Hyde Park, NY is located about 90 miles north of New York City but is a world away from the hustle and bustle of the city. Hyde Park is the home to American royalty, namely the Roosevelts and the Vanderbilts.
Fortunately, those families have donated their homes to the National Park Service, forming three National Historic Sites: Eleanor Roosevelt NHS, Home of Franklin D. Roosevelt NHS and Vanderbilt Mansion NHS. These sites allow us to experience a world most folks would never see otherwise.
But there’s a lot more to Hyde Park than just these nice historic homes. The village is home to the Culinary Institute of America along with several fabulous restaurants plus a great trail system along the river.
We started our visit with the Eleanor Roosevelt NHS, then the Home of Franklin D. Roosevelt NHS and finished with the Vanderbilt Mansion NHS. The three homes showed a vast difference in wealth and how the people who lived there felt about it. We also took side trips to three other National Parks sites nearby: Martin Van Buren National Historic Site, Weir Farm National Historic Site and Springfield Armory National Historic Site.
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Eleanor Roosevelt NHS
Eleanor’s home, Val Kill, was a cottage that she and FDR built several years into their marriage. Up until that point, they had lived in his childhood home with his mother.
FDR’s mother was the ultimate overprotective helicopter mom. To put that statement into perspective, she lived 40-something years after her husband (FDR’s father) died. She never remarried nor showed any interest in remarrying. She had her son and could basically now devote all her time to him! Indeed, when he went to Harvard, she moved up there so she could be near him.
So, the idea of Eleanor having her own home had great appeal to her. She also used the cottage as a factory, helping to train the locals in furniture making and other skills that they could use in the winter when it was too cold to farm.
Eleanor decorated this house herself and kept it very “common” and down to earth. On our tour, we all commented that the cottage reminded us of our grandparent’s homes. It was everyday furniture, nothing ornate or fancy. And she did entertain many high profile folks at this house, including Winston Churchill and John F. Kennedy. Even they got the basic dishes that could be replaced at the local store when broken!
Home of Franklin D. Roosevelt NHS
From there we went just across the road to FDR’s home. There is a trail which connects the two. We opted to not be sweaty when touring these exquisite homes.
This was actually his mother’s house where he grew up. It was definitely much larger and had much nicer furnishings than Eleanor’s cottage. Nothing was completely over-the-top but there was definitely a difference. His mother grew up wealthy and she certainly lived her life so that everyone knew – exactly what Eleanor yearned to escape.
FDR continued to live in this house, even after Eleanor’s cottage was built. Back in the day, it was not uncommon for wealthy couples to have separate bedrooms. While the Roosevelts did share a bedroom at one time, his indiscretions and illness (polio) eventually led to more separate lives, at least privately.
The grounds here also contained the Presidential Museum & Library, which we skipped, and the Rose Garden where FDR, Eleanor, and his beloved dog are buried.
Where to Eat: The Culinary Institute of America
From here we took a lunch break and went to The Apple Pie Bakery and Cafe at The Culinary Institute of America. We looked into getting dinner reservations at one of the full-scale restaurants. Unfortunately, everything was booked.
Pro tip: Book in advance at the CIA!
Lunch at the cafe was fabulous, though. Between the two of us, we had the chili, French onion soup, Prosciutto de Parma sandwich, crab cake and a huge slice of apple pie. While it was all delicious, both the chili and soup were a little on the sweet side for our tastes. Everything else was pretty much exactly perfect. The crab cake had very little filler and the sandwich had nice, thick slices of prosciutto. The Dutch apple pie was absolutely fabulous, with big, crunchy crumbles on top.
If you are ever in the area and want to eat at the CIA, this is definitely a good option. It was still pricey but probably at least a third or a fourth of what we would have spent on dinner. The campus was beautiful. I’ve heard they do tours, but we have not looked into that yet. If we have the opportunity to do that another day, we just might.
Vanderbilt Mansion NHS
Following lunch, we took a tour of the Vanderbilt Mansion. The Vanderbilts built their fortune on shipping and opium trade in the 1800s. The patriarch who started the Vanderbilt “empire” decided he didn’t want to break apart the fortune. So, he left it all to just one child. That son basically doubled the fortune (to what would be the equivalent of roughly $3 billion today).
