Greetings and salutations, friends. I hope this day has been good to you, wherever you find yourself in this moment. After a hard day of work yesterday on both my house and my writing, I decided that today needed to be a reward, so I took a trip into the woods. As always, whenever I get overburdened by the world, work, technology, or anything else unpleasant, if I spend even an hour in the woods all things right themselves again. It’s like a magic spell is cast, and I come out of the trees with a grin on my face and a calm interior. A recent conversation I had with my brother-in-law’s girlfriend reminded me that we are surrounded by government land, a fact that I simply forgot since returning to my old stomping grounds. Funny how we return to old ways of thinking when we go back to familiar places, isn’t it? Even though Michael and I frequented plenty of trails on government land out West, when we came home I lamented the lack of hiking opportunities to which I had grown accustomed while we were away. Well, that conversation reminded me that government land is all around us, ready for visitors.
I remembered a place I haven’t visited in a long, long time, a forest situated between Great Valley and Little Valley in Western New York State. The entire region set aside is over 2,000 acres, and is known as the Allegany State Forest (not to be confused with the forest in Pennsylvania). Within this forest is a special spot called Little Rock City. There are lots of places in the country where one can find the deposits of giant boulders left behind by glacial movement in the ice age, but certain regions of the Northeast are absolutely riddled with boulder deposits. Western New York happens to have several places set aside for exploring, due to the grandeur of these massive boulders which were left behind in city-like placements in the lush forests of the hills. If you ever visit Western New York, there are lots of places one can go to enjoy the fun of scrambling over these massive boulders, and I will share those at the end of this post. First, let me take you on my afternoon adventure.
When I first arrived at the boundary of the forest, I was on a dirt road which surprisingly still had plenty of homes built well into the state forest land. The drive to the trail loop access only took a few minutes, and as I entered the area known as Rock City Forest, I could see immediately in the woods the shapes of several large boulders looming in the shade of the trees, all of them dripping with green growth, and the promise of the fun ahead. I brought the dogs with me to give them an outing, since the forest allows dogs on leash (you might be surprised by all the places that do not allow dogs, which usually makes me sad). They sat happily panting in the back seat of my beat-up Buick, thrilled to have the windows down and a phat couch on which to relax for the ride. Minutes later, we arrived at the loop where the trail access can be found. Since my last visit here years ago, I had forgotten that picnic areas are secreted into little coves in the woods, right off the road to the loop. Picnic tables with small shelters abound, so if you ever take the time to make this short hike, bring a picnic and make it an afternoon.
Also delightful to discover is the fact that this particular trail loop, called the Little Rock City Trail Loop, is part of the larger trail network called the Finger Lakes Trail. FLT is a long trail which cuts across New York State, and is maintained by a conservancy group, which is lucky for those who wish to enjoy this small portion of it. To locate the trail, look for the white trail blazes on the trees, which also happen to be labeled with the FLT logo at the trailhead. Though this trail can be hiked as a loop of about .7 miles, you could also continue longer into the woods on the FLT and enjoy a longer hike. As I hopped onto the trail with the dogs, right away I noticed the cheerful birdsong lilting in the air, the butterflies weaving through the trees, and the soft fragrance of blooming flowers. Ahh. Following the trail blazes through the woods I came to the “city” of rocks almost immediately (the system is easy, in case you aren’t well-versed: one blaze means straight, two blazes means turn, and the top blaze tells which direction to turn, whether on the right or left of the lower blaze). How to describe this scene? It’s almost like stepping back in time to me. As if a dinosaur could step out from behind one of those enormous boulders coated in lichen, moss, and fans of ferns.
The path took me on a wending road between the boulders, most of them the size of large houses, some even larger. Though the day was hot at almost 90 degrees, the stones gave off a comfortable coolness. At times the path narrowed considerably to walk between the boulders, and then it widened again when the boulders were more spread apart, but the size of this rock city is not small, regardless of the name. I felt so insignificant next to these monoliths of the past, but also giddy with excitement to get to enjoy the fun of walking amongst giants. At one point, the path skirted a couple of boulders which jutted out and created a cave-like space underneath. Pools of muddy water stood in darkness, reminding me of the scene from the Lord of the Rings movie where Frodo gets snapped up by the enormous water beast. Dripping water echoed in the cavernous space, and then every once in a while one can hear the scrabbling of some water creature in the darkness. It was both creepy and amusing all at once.
