For many years I’ve enjoyed hiking. I explored the popular Adirondack Mountains, the well-publicized trails of our state and local parks, even the trails through private lands being built and maintained by groups of volunteers. But it wasn’t until ten years ago when I began writing trail guidebooks and scouting deeper into available trails that I discovered a hidden treasure.
Scattered throughout central and western New York State is an array of public lands that are managed for plant and wildlife conservation, timber harvest, and recreation by the DEC (Department of Environmental Conservation). Trails wind through these diverse properties – trails that are as varied as the lands they traverse.
Walking these trails provides an escape from the crowds and fast-paced bustle of everyday life. Your hiking partners are likely to be covered with fur or feathers, not T-shirts and sneakers. Along these trails you’ll find unique treasures, preserved for posterity.
One of the treasures is in Honeyoye Falls at Quinn Oak Openings. Approximately 4,000 years ago a major drought caused the demise of many native species of trees and allowed midwestern prairie plants to move east. It created fields of tall grass prairies surrounded by oak forests – oak openings. The Indians noticed these grass openings were havens from bugs and allowed them to get a broader view of approaching enemies so they kept the grasslands open with fire. The absence of trees in the oak openings made them easy targets for farmers. As white settlers moved in, many of the oak openings were put to use to raise crops.
Quinn Oak Openings is one of fewer than 20 oak openings remaining in the world. It was spared because it was hard to plow and virtually impossible to sink fence posts into the limestone which lies only a few inches below the surface. This land was privately owned and was used to graze cows. The farmers continued periodic burnings to encourage grass growth. Today, DEC continues this practice to save this unique resource.
Farther east another DEC treasure is found at Camillus Forest Unique Area. The trail follows a long, gradual uphill tractor path through fields to a stand of nearly old growth forest. Although old, this forest is not undisturbed pre-settlement “old growth” forest. The stand was harvested in the distant past, and may have been managed as a sugar bush for maple sap production. However, given the dignity of time, this forest will give us a glimpse of the transition from “old forest” to “old growth forest.”
Within the old forest are several very large sugar maples, New York State’s official tree. American beech can be found with diameters at breast height exceeding 36 inches. Estimated age of eleven of the dominant trees in the forest is between 120 and 200 years, with one 42-inch sugar maple tree approaching 300 years of age. With the book “Take A Hike – Family Walks in New York’s Finger Lakes Region” in hand, watch carefully for two-inch round, blue tags affixed to trees within the old forest, to learn what a DEC forester sees as he walks through a nearly old growth forest.
Maybe you prefer to walk in the footsteps of history and enjoy scenic views. If so, try Bare Hill Unique Area which provides awe-inspiring views of Canandaigua Lake and valley. Walk land where the Genundowa Festival of Lights originated. Genundowa was the name of a Seneca village near Bare Hill. Each year in early September, the Seneca Elders and the tribes Keepers would light a large fire on top of Bare Hill as part of the Seneca Autumn Ceremony of Thanksgiving for a successful harvest. This fire was followed by smaller fires along the lake, resulting in a ring of light as a gesture of Indian unity.
Seneca history is hidden in legend. One legend says that the first Seneca settlement occurred in Naples Valley around 1400. Other legends assert that they came from the Adirondack area or from Montreal, either following game or to escape warring tribes. In either case, by the 1600s the Seneca Nation numbered over 10,000.
Around 1570, five Seneca tribes united into the League of Five Nations, later called the Iroquois Confederacy. Historians call this early government the “greatest achievement of Stone Age man” because of its extensive code of laws. Council Rock at the summit of Bare Hill was the traditional site of the Seneca Indian council fires.
The Twin Cedars Environmental Area at DEC Region 8 headquarters in East Avon has a trail that follows the top of a drumlin and runs around man-made ponds. Numbered signs along the route help hikers understand how DEC manages this property for a variety of wildlife habitats. There’s also an A-frame interpretive center packed with exhibits and displays designed to test a visitor’s environmental knowledge and stimulate their curiosity.
In the book “Take A Hike! Family Walks in New York’s Finger Lakes Region” there are 18 trails that traverse DEC lands in central and western New York State, each with it’s own unique treasure. Hit the trail and discover the hidden gems on your own.