Wednesday, August 28, 2013

George Washington National Forest: Massanutten Storybook Trail (Blog Hike #440)

Trail: Massanutten Storybook Trail
Hike Location: George Washington National Forest
Geographic Location: east of Luray, VA (38.65320, -78.60317)
Length: 0.7 miles
Difficulty: 0/10 (Easy)
Last Hiked: July 2013
Overview: A flat out-and-back on paved trail to a fantastic mountaintop overlook.

Directions to the trailhead: In northern Virginia, take I-81 to US 211 (exit 264).  Exit and go east on US 211.  Drive US 211 4.4 miles to the top of Massanutten Mountain and its intersection with Crisman Hollow Road.  Turn left on Crisman Hollow Road.  The trailhead for the Massanutten Storybook Trail is 1.5 miles ahead on the right.  There is roadside parking sufficient to hold 5 to 7 cars.

The hike: Every great storybook starts “once upon a time.” In the case of Massanutten’s storybook, that time came long before any human roamed the earth.  True to its name, the Massanutten Storybook Trail uses interpretive signs to tell the story of Massanutten Mountain’s formation.  Even better, this trail ends at one of the best mountain views in northern Virginia.  You will enjoy this walk yourself, but make sure you bring your kids on this short, flat, paved trail.  In addition to the geology lesson, kids will love jumping around on the rocks near the overlook provided they do not get too close to the edge.
Bridge at trailhead
            The trail departs the right side of the parking area by crossing a wide expensive-looking wooden bridge.  At the south side of the bridge, the trail turns to blacktop, and the geology lesson begins.  The first interpretive sign talks about the time before the Appalachian Mountains rose when this land lied underwater.  Later signs take you on a tour through time as they describe the mountains rising from the sea and the forces of erosion that still act today.
Rock outcrop beside trail
            Large rock outcrops make more frequent appearances as you continue along the trail.  The soil up here is very thin, allowing only stunted pines and deciduous trees to grow.  Just past 0.3 miles, you reach another wooden bridge that looks very similar to the first one. 
This second bridge ends at the overlook platform.  Looking eastward, the dense trees of the national forest lie directly under you, the town of Luray sits in the middleground, and Shenandoah National Park’s Blue Ridge Mountain stands in the background.  The mountain to the left is Strickler Knob; it is actually another arm of Massanutten Mountain.  Railings protect the overlook itself, but the nearby rocks have no such protection.  Take care if you or your kids venture out onto the rocks.
View east from overlook
The Massanutten Storybook Trail ends at the overlook, and there are no other trails exiting this point.   Thus, the only option is to turn around and retrace your steps back to the parking area to complete the hike.  While you are in the area, the closed Massanutten Visitor Center on US 211 atop Massanutten Mountain offers two additional short hiking opportunities.  The 0.5 mile one-way Massanutten Wildflower Trail provides a nice walk with 200 feet of elevation loss that leads to a closed picnic area, while the paved 0.25 mile Massanutten Discovery Trail provides a short nature trail experience similar to this hike but without the overlook.  Whatever you choose, make the most of your time atop Massanutten Mountain.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Cunningham Falls State Park: Lower and Cliff Trails (Blog Hike #439)

Trails: Lower and Cliff Trails
Hike Location: Cunningham Falls State Park
Geographic Location: west of Thurmont, MD (39.62758, -77.46389)
Length: 1.25 mile
Difficulty: 2/10 for Lower Trail; 9/10 for Cliff Trail (Easy/Difficult)
Last Hiked: July 2013
Overview: Two trails, one easy and one difficult, to the tallest waterfall in Maryland.

Directions to the trailhead: From the intersection of US 15 and SR 77 in Thurmont, drive SR 77 west 2.7 miles to Catoctin Hollow Road; a state park sign marks this intersection.  Turn left on Catoctin Hollow Rd.  Drive Catoctin Hollow Rd. 1.3 miles to the park entrance station on the right.  Turn right to enter the park.  Drive the main park road 0.6 miles to the signed trailhead parking on the left, where you should park.  If this lot is full, you can park at the larger and nearby beach parking area and walk to the trailhead.