Eventually I reached a point at which I could not go forward without my gators on, since the way forward was far too muddy for me to continue, and the entire path went up between two tall rocks, all deep mud. Though I had avoided taking alternate paths through the woods up to this point (because I had no desire to get lost—there are a lot of trails winding around the rocks, as people like to climb the rocks while they hike), here I chose to try going around them to see if I could pick up the trail again on the far side of the rocks. I didn’t find the trail again, but I did find myself back up on the road leading back to my car. By accident I had taken a slightly different route to complete the loop, which ends on the roadway. Rather than take the boring route on the road, I chose to backtrack through the woods again. Why not? The trail is short, easy, and fun. My dogs appreciated the time in the woods, especially when I let them stop and sniff the world of smells available.
If you have never been backpacking, I was thinking this trail would be a perfect introduction to learning. It reminds me of places I love in the Adirondacks, with little bridges over muddy spots, fun paths between boulders, and the delight of discovery in the forest. This path gave me many of the features of some of my favorite places to go, and if it had a waterfall, I dare say it would have hit them all. Even without the waterfall, this trail is a special treat. Trees canopy the entire trail, lush plants soften the hard edges of landscape, the path follows the undulations of the hillside, and the forest is alive with animals and leaves rustling in the wind. It’s a busy place in nice weather, so expect it to be frequented by hikers in the summer months. I got lucky and had it all to myself today, which was lovely. Still, you might find this place less busy than the other places like it in the region, such as Rock City Park, Thunder Rocks, or Jake’s Rocks. What’s best about this state forest is that it’s completely free, as nature should be. However, in case you feel that the deep woods and dirt roads are not your cup of tea, I will share what I know about the other places one can see the rocks and enjoy the fun of scrambling over and around then in Western New York.
Rock City is located south of Olean on Rock City Hill, though it’s more of a commercial venture and everyone is charged by the person for a ticket to enter the family-owned land on which Rock City sits. A gift shop is attached to the property, and a lovely picnic area is provided for visitors, as well as a stunning overlook view of the region. Thunder Rocks is located within Allegany State Park, which is close to Salamanca, NY. As with all New York State Parks, each car is charged a flat fee for entry for the day (I believe it’s $8, though fees vary for some parks). Thunder rocks can be found on the park maps available where you enter at the gate, and is popular with park visitors. Here, you are left to simply wander through the woods to locate the rocks, rather than following a designated path. You might get lucky and show up when the Racoon Rally takes place, which is a mountain bike competition involving riders performing tricks on a course through the rocks—on the rocks themselves. It’s a sight to see, trust me. Finally, Jake’s Rocks is in Pennsylvania near the Kinzua Dam. The path in the woods here is paved for the most part, so if you have a stroller or anyone requiring a wheelchair or other sorts of wheels to get around, this place is a delight. Enjoy the beautiful mountain laurel when it blooms in late spring, and a gorgeous view of the reservoir as the reward for your walk through the boulder-studded forest. Picnic areas are also provided here with tables, and the access to the trail is free. Bonus!
For anyone interested in exploring the possibilities of government land in your region, try a search for “government land near me” or “Bureau of Land Management” to see what you find. You might also try looking up “government land with hiking trails” to see if that gives you different results. Regardless, I believe most states have land which is owned and maintained either by the state or by the federal government, is often considered open for recreation, and is usually free of charge for use (though some places do charge minimal fees for camping). In New York State, the DEC (Department of Conservation) is the site which has information about all the parcels set aside for recreational use, and each county is listed separately. I found the place I visited today by using the DEC website, and each place is designated for specific types of recreation, which are listed on each parcel’s page. What are you waiting for? Get out there and enjoy the beautiful world. Go see something you’ve never seen before, especially if you’ve been living in the same place for a long, long time. Isn’t it about time you had a little variety in your life? I have a feeling if you look, you might find a treasure of nature set aside closer than you think.