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Take a backroads drive along the Shawangunk

Of all the places I visited last summer while doing research for a travel guide, one of the most “backroads” places we visited was the Shawangunk Mountain Scenic Byway in the Catskill Mountains, about a six-hour drive from Buffalo.

This route, which was designated a scenic byway in 2006, has four distinct sections. While it is possible to drive the almost 90-mile byway in less than a day if you didn’t make any stops, you probably will want to allow an entire day or more to explore the many delightful small towns, farm markets, unusual sites and scenic vistas along the way. We stayed in nearby Poughkeepsie. There also are accommodations in New Paltz, as well as smaller inns in many of the towns along the way. If money is no object, you may want to stay at the Mohonk Mountain House outside of New Paltz. A luxury resort that has been in operation since 1860, the average room rate is around $700/night (meals included).

We began our drive in New Paltz, a typical college town that’s home to SUNY New Paltz. However, once you get out of the downtown area and travel on Route 7, you will be in rural farmland.

Our first stop along our drive was the small town of Rosendale, which has several small shops, including one selling gourmet pickled products. Rosendale even hosts a pickle festival in November. If we were adventurous, we might have hiked part of the Wallkill Valley Trail and walked across the Rosendale Trestle, formerly a railroad bridge. This 940-foot continuous truss bridge towers 150 feet above the road.

Chomsky the Gnome stands tall. (Photo by Christine A. Smyczynski)

Our favorite stop along the way was the town of Kerhonkson, which has a couple of unusual attractions that definitely fit the definition of “backroads,” including Kelder Farm, which has a number of family-friendly activities. The first thing that visitors will notice as they approach the farm is Chomsky, a 13 ½ foot tall garden gnome. Go ahead and take your picture with him – everyone does! When he was built in 2006, he was the world’s tallest garden gnome. However, since then, two other garden gnomes have surpassed him; a 15-foot gnome at Iowa State University and an 18-foot gnome in Poland.

Since my family enjoys playing miniature golf, we had to play a round on Kelder’s Homegrown Mini-Golf Course. The course features edible plants throughout, which players can sample, including chives, lettuce, kale, cabbage and even a root beer tree. Pull off a twig and chew on it for that familiar flavor; the bark of this tree is used in making root beer.

For small children, the farm has a jumping pillow and a corn maze. Its farm market has a variety of produce and locally produced items. It also offers pick-your-own in-season produce. A small museum inside the market has antique farm equipment and historic information about the farm.

However, one of Kerhonkson’s best kept secrets is just across the street from the farm. Helena’s Specialty Foods is located on the left side of a building which also has a trailer rental business. When Helena’s is open, generally Thursday through Monday, look for the hand-lettered sign for pierogi by the open door.

This is a no-frills operation; most locals and restaurants buy pierogi in bulk, but you can eat there, as there are two small tables inside, along with a picnic table outdoors. Step inside and place your order at the window. You can choose from whatever variety they happen to be making that day. You order by the dozen and it’s cash only. You can also get cooked kielbasa by the pound. While you wait for your order, you can peer through the window and watch Anna, the owner, along with her daughter and cousin, make the pierogis by hand. They make about 1,000 pierogi a day. Anna will give you paper plates and plastic cutlery; the pierogi are served in a plastic bag, it’s up to you to divvy them up among your family.

The next town along the way is Ellenville, which is one of the more populated towns on the byway. While we didn’t stop to eat here, I’ve been told there are a number of good restaurants here. We did stop at the scenic overlook just outside of Ellenville, which has a great view of the Shawangunk Ridge State Forest and the mountains in the distance.

As you continue along the byway, the road is curvy and you’ll pass a number of horse farms, as you head up Route 208 toward Gardiner and New Paltz. There are also several farm markets in this area that are noted for their apple cider donuts in the fall. When you get to New Paltz you may want to explore some of the shops and restaurants along Main, Church and North Streets.

We stopped at Huguenot Street, a must-see historic attraction in New Paltz, as it is the oldest authentic museum street in the nation with the most intact architectural concentration of late 17th century stone houses. The buildings in this 10-acre National Historic District date to 1677. Since it was later in the day, we chose to view the outside of the houses, which you can do for free. A one-hour guided tour of the interiors is offered for a fee.

Unfortunately, we didn’t have the chance to fully explore the last portion of the byway along Route 44/55, as a portion of the route was closed due to wildfires in the mountains (a common occurrence in recent years during hot, dry summers). However, we did get to see a portion of the route, including a stop at the picturesque Mohonk Gatehouse on Gateway Road off Route 299. This was the gatehouse for the Mohonk Mountain House from 1908 to 1935. We also got to one of the scenic overlooks on Route 44/55 that has a great view of the surrounding mountains.

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