Cycling the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail: A Pleasant Ride Through History

June 13, 2011

Some 150 odd years ago in the opening page of his magnum opus Moby-Dick, Herman Melville wrote the following to explain why his character Ishmael was, in lieu of a more reckless or destructive act, occasionally moved to set out to sea:

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off- then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship.

Indeed.  I know the feeling.

But since it is not 1840 and I have no idea what “hypos” are, nor any inclination to knock hats off people’s heads for fear of getting my own blown off, and since there are no whale ships to sign up on,  when ever I feel  that “November in my soul”  I  set out to do something a bit different than poor Ishmael.

I ride my bike.

And I ride it as long, as hard, and as often as I can.  Or at least until my hypos cease having the upper hand on me.

Happily, there are interesting routes near enough by to do so.

For those New York based cyclists who like myself appreciate both a little history and a little variety in a hearty ride, they could do worse than take on the more than 150 year old Croton Aqueduct Trail which runs from Cortland, New York to Van Cortland Park in the Bronx.  (Or, for the more literal and adventurous, through upper Manhattan, through Highbridge Park and on to Bryant Park, the original site of where all the water led and, for  a time, from where all New Yorkers drank.)

Built as a response to both the devastating fires and epidemics that, due to a chronic shortage of water and contaminated wells, ravished 19th century New York, the aqueduct was rightly considered one of the great engineering achievements of the 19th century.  Riding upon 26 miles of it’s trail  — as you snake through Cortland, Ossining, Briarcliff Manor, Sleepy Hollow, Tarrytown, Dobbs Ferry, Hastings-on Hudson and Yonkers — you can easily see why.  It was a work of both genius and grueling labor and one that transformed the city for the better forevermore.

To begin at the beginning of the trail,  one can purchase a $5 lifetime bike pass at Grand Central ( no good during rush hour ) and board a Metro North Train to Croton-on-Hudson.  There is something beautiful about setting out early in the morning and sitting on a train watching the sun come up on the Hudson.  From Croton-on-Hudson you need  mosey up Quakerbridge Road   two miles or so ( up hill !)  to the New Croton Reservoir which, in itself, is a sight to behold.

Once on the trail proper, you will from time to time, find water ventilators that look like giant rooks from a giant chessboard.  From these structures the water that moved down underground from the reservoir to the city “breathed.”

Also from time to time the trail will be cut off and the cyclist will need to do a little road riding as one does through Tarrytown,  but this too is a pleasure.

Caveats:   For anyone interested in this ride, there are one or two areas where the trail is difficult to find without a map. The first time I rode it, I depended on a map I downloaded from the internet and that proved a foolish move.  I strongly suggest purchasing the Old Croton Aqueduct State Historic Park map, published by Friends of the Old Croton Aqueduct and available at Urban Center Books in NYC.  The map also includes a brief history of the Aqueduct as well as brief descriptions of historical sites along the way.  Another  fine source is the Official Rails-to Trails Conservancy Guidebook for New York which includes the Aqueduct and many, many other excellent trails in the state.

Be warned that the trail at Yonkers is riddled with glass and it is strongly suggested you move to the street once  you enter that sad, abandoned  little city.

Also, finding the trail from Yonkers to Van Cortland Park is tricky and can be confusing.  On this  last outing, my friend and I  found ourselves lost until we encountered a huge, blonde, hatless, uniformed policeman wearing mirrored shades and jackboots standing inexplicably alone on a tiny dead end street staring into nothingness like something out of a dream or a David Lynch movie.   Anyway, he told us how to get out of Yonkers and for that we were grateful.

What follows are some photos from my last journey along the trail which I hope you enjoy.

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3 Responses to “Cycling the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail: A Pleasant Ride Through History”


  1. Thanks for the review. I just biked it today and your comments were very informative. (The Yonkers to Van Cortland part is still an adventure.)

    • patrickwalsh Says:

      Hi there Sabrina,
      you’re very welcome. You picked the perfect time of the year for that particular journey and, yes the Yonkers to Van Cortland is indeed an adventure.

      All the best,
      Patrick


  2. […] Cycling the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail: A Pleasant Ride Through History (raginghorse.wordpress.com) […]


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