Difficulty: 3 out of 10 (relatively flat, easy stroll with a large staircase on either end)
Highlights: Cliffs, giant overhangs, waterfalls going over those cliffs and giant overhangs, other amazing sights that seem like they should be in Utah or something.
Distance: 2.5 miles, loop (or up-and-back)
Approximate roundtrip time: 2.5 hours
Total ascent: 541 ft
Max elevation: 1,207 ft above sea level
This hike is for you if: You want to take a relatively easy hike with a massive payoff, and you’re not scared to drive to Albany to make it happen. Also, you’re cool when your nature comes served with crowds.
Super-cool Google Earth flyover of hike route:
Google Terrain Map of hike route:
Winter warning: This trail is closed between Nov 16 and April 30. During this time, you’ll want to pick a different hike, or concentrate on chipping away at your Netflix backlog.
Background you can feel free to skip: “Ha, that’s not in the Hudson Valley!” I said, looking at the gorgeous picture of the Indian Ladder Trail that was featured in Hudson Valley Magazine’s article: “10 Best Hiking Trails for Kids.” (That article also featured links to several of my trail guides, which is how I found it – thanks, cool dudes at Hudson Valley Magazine!)
If something that awesome was in the Hudson Valley, surely I would have already known about it.
Nope. Turns out, they were right, I was wrong. This amazing slice of awesomeness is right here in the Hudson Valley, as long as you count the upper boundary of the Hudson Valley as extending way up into the southern Capital District. Wait, Wikipedia is letting us count Albany in the Hudson Valley. Woo hoo! No need to annex any territory here – this is a legit Hudson Valley hike.
And what a hike it is. You get views starting right from the parking lot, and they pretty much don’t stop the whole time.
It would be difficult to overstate the amount of awesomeness waiting for you on this hike. From the huge overhangs to the waterfalls that shoot over the cliffs, generously allowing you to walk behind them, I really can’t imagine anyone not loving it here.
The hike itself is relatively flat (with the exception of the very steep stairs on either end), making it a great hike on which to bring your friends who don’t even like hiking that much.
Besides the views and cool sights, there are also fossils to be found embedded in the limestone here, which was a major draw to my six-year-old son. (Wikipedia calls the Helderberg Plateau “one of the most fossiliferous regions in the United States,” thereby making “fossiliferous” my new favorite word.) My son spent the whole time looking for a T-Rex in the rocks. Never did find that T-Rex, but I’m pretty sure we found some prehistoric clam doohickeys in there.
Also, a note to the people who are scratching/etching the rock face for some reason, making it impossible to find fossils in one of the most fossiliferous places in the country: Please, please, please, find a new hobby. I hear video games are fun.
As you may be able to guess from the amount of etchings on the stone faces throughout this hike, this place draws a ton of people. And well it should – it’s amazing here. (And the vast majority treat this place with the respect it deserves, perhaps even picking up some litter along the way – like how you and I roll.)
We visited when my son’s school was closed for Election Day (a Tuesday in November), and even then, there were many dozens of people along the trail. On a sunny summer weekend, this place must be a mob scene. It certainly deserves to be.
If you prefer your nature served with a little more solitude, you’d do well to hit this hike at an off-peak time. It’s most definitely a cool enough destination to warrant burning a vacation day – that’s what I did.
Perhaps there are better ways to spend a nice day than visiting John Boyd Thacher State Park and hiking the Indian Ladder Trail. But I can’t think of what they might be.
Bonus tip: One nice blog post on this hike recommended bringing a flashlight along, for kids to poke into the various caves and crevices. This was sound advice – my son had a blast wielding the flashlight at several spots along the way. He didn’t find any bears or dinosaur skeletons in any of them, but maybe next time.
1. From the parking area (see “Directions to the trailhead” below), take a few steps up to the stone wall and go, “Duuuuuuuude.”
2. Well, that was a great hike, right? What a money spot! Back in the car, everyone – let’s go get some ice cream!
Kidding, of course. Let’s do this thing! Facing the view, turn left to follow the wall to the end of the parking lot, keeping the cars on your left and the crazy views off to your right. (And keep the wall between you and those views, to keep you and gravity from having a misunderstanding.)
3. Climb a few stairs up to the quarter-munching binoculars. Feel free to read some educational signage about the Helderberg Escarpment upon which you are standing – might as well learn something while we’re here.
