by Brian Castner, Buffalo Spree
Western New York is blessed with an impressive railroad network, a legacy of yesteryear’s manufacturing might. And while a (perhaps surprisingly) large number of those lines still carry significant traffic, the many forgotten spidery branch lines that criss-cross and connect the rural portions of our region are ripe for reuse and repurpose. Long since abandoned by the rail carriers, they lie out of sight, hidden behind warehouses just off small village main streets or cutting across hilly country and the enveloping forest. A growing chorus of advocates around the country has a plan for these lines, one that encourages a healthy community and creates a public asset: multiuse trails. As a proposed rail-trail from Orchard Park to Springville along the old Erie-Cattaraugus Line gains traction, Western New Yorkers can enjoy two already established trails in the Southern Tier that showcase the potential: the Pat McGee Trail and Chautauqua Rail Trail.
Routes made out of right-of-ways have many railroad-related charms to recommend them: wild-grape-covered trestle bridges over creeks and streams. Relics of stone-pillar signage that once cued the conductor to blow the train engine’s whistle at road crossings. And, perhaps most importantly for the bike rider, a mild, comparatively gentle slope to peddle.
In the three warmest seasons I prefer biking rail-trails as the optimum method to take advantage of their unique attributes. The trail’s wide, nearly flat and straight-as-an-arrow profile makes it possible to cover a lot of territory on a bike and see large portions of the country it cuts through in a single day. It’s also easy to get around the small towns and villages you encounter on your route, making it feasible to add a lunch stop or antique store visit to your itinerary.
A quick word of warning about choice of bike when using these two trails. The surfaces are nearly entirely unpaved and instead consist of a mix of gravel, crushed stone, dirt, and grass. You’ll make slower time than when biking on asphalt, so plan accordingly. Also, a skinny-tire dedicated road bike will have significant trouble navigating the uneven surface; taking such a bike out on one of these paths will leave you frustrated and the bicycle potentially damaged. Instead, choose a fat-tire alternative: a hybrid or mountain bike. You don’t need the beefiest ride intended for hillside root staircases, but a hardy frame, wide tire, and a set of shocks will save you much heartache.
These routes are both great for taking in fall foliage, nestled as they are in prime color-watching country. But don’t forget, when the snow flies, you can still enjoy them via snowmobile, snowshoe, or cross-country ski.
Pat McGee Trail (12.2 miles one-way)
Named after the popular and long-serving Assemblywoman and Senator, this trail follows the 160-year-old Erie Railroad line, connecting Salamanca to Cattaraugus via Little Valley roughly halfway in between. For my latest trek I started at the southernmost trailhead, a parking area on the outskirts of Salamanca along US Route 353, and peddled up to the Cattaraugus trailhead and back—about a half-day trip.
The southern portion of the path is a continuous incline, gaining 200 feet of elevation between Salamanca and Little Valley. To my eventually weary legs, I swore the trail was a geographical impossibility: uphill both ways. In reality, it crests north of Little Valley before dropping down into the village of Cattaraugus. That simple unnamed ridge contains unexpected significance: It is the north/south Continental Divide. Rain falling south of the ridge flows into the Allegheny River, the Ohio, the Mississippi, and eventually the Gulf of Mexico. Rain on the north end of the trail flows into Cattaraugus Creek, Lake Erie, the St. Lawrence, and ultimately the Atlantic.
Fortunately, the stewards of the trail have placed markers to flag that curiosity, and much else besides. Each habitat—scrub marshes, progressive forests, mixed sugar maple and beech—is well explained and documented for the ecologically minded. But if simple scenery is all you are after, you won’t be disappointed either. The path crosses and follows Little Valley Creek up the dale, past cornfields and forested hills, marshes, and ponds. While not wilderness, the trail has its share of wildlife; I scared up a covey of grouse that flushed in front of me as I peddled through. Pause in Little Valley to visit the alpaca farm or have lunch at the park pavilions along the trail. Or stop for a moment and enjoy the hill-meets-water view along Linlyco Lake, formed when a dollop of discarded glacier ice sunk into the ground where it was left behind when the primary sheets retreated ten thousand years ago.
Chautauqua Rail Trail (28.5 miles one-way)
The Pat McGee Trail is a good warmup for the longer, steeper, and more grueling Chautauqua line. The reward and payoff of the latter is also greater, however, as the trail cuts through terrain most only see while driving past on the New York State Thruway: the bluffs overlooking Lake Erie, rolling Southern Tier uplands, and grape-vine-saturated wine country.
If you plan on doing an out-and-back trek I recommend starting on the north end, at the trailhead and parking area on Thayer Road just outside of Brocton. That way you tackle the 12-mile climb up the ridge first, gaining 750 feet in elevation on your way up to Mayville on Chautauqua Lake. While huffing and puffing up the one long switchback, be sure to stop and look around once in a while. The stands of maple and aspen create a faux railroad tunnel that alternates red, orange, and gold, and when the canopy breaks it does so to reveal views of descending vineyards and Lake Erie beyond. As the path winds past and through farmers’ fields and cow pens I was reminded of similar rights-of-way in England, rural but properly civilized, good food and drink never too far away, hopping from one pasture to the next.
Reward yourself for finishing the long climb by stopping in the waterside village of Mayville, at the top of the bluffs and at the midpoint of the trail. Here the path runs past quaint summer cabins fronting the north shore of Chautauqua Lake, eventually leading to the old rail depot that serves as headquarters for the nonprofit Chautauqua Rails to Trails group that owns and maintains the path. Take a break here to catch a quick history lesson or a bite to eat at one of a number of restaurants that look out over the lake.
If riding through wine country without even a taste is driving you crazy, take a short 3.5-mile side trek south from Mayville along the west shore of the lake to visit the new Mazza Chautauqua Cellars. To get there, follow State Route 394 (a dedicated bike route with larger shoulders) south and make a right on Chautauqua Stedman Road.
If you are tackling the whole rail trail, however, you are only halfway done, as the path continues to the west and south, eventually connecting to the village of Sherman. In order to skirt the Chautauqua Gorge State Forest, the route must join Hannum Road for a mile section and then turn south on Summerdale Road for an even briefer bit before becoming dedicated rail-trail once again. Bird lovers will want to complete the entire route to Sherman to stop at trailside wetlands where 175 winged species have been noted. (I, on the other hand, can’t pass by a gorge or river without a quick peek.) Continue on Hannum Road into the state forest to visit an oft-overlooked slate bottom canyon spectacularly carved by Chautauqua Creek.
Brian Castner writes about the outdoors for Spree. More information on the trails discussed here can be
For other bike trails in Western NY, pick up a copy of Take Your Bike – Family Rides in the Finger Lakes & Genesee Valley Region.