Morgan Hill State Forest is located in south central Onondaga County and north central Cortland County. It consists of 5,560 acres with numerous back roads and trails to explore, including part of the Finger Lakes Trail, plus several ponds and many seasonal waterfalls.
Veterans of the Revolutionary War and early European settlers once farmed the land. They fought the short growing season, harsh winters and poor soil for more than a century. It was a losing battle, and the remains of their homesteads and gravesites can be found here and there in the forest-covered landscape.
I first became aware of this area when a friend invited me to go snowshoeing along the Finger Lakes Trail several winters ago. Since then I’ve been back many times to drive its roads, hike the trails and generally explore all that the area offers. In the winter it’s a playground for snowmobilers, cross-country skiers and snowshoers. During the summer, hiking, fishing, mountain biking and hunting prevail. ATVs are not allowed.
Tinker Falls: spectacular in the winter
The state forest is comprised of three hills: Jones Hill to the west, Fellows Hill to the north and Morgan Hill to the east. From its 1,964-foot summit, Jones Hill has a spectacular view of Labrador Hollow and Labrador Pond. Also on its western flank is Tinker Falls, an overhanging falls with a 50-foot shear drop to a rocky cascade. It’s a must-see any time of the year.
Tinker Falls is a well-known stop for hikers on the Onondaga Trail, a branch of the Finger Lakes Trail system. The trail to the falls is easy to negotiate, but the climb up the rocks to get behind the falls can be rather difficult depending on the time of year.
I’ve visited Tinker Falls during different seasons, and have found them most impressive in the winter when the cascade freezes into a towering blue-white ice column. Often when I’ve come here to take photos, I’ve watched ice climbers ascending the humongous column.
From Tinker Falls you can follow trails up to the hang-glider overlook to take in the awesome view, or just continue heading east over the summit and down to Spruce Pond at the base of the hill.
The ponds’ fall colors
Manmade Spruce Pond sits on the eastern foot of Jones Hill, and is regularly stocked with trout by the Department of Environment Conservation (DEC). Camping sites are available in a spruce grove on the north end. You can stay there several nights without needing a permit.
Whether you drive or hike to this point, you can continue heading east on Herlihy Road, a dirt road that can be rather rough to drive on during certain times of the year. Eventually you will come to an intersection with a paved road; this is Shackham Road, which runs north and south through the middle of the forest. Turn right onto Shackham and go about 200 yards or so until you see a pullover on the left side. This is a trailhead that takes you down to the south end of another picturesque pond. It’s particularly photogenic in the fall, thanks to the color contrasts among the tamarack, pines and maples. (Tamarack, or American Larch, is a small to medium-sized deciduous conifer that turns a beautiful golden brown in the fall before dropping its needles.)
Adding to the scenery is a little cemetery on a small point of land that sticks out into the pond. It features a very large, very old pine tree growing out of its center. I have seen plenty of fishermen here, so the DEC must stock this pond as well. There are a few campsites scattered along the western and southern shoreline.
Relax on the road
At this point you can go back to the road or continue along the trail. The trail heads east along the berm, and then into the woods heading uphill to eventually come out on Morgan Hill. But first, let’s head back to the road and return to the intersection where we will turn right onto another dirt road lined with tamarack, hardwoods and fir trees.
The road dips downhill, but soon levels off and starts climbing higher rather quickly before making a sharp bend to the right. You’ll find a large parking area on the left side; park your car here and take a stroll down a closed-off dirt lane, grandly named Rowley Hill Road. At one time, it gradually descended all the way to the valley floor far below, but now it’s blocked off halfway down. Personally, I find this abandoned lane very quiet and relaxing to walk or to mountain bike.
When you return to the parking area, continue to head uphill on the road. This section is called Morgan Hill Road and it goes all the way down to the center of Morgan Hill, coming out onto Route 13 a few miles east of Truxton. About a half-mile from the parking lot heading south on Morgan Hill Road, you’ll come to where a stream crosses under the road. Stop here and take a look around. You’ll find a series of waterfalls that gets larger the farther you travel downhill. Again depending on the time of year, the waterfalls can be very impressive.
Springtime flowers and frogs
The wildflowers in the spring are fairly abundant in the area, especially the hepatica, which can be found early in the spring peeking out among the dead leaves. Morgan Hill is home to the sharp-lobed hepatica; “sharp-lobed” refers to the shape of the three lobes of the leaves, which are evergreen. The leaves you see in the spring are actually last year’s leaves, which allow the hepatica to bloom early. They allow the plant to get a head start on other spring wildflowers since the early blooms attract bees and flies. Hepatica can be seen blooming as early as mid-March, but more often around mid-April through mid-May. The flowers are usually blue to lavender, but can also be white or slightly pinkish.
When you’re ready, head further down the road to an open area that looks like a gravel pit. There is a tiny pond here that teems with all kinds of aquatic life. I’ve spent many hours here photographing wood frogs, salamanders and dragonflies, especially in the spring when it is full of breeding amphibians. One spring I was lucky to witness a breeding frenzy, called a “congress,” going on in this pond. Wood frogs by the dozens were involved!
Wood frogs breed in the waters of vernal pools. They emerge during the first hard rain of March or April to breed over a brief period, depositing large masses of eggs.
Wood frogs are easily recognized by the dark mask around their eyes and the prominent ridges along the sides of their backs.
Worth the bumpy ride
Continuing further south on the road, you’ll come across many pullovers and trail heads. There are also three side roads; two are dead ends but offer some camping spots. The remaining road travels many miles to the southeast before leaving the state forest. It has plenty of potholes and ruts from logging equipment, but it is worth the drive if your car can handle it. The road winds through the spruce and hardwood forest, eventually descending rather steeply into a narrow valley before climbing out again to the top of the next ridge. Here, the road heads east and comes out in the hamlet of Tripoli.
If you stay on Morgan Hill Road instead and continue south, there are plenty of parking areas. You can stop and enjoy the scenery and 5-plus miles of trails for your hiking/biking enjoyment before leaving the state forest.
How to get there
Morgan Hill State Forest is most easily accessed via State Route 80, which runs east and west on the northern boundary of the forest.
From Interstate 81, get off at the Tully exit and take route 80 east. You will pass through Tully and Apulia Station before coming upon State Route 91.
Turn right to visit Tinker Falls. After Tinker Falls, continue south on route 91 to Shackham Road and turn left. Shackham Road runs north and south through the middle of the park and will eventually take you to Herlihy Road.
Or, instead of turning onto State Route 91 from route 80, continue on route 80 to get to the forest from the north. Access is through Herlihy Road, which enters the forest in the northwestern corner and heads south to Spruce Pond.
A third way is to take Shackham Road, which also enters the forest from the north.
by Phillip Bonn
Phillip Bonn’s love of the outdoors continues to lead him to the beauty and diversity of New York state, and his photography allows him to share what he’s seen. Bonn particularly likes to capture nature in “small scenes that are there for only a moment and mostly go unnoticed.”