The Mississippi may be the longest and most famous river in the United States, but no river commands a larger place in American history than the Hudson. America's first great waterway flows from the Adirondacks down to New York City and the open sea. The rise of the United States from renegade colony to great nation is intrinsically linked at every stage to the mighty Hudson River. Recently celebrating 400 years since it was first sailed by Henry Hudson in 1609, the Hudson became the principal avenue of transportation for the emergent colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries and strategic territory during the war for American independence. As the young nation evolved, the Hudson became the axis along which some of America's most legendary families -- among them, the Livingstons, Vanderbilts, Roosevelts, and Rockefellers -- shaped the face of American industry and politics, leaving legacies of grand country estates and the towns that grew up around them.

Just over 300 miles long, the river is less mighty in size than stature. The Hudson River Valley spans eight counties along the east and west banks of the river, extending from Albany down to Yonkers. Divided into manageable thirds, the Lower, Middle, and Upper Hudson together compose a National Heritage Area and one of the most beautiful regions in the eastern United States. The river valley's extraordinary landscapes gave birth to America's first art school, the Hudson River school of painters, and writers like Edith Wharton and Washington Irving set their stories and novels along the banks of the Hudson. Though a place of immense historical importance and beauty, the river valley also has an impressive roster of sights and activities. The Hudson is lined with stunning country manor houses open to the public, unique museums, splendid historic sites, and easygoing Victorian hamlets. You can hike, kayak, fish, boat, golf, and even ski within easy reach of any of the towns along the Hudson. The valley -- flush with organic farms and orchards, artisanal cheese makers, farmers' markets, and a growing number of wineries and small restaurants with Culinary Institute chefs at the helm -- is fast becoming a real destination for gastronomes. For lovers of culture, history, the arts, the outdoors, and good food, the Hudson River Valley has few rivals anywhere in the country.