The hike: The history of Cunningham Falls State Park is inextricably tied to the federally owned and maintained Catoctin Mountain Park directly to its north.  In 1936, the federal government purchased 10,000 acres in the area to form the depression-era Catoctin Recreation Demonstration Area.  Other depression-era federal agencies including the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) spent time here, building many of the structures you see today.
            In 1954, the land was divided with the federal government keeping the 5000 acres north of SR 77 and the state of Maryland regaining the 5000 acres south of SR 77.  The federal piece forms Catoctin Mountain Park, while the state’s piece forms Cunningham Falls State Park.  The state park consists of two areas: the Houck Area accessible from SR 77 and the Manor Area accessible from US 15.  The park’s namesake Cunningham Falls, the tallest waterfall in Maryland, remains the centerpiece of the park; it is located in the Houck Area.
            Many hiking trails go through the Houck Area, but only two of them lead to the waterfall.  The 0.5 mile Lower Trail offers an easy/moderate firmly packed gravel route to the falls, while the 0.75 mile Cliff Trail offers a more difficult and rocky route that gains about 200 additional feet of elevation.  To obtain maximum variety, this hike will go out on the Lower Trail and return on the Cliff Trail.
Trailhead for Lower Trail
            Starting at the trailhead parking area, pick up the wide gravel Lower Trail, which is blazed with plastic red right triangles.  For its entire distance the trail travels through magnificent mature maple/beech forest with a grassy understory layer.  Interpretive signs describe the surroundings.  Most noteworthy among the surroundings are the large number of greenstone rock outcrops.  Greenstone is igneous rock spewed out by ancient volcanoes.  This rock dates to the formation of the Appalachian Mountains, and it is among the oldest exposed rock in the world.
            The trail climbs in fits and starts on a gradual to moderate grade with an occasional descent in between the climbs.  The trail surface is good enough to support a wheelchair, but some of the grades are much too steep.  At 0.5 miles, you reach a wooden platform at the base of Cunningham Falls.  The falls stand 78 feet high as a moderate flow of water in an unnamed creek tumbles over several ledges of rock.  Unfortunately the viewing platform is located behind some trees that prevent a completely clear view, and large boulders around the platform make getting around the trees difficult.  Many people attempt the boulder-hopping anyway, but be aware of the risk if you choose this option.
Cunningham Falls
            If all you want to do is view the falls, then the easiest route back to the trailhead is to return the way you came.  To increase the scenery and the difficulty, backtrack a short distance and turn right to leave the gravel and begin the Cliff Trail, which is blazed with plastic yellow right triangles.  The Cliff Trail is very rocky, but except for two brief sections that pass through breaks in cliffs, the grade is quite manageable.  On the other hand, the two bits through the cliffs may require use of hands depending on your flexibility and fitness level.
Rocky Cliff Trail
            0.75 miles into the hike, the Cliff Trail reaches its highest point as it intersects the blue-blazed Catoctin Trail, which goes right and left.  The Cliff Trail turns left here as it heads southeast.  For the next 0.25 miles the Cliff and Catoctin Trails share a treadway with the steep hillside falling to the left.  After the rocky climb, the nearly flat single-track dirt trail seems like a breeze.
Cabin-sized boulder beside trail
            At 1 mile, the Cliff Trail continues straight where the Catoctin Trail turns right.  Watch for the yellow blazes and a wooden post to make sure you do not miss this turn.  The last 0.25 miles of the Cliff Trail comprise a steep descent over a large number of logs that serve as waterbars.  Cabin-sized boulders sit beside the trail, and I felt very glad I was descending rather than ascending.  The trailhead and parking area lie at the bottom of the hill, thus signaling the end of the hike.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Hills Creek State Park: Yellow Birch Trail (Blog Hike #438)

Trail: Yellow Birch Trail
Hike Location: Hills Creek State Park
Geographic Location: west of Mansfield, PA
Length: 0.6 mile
Difficulty: 3/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: July 2013
Overview: A short campground nature hike.

Directions to the trailhead: From Mansfield, drive US 6 west 6.4 miles to Charleston Road and turn right on Charleston Road.  Drive Charleston Road 2.3 miles to Hills Creek Lake Road and turn right on Hills Creek Lake Rd.  Drive Hills Creek Lake Road 3.1 miles to Spillway Road and turn right on Spillway Road.  Drive Spillway Rd. 0.4 miles to the main park road, crossing the dam that creates the park’s lake en route. Turn left to enter the park.  Drive the main park road 0.8 miles to the campground entrance and the trailhead for the Yellow Birch Trail.  Park in the grassy area beside the road, taking care not to block traffic or a camping slot.

The hike: Established as a park in 1950, the land today comprising Hills Creek State Park has a colorful history.  Known historically as Kellys Swamp, the creek and hence park was named for a Captain William Hill, who settled in the area around 1820.  If that wasn’t colorful enough, the park’s swimming beach sits near an old pigment mine that provided raw materials used to make paint.
            No evidence of the pigment mine remains, so the most colorful part of Hills Creek State Park today may be the fall leaf color, which is excellent due to the diversity of trees in the park’s deciduous forest.  137-acre Hills Creek Lake provides swimming, boating, and fishing opportunities.  An 83-site campground and a cabin area provide lodging within the park.
            For hikers, the park offers 3 trails: the 2.5 mile Lake Side Trail, the 1.5 mile Tauscher’s Trail, and the 0.6 mile Yellow Birch Trail.  The first two of these options spend significant distance near park roads, so the best option and the one described here is the Yellow Birch Trail, which is located near the campground.  Note that although the park brochure lists this trail at 1 mile, the true distance is roughly half that number based on my measurements.
Trailhead: Yellow Birch Trail
            The yellow-blazed Yellow Birch trail exits the grassy campground area as a gravel trail that crosses a nice wooden footbridge bridge with hand rails.  Very quickly the gravel ends and the trail forks.  To hike the steepest section downhill, this description will turn left here and use the right trail as the return route, thus hiking the loop clockwise.
Hiking beside large pines
            The single-track dirt trail climbs on a gradual to moderate grade with the campground in view through the trees to your left.  Some large pine trees live on this ridge along with some smaller beech and maple.  At 0.2 miles, you reach the highest point of the hike as the trail curves sharply right.  Watch for the double yellow paint blazes that mark this turn.  A bench at this point gives rest for the weary.
Approaching the marsh
            The trail descends steeply on switchbacks but only for a short distance.  Ignore a side trail that exits left as you approach a marshy area.  Fortunately the trail is routed close enough to the hillside so that it stays dry most of the year.  This area also features some good-sized yellow birches for which this trail is named.  Too quickly you close the loop, and only a short walk remains to complete the hike.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Tioga State Forest, Pine Creek Gorge Natural Area: Barbour Rock Trail (Blog Hike #437)

Trail: Barbour Rock Trail
Hike Location: Tioga State Forest, Pine Creek Gorge Natural Area
Geographic Location: southwest of Mansfield, PA
Length: 1.2 miles
Difficulty: 2/10 (Easy)
Last Hiked: July 2013
Overview: A short lollipop loop to a fine overlook of the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania.