4. Just past those binoculars, the trail begins down some stone steps, where you’ll find a tree marked with an aqua blaze to the left of the steps. Head down the steps and follow those blazes!
5. The trail splits and merges several times as the official, aqua-blazed trail intersects with the shortcuts that people have tromped. Just keep chugging along, following the blazes and enjoying the views. Keep the fence on your right and you’ll be all set.
6. Just after you pass another parking area on your left (good thing you parked further away so you didn’t miss those views!), you’ll come upon a stairway heading down to your right (turning left to ascend the steps would take you up to the parking lot).
Turn right here to descend to the Indian Ladder Trail, one of the coolest places in the Hudson Valley, which puts it high in the running for one of the coolest places in the world (not to build it up too much, of course).
7. After noting the rules of the trail (no surprises here – and if you were considering littering, please go home right now and ask a loved one for an honest assessment of where you went wrong), down we go!
8. At the bottom of the steps, check out the picture of how people used to get up and down this cliff, before we got all soft and started using stairs.
If this next section of trail isn’t already named “Tall Person’s Misery,” it should be. If you’re taller than four feet: First you spread your limbo feet, then you move to the limbo beat. How low can you go?
10. From Tall Person’s Misery, head down some steps, stroll for a few more minutes, and then SHA-BAM! This is what you came for.
The falls were pretty mellow during our November visit, but they were still awesome, and must be even more awesome in the spring when the water is rushing.
11. Enjoy a frolic under the gigantic overhang, looking at the back of the waterfall and the nice view beyond.
You’ll also notice that you’re standing next to a placard that tells you that this waterfall is called Minelot Falls. Majestic, indeed.
Then let’s continue on, heading up the ramp on the far side of the falls, looking back over your shoulder at the scene behind you.
Goodbye, Minelot Falls! ‘Til next time.
Also, find a new hobby, Tiffany. We’re trying to look for fossils out here.
13. And then, about ten minutes from Minelot Falls, boom! Another (probably seasonal, and much lower-volume, but still quite awesome) waterfall, complete with an underground stream emerging from under the cliffs and running across the trail.
Just past those falls, on the right-hand side of the trail, we found a rock that, at least to our untrained eyes, looked quite fossiliferous. (And relatively unscratched by Tiffany or anyone else.)
14. Just past the falls and fossiliferous rocks, a footbridge crosses another underground (until recently) stream just as it ventures out from under the cliff.
In a moment, you’ll see more educational signage, with an amazing picture of what the previous falls looked like in all their glory, before much of the water was siphoned off to underground streams. Dang it, underground streams, I really liked you until I saw this picture.
15. Walk another minute or two, and bang! Another point of interest. More caves to ogle, signs to read, and fossils to attempt to find.
16. After that cave, you’re almost to the end. A couple more minutes of scenic trail, and, sadly, you arrive at the staircase back to civilization.
17. Optional step: From the top of that staircase, you can check out the little observation deck to your right, which has a pleasant, but not earth-shattering, view.
From the top of these steps, it’s choose-your-own adventure time! There’s a playground just around the corner, maybe a few hundred yards away (recommended for people with offspring – it’s a pretty good playground). There are also picnic pavilions, tables and benches, and a bathroom with a water fountain up there. If you’d prefer not to visit any of that stuff, just skip the next step.
19. Optional step: It’s playground time, homepeople! At the top of the steps at the end of the Indian Ladder Trail (you’ll see aqua blazes on the split-rail fence to your left), turn sharply to the right.
Almost immediately, you’ll see an unmarked trail heading up and over the little hill on your left. Take that trail. In less than a minute, you should emerge into a clearing scattered with picnic tables. There’s even a horseshoe pit, in case you’d like to play a pickup game.
Just beyond that clearing, you’ll find a pretty rockin’ playground. Awww, yisssss. Fire it up!
On the far side of the street, you’ll also find a bathroom building with a fairly vigorous water fountain.
After you’ve had your fun, retrace your steps back to the top of the steps at the end of the Indian Ladder Trail. You’ll find some helpful signage along the way.
If you enjoyed this step, you can thank the cameraman for the PBS documentary, “The Great Ledge: Exploring Thacher.” He was filming right at the end of the Indian Ladder Trail on our visit, and he told us about the playground. Otherwise, we’d have had no idea. Thanks, cool documentarian dude!
