Tucked among western New York’s Finger Lakes is a national forest haven for hikers, horseback riders and more.
By Steve Bailey
“Hiking takes me back in time, to my ancestors and then the distant past,” says Lynda Rummel, a retired university professor. “Not so long ago, there was only hiking. Walking is the most basic form of human travel.”
Rummel, who lives near Branchport, N.Y., is among the many regular visitors to Finger Lakes National Forest (FLNF). She and others use this unusual national forest as a place to reflect, to connect with nature and for glorious hikes, horseback rides, wildlife observation and more.
Finger Lakes National Forest — 16,212 acres mostly on a ridge between Seneca and Cayuga Lakes in western New York — is the only national forest in New York and the second-smallest national forest in the country.
Tiny communities like Searsburg, Townsendville, Reynoldsville and Bennettsburg surround FLNF, which is crisscrossed by two-lane roads. These roads, leading to campsites and trailheads, often run beside and over gorges cut deep into the earth, but also are often in the shadows of steep hills dense with hardwood trees. This is the glacier-shaped terrain of Finger Lakes, and like much of the region, it has an agricultural function.
FLNF is one of only two national forests east of the Mississippi River that allow cattle grazing. About a fourth of the forest — 4,500 acres with 35 pastures requiring 80 miles of fencing — is used by the Hector Cooperative Grazing Association as the summer range for about 1,500 head of cattle. From May 15 to October 31 each year, forest visitors are likely to encounter beef cattle.
Those visitors come mostly from surrounding communities, like Watkins Glen and Ithaca, as well as Syracuse, Binghamton and Rochester — all of which are only a couple of hours away. Thanks to a cross-state trail that passes through the forest, some visitors come on foot. What they find when they reach Finger Lakes National Forest is an environment created almost by accident.
The area was originally known as Hector Hills, which by 1900 was a place of failed farms thanks to soil depletion and competition from other parts of the country. Between 1938 and 1941, when New York was buying thousands of acres for state forest lands, the federal government bought a noncontiguous patchwork of more than 100 farms in the region, which the U.S. Soil Conservation Service used to demonstrate soil stabilization and the conversion of crop fields to livestock pastures. In the 1950s, this land was turned over to the U.S. Forest Service, and in 1985, it became Finger Lakes National Forest, operated as an administrative unit of Green Mountain National Forest in Vermont. Cattle grazing is a remnant of a multiple-use program that began when the Forest Service got the land in the 50s. Over the years, the area has been used for hunting, timber, environmental-practices demonstrations and, of course, recreation.
The forest attracts visitors year round. Autumn offers trees and pastures ablaze with colorful trees and wildflowers like asters and golden rod. It’s also a time when hunters scour FLNF in search of deer, turkey and other game. In winter, snowmobilers, skiers and snowshoers move through denuded forests that are punctuated occasionally by the dark green of pine, fir or holly. Spring brings pastures of wildflowers and a short mud season, after which horses and mountain bikes are welcome on some trails, which often lead to primitive campsites filled with campers much of the summer.
STEPS IN TIME
The farms that dotted Hector Hills a century ago are largely unrecognizable today. Pastures are surrounded by mature forests of red and sugar maples, ash, black walnut, oaks and pines. Throughout the pastures, woods and up and down gorges are about 30 miles of trails — some restricted to foot travel, while others allow horses, skiers and even mountain bikes and snowmobiles.
The Burnt Hill Trail curves and dips through a shady hardwood forest and shrubland before coming to a gated fence. One opens the gate, closes it behind and continues on a well-worn path across the pasture. Cattle at a distance look at hikers before returning to their grazing. In a few minutes, the traveler comes to another gate and returns to a forest trail. For some visitors, seeing cattle up close is just as interesting as spotting a fawn or other wildlife.
Rummel, whose volunteer work with the hiking alliance Finger Lakes Trail Conference focuses on 60 miles of the Finger Lakes Trail, including FLNF’s 12-mile Interloken Trail, says she hikes at a moderate pace “so that I can exercise, but still notice and experience my surroundings — and stop quickly when something like a fawn in the leaves by the trail or a fresh bear track in grass covered with dew needs to be photographed.” The Interloken Trail is a small part of the more than 900 miles of trails in New York’s Finger Lakes Trail System, which extends from Catskill Forest Preserve in eastern New York to Allegany State Park in the southwest.
FLNF visitors looking for short hikes with great scenery should try the Gorge and Ravine Trails. The Ravine is in two sections, one a 0.8-mile loop with steep sections that wends through spruce and hemlock trees and crosses a ravine twice — once over a bridge and once by fording a stream that is sometimes just a dry bed. The other section is a slightly shorter and slightly easier hike that connects with the popular Interloken Trail. The Gorge Trail follows a gorge for 1.2 miles through pine and hardwood trees and also connects with the Interloken. Like the Ravine Loop, it goes up and down sharply in some places. The gorges are vivid reminders of the glaciers, which left silt that compressed into stone only to be eroded by small streams. Layers of the original silt can be seen where the stone is exposed.
Despite being one of the smallest national forests in the country, hikers can still find solitude, which Rummel says can be exhilarating. She tells of an early spring hike when she crossed a creek “roaring with melt water, using the trunk of a downed tree. “It seemed as if I was a tightrope-walking Wallenda crossing Niagara Falls; it was that scary and exhilarating. No one else was around. Four inches of snow still on the ground, nice sunshine, and it was totally quiet except for the noise of the creek. For several moments, there was no one else in the universe and no other place but this.”