Directions to the trailhead: From Mansfield, drive west on US 6 for 23.6 miles to Colton Road, passing through the town of Wellsboro en route.  Turn left on Colton Road.  Drive narrow, winding, but paved Colton Rd. 3.1 miles to the gravel parking area on the right and signed trailhead on the left.  Park in this area.

The hike: For my general comments on the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania, see the previous hike.  The Barbour Rock Trail described here takes you on a short loop to a nice canyon overlook.  Compared to the overlooks at nearby Colton and Leonard Harrison state parks, this one has two advantages: 1) its location several miles from the state parks ensures more solitude, and 2) its location on a curve in the gorge gives a better view.  Of all the canyon overlooks I visited, I enjoyed my trip to the Barbour Rock overlook the most.
Trailhead: Barbour Rock Trail
            Start at a large wooden signboard across the road from the parking area.  The wide firmly-packed gravel trail heads southeast as it passes some strategically-placed boulders that block vehicles.  This trail was built in 1978 by the Youth Conservation Corps, and the segment out to the overlook is wheelchair accessible.  Yellow paint blazes mark the trail, but you will not need them here thanks to the gravel.
Gravel portion of Barbour Rock Trail
            At 0.2 miles, the trail forks to form its loop where the gravel portion curves noticeably right.  The dirt return trail continues straight, but you may not notice it because nothing marks this intersection.  The gravel trail climbs slightly through forest dominated by maple, birch, and pine tress with a dense understory of ferns.  Just shy of 0.5 miles, the trail curves left as the canyon comes into view on the right.  The dirt West Rim Trail can be seen only feet to the right between our gravel trail and the canyon rim.
            0.7 miles into the hike, you arrive at the Barbour Rock overlook.  The trail and overlook are named for Samuel Barbour, a man who lost his life in a logjam in the 1890’s.  The lumber industry dominated this part of the state in those days.  The overlook points southwest and offers a fantastic view down the heart of the gorge.  The trail you see in the gorge is the 62 mile Pine Creek Trail, a Rails-to-Trails project that runs the entire length of the gorge.  On my visit, several hawks sailed near the gorge walls on thermals.  This overlook is the highlight of the hike, so stay awhile to see what you can see.
Barbour Rock overlook
            The gravel trail ends at the overlook, so to continue the loop you will need to take the single-track dirt trail that exits the other (east) side of the overlook.  The Barbour Rock and West Rim Trails share a treadway for a short distance before our trail turns left to head away from the rim.  Make sure you follow the yellow-blazed Barbour Rock Trail here rather than the darker orange blazes of the West Rim Trail.
Return portion of trail
            The return route is a single-track dirt trail that undulates gently through lush northern forest.  This section of trail provides more of a true nature trail feel compared to the wheelchair-accessible trail you hiked on the way out here.  After passing a small knob on the left, the trail descends gently, crosses a couple of wet spots, and intersects the outbound gravel trail to close the loop.  A short walk straight ahead will return you to the parking lot to complete the hike.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Colton Point State Park: Rim Trail (Blog Hike #436)

Trail: Rim Trail
Hike Location: Colton Point State Park
Geographic Location: southwest of Mansfield, PA
Length: 1.5 miles
Difficulty: 4/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: July 2013
Overview: A loop hike linking overlooks of the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania.

Directions to the trailhead: From Mansfield, drive west on US 6 for 23.6 miles to Colton Road, passing through the town of Wellsboro en route.  Turn left on Colton Road.  Drive narrow, winding, but paved Colton Rd. 4.9 miles to the paved one way loop road that accesses the overlooks.  Drive the loop road 0.1 miles to a perpendicular parking area on the right.  This parking area serves one of the overlooks and the trailhead for this hike.

