By Rob Montana | Ithaca.com
It’s hard to imagine a place that has as much to offer the outdoor enthusiast in the Finger Lakes as its National Forest.
Wild plums, abundant wildlife and a variety of terrain — plus plenty of place of throw down a tent and spend the night — greet those who enter the Finger Lakes National Forest. There are ponds in which to cool off, miles and miles of trail on which to walk and ride, and even a dedicated campsite for horses and their riders.
The 16,000-plus acre plot of land between Seneca and Cayuga lakes, the majority of which was consolidated in the period between 1938-1941 when more than 100 farms were acquired under the management of the Soil Conservation Services, became a permanent part of the National Forest system in 1983. The Haudenosaunee originally inhabited the lands that make up the National Forest, but white settlers moved in to farm the land following the Revolutionary War.
But farming became difficult by the turn of the century due to soil depletion and competition from other parts of the country, leading to the federal government’s involvement in acquiring the farmland from individual property owners. Administration of the Hector Land Use Area was turned over to the U.S. Forest Service in the late-1950s, leading to its eventual permanency as part of the U.S. Forest system.
This writer — and family — recently hiked about 3.5 miles of the trails near the Foster Pond area of the Finger Lakes National Forest. Portions of the pathway were wet from recent rainfall — combined with the tamping down of the earth where horses had traveled through previously.
One of the most remarkable things to see was the variety of terrain you pass through in a relatively short span of walking. You can be in a pasture one minute only to find yourself in a seemingly dense wooded area just a few minutes later.
Our hike was part of a several day camping trip at the Forest, allowing us to have a day to arrive and set up, spend the night and hit the trail after a hearty breakfast, and to not have to worry about getting back to dismantle our campsite until the following day. Muddy parts aside, the trails are easy to walk along, mostly flat or slight inclines making up the majority of our travels. There were a few steeper inclines, but nothing that remotely resembled an “ascent.”
It was an enjoyable walk in the woods, leisurely enough to stop and pick some blackberries growing alongside the trail during the first part of the walk. We also were able to pick a plethora of wild plums and apples; there are rumors, too, of an ample blueberry patch, but we did not come upon that during this trip.
The start of our hike found us in a lightly wooded area, passing by several ponds, then traveled along pastureland that provided a look at some cows grazing and seeking shade under trees. A steady incline brought us through a gate to the pasture — make sure to close the gates behind you lest some of the bovines get out — and into the deepest portion of woods we encountered. The area potential for the most mud were helpfully covered by bridges installed by volunteers working to make the main trail through the FLNF as easily accessible as possible.
Our hike took place just before the official start of fall, but the leaves had already started to show signs of turning colors. A trip back in the next few weeks is a certainty — just as much of a certainty as the beauty of the fall foliage surely will be.
The bulk of activity in the Finger Lakes National Forest revolves around hiking, whether it is the day variety or those setting up camp as they undertake longer journeys. The trails in the FLNF are pretty well marked — including signs showing the crossings of trails and the amount of mileage to get to other important intersections and points.
The 12-mile-long Interloken Trail runs from the southern end of the Finger Lakes National Forest to the north, passing through various terrain and vegetation. The southern portions are somewhat steeper and more forested; the northern portions are flatter, more open and travel through pasturelands. It also travels by the Foster and Teeter ponds.
This trail can be wet in the spring and fall, which this writer found to be the case during recent hikes there — particularly in the areas where horses travel creating depressions in the earth that fill up quickly during rainfall. There are outstanding vistas to the west, including views of Seneca Lake.
In addition to the Interloken Trail, which will take between 12-14 hours to hike round-trip, there are seven other Finger Lakes National Forest trails:
The Backbone Trail, 5.5 miles one way, begins at the Backbone Horse Campground. The trail traverses the Forest through shrub-lands, pastures, old roads, and many old homestead sites. It intersects the Interloken and Burnt Hill trails to the south and the No-Tan-Tatko trail to the north. It is a relatively flat, primitive trail with natural tread, gravel in wet places, and traverses through fenced pastures.
The Burnt Hill Trail, 2.5 miles one way, is located on the southern end of the Forest. It includes forests, shrub-lands and pastures, and offers many beautiful vistas along the way. It is a primitive trail with a natural tread. It has gravel in wet areas and traverses through the fenced pastures. The trail intersects the Interloken Trail.
The Gorge Trail, 1.25 miles one way, traverses through Hemlock and hardwood forests, following the gorge between Burnt Hill Road and Mark Smith Road. It is located on the southern portion of the Forest. This trail intersects the Interloken Trail. Gorge Pond is located just east of the Gorge Trail trailhead on Burnt Hill Road.
The No-Tan-Tatko Trail, 4.5 miles one way, is nearly all open pastureland and traverses the Forest in a north/south direction between the Backbone Horse Campground and Parmenter Road. From the Backbone Horse Campground, the trail goes north into Seneca County and crosses the Interloken Trail at Seneca Road. The trail follows Townsend Road east for about 0.5 miles then runs north to the parking area on Parmenter Road. In some of the pastures, there are outstanding vistas, including views of Seneca Lake to the west and Cayuga Lake to the east. The trail is relatively flat, with a primitive trail tread, gravel in wet portions, and mowed grass through fenced pastures.
The Potomac Trail, 2.25 miles one way, travels through a variety of forest types and follows the edges of some of the numerous ponds in the area. This relatively flat trail has a primitive natural tread and traverses occasional wet areas. It is a nice loop on which to learn cross-country skiing and is also a popular game bird hunting area. The Potomac Trail network connects with the Interloken Trail and the Potomac Group Campground reservation area.
The Ravine Trail, 3/4 of a mile one way, passes through Hemlock and hardwood forests. As the trail loops around, it crosses a stream in three places with native rock step crossings. It is a primitive trail with a native tread and is steep in some places. The Ravine Trail connects with the Interloken Trail at Burnt Hill Road.
The South Slope Trail, 3/4 of a mile one way, is located at the south end of the Forest. The trail passes through hardwood and conifer stands and crosses a small stream. It is a primitive trail with plank boardwalk over wet areas. This trail intersects the Interloken Trail, and shares a portion of the Finger Lakes and North Country Trail Systems.
In addition, the Finger Lakes Trail also passes through the forest. Trails that allow horseback riding — Backbone, Burnt Hill, Interloken and No-Tan-Takto — are closed to horses from March 15 through May 1 due to muddy conditions.
Cross country skiing is available on the Backbone, Finger Lakes, Interloken, No-Tan-Takto, Potomac and South Slope trails. Snowmobiling is allowed on sections of the Backbone, Burnt Hill and No-Tan-Takto trails.
Camping at the Blueberry Patch and Potomac Group campgrounds costs $10 per night, while camping at the Backbone Horse Campground is free of charge. People also are allowed to set up a site throughout the Finger Lakes National Forest without a charge, though no camping is allowed within livestock pastures between May 15 and October 31.