When he died, he divided up his fortune to all eight of his children, though not equally. The youngest son actually got the least amount of money because he was disinherited when he married a divorced woman. Eventually, his sister convinced their father to reconcile and bring him back into the will. He ended up being the only child that actually grew his fortune and ended up with more than he started with.
All the children had more money than they knew what to do with and built massive houses all over the world. This particular home that we visited today was a “small” one, comparatively… Only three stories and thirty-something bedrooms!
It was designed to hold only about 16 guests, not 100 or more, like many of the other homes. It also had room for all the many servants. But there was nothing common or small about it. Everything was modeled after the wealthy homes in Europe and almost all the furnishings were European. It reminded us a bit of the Doge’s Palace in Venice. This house definitely reeked of opulence… Though nothing to the scale of The Biltmore in North Carolina (also a Vanderbilt home).
Hiking Trails of Hyde Park
The town has spent the last 25 plus years developing a trail system and encouraging its residents and visitors to get out and walk. The trail system has more than 11 trails stretching 30 miles. They offer a “Walkabout” patch for anyone who completes at least five of the listed trails within one year. This emphasis on getting out and being active is one of the things that led us to spend as much time here as we did.
We decided to spend our outdoor time in Mills-Norrie State Park. Technically, it is two parks that are adjacent, but we couldn’t tell where one ended and the other began.
The first portion of our trail (the White trail) followed the east side of the Hudson River north. We had many splendid views as passed a few picnic tables and cabins and were able to get down to the water. There were several uphill and downhill moments but nothing too strenuous. We stopped for a picnic lunch on a bench overlooking the river. It was very peaceful, even with the occasional jet ski or boat.
Following lunch, we continued north and eventually took the Blue trail south, back to the truck. It was not nearly as scenic, mainly because it was not along the waterfront, but it was still great to be outdoors, getting fresh air and getting some steps in. Along the trail, we found the ruins of old homes in need of restoration. They were cool to see even if they were fenced off.
Where to Eat and Drink: Poughkeepsie
After the hike (about 4 miles), we found a brewery in Poughkeepsie, which is the next town south of Hyde Park. It actually was only about 5-10 minutes away, so not a bad drive at all. The Mill House Brewing Company had some great brews and bites. Grant, of course, had the flight of 5 beers. The most interesting one was a Cucumber Cream Ale, which was very aromatic and unique.
Many of the beers were quite nice, even for a non-beer lover like me. While I sampled a few of Grant’s beers, I was busying enjoying a glass of an Italian Pinot Grigio. We both fell in love with Italian wine when we visited Italy a few years ago. I generally prefer red wine, but if I want to stay awake in the middle of the afternoon, I have to stick to white!
The menu at the brewery was very interesting. Since we had just had lunch not long before, we got the appetizer of pretzel bites. It was the perfect choice for something not too heavy, yet tasty and filling. The beer cheese dip which came with the pretzel bites was so yummy I really just wanted to eat with a spoon! Many other items on the menu looked fabulous and unique. If we are ever in this part of the world again, I would eat here in a heartbeat.
Side Trip: Martin Van Buren NHS
Martin Van Buren, the 8th president of the United States, is from nearby Kinderhook, NY. Van Buren, alternatively known as the Red Fox of Kinderhook and the Magician, was a political genius and astute at the art of the compromise.
His home, now a national historic site, is located along the Old Post Road, the main road running from New York City to Albany.
It was actually a local judge’s home where a young attorney Van Buren had an interesting encounter. As the story goes, the house belonged to a judge that was a Federalist. Seeing the young Van Buren coming, the judge turned his back, since Van Buren was a Jeffersonian Republican. Van Buren went up to the door and knocked anyway. The judge smiled. Van Buren later bought the home.
Our visit was in the midst of a long stretch of rain and was well-suited to a rainy day. The house itself was an interesting conglomeration of Colonial Dutch, Italianate, with a touch of Victorian as a result of being renovated by Van Buren.
The house had some fairly modern features, including a pump which drew water up to a holding tank in the attic, providing running water to the house.
The ranger-led tour was very interesting and gave a lot of insight into a president I honestly knew very little about. Indeed, I hold him in a lot higher esteem knowing he governed through a depression following a credit crash (sounds familiar) and pushed through reform legislation to help fix the problem.
