*photo taken from the cabin at Pfeiffer Nature Center
After going for weeks without a decent hike, I finally made the effort to gift myself with a little time in the woods. I have lived in the city limits of Olean, NY for a long time—as in more than 30 years long. Excluding the time Michael and I took to travel for the last 18 months, the only time I got to enjoy the woods has been when I went camping or took car rides to places where I could hike. Moving to New Hampshire was a revelation to me in 2016, as I didn’t realize how very much I loved living in the woods until I got to do that for six months. I felt spoiled by the beauty of the green, the view I could enjoy every day when I walked the dogs on the quiet road, and the joy of listening to the leaves rustle in the wind. One of my absolute favorite things about New Hampshire was the unbelievably special beauty of the woods at night. When the moon shone brightly enough as it got close to full, I could walk along the road at night without a flashlight. The magic of walking in the woods at night with the shadows of branches criss-crossing over the road…ah, it was heavenly and exciting. I giggled every time.
Michael is currently enjoying that lovely locale without me, as I am trapped in Olean trying to sort through all the things we own at the house we hope to sell. It is exhausting and frustrating to be stuck here when I would rather be in New Hampshire, but it also feels good to know I am ridding our lives of unnecessary possessions that are only serving as an anchor to a place we no longer call home. Soon I will sell the stuff, and then I can get to work on the painting and patching and finishing work that never got finished while we lived in this place together for years. Such is the story with fixer-uppers, as I know quite a few people who purchased homes they intended to fix up, but were forced to live in them while they work. The work never gets done until it’s time to move, at which point you realize in a panic that no one else will want to buy your house half finished, so you make yourself crazy doing all the work in a pinch, and then when it’s done you wish you had done it sooner. Wouldn’t it have been nice to live in it looking so pretty? Well, that’s not happening with the Airstream. No, sir. We are finishing that sucker, even if we have to live in it while we work. I am determined to enjoy my home this time.
In the meantime, I have to take little vacations from the city (though it’s a really small city) so I can get my forest fix. I find that the minute I am walking amongst the trees, my body seems lighter, my step more certain, my spirit calms. Honestly, the woods are where I keep my heart, thumping away in the hollow of a crusty old oak with gnarled branches and bird’s nests crowning its mossy frame. Trees make me happy. I decided to drive out to Pfeiffer Nature Center, coaxed the dogs into the back seat of the beat-up Buick my daughter drove while I was out of town, and for the first time since coming back to Olean I got back out into the woods. For those who live around Portville or Olean, Pfeiffer is a lovely jewel of the region. It’s a conservancy which is run on public funds, and has regular programs featuring the delights of the outdoors. My mother went on a fun owl walk once, where guides took the group out on the trails of the conservancy at night and taught the group how to call for the owls. I once enjoyed an informative hike which instructed the group on how to recognize certain evergreen tree varieties which grow in the forest (I still remember the guide telling us we could recognize white pine by its needles which grow in groups of five). The conservancy consistently offers programs at different times of year, and if you never tried one, I recommend it. Lots of fun.
If you like to hike, the trails will not disappoint. There is a lattice-work of trails that run through the woods on the grounds, all of which are well-marked and groomed, though right now there are several trees down across a few of the trails. It was not difficult to go around them, but they are there. One of my favorite things about Pfeiffer is the view. Even though it’s only 2,000 feet at the cabin, where you can get the best view on the grounds, it’s luscious when the leaves are green and the sun is shining. When I hiked it was not the best day for the view, but even in shades of brown and gray it’s still a marvel. Hiking on the grounds is an easy to moderate level of hiking, depending on the trails you choose. I hiked up around the perimeter of the grounds and gained only 300 feet at the highest point of the conservancy, but it got my heart pumping a little. Nothing too difficult if you’re in decent shape, but the woods are glorious, the birds were singing, and the evergreens softened the sharpness of the bare deciduous trees. The only drawback was the wet snow underfoot (I really hate it when winter horns in on spring), but I imagine the trails would be fabulous if you have a pair of snowshoes. I want some.
