On Foot in the Finger Lakes Hills

Want a free ticket to a marked route through 400 private properties, a route that would take you to those landowners’ back woods, best viewpoints, and streamside treasures? For a way into upstate’s interior, invisible from highways, nothing beats the Finger Lakes Trail as New York’s best bargain.

Open to the public are 880 miles of marked and signed footpaths: the main east-west trail travels 566 miles from Allegany State Park across the Southern Tier into the Catskills, and several branch trails extend northward to Niagara Falls, or along Letchworth State Park’s “wild side,” into the Bristol Hills, through the Finger Lakes National Forest, and southeast of Syracuse past Labrador Hollow. Naturally, as the main trail travels across the glacial land shapes that form the Finger Lakes, the hiker must also galumph up, down and endlessly up again. Low points along the way, like Ithaca’s Cayuga Inlet, at 430 feet above sea level or Pleasant Valley (south of Hammondsport) at 750 feet, are always immediately surrounded by steep-sided hills that involve heart-thumping climbs to heights like 1,900 feet on Mt. Washington (the views up Keuka Lake when leaves are down are wonderful!), 2,180 feet on Sugar Hill just west of Watkins Glen’s 450 feet, or 2,132 feet on Virgil Mountain near Cortland. Yes, the trail route climbs up the back sides of ski resorts near Swain, Ellicottville, and Greek Peak for some shocking viewpoints from beneath the gondolas of ski lifts.

The Bristol Hills Branch Trail begins with a spectacular bang: for a walk (or even a ride; this spot is wheelchair accessible) of only a few hundred feet from a parking area in Ontario County Park (a half-hour drive south of Canandaigua) visitors are treated to a stunning view at a spot called “Jumpoff.” The hillside drops so steeply away underfoot that County Road 33, West Hollow Road, is clearly visible 680 feet directly below, and on a clear day one can look northward up the valley toward Rochester.

This spot should be a must-see on everybody’s list for early October, and while you’re standing there, contemplate the orange-blazed trail heading off to your left. If you can resist an urge to follow and see where it leads through the handsome oak forest of the county park, then you’re probably safe. However, if that skinny brown path whispers to your wanderlust, you may just have taken the first heartbeat toward a journey that has captivated several hundred people so far, 158 of whom have already finished walking the whole main trail. A few have done so by backpacking; several couples, several lone hikers, and even a few father/child pairs have walked continuously for weeks with home and kitchen on their backs, sleeping mostly in the woods. The majority have done those miles by means of many day hikes, preferring to sleep at home or in a bed and breakfast rather than a tent or one of the trail’s log shelters.

Many who have been lured into walking the whole trail system never meant to. One Rochester woman in her 70s was invited to her first hike in Steuben County by a neighbor and was heard to gasp repeatedly during that day of forested hills, “I can’t DO this!” Within just a few years she had walked every inch of it. Others have spent a decade or more pecking away at all those miles; several have completed it in their 70s and 80s, while one spry pup of 60 is working on his fifth end-to-end hike this summer.

Such is the attraction of finding your way across the real New York topography, none of it smoothed by feats of civil engineering except where the trail necessarily goes through the villages of Watkins Glen or Naples, on roads for short stretches to make use of river bridges. Those of us who have walked it all have a much clearer appreciation for the flow of our state’s land, for the changes from maple to oak forest over the space of a few days’ walk, for gradual changes in the steepness of the hills and valleys, or for how the rockiness underfoot changes from county to county. For instance, rocky outcroppings and stone walls in Chenango County’s state forests are very different from the tumbled rocky hillsides near Allegany State Park, where the leading edge of the glacier left heaps of debris in the form of boulders from basketball to bungalow in size.