Where to Eat and Drink – Valatie
We found lunch at a little sandwich shop not far from Martin Van Buren NHS, conveniently called The Sandwich Shop, in Valatie, N.Y., where got a couple of nicely done paninis and then headed up the road to our next stop: Harvest Spirits Farm Distillery.
Harvest Spirits makes vodka, applejack (a Colonial America favorite), a single-malt whiskey, fruit-flavored applejacks, and some small-batch liquors which had not been aged. Most of the fruit comes from the Golden Harvest Farms, which has some amazing apple cider donuts!
The facility was small, but it was obvious they put thought and love into the distillery, not to mention the product, which was outstanding in every regard. While we were not fans of the fruit-based liquors, the vodka was very smooth, the applejack was incredibly tasty and the single malt… Well, let’s just say the single malt came home with us and is a welcome addition to our bar.
Side Trip: Weir Farm NHS
Weir Farm is one of those places that you just never hear about until you start looking into American artists. I certainly had never heard of it before making plans to visit it.
Weir Farm National Historic Site is located outside Danbury, CT, a bit more than an hour from Hyde Park, on a hill surrounded by complicated, expensive homes. By contrast, the Weir House and surrounding farm buildings look to be something from a century ago… Certainly, from some time simpler.
The historic site was created in 1990 after 20 years of grassroots preservation by local residents and artists alike. It preserves the farm where American Impressionist J. Alden Weir fell in love with the “quiet plain little house among the rocks.” Weir traded a painting he had bought and $10 to a friend for the land.
I can certainly see why he fell in love with the farm. The stone fence lines and gentle, sloping fields are about as New England pastoral as can be had outside of one of his paintings.
The home itself was incredibly well-preserved, having passed to Weir’s daughter, Dorothy, and her husband, Mahonri Young. Young, a sculptor, is most famous for his piece This is the Place, a frieze depicting the Mormon’s move to Utah. Young built his own studio at Weir Farm and lived there until his death when it passed to another artist couple, the Andrews, who preserved much of the house for posterity.
The farm is still used by artists to this day. The artist-in-residence offers classes in painting, with an emphasis on the Impressionistic style Weir so loved.
Side Trip: Springfield Armory NHS
Springfield Armory National Historic Site was one of two national armories that produced weapons for the United States. The other, Harpers Ferry, was destroyed at the beginning of the Civil War. Springfield Armory started operation in 1794 and kept producing mostly rifles until 1968. Many of the finest rifles ever made, including the 1903 Springfield, the M1 Garand and the M14, the last of which is still in service today, were designed and produced at the armory.
Most of the armory was long ago converted for use as the Springfield Technical Community College but the main armory building and a pair of the officer’s houses remain preserved as part of the historic site.
The exhibits display many of the weapons, variants and experiments attempted at the armory over the years. They also display the tools and techniques used to produce the weapons going back to shortly after the Revolutionary War. Regardless of your thoughts on guns, this site offers a very interesting look into how they have evolved and the craftsmanship that went into every weapon produced.
The site is located in Springfield, MA, about an hour and 45 minutes from Weir Farm NHS and about two hours from Hyde Park. We visited both the Springfield Armory NHS and Weir Farm NHS in one day without difficulty.
Where to Stay
Our campground from which we visited all of these sites was actually about 45 minutes north of Hyde Park, in Copake, NY. This area of the state has a lot of VERY small towns. This town has only a handful of “restaurants” and only one of them really looks like anything we would go to.
We are staying at the Copake KOA, which is huge. It is a very nice campground, with all the amenities you could ask for.
Another unique tidbit about this campground is the permanent residents. Generally, we are not a fan of permanent residents, but these folks do it right. They have decks, sheds, potted plants and welcome signs. Everything you would find in a subdivision. They just have a fifth-wheel as their home. This is definitely a look that we can accept. It also doesn’t hurt that these particular lots are in a separate part of the grounds from the temporary folks like us.
Final Thoughts on Hyde Park
This area is packed with history and upstate New York is gorgeous. You can’t go wrong spending time here. That said, it can be a bit pricey in terms of finding a campground. We ended up quite a ways away from Hyde Park. That said, the campground in Copake was great and we certainly recommend it. Just know that you will spend a bit of time in the car traveling to all of the cool stuff in the area.
This was one of our first real introductions to how close things are this far north and how easy it can be to visit multiple sites in one day. It definitely makes for an easier time trying to get to multiple parks.