For people who would like to know about other places to hike in Western New York State, I can share a few other options. My parents were always good about taking my brother and I out to state parks when we were young, and they still spend a lot of time outdoors hiking and canoeing. One of the parks near Olean is Allegany State Park, and it offers a great many trails for avid hikers. Michael and I loved the Beehunter Trail, which is one of the most challenging hikes in the park, and it can be hiked in a couple of hours. It takes you through the woods, and if you’re lucky you will see some wildlife. Do be aware, the park is chock full of black bears, and we have mountain lions here, so be prepared with bear spray just in case, though the bears in this neck of the woods generally run away from a lot of loud noise. Also in ASP is the beginning of the Finger Lakes Trail (where it actually links up with the North Country Trail), which is maintained as a conservancy, and crosses New York State east to west. You can hike it in sections or as a through-hike as you would with one of the other long trails such as the Appalachian. Several other trails intersect with the Finger Lakes Trail, so options abound for lots of great hiking in the beautiful rolling hills of Western New York and over to the Catskills, then down to cross over the Appalachian Trail near the border of New Jersey. You can look up info on www.fltconference.org if you are interested in maps or trail conditions, though I would see if you can talk to someone who has hiked the trail before taking a long hike across the state. I have friends who hiked part of the trail from ASP to Ithaca, and they said parts of it were quite difficult to negotiate. It may surprise people from outside of the region to learn that we have an abundance of gorges carved out of the countryside here, which can be problematic when attempting through-hikes. The FLT website is good, but it’s always better when you can quiz someone else who has been on the trail to learn about the pitfalls.
If you really want to stick closer to Olean, you can always take the time to walk, roller blade, or bike on the Allegany River Trail, which you can access from points on the St. Bonaventure campus, a parking lot off Henley Street near Henley and North 20th, and lots of places along Constitution Ave. where it starts near Bonaventure and follows along the road to Twist ‘n’ Shake ice cream shop (do reward yourself there after your exercise—it’s delish). The trail is about six miles long and is paved and maintained during snow-free months. The portion which runs alongside the river in the woods is my favorite part. If you feel adventurous, you can try taking some of the paths in the woods which run off the paved portion. It’s fun to see where they go, but keep your eyes peeled for those mountain bikers. 🙂 Lastly, if you feel up for a much more challenging hike, go try your legs on Mount Herman. A trail can be accessed at the dead end of Ohio Street in Seneca Heights, a neighborhood which is located off South Union Street. If you turn left on the trail and follow the raised section for a short stint, once you get past the homes and yards from Ohio Street you will see the trail leading up the side of the mountain. It’s hard to see at times because it isn’t maintained by anyone, and it relies on the feet of those who hike it to remain visible. Kids will often go up there to have parties, so watch for broken glass in some spots. If this doesn’t disturb you too much, the actual hike is a fabulous workout, and when you reach the top of the mountain you get a great view in the clearing where the power lines cut across. You might catch a glimpse of the majestic bald eagles which nest on the banks of the Allegheny River in the valley below the mountain, as they tend to enjoy hunting in the woods of the valley. There are also some roads up there for access to the power lines and the water reservoirs, and lots of people use ATVs on them. You can find plenty of hiking if you want to spend just a couple of hours or a whole day wandering.
Please comment below if you have other great hikes to share. I know there are lots of hikes in the Western New York region, and I would be thrilled to learn about new ones I can try out while I’m still here. Otherwise, I would also love to hear from people who try out the hikes I mentioned. Even though Michael and I are ready to live elsewhere after so many years in Olean, this is still a beautiful part of the country. Take the time to visit the wild places set aside, and appreciate the undulating skyline, the lime-green spray of budding leaves in spring, the flowers opening on the trees, and the water rushing down from the hilltops as the snow melts. In another post I will share one of my favorite parks of Western New York: Letchworth State Park. It’s been a favorite place of mine since I was a kid, and it has a lot of special scenery to see. Stay tuned for that. If I can make time to get out there soon, I will share it. In the meantime, go find yourself an adventure. Breathe in the fresh air, hug a tree, and grab the reward of a gorgeous view.