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    Thursday, August 11, 2022

    Hiking at Donald J. Trump State Park

    Hiking through mugwort at the Indian Hill Section of Donald J. Trump State Park in Yorktown, N.Y., are Toby and Mara Solomon, followed by their uncle, Jeff Solomon, and father, Mike Solomon. Everyone checked for ticks later. (Steve Fagin)

    After clambering uphill about 50 yards on a heavily eroded, crushed-stone path from a deserted parking lot the other afternoon, our group arrived at an overgrown field. From there, the trail all but disappeared beneath a dense thicket of mugwort, one of the most invasive plants in the Northeast.

    “Eww — I’m not going in there!” Mara Solomon, 7, protested, recoiling from a tangle of vines and brambles.

    This was our introduction to Donald J. Trump State Park in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., about seven miles east of the Hudson River and 35 miles north of New York City.

    The 436-acre public recreation area, laid out in two sections near the Taconic State Parkway, has attracted more controversy than visitors since the former president — then a prominent real estate mogul — donated it to New York in 2006, after local authorities rejected his plan to develop a pair of golf courses.

    Officials are now investigating Trump’s tax-deduction claim that the land is worth $26.1 million, even though he bought it in three separate transactions for $2.75 million, and the county had assessed it at just $5.5 million.

    I’d been curious about the park since reading about it a few years ago in Time magazine, The Washington Post and other publications, so relatives and I took a detour from a nearby family gathering a couple weeks ago to check it out. With me were two nephews, Jeff Solomon and Mike Solomon, and Mike’s two kids, Mara and her 9-year-old brother, Toby.

    We drove first to the 282-acre Indian Hill section, a former farm now overrun with tall grass, brush, weeds and invasives that not only included mugwort, but bittersweet and multiflora rose. Ruts in the short trail leading up the hill evidently were created by ATVs and dirt bikes.

    “Can we go now?” Toby asked, not five minutes after our arrival.

    Next, we drove seven miles to the 154-acre French Hill section, where we were pleasantly surprised to find a network of appealing, well-marked trails and interesting ruins that a century ago were part of the estate of William Delavan Baldwin, the first president of Otis Elevator Company.

    “You know, this is quite nice. If I lived near here, I’d come here to hike,” I said, as we strolled for more than a mile through a healthy forest of mixed hardwood trees, and past meadows blanketed with hay-scented ferns.

    The teacher-teacher-teacher call of an ovenbird, though, could barely be heard over the din of Sunday-afternoon traffic on the nearby Taconic.

    Baldwin called his estate “French Hill Farm” — the French Army camped near there twice during the American Revolution while helping the Continental Army defeat the British. Indian Hill refers to the Mohican tribe that populated the region long before the arrival of colonists in the 17th century.

    Baldwin’s estate once included a swimming pool, tennis and volleyball courts, and guest cottages; only vestiges remain. His mansion, not part of the state park, still stands and is privately owned.

    Trump bought the Indian Hill parcel for $1.75 million in 1998 and French Hill for $750,000 in 2000, both as part of estate sales. Also in 2000, he paid the New York State Department of Transportation $250,000 for 58 acres of surplus land next to the Taconic Parkway.

    After officials refused to issue permits for his golf courses, saying they would harm the local water supply, Trump donated the properties to the state.

    “These 436 acres of property will turn into one of the most beautiful parks anywhere in the world,” he declared at the time. For years, though, the state did little more than mow around the parking lots.

    Finally, in 2018, the New York Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation launched a $385,000 improvement program at French Hill, tearing down dilapidated buildings and clearing trails. No such enhancements have been made at the Indian Hill section.

    Every so often legislators try to change the park name — one state senator introduced an "Anything but Trump Act”; a citizens group favored Pete Seeger State Park — but terms of Trump’s donation stipulate the property must forever bear his name.

    It is not the only state park in New York to face such criticism. In 2019, a state legislator submitted a bill calling for renaming Robert Moses State Park on Long Island, claiming that many of the massive public works projects he spearheaded during the 20th century displaced minority communities. That legislation stalled, and to date, the 875-acre public recreation area is still called Robert Moses State Park.

    Meanwhile, in 2003, the New Hampshire state legislature voted to change the name of Mount Clay in the White Mountains to Mount Reagan, in honor of the 40th president. But after initially approving the switch, the U.S. Board of Geographic Names reversed course and decided to keep the name Clay, in recognition of Henry Clay, a 19th-century Kentucky senator and U.S. secretary of state.

    On a related note, in 2015, the Obama Administration decided to restore the name of Alaska’s Mount McKinley to Denali, a native Koyukon Athabaskan word for “tall.” At 20,310 feet, Denali is the nation’s highest mountain.

    The world’s tallest mountain was once simply called Peak XV before the British-sponsored Great Trigonometrical Survey, which had been mapping the Indian subcontinent since the early 1800s, decided in 1852 to name it for the organization’s former chief surveyor.

    According to history.com, Sir George Everest objected to this idea and suggested using names long used by native Himalayans for the 29,035-foot peak in Nepal. Tibetans called the mountain Chomolungma (“Goddess Mother of the World,”) while those from Darjeeling called it “Deodungha” (“Holy Mountain”).

    When I hiked in Nepal’s Khumbu region years ago, Sherpas called the mountain Sagarmāthā, which in Sanskrit means “Peak of Heaven.”

    Nevertheless, in 1865, the British organization decided to go with Mount Everest.

    As history.com reported, 76-year-old George Everest died the following year on December 1, 1866. It’s unknown whether he ever glimpsed his namesake mountain.

    Back in New York, our group did enjoy our short hike through the French Hill section of Donald J. Trump State Park.

    “That was fun,” my nephew, Jeff, announced. “Next week, let’s go to the Mussolini Aquarium.”

    To reach the park’s Indian Hill section, take Route 6 exit on the Taconic State Parkway and turn east. Turn left onto East Main Street and after about 100 feet, make a left onto Indian Hill Road. Go uphill for 0.8 mile to the park entrance to the left.

    To reach the French Hill section, take Exit 14 for Baldwin Road and turn east. Just past the north bound exit and entrance ramps, turn right onto Old Baldwin Road. The park entrance is at the end of the road.

    A trail cuts through ferns at the French Hill section of Donald J. Trump State Park in Yorktown, N.Y. (Steve Fagin)
    Steve Fagin at the entrance to the Indian Hill section of Donald J. Trump State Park in Yorktown, N.Y. (Jeff Solomon)
    Toby Solomon peeks through the window of a structure that once was on the estate of William Delavan Baldwin, and now is part of the French Hill section of Donald J. Trump State Park in Yorktown, N.Y. (Steve Fagin)

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