearly told us that we could either make the right and end up at the unidentified trailhead that I could not place earlier, or take the left, where helpful white footprints on pavement led us to the Carrier Street part of the rail trail. Left we went, and in time we reached Carrier and saw Agway in the distance. We crossed Lake Street and rode behind Agway to find the trail again, another quick and leisurely ride down to the Chestnut Street trailhead, which was also well-marked.

We’d reached the end of our journey, and by the time we crossed the street, rode up Yaun Avenue (another hill) and collapsed on my parents’ front lawn, it was nearly dark.

We recounted our journey to my parents, who wanted to know how we’d gotten to their house for dinner without cars. When we told them we’d biked it, they were in disbelief.

“I didn’t know all the rail trails actually connected,” my mom said.

“Well,” I began, looking at my exhausted companion as she stretched out her burning calves on their living room floor, “Not exactly like you’d think.”

In the end, we did it. We successfully biked from Hurleyville to Liberty via rail trail, and although the trails in the county really don’t all connect that seamlessly, with a little effort and a mind open to adventure, it’s a trip I would recommend doing at least once.