Winters in the Finger Lakes region can be unpredictable. Some years the snow comes on with a fury and seems to stay forever. Other years we experience a feast-or-famine phenomenon where big storms sweep through, dumping snow which then melts, only to be followed by another dump. Then there are years like the winter of 2001 where snow was sparse, except if you lived near Buffalo.
Fortunately, we don’t have to give up winter outdoor fun or try to time it to the whims of Mother Nature. The Finger Lakes region is dotted with trail networks that sit at high elevation where the snow comes early, sticks around through winter, and even lingers late into spring. Pack up your cross-country skis or snowshoes and head to one of these areas for a guaranteed day of fun in mounds of the white stuff.
Oakley Corners State Forest in Newark Valley and Owego, Tioga County offers 16 miles of trails that range from novice to advanced. Once farmland and pasture, this 1,042-acre forest was planted with pine, spruce, cedar, and larch in 1936. It is now managed by the New York State Department of Conservation for forest product harvesting and recreation.
Nearby is Jenksville State Forest with 12 miles of trails, including one with a scenic view of Jenksville and the valley to the south. As you ski, watch for a red oak tree that is 60 inches in diameter and approximately 200 years old.
A little farther north in Tompkins County is Hammond Hill State Forest with 11 miles of trails. It’s a busy place all winter long—heavily used by Cayuga Nordic Ski Club, Cornell Nordic Ski Team, and many others. Hammond Hill was established as a state forest between 1935 and 1950 in an effort to reduce soil erosion, produce forest products, and provide recreational opportunities. Once depleted farmland, it was planted with thousands of pine, spruce, larch, maple, ash, cherry, and oak seedlings. Today it is heavily forested.
Near the border of Schuyler and Tompkins Counties you can find Connecticut Hill Wildlife Management Area. It is part of the Appalachian Highlands, which is distinctive as a belt of high, rough land. The unplowed seasonal roads become a winter highway for skiers. The terrain is always hilly, sometimes with steep sections as it winds on and off the plateau. Expect an aerobic workout.
In Cortland County, winter enthusiasts can have fun at Heiberg Memorial Forest. The land is owned by the State University of New York College of Environmental Science & Forestry and is used as an outdoor classroom and experimental station. They graciously allow us “non-students” to ski their land. Their land is Truxton Hill, a high elevation, rolling hill area of unplowed roads, fire lanes and trails that total over 20 miles.
At Blodgett Mills in Cortland County is Tuller Hill State Forest. This is an area of variety with peaked hilltops, rounded knolls, deep ravines, and gentle slopes. The 9 miles of trails and unplowed dirt roads wander through hardwood forests and tight stands of evergreens. Follow the unplowed roads for intermediate-level skiing and the trails (such as Finger Lakes Trail) for an advanced adventure.
Also in Cortland County is the James B. Kennedy State Forest with 15 miles of trails and unplowed roads. It includes Greek Peak (the backside of Greek Peak Ski Resort) and Virgil Mountain. Most of the hills are moderate steepness, but there are some steep sections.
Look out your window and enjoy the view, but don’t let the lack of snow keep you indoors. There are hills and high elevation lands out there dressed in robes of white, just waiting for you to come out and play.
by Sue Freeman
Sue Freeman is the author of Snow Trails–Cross-Country Ski and Snowshoe in Central and Western New York which includes maps for these seven high-elevation ski areas as well as 71 others.