HORSES AND TENTS
Erika Eckstrom, the owner of Painted Bar Stables in nearby Burdett, has a somewhat different relationship with the forest. She sees it from the back of a horse, often at a brisk pace, and takes advantage of one of FLNF’s unusual treasures — apple orchards.
On the trails north of the Backbone Horse Campground, she and her riders cross many of the pastures used by the Hector Grazing Association, as well as pine and deciduous forest, small gorges, creeks and abandoned fruit orchards, which are almost unrecognizable until fruit season. “Some of the apple trees — particularly on the southeast corner of the Backbone Trail — have some of the most delicious and wonderful apples,” she says. “In the fall, you can reach into the trees from horseback to grab apples for yourself and your horse.” The popular Backbone Trail is 5.5 miles one way, starts at the campground and is relatively flat — meaning easy for inexperienced riders.
Painted Bar Stables offers noon-to-noon trail rides with overnight camping at the Backbone Horse Campground. The riders meet Eckstrom or another guide from Painted Bar at the campground, where the horses are waiting at a hitching post. “Starting at the camp works best for most people because it provides increased flexibility,” Eckstrom says. After an afternoon ride, tents are set up; then, there is a sunset ride. Back at camp, the riders have their cars handy for charging their phones and cameras and have a way out if they’re too sore for the morning ride.
Laura Egan, a Manhattan-based visual artist, raised horses when she was growing up in Maine, N.Y., about 40 minutes from the Painted Bar Stables. Now, when she goes home on visits, she takes time to ride Mack, one of Eckstrom’s Tennessee walkers. “The landscape is beautiful,” she says of Finger Lakes National Forest, which she had never visited until she started riding with Painted Bar.
Parts of the Interloken Trail allow horses, and one of Eckstrom’s favorites is a section of the trail that goes through a pasture south of the Blueberry Patch Campground. “As you emerge into the field headed south, it’s a beautiful, grassy straightaway across the crest of the hill — perfect for a glorious canter, especially at sunset,” she says. “Then, you enter into a really lovely grove of trees. I call the grove ‘Little Red Riding Hood’s Grove’ because it looks like it’s straight out of a fairy tale with perfectly spaced trees and lush, mossy undergrowth.” That sort of experience is what draws equestrians to the forest and what draws the ire of some hikers.
Forest Service District Ranger Jodie Vanselow says the problem is the forest’s size. “We’re so small that the majority of our trails have to be multiple use,” she says. “Whenever you have multiple-use trails, you’ll get hikers who don’t like horseback riders.” Hikers, like Rummel, say that horses, as well as mountain bikes, force hikers to step off narrow trails to allow them to pass. Vanselow adds that “horseback riders want more trails just for themselves. From a trails standpoint, the horseback riders are the most limited
here; they have the fewest number of trails.”
Whatever conflict there is seems to be well-mannered. Eckstrom says that she and her riders haven’t heard any complaints. “Hikers are always very amiable when I encounter them,” she says.
NATURE ON THE WING
While birding is not one of the main attractions of FLNF — mainly because the ridge that runs down the middle of the forest keeps it off most species’ migratory flyways — the forest does attract its share of bird species and bird lovers. Its few migrant species include some hawks and songbirds, as well as monarch butterflies. The forest’s cattle ponds and wetlands also attract waterfowl in the fall.
Dr. Gerald Zupruk, a neurological surgeon and enthusiastic photographer who used to live in Trumansburg, near FLNF, says he made good use of the forest and was especially fond of Teeter Pond, the largest of several manmade ponds in the forest. “It’s the kind of place where if you walk in and sit down a while, the wildlife shows up — the birds get more active.” Geese often seemed to forget he was there.
Zupruk also says he liked the fact that FLNF is not as popular as some of the parks and other public lands in the Finger Lakes area. “It’s more pastoral,” he says, referring both to its actual pastures and to its peacefulness.
It’s not peace that Dr. Charles R. Smith looks for in the forest. He is after birds. Smith, a naturalist and a senior research associate in Cornell’s Department of Natural Resources, has been studying birds for more than half a century and has been working on various projects at FLNF since 1988. “Most of my work has been with grassland birds, their distributions and habitat uses on FLNF,” he says.
Those grassland birds include bobolink, northern harrier, grasshopper sparrow, American kestrel and the rare Henslow’s sparrow. Other birds, such as American goldfinch, yellow-billed cuckoo, eastern towhee, brown thrasher and yellow warbler, at FLNF use the shrublands. Forest birds include American woodcock, northern goshawk, ruffed grouse and scarlet tanager. There is also wild turkey. Despite this variety, birders — those people who keep life lists and chase rarities — will find few birds of interest here, but Smith, like many others, finds much of interest in FLNF, including the first breeding record of a pine warbler at the forest in 2010.
Also capturing his attention are butterflies, and he reports that within FLNF, he has documented 62 species, about half the number of species reported for the entire state of New York. Just this summer, he discovered a butterfly in FLNF whose presence he had predicted (“Juniper hairstreak. Its larva feeds only on eastern redcedar.”) and Harris’ checkerspot.
At Finger Lakes Natural Forest, the natural world accommodates cattle and horses, birds and butterflies. It is forests, gorges, manmade ponds, abandoned farms and old orchards that still produce apples to delight horses and riders alike. And, its many visitors recognize the value this little forest provides.
“I try to leave no sign of having been there — just a boot print at most,” says hiker Rummel. “I’m there to fit in and be a part of a natural world that’s much, much bigger than I.”
Steve Bailey, a former New York Times editor, teaches journalism at Salisbury University.