Local trail systems provide recreation benefits throughout the seasons
By David Thomas-Train
My hike began on a mellow gravel pathway crossing a meadow. I paused to watch blackbirds and geese at a wetland before meandering through a blueberry barren, hopscotching a hemlock forest stream, goat-footing a rocky spine, sashaying a grassy oak glen, and gradually looping down to the start. In not even 2 miles, the route had almost everything.
This trail has siblings all over the park. Some are graded smooth and wide, while some are skinny, stony and rooty. Some are new, and some follow ages-old woods roads or paths. Some climb the heights; some meander the flats. Some visit wetlands, and some visit big lakes. All are well-marked, signed and mapped. All are welcoming. They’re our community trails. Most of these layouts, whether just one trail or 30, are new in the last 10 or so years, though a few are older. They’re in all corners of the park. They come in all shades of management and ownership, from municipal with paid staff to nonprofit and volunteer.
The ramble noted above is in Stony Creek, in southwest Warren County. Part of the Dean Farm Heritage Trails that fan out from the center of the village, the network is a joint project of the Stony Creek Historical Association, the Town of Stony Creek, the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry and New York State. The Dean Farm has been near the center of the village since the mid-1800s.
It was last farmed in the 1950s and deeded in the late 1990s in two pieces to the Historical Association and to the SUNY ESF Foundation. It’s a lovely piece of community teamwork. There’s a small museum at the old Dean Farm house, where the Historical Association is based, and the trails take off from there. West of the parking area, broad and smooth handicapped-accessible paths wind through fields and across a gentle rise to a viewing deck overlooking the creek that names the town.
Local Sandi Payne tells me the meadows are maintained by annual cutting, after the monarch butterflies have fed and bred on the milkweed. She and her trail crew of two do regular trail sweeps, but blowdowns and washouts have tested them and required a bigger cadre of town workers and volunteers.
Stony Creek is a tight community, and its library sponsors annual wildflower walks and snowshoe hikes on the trails. The network was conceived in 2008, and broke ground in 2012, designed by a SUNY ESF student. Tons of planning, coordination and sweat equity led to the opening in 2016. Frank Thomas, the town supervisor and a leading force for the project, fills me in on its history.
On my way back down the hill, I pause at the wetland dock. The blackbirds chitter from the snags and the geese paddle off, snipping leaves and bugs. I’m hungry too, wishing I could sample the popular village eateries. But COVID has closed them, so I must be content with my pack lunch before heading home. I’m already itching to return in non-pandemic times to this sweet crossroads hamlet, to better know it and its farmstead pathways.
In eastern Essex County, the lean-to offers views both ways from its cozy perch atop the knob: west into the High Peaks, and east into the Champlain Valley. It’s reached by a steep path off an old logging road, linked to 30 named trails here.
With about 12 miles now, and 4 miles more coming soon, Elizabethtown’s trail system is the biggest town-owned network in the park. The 800 acres of hilly forest sheltering the Blueberry Hill routes, a mile west of the village, were first purposed for selective logging and water supply protection.
Then, as quiet outdoor recreation boomed around the year 2000, local volunteers pursued grants to develop trails and supporting infrastructure branching out from the center of “E-town.” Their goal has been to help revitalize the town as a magnet for sustainable recreation on well-stewarded public and private lands. The Otis Mountain network is part of the latter, and two more trail webs are on the way. Otis, 3 miles south of town, is home to the second layout. A longtime local ski hill, its system has grown to eight routes up, over and around the mountain. Owner and native Jeff Allott has worked with a neighbor to grow the trails, and they welcome all comers to power themselves around the network, across snow, dirt, ice and rock. Jeff is at the center of Elizabethtown’s trail initiatives. He has a lot of help. “We can draw on 40 or so volunteers at any given time,” he tells me. “Their energy and enthusiasm is amazing.”
Soon to open are four more trails above the town golf course at Cobble Hill. After
that comes a network on 340 acres of private land at the Elizabethtown.
Each venue has its own feel. Blueberry Hill and the Bike Ranch are the wildest, snugging up against the eastern knobs of the Hurricane Primitive Area. Cobble Hill is more domestic, within sight and sound of golf and neighborhoods. Otis Mountain, between these bookends, is out of town in the woods and overgrown fields of a homey ski hill above the Boquet River.
Elizabethtown’s trail network, public and private, is far-flung. Its most distant reaches are about 6 miles apart, as the falcon flies. But they’re closely tied by the creative passion of their followers. Annual events abound: a bluegrass festival, a bike race from Saranac Lake, ice climbing classes, a yoga retreat, ski clinics. There’s also a full-day ride of all the trails, with food stops at local eateries, and an evening barbecue and music at Otis.
“Aaaah-ooooooooo” wails the loon out in the remnant morning mist; the Peninsula Trail winds its way past plenty of watery prospects, but I just can’t spy the big bird.
All the trails at the Adirondack Interpretive Center in Newcomb edge the water from a headland between Rich and Belden Lakes; it’s one of the few community networks with so much waterfront.
Here since 1990, first as the state-run Visitor Interpretive Center and now, since 2009, owned by the SUNY-ESF, the AIC also offers natural history exhibits and classes. Years back, I brought my third-grade students here to study owls and their diet, dissecting their regurgitated pellets of prey fur and bones. The kiddos thrilled as they ID’d mouse ribs and shrew jawbones.
The trail layout has grown over the years and now links east to the Camp Santanoni’s dirt road, Lake Harris and Overlook Park at that edge of Newcomb. Across the highway and a mile west, an interpretive trail hoofs it up Goodnow Mountain to its fire tower. Jake O’Connell manages SUNY-ESF programs here, from trails to overnight lodging for student groups, up to 40 a year. Because of COVID, he tells me it’s a quiet time at the AIC, for refining classes and repairing buildings and trails.
Newcomb has long been a tranquil place, but with access to newly protected lands, it’s now a budding outdoor recreation hub. Fanned out from here, there are community trail networks—on shorelines, to fire towers, along woods roads, up small peaks—all over the Adirondacks. The list is continually growing.
A large glacial erratic boulder at the Newcomb AIC. Photo by Mike Lynch. Check out a gallery Lynch put together of pictures from some of the community trails included in this story.