So how does such a treasure as the Finger Lakes Trail exist? Just over 40 years ago, Wally Wood of Rochester proposed the concept of a continuous upstate trail to fellow members of the Genesee Valley Hiking Club, after he had visited long-distance trails in other states. Hiking clubs in other cities agreed to undertake building portions near them, and in 1962, the Finger Lakes Trail Conference was created to administer the whole system. Permission to build segments in state forests and parks was obtained fairly quickly, but progress was slower over all the private lands connecting those public forests. In fact, it was 30 years before the last gap was closed. Eventually, almost 400 generous private landowners gave permission for the public to follow a marked route right through their own woods and farms. Some of those agreements today are into their second generation. A dozen landowners have even granted permanent easements to protect the route forever.

Plainly, the route itself is a miracle of kindness and generosity, but so is the existence of a physical trail. While the Trail Conference publishes maps and guidebooks, provides information to the public, and coordinates everybody’s efforts across the state, the local clubs and individuals who adopt segments of trail keep it a route that hikers can follow with pleasure. Signs and painted blazes must be kept up to make the route clear, fallen branches must be cleared away, and each summer’s riot of greenery must be kept in check. “Olympic gardening,” one wag called it. Last year 14,500 hours of volunteer labor were spent upon the trail. The National Park Service assigns an hourly labor rate in order to figure volunteers’ “share” of project costs, and using their figure, the FLTC’s volunteers contributed a quarter of a million dollars worth of free benefit to the public in 2002 alone. So for those who think the “gubmint” surely “does” trails like this, read the small print on those trailhead signs! It’s your neighbor and her uncle who are taking care of it.

The organization is funded primarily by low-cost memberships and map sales. Members, besides supporting the trail they enjoy, receive an excellent quarterly newsletter, invitations to spring and fall weekend hiking programs, access to a library, and reduced prices on maps, guidebooks and logo clothing items. Of course, anyone can buy a map or use the trail, so for about a dollar a map the public has nearly free access to the trail system.

Adding to the allure of a cross-state continuous trail is the fact that over half of the main trail is utilized by the North Country National Scenic Trail on its way from North Dakota to the Adirondacks. That seven-state trail dream will be over 4,500 miles long when completed, and has already attracted hikers from states like Michigan and Wisconsin who are determined to walk the whole route. There is a colorful trail signpost at the FLTC headquarters at the Mt. Morris Dam, right on the Letchworth Branch Trail. Signs colored for the blazes of each trail point out all the pathways accessible by walking from that very spot. Yellow points up and down the Letchworth gorge, while a white sign shows mileages each way on the main east-west (white-blazed) trail from the south end of Letchworth. There is even a blue sign for North Dakota along the North Country Trail, and the flowers in a planter at the base of the signpost are growing in soil and water from each of the seven states of the North Country Trail.

No amount of driving back roads can provide an experience of places like mere walking can. Yes, it’s a slow way to travel, maybe only 10 or 12 miles a day, but walkers who take even one day hike of only four miles leave with their own private mental storehouse of pine smells, sun-dappled creek gorges, little hidden waterfalls, hillsides covered with red and white trillium, ancient barn foundations deep within what is now state forest, perhaps a fawn, pileated woodpeckers, or the croak of a raven.

Finger Lakes Trail System
Information or map, clothing, and guidebook sales are all available online at www.fingerlakestrail.org or from the Finger Lakes Trail Conference, 6111 Visitor Center Rd, Mt. Morris NY 14510. Phone 585/658-9320. The office is in a house near the Mt. Morris Dam, right on the Letchworth Branch Trail, and is open most often on Mondays and Thursdays, or by appointment.

For those who hesitate to take their first hikes alone, local clubs with weekly hike schedules, many of them along the FLT, are available in most metropolitan areas. The FLTC office can help you find one. The members’ FLT News also lists many group hikes, led by experienced hikers, that are scheduled throughout much of the year.

This fall’s campout is at Hickory Hill Campground near Bath, October 3,4,5 and will offer several hike choices per day and evening slide programs on distant trails by authors Rich and Sue Freeman both Friday and Saturday. For details look online or ask the office for a registration flier.

by Irene Szabo
Irene Szabo was #30 to walk the whole main trail, but spent nine years doing so, combining scattered dayhikes and backpacking trips. She tends over 20 miles of trail, and is president of the board of the Finger Lakes Trail Conference.

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