Also, right at the top of the steps that descend back to the Indian Ladder Trail, there was a huge construction zone (as of November 2015), featuring a picture of the soon-to-be-built Thacher Park Center. Looks like a cool place! If it exists when you visit, perhaps you should check it out, person of the future.
20. Standing at the top of the stairs that lead back down to the Indian Ladder Trail, you can either:
- Complete this hike as a loop by walking along the top of the ridge back to your car.
- Retrace your steps back along the Indian Ladder Trail. It’s probably better for your karma NOT to return on the Indian Ladder Trail if it’s a very crowded day. If conditions allow and that’s what you’re choosing to do now, happy retracing! Have a safe trip home, and may all your days be merry and fossiliferous.
If you’d like to complete the loop along the top of the ridge, assuming you’re standing with your back to the stairs from the end of the Indian Ladder Trail, look left to find two aqua blazes (remember those?) on the split-rail fence.
Turn left here to follow those blazes all the way back up to your car, about one relatively flat mile from here, keeping that fence on your left and enjoying the views from the top of the escarpment as you go. Bon voyage! Hope you had a great and fossiliferous time today!
Whatever you decide to do, enjoy it! When you get back to the parking lot, perhaps a nice birdwatcher will lend your kid his binoculars to round out an already awesome, fossiliferous day.
What a fantastic place. Thanks for being in the Hudson Valley and sharing your hikes with us, Albany! Now let’s go get some ice cream.
Directions to the trailhead: I hate to be a wimp, but I am not confident in my abilities to describe the route I took to this park in such a way that you would not get lost trying to follow them (and I’m not sure it’d be ideal for most people, though the drive across the Rip Van Winkle Bridge and up the back roads was really nice). It’s basically the route that Google Maps will bring you by default, if you’re coming from the south – please use your GPS or mapping website of choice to get here. If you just type in “John Boyd Thacher State Park,” Google Maps will point you to “1 Hales Cave Road, Voorheesville, NY,” which is close enough – it’ll bring you right past the parking area for this hike, coming from the south. From the north, you’ll just keep heading straight on Route 157 for another minute or two. (Or you can click the “GPS coordinates of parking area” link just below to navigate directly to the right spot.)
Once you’re in the park: Coming into the park on Route 157 (also known as Thacher Park Road) from the south, you’ll pass several pulloffs and picnic areas – just keep heading into the park. When you see Glen Doone Picnic Area on your right, you’re getting close. Look on the right for “Cliff Edge Overlook” – that’s your huckleberry, turn right here to pull into the large parking lot. (If you miss the turn, don’t worry, there’s a second entrance in another hundred yards or so.) The picture here is taken as I pulled back out of the lot at the end of the day, so it’s the reverse of what you’ll see from Rt. 157.
You can also get directions by checking out the Indian Ladder Trail entry on the HiketheHudsonValley.com Google map.
Sorta nearby address for your GPS: The address of the John Boyd Thacher State Park is:
1 Hales Cave Road
From there, please see the “Directions to the trailhead” section directly above for further notes on locating the parking area.
GPS coordinates of parking area: 42.65069, -74.00639 (Clicking will open in Google Maps or the Apple Maps app, depending on your browser/device.)
Related resources: If you’re looking for actual facts and/or useful information, visit these resources:
- If you’re into the whole brevity thing, you might prefer this localhikes.org write-up for this hike. (It accomplishes the same hike with about 99% fewer words, and 100% fewer bad jokes.)
- The official Thacher State Park homepage
- A nice PDF trail map from the official Thacher homepage (the trail guide above has you park at the binoculars just to the left of the “H” in “Helderberg”)
- A cool documentary from the local PBS station: “The Great Ledge: Exploring Thacher“
- A nice blog post on this hike from alloveralbany.com
- Some gorgeous photos on AlbanyKid.com
- John Boyd Thacher State Park Yelp reviews
- The Hudson Valley Magazine article that alerted me to the existence of this place
- Some historical Wikipedia information on John Boyd Thacher, the former mayor of Albany, who could have saved the world a million typos if he’d spelled his last name “Thatcher”
More Indian Ladder Trail pictures from the hike’s Flickr album:
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