The hike: Everywhere seems to have a gorge called the “grand canyon.”  Of course there is THE Grand Canyon in Arizona.  The Genesee River gorge at Letchworth State Park in New York is called the Grand Canyon of the East.  The Russell Fork gorge at Breaks Interstate Park on the Kentucky/Virginia border is called the Grand Canyon of the South, but Little River Canyon and Walls of Jericho, both in Alabama, also claim that title.  For better or worse, Pine Creek Gorge in north-central Pennsylvania has earned the title “Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania.”
            While most of this nomenclature was established to drive tourism, Pine Creek Gorge is pretty grand.  The north-south gorge extends for 47 miles; it measures up to 1450 feet deep and nearly 1 mile wide.  Unlike the Finger Lakes of New York to the north, Pine Creek Gorge was not glacier-created but rather glacier-altered.  Glaciers not only scoured and deepened the gorge, but an ice dam reversed Pine Creek from its pre-ice age north-flowing course to its present-day south-flowing course.
Visitors view the canyon today by visiting one of the state parks located on the rim.  Leonard Harrison State Park lies on the east rim, while more rustic Colton Point State Park lies on the west rim.  The west rim has slightly better hiking opportunities, so I chose to visit Colton Point State Park.  Colton Point is named for Henry Colton, an area lumberman who floated logs from this area down Pine Creek to Williamsport, thus helping make Williamsport the lumber capital of the world in the 1880’s.
Colton Point State Park boasts two hiking trails.  The 1.5 mile one-way Turkey Path Trail takes visitors on a steep journey to the bottom of the gorge.  The other option and the one described here is the 1.5 mile Rim Trail, which connects the various overlooks on the rim.  Do not confuse the Rim Trail with the much longer West Rim Trail in adjacent Tioga State Forest, which is not described in this blog.  Also, although the park brochure lists the Rim Trail at only 1 mile, the distance I have given here is more accurate based on my measurements.
Stile at trailhead
From the parking area, walk through the wooden stile and out the gravel trail to the first canyon overlook.  This overlook is located in the middle of a long straight stretch of gorge, so the only real view from here is directly across the gorge.  The Rim Trail goes right and left from this overlook.  This trail description turns right (as you look toward the gorge) to hike the Rim Trail clockwise.
First gorge overlook
              The single-track dirt trail descends moderately through dense mountain laurel.  The underbrush prevents any views of the gorge, and leaving the trail to look for the rim is dangerous because you might accidentally find it by falling over the edge.  At 0.2 miles, the blue-blazed trail curves right as it rounds the tip of Colton Point.  A dangerous wild trail treads directly on the edge of the rim, but it yields no better views than the official trail.
Descending on the Rim Trail
Now heading northwest, the trail climbs gradually with the Right Branch of Fourmile Run now downhill to the left.  0.5 miles into the hike, you intersect Turkey Path as it exits left and heads steeply downhill into the gorge.  The Rim Trail and Turkey Path share a common treadway for a couple hundred feet before the Rim Trail turns left to continue its and our northward journey.  Both of these intersections are signed, but the blue blazes give added reassurance.
More remote section of Rim Trail
The trail becomes wetter with more roots to trip you as it continues north, and the blue blazes become less frequent.  The ravine to your left gains elevation, and soon gravel Colton Road comes into view through the trees to your left.  Just when you think you might have lost the trail, the blue blazes reappear and take a sudden right turn.  The trail now climbs moderately to cross the paved park entrance road.  A parking area here provides an alternate starting point for this hike.
Gorge overlook
Now on the east side of the park road, the trail curves right and soon arrives at another gorge overlook.  This overlook is less developed than the others, and it sits in a nice grove of pines.  Past the overlook, the trail joins a gravel road for nearly 0.3 miles before exiting through another wooden turnstile like the one at the trailhead.
My favorite gorge overlook
Just shy of 1.4 miles, you reach my favorite gorge overlook in the park.  This overlook sits on a bend in the river, allowing you to peer up to the northern end of the gorge.  The trail you see in the gorge is the 62 mile Pine Creek Trail, a Rails-to-Trails project that runs the entire length of the gorge and beyond.  The last segment of the Rim Trail threads its way between the gorge on the left and the park’s picnic area on the right.  Soon you arrive back at your first gorge overlook where your car is parked, thus completing the hike.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Taughannock Falls State Park: Gorge Trail (Blog Hike #435)

Trail: Gorge Trail
Hike Location: Taughannock Falls State Park
Geographic Location: northwest of Ithaca, NY
Length: 2 miles
Difficulty: 2/10 (Easy)
Last Hiked: July 2013
Overview: A nearly flat hike to New York’s tallest waterfall.

Directions to the trailhead: The entrance to Taughannock Falls State Park is located on SR 89 9.6 miles north of Ithaca.  Park in the trailhead parking area on the west side of the road (left if you are driving northbound).  If this parking area is full, you can park in the beach parking area across the road and walk back to the trailhead.

The hike: The Finger Lakes region contains many scenic east-west gorges, but not all of these gorges are created equal.  Take, for example, the gorge along Taughannock Creek.  While Glen Creek (at Watkins Glen) and Buttermilk Creek (at Buttermilk Falls) deliver water into Seneca or Cayuga Lake via numerous short cascades, Taughannock Creek accomplishes the job in a single drop.  The result is 215-foot Taughannock Falls, the tallest waterfall in New York (yes, even taller than Niagara).
            The land on which the park sits today was first owned by Samuel Wayburn, who received it as payment for his service during the Revolutionary War.  Wayburn built some structures on the site, thereby founding a community on the west shore of Cayuga Lake near today’s park beach.  Steamboats on the lake frequently stopped at this town, and later another industrial center was established further up Taughannock Creek.  The railroad arrived in 1873, bringing with it tourists to view the falls.  Two resort hotels, the Taughannock House and the Cataract House, were built on the gorge’s rim.
            By the early 1900’s, the area was in decline.  In 1922, the Taughannock House burned, and in 1925 the land was purchased by New York State for use as a park.  The CCC came here in the 1930’s and built most of the structures we see today.  In addition to the waterfall, the park has a campground, some cabins, a beach area, and a large marina.
            Three hiking trails trace through the park: the 0.75 mile one-way Gorge Trail along the creek, the 3 mile Rim Trail loop around the rim, and the 2 mile Multi-use trail away from the gorge area.  I squeezed this hike in at the end of a Sunday afternoon, so I only had time to hike the Gorge Trail.  Even though I did not get to take the full tour, I am glad I came here: of all the gorges I visited in the Finger Lakes region, this one is my favorite.
Trailhead: Gorge Trail
            At the rear of the parking lot, a black sign with yellow letters advertises, “Gorge Trail: ¾ mile to 215 foot high falls.”  What hiker could resist such a promotion?  Almost immediately the Rim Trail exits left and begins the steep climb to the rim.  Staying with the Gorge Trail, in 300 feet you arrive at the first and tallest in a series of ledge-type waterfalls in Taughannock Creek.  This ledge is about 10 feet tall, so the real show is still to come.
Ledge waterfall in creek
Taughannock Creek
            The Gorge Trail continues upstream with the creek below you to the right and the gorge cliffs rising to the left.  The light-colored flattish rock in the creek is Sherburne sandstone, while the dark-colored flaky rock of the cliff is Geneseo shale.  For its entire distance the trail is wide firmly-packed fine gravel.  A strong person could easily push a wheelchair or baby stroller up this trail to the waterfall.  Also, even though this hike is popular, the wide trail corridor makes this hike feel less crowded than some other parks in the region.
Hiking along the Gorge Trail
            Just past 0.5 miles, you reach an area where the shale cliffs come close on the left.  Several interpretive signs are located on the trail, and the park has a cell phone tour that offers more insight into the natural surroundings.  The trail curves right here to stay between the cliff and the creek.
            At 0.85 miles, you cross Taughannock Creek on a bridge just before reaching an observation platform at the base of the waterfall.  Water pours out of a spout framed by towering walls of sandstone and shale.  The cliffs look especially dark and ominous in the evening when the sun disappears behind the rock.  An interesting interpretive sign contains some historical pictures of the waterfall and demonstrate how its appearance has changed as the water continues to erode the rock.
Taughannock Falls
            The Gorge Trail ends at this observation platform, so the only option is to retrace your steps to the parking area at the mouth of the gorge.  If you have more time and energy, consider hiking the Rim Trail for a different perspective on the gorge.  The Rim Trail is very steep at the beginning and end but fairly flat in between.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Buttermilk Falls State Park (Blog Hike #434)

