Hiking on the Fingerlakes Trail.

There’s a certain something special about the solitude nature provides. For the initiated, there’s nothing comparable a jaunt up a desolate hill in the dense forests of the county’s southern expanses. 

There’s the solitude and the peerless experience of gazing about the vast valleys that make up the region’s woodlands, visible from a lofty overlook accessible only by a narrow, but immaculately-kept dirt path through the trees. There’s a stillness and a silence there that’s hard to find in even the smallest of Tompkins County’s towns and villages, a feeling of permanence you can’t find in any human construct. It’s an almost spiritual experience until, of course, some stranger comes along and shatters the illusion.

Summertime is the peak season for hiking in the area’s parks and state forests, the warm weather and easy navigability making the season perfect for treks in the sticks – something many people take advantage of. In the winter, however, the numbers thin out, offering a greater opportunity for peace and quiet, allowing for a more intimate experience with nature. The practice, however, has its challenges.

“Generally hikers are less active this time of year when footing is problematic in the woods,” said Gary Mallow, president of the Cayuga Trails Club. “Another local hiking group has essentially switched to road-walks in rural areas until the snow recedes. Others resort to cross-country skiing and snowshoes. When I get out this time of year, I usually rely on microspikes if the snow is not too deep.”

Around Tompkins County a few of the rail trails – such as the Black Diamond Trail – or the flat walks like the South Hill Recreation Way may be the best places for beginners to start their winter odysseys but, as Finger Lakes Trail Club director Quinn Wright notes, some take their winter journeys even further. Wright said the Finger Lakes Trail, though difficult to navigate in some places, often sees some die-hards taking on the narrow, winding pathway during cold, wintry days. Years ago, he said, a group of college students spent their winter break hiking all 580 miles of it, snow and all. To do something like this, being well-equipped is a necessity. 

“The difference in winter participants and non-participants (I would put forth) is in the area of preparation,” Tom Fornacek, a member of the CTC wrote in an email. “Those of us with winter experience will have the garb and the essentials for winter hiking.” 

Those items include microspikes for traction made by companies like Katoola or Hillsound and trekking poles to compensate for uncertain footing hidden beneath the snow. For emergencies, hikers bring along more energy food for warmth as fire and warmth, in the winter, become should someone be injured. Even hydration changes.

“We often get away from hydration bladders which can have tubes that freeze and carry water bottles instead,” Fornacek said. “More layers are used because a steep hill can still make you break into a sweat in the cold.”

Beginner's Trail – South Hill Recreation Way

South Hill Recreation Way

Length: 4.6 miles (down and back)

Trail end points: Hudson St. at Hillview Pl. & at CR 119 (Ithaca) to Burns Road (SE of Ithaca) 

Trail surfaces:Asphalt, Gravel

Facilities: None

One of the shorter rail trails around Tompkins County (The East Hill Recreation Trail, at just over two miles, is shorter) the South Hill Recreation Way follows Six Mile Creek gorge from southeast Ithaca to the Ithaca Reservoir on the former grade