The hikes are mostly barely a mile or so and gentle, wide sandy trails and grassy woodland paths, yet the landscape they traverse is uniquely American and rare -- and it is now the country’s newest National Natural Landmark.
The Albany Pine Bush Preserve is 3,200 disjointed acres that have just about survived the development of malls, landfills, and interstate highways on the outskirts of New York's state capital, Albany. It is one of the largest of 20 surviving examples of a particularly American landscape, the inland pine barren.
Its designation by the National Park Service as a national natural landmark recognizes Pine Bush as containing the best remaining examples of a rare ecosystem. Pitch pine-scrub oak woodland and dense shrubs interspersed with prairie grass and wildflowers fill the landscape amidst rolling sand dunes.
The pine barren covered more than 25,000 acres before agriculture and development took its toll, particularly in the 1950s and '60s.
It is a tiny remnant of prehistoric Lake Albany, a large finger-like glacial lake that during the last Ice Age 12,000–15,000 years ago stretched 140 miles from present day Glens Falls, NY to Newburgh, NY. (Lake Champlain, to the north, was then still a sea that opened directly into the Atlantic Ocean)
As the water drained from Lake Albany over the ages, it left behind the sandy deposits of the lake floor that today are the preserve’s sandy topsoils.
The combination of scrub oak thickets, pockets of pitch pine, grassy clearings and sand plain provides a home to the endangered Karner Blue and other rare butterflies and moths. You could also come across some species of turtles and salamanders that are on New York State’s list of animals of special concern.
If you visit in the summer, take water and protection from the sun; the Pine Bush gets hot and dry. In the winter, you may need snowshoes.
Over the next couple of years, the Pine Bush trail system is being revamped. The goal is to make it more eco-friendly by creating larger contiguous trail-free areas for wildlife and to provide a longer end-to-end trail for hikers.