Trails: Gorge and Rim Trails
Hike Location: Buttermilk Falls State Park
Geographic Location: south side of Ithaca, NY
Length: 1.3 miles
Difficulty: 8/10 (Moderate/Difficult)
Last Hiked: July 2013
Overview: A steep loop hike with many stairs around a large cascading waterfall.

Directions to the trailhead: The entrance to Buttermilk Falls State Park is located on SR 13 2.5 miles south of Ithaca.  Pay the park entrance fee, and park in the large blacktop parking lot just past the entrance station near the base of the falls.

The hike: The name Robert H. Treman appears on only one of the state parks on the south side of Ithaca, but in fact he had much to do with both of them.  Treman’s family owned many businesses near Ithaca, one of which was the Ithaca Water Works.  They bought land around Buttermilk Creek and several other nearby creeks in case they needed the additional water supply for their water works.
            In 1891, Treman became a trustee of Cornell University in Ithaca.  By 1923, the conservation/preservation movement had become mainstream, and Treman donated 154 acres along Buttermilk Creek to form Buttermilk Falls State Park.  The park that bears his name, Robert H. Treman State Park located less than 2 miles from here, is also comprised of land he donated.
            Today Buttermilk Falls State Park boasts a 60-site campground, some picnic areas, some ball fields, a swimming area at the base of Buttermilk Falls, and 5 hiking trails totaling nearly 5 miles.  Several routes are possible through the trail system, but the route described here provides the shortest hike that gives the falls the full treatment they deserve.  Note that even though this hike is short, it is not easy: the vertical rise is nearly 400 feet, so most of the 1.3 miles either climbs or descends steeply.  I took nearly an hour to complete this hike.
Swimming area at base of falls
            Start by walking back past the park entrance station to the swimming area at the base of Buttermilk Falls.  The swimming area actually gives the best view of the waterfall, which is framed on the right by a rock outcrop and on either side by lush greenery.  The cascade-type waterfall drops over innumerable layers of siltstone rock.  This rock’s unusual dark yellow color gives this falls and creek its name.
            Cross Buttermilk Creek on a wooden bridge below the swimming area to intersect the Gorge Trail.  Turn left to head up the gorge.  Almost immediately the trail starts climbing some steep stone steps with the cascading waterfall to your left.  At the top of these steps, you reach an overlook perched at the top of the lowest cascade.  This overlook gives views of more cascades upstream and of the swimming area downstream.
View downstream from first overlook
            Above this overlook, the water keeps falling and the trail keeps climbing, now over some concrete waterbars that pose as much challenge as stairs.  I noticed some yellow birch along the trail, an unusual sight this far south.  Occasionally the trail switchbacks away from the cascade, but usually it stays near the creek.  Some of the upper cascades have plunge pools that invite a dip as much as the official swimming area at the very bottom.
Climbing over concrete waterbars
            Just when you think this waterfall climb may never end, at 0.4 miles you top the last cascade and pass a wooden lean-to shelter.  After another 0.1 nearly flat miles, the trail forks with the left fork crossing a trail bridge over Buttermilk Creek.  This hike will continue by crossing the bridge, but before doing so, walk a short distance upstream to see one final cascade and the interesting Pinnacle Rock.
Upper cascade in Buttermilk Creek
            After crossing the creek, a final short, moderate climb brings you to the Rim Trail and the highest point on this hike.  Take a soft left to begin the return route along the Rim Trail.  The Rim Trail descends gently with the precipice out of view through the greenery on your left.  Tulip poplar trees grow well in the dry rim soil.
            At 0.8 miles, the grade steepens as the trail very closely parallels a gravel park maintenance road on the right.  This section of trail is quite eroded, so you will find it easier to walk on the maintenance road here provided you do not miss where the trail curves left to head back to the rim.  An overlook at the rim gives a very limited view of the upper cascades in Buttermilk Creek.
Descending on the Rim Trail
            The steep descent continues on a couple of wide switchbacks as the trail leaves the gorge area for good.  The paved park campground road comes into view on the right as you make the last switchback.  A short distance further, the trail returns to the parking area, thus completing the hike.  If you have some extra time, consider hiking one of the park’s other trails, two of which stand out above the rest.  The Larch Meadow Trail departs from the ball field area to take you on a 1 mile tour of meadow, wetland, and woodland habitat, while the 1.5 mile Lake Treman Trail leaves from the upper parking area and circumnavigates its namesake lake.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Finger Lakes National Forest: Gorge Trail (Blog Hike #433)

Trail: Gorge Trail
Hike Location: Finger Lakes National Forest
Geographic Location: northeast of Watkins Glen, NY
Length: 2.5 miles
Difficulty: 5/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: July 2013
Overview: A remote out-and-back hike featuring a small glacier-sculpted gorge.

Directions to the trailhead: From downtown Watkins Glen, drive east on SR 414.  Where SR 414 and SR 79 split on the east side of Seneca Lake, angle right on SR 79.  Take SR 79 2.7 miles to CR 4 and turn left on CR 4.  Drive CR 4 1.2 miles to Wyckoff Road and turn right on Wyckoff Road.  Take Wyckoff Road 0.5 miles to gravel Burnt Hill Road and turn left on Burnt Hill Road.  Note that Burnt Hill Road is only maintained during the summer.  The trailhead for the Gorge Trail is 1.5 miles ahead on Burnt Hill Road at a small gravel parking area on the right.

The hike: The land comprising today’s 16,212 acre Finger Lakes National Forest, New York’s only national forest, has a long agricultural history.  Much of this land was given to Revolutionary War veterans as payment for their service, and most of it quickly became productive farmland for subsistence farmers.  Over 100 years later, the depleted soil on what was marginal farmland from the start became uncompetitive compared to the more fertile soil in the Midwest.
            During the Great Depression, the federal government purchased over 100 farms in the area through the Soil Conservation Service.  Early efforts involved soil stabilization and the conversion of this land to grazing land.  By the 1950’s, multiple-use land management was coming into vogue, and the land was transferred to the US Forest Service.  The national forest was formally established in 1983.
            The forest today features several good hiking trails, but almost none of them form loops.   Such is the case with the 1.25 mile end-to-end Gorge Trail described here.  As you would expect from its name, the Gorge Trail explores one of the region’s many east-west gorges. This gorge is not as steep or scenic as those in the region’s state parks, but it also doesn’t draw the massive crowds.  I came here on a summer Saturday afternoon when the parking lot at nearby Watkins Glen State Park was overflowing, and I had this trail entirely to myself.
Trailhead: Gorge Trail
            The single-track Gorge Trail heads east from the rear of the parking lot at a brown carsonite post.  Quickly the forest opens up into a grassy area beside a small pond.  The shallow pond was a tranquil area on my visit, but this area would give good wildlife viewing in the early morning and late evening.
Hiking beside the pond
            Past the pond, the trail descends slightly and crosses a short 4-plank boardwalk over a wet area.  The boardwalk gets you over the wettest area, but a few smaller wet areas will need to be negotiated without aid.  At 0.2 miles, the long-distance Interloken Trail enters from the right.  For the next 0.2 miles the combined Gorge and Interloken Trails head gradually downhill over a slightly rocky and eroded course.
Boardwalk on Gorge Trail
            Just shy of 0.4 miles, the orange-blazed Interloken Trail exits left to continue its northbound course.  This route stays with the blue-blazed Gorge Trail as it angles right to continue east.  After a slight ascent to top a ridge, the gorge for which this trail is named comes into view through the trees to the right.
Entering the gorge
            The rest of the Gorge Trail is a descent, usually gradual but occasionally steep, as the trail parallels the gorge on the right.  At only one point does the trail ever reach the bottom of the gorge, and then it only stays there for less than 100 feet.  Maple and beech trees dominate the deciduous forests while hemlocks comprise the majority of the pinelands.  The understory is rather sparse.
Hiking in the gorge
            At 1.1 miles, the trail curves left as it bids a final farewell to the gorge area.  After crossing the national forest boundary, which is marked by red rings painted around trees, a final steep descent brings you to the Mark Smith Road trailhead and the eastern end of the Gorge Trail.  As I mentioned in the introduction, this trail does not form a loop, so the only option is to turn around and retrace your steps 1.25 miles to the Burnt Hill Road trailhead to complete the hike.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Watkins Glen State Park (Blog Hike #432)

Trails: Gorge and Indian Trails
Hike Location: Watkins Glen State Park
Geographic Location: Watkins Glen, NY
Length: 2.5 miles
Difficulty: 8/10 (Moderate/Difficult)
Last Hiked: July 2013
Overview: A lollipop loop with lots of stone steps featuring many waterfalls.

Directions to the trailhead: The entrance to Watkins Glen State Park is located in downtown Watkins Glen 6 blocks south of the intersection of SR 414 and SR 14.  Park in the large blacktop parking lot at this entrance.

The hike: If you like the rounded look of the ridges in the Finger Lakes region compared to the more angular look of those to the south, you can thank the set of glaciers that covered this region a few thousand years ago.  As the glaciers plowed across New York, they scraped the tops off of the ridges and scoured the valleys, creating the north-south finger lakes we see today.  As water ran off the ridges into the new lakes, deep east-west gorges were carved out of the glacier-transformed terrain.
            The east-west gorge called Watkins Glen was noted for its scenic value early on. In 1863, the gorge was purchased by Morvalden Ells, a journalist from Elmira, and opened to the public as a resort.  The land was purchased by New York State in 1906, and the area has been operated as a state park ever since.  The park features a 302-site campground, a gift shop, a shuttle bus service that takes visitors to/from the park’s two entrances, and several miles of trails.  Three trails explore the gorge itself: the Gorge Trail through the belly of the beast, and the South Rim and Indian Trails on the rim.  This hike combines the Gorge and Indian Trails to tour the gorge both from within and from above.
            Before we start, I have one warning about this park: it is VERY popular.  Indeed, on summer weekends all parking lots regularly fill to capacity, and the first mile of this hike on the Gorge Trail can feel as busy as the New York Thruway.  You can try to minimize the crowds by coming first thing in the morning or during the off-season, but there is no escaping this park’s popularity.
Trail enters first tunnel at trailhead
            Begin at the rear of the parking lot where the entrance path climbs some stone steps to the right of Glen Creek and narrows to enter a tunnel.  Both of the tunnels at Watkins Glen are artificially illuminated, so visibility is never a problem.  On the other side of the tunnel, the waterfall show begins as you pass the first of the glen’s 19 waterfalls.
            After crossing Glen Creek on a bridge, ignore Couch’s Staircase as it exits left and climbs toward the south rim.  At 0.2 miles and after climbing some more stone steps in the gorge, you reach Cavern Cascade.  This waterfall derives its name from the very narrow cave-like gorge at its base.  The trail actually passes behind this waterfall, giving you the odd opportunity to look down the gorge through a wall of water.
Cavern Cascade
            Past Cavern Cascade, the trail climbs a spiral staircase through Spiral Tunnel, the second tunnel on this trail.  After exiting this tunnel, Cliff Path enters from the right.  Cliff Path is the last route down from the Indian Trail, and therefore this intersection marks the beginning of the loop portion of this hike.  Water always takes the easiest route down, so usually the best choice at this type of decision point is to climb on a creekside trail and descend on a rim trail.  Therefore, this route will stay on the Gorge Trail for the climb and use the Indian Trail and Cliff Path as the return route. 
            The glen widens slightly above this junction, and a suspension bridge goes from rim to rim over your head.  More stone steps will require your energy to climb, and Ansel Adams wannabies may slow your steps further as they block the trail to line up the perfect photo.  After passing The Narrows, Lover’s Lane enters from the rim.  You next enter tranquil Glen Cathedral, one of the creek’s widest and calmest sections.  Interpretive signs tell of the wet and dry microclimates that exist within the glen as they compare the habitats of The Narrows (wet) and Glen Cathedral (dry).
Central Cascade
            Just shy of 0.5 miles, the creek’s mellow section abruptly ends at Central Cascade, another ledge waterfall where water tumbles over a more resistant layer of shale.  After climbing still more stone steps above the waterfall, the trail crosses the  second bridge over the creek and passes a section of creekbed that features a large number of potholes, evidence of old waterfalls that have now eroded away.  At 0.6 miles, you walk behind Rainbow Falls, noteworthy because afternoon sunlight reflects in the waterfall to form rainbows.
            Past Rainbow Falls, the trail crosses the final bridge over Glen Creek and, 0.9 miles into the hike, passes through Spiral Gorge.  Spiral Gorge is another very narrow section of the glen with numerous potholes and scenic waterfalls.  Just shy of 1 mile, ignore a cross-trail and keep straight to continue upstream along the creek.
Potholes in Spiral Gorge
            Past the 1 mile mark, the crowds thin because the tightest part of the gorge and all of the major waterfalls are behind you.  At 1.2 miles, you reach the base of Jacob’s Ladder, a steep 180-step stone staircase.  This staircase is your route to the rim, so take your time climbing the steps.  All of the park’s stone steps were built by the CCC in the 1930’s, and their efforts make our tour of the gorge much easier.  As you ascend, notice the active railroad trestle that stretches across the gorge straight ahead and above you.
Jacob's Ladder
            1.4 miles into the hike, you reach a trail intersection on the glen’s north rim where our return route, the Indian Trail, exits to the right.  Turn right to begin the Indian Trail.  Having just gained over 500 feet in elevation, most of it on steep stone steps, the gradual downhill on the smooth dirt Indian Trail is welcome.  Wire mesh fencing prevents you from falling in the gorge on the right.
Starting down the Indian Trail
            Several side trails exit right into the gorge, and some overlooks give you the topside view of Watkins Glen.  Truth be told, you can see much less from the rim than you can from inside the gorge.  Near 2 miles into the hike, you pass St. Mary’s Cemetery and an old pink maintenance building on private land to the left.  Please respect private property rights and stay on the trail.
            At 2.4 miles and at the bottom of a steep descent, you reach the north end of the suspension bridge across the glen.  This hike does not cross the bridge, but walking out onto the bridge gives a nice view directly up and down the glen.  Staying on the north rim, another 0.1 miles of downhill hiking brings you to Point Lookout.  Point Lookout sits at the end of the rim and offers a fantastic view east to the glen’s mouth, Seneca Lake, and beyond.
View from Point Lookout
            At Point Lookout, the trail curves 180 degrees to the right and makes a final descent to intersect the Gorge Trail, thus closing the loop.  The crowds greet you as you reenter the glen, but turning left and walking 0.25 miles mostly down stone steps will return you to the lower parking area and complete the hike.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Letchworth State Park: Gorge Trail (to waterfalls) (Blog Hike #431)

Trail: Gorge Trail (to waterfalls)
Hike Location: Letchworth State Park
Geographic Location: southwest of Mount Morris, NY
Length: 5.1 miles
Difficulty: 6/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: July 2013
Overview: An out-and-back along the Genesee River gorge rim passing 3 river waterfalls.

Directions to the trailhead: From Mount Morris, drive SR 36 north 1.2 miles to the park entrance on the left.  Turn left to enter the park.  Drive the main park road 14.9 miles to the signed turnoff for Lower Falls. Turn left on the Lower Falls access road, and bear right where the river access road exits left.  Drive the Lower Falls access road 1 mile to the large paved Lower Falls parking lot at its end.  Park in this lot.  Note that this hike is located in the south section of Letchworth State Park.  Coming from the south, it will be faster to use the park’s southern Portageville entrance and drive the park road north 2.4 miles to the Lower Falls access road described above.

The hike: Cutting a 20-mile-long and 600 foot deep gash through the heart of western New York, the Genesee River gorge has been called the Grand Canyon of New York and the Grand Canyon of the East.  The river held the interest of early industrialists for its source high in the Pennsylvania mountains (for the Genesee Valley Canal described later in this blog entry) and its ability to power mills with falling water.  The Genesee’s many waterfalls led to the building of mills and tool shops, which in turn led to the city of Rochester along the waterfalls near the river’s mouth.
            The gorge today is the centerpiece of impressive 14,350 acre Letchworth State Park, one of the crown jewels of the New York state park system.  Established by an act of the governor in 1907, the park is named for William Pryor Letchworth, a Buffalo businessman who bought this land after it had been clear-cut logged in the 1850’s.  Letchworth built his country estate Glen Iris here, a building that can still be toured today.  After Letchworth’s death in 1910, the transition of his estate into a state park began, making Letchworth one of the oldest state parks in America
Visitors flock to the park for the gorge overlooks, the three large river waterfalls in the gorge, and the seemingly endless recreation opportunities.  With a large tent and trailer campground, cabin area, numerous picnic areas, a canoe/kayak launch for the gorge’s whitewater rapids, a swimming pool, and an historic inn, the park seems to have every form of recreation imaginable.
            Included in these recreation opportunities is hiking, as 23 trails totaling 66 miles await hikers.  By most accounts the park’s best trail is the 7 mile each way Gorge Trail, which links many points of interest on the gorge rim.  Because a 14 mile route is a bit long for a day hike, I recommend the 5.1 mile round-trip portion described here to capture the most scenic section of the trail.
Lower Falls trailhead
            Heading south from the parking area, pick up the wide dirt trail that goes between a concession stand on the left and the restroom building on the right.  At less than 0.1 miles, the trail forks.  The Gorge Trail stays right here while the spur trail to Lower Falls, the first of the three major river waterfalls, exits left.  You will want to visit Lower Falls at some point during your visit, and the 127 stone steps between here and the waterfall will seem easier to climb now than at the end of the hike.  Thus, angle left to begin the Lower Falls Trail.
            After descending the stone steps and meandering to the river bank, you reach a decaying overlook that gives a nice view of the shale rock formations below Lower Falls.  There is also a footbridge over the river here, but it cannot be used to form a nice loop.  Continuing along the Lower Falls spur trail, the trail quickly enters a grassy area that gives a nice view of Lower Falls.  This 55 foot waterfall plunges down a fault line that runs diagonally across the river.  Lower Falls is actually my least favorite of the three major waterfalls at Letchworth, but it would be a show-stealer at most parks.
Lower Falls
            After viewing Lower Falls, retrace your steps back up to the Gorge Trail and turn sharply left to continue south on the Gorge Trail.  The Gorge Trail is blazed with yellow rectangular paint blazes inscribed with a black “1,” the “1” corresponding to the trail number on the park map.  The trail climbs slightly to arrive at a closed parking area that used to serve the “easy view” overlook of Lower Falls.  The falls view from here is obstructed, so the “easy view” is no substitute for the arduous stone step climbing you just did.
            Past the closed overlook area, the trail climbs moderately as it enters a mixed deciduous forest featuring maple, oak, and beech trees.  The forest at Letchworth is nice mature forest because this land has been managed as parkland for over 100 years.  1 mile into the hike, you climb some more stone steps, but this set is much shorter than the set to Lower Falls.
Hiking along the gorge rim
            After climbing the last set of stone steps, you enter a dark white pine planting that dates to the early 1900’s.  Some additional gorge views featuring the tall, vertical shale cliffs open up to the left.  There are no railings at these impromptu overlooks, so take care not to get too close to the edge.
Impromptu gorge overlook
            At 1.6 miles, you reach Inspiration Point.  Accessible by car via the main park road, Inspiration Point is the most famous view in the park.  Looking southwest, two of the three river waterfalls can be seen: Middle and Upper Falls.  You will get better views of these waterfalls later, so perhaps of more interest for now are the remnants of the Genesee Valley Canal that can be seen in the riverbed.  Authorized in 1836, the Genesee Valley Canal provided a waterway connection between the Erie Canal in Rochester and the Alleghany River in Olean, PA, thus allowing boats to float from the east coast to the Ohio River.  The canal was short-lived, as the dawn of the railroad era had come.  The canal opened in 1862 and closed in 1880.  Interpretive signs help you find the canal remnants in the gorge.
Inspiration Point
            Past Inspiration Point, some gradual climbing brings you to the highest point of the hike.  The park road pinches very close to the rim here, and a low stone wall separates the trail from the precipice.  The trail now descends some gradual stone steps located right beside the park road before switchbacking left to descend to the gorge rim and additional nice gorge views.
Trail pinched between road and gorge rim
            At 2.4 miles, the trail crosses a steep ravine on a sidewalk built right beside the park road.  On the south side of the bridge, you leave the main park road for a gorge overlook, cross the upper/middle falls access road, descend some stone steps, and cross the access road again to reach the overlook for Middle Falls.  Watch for the paint blazes to follow these turns.
            At 107 feet high, Middle Falls is my favorite waterfall in this park.  From this overlook, the waterfall appears roughly at eye-level, making for excellent viewing.  Water plunges over several layers of rock with enough volume to create a rainbow in the mist.  As the trail approaches the top of the falls, an impressive view of the shale gorge cliffs appears below the falls.
Middle Falls
            The trail surface turns to mulch as it continues upstream with the river only feet below you to your left.  3 miles into the hike, you arrive at the viewing platform for Upper Falls.  Another cascading ledge-type waterfall, this 71 foot waterfall is most distinguished by the active railroad trestle that frames it in the background.  Two observation platforms give different angles of the falls.
Upper Falls
            The Gorge Trail continues past Upper Falls another 0.2 miles, but most of that distance involves climbing stone steps, and no other points of interest are obtained.  Thus, I recommend you turn around at the Upper Falls overlook and retrace your steps 2.2 miles back to the Lower Falls trailhead, savoring each overlook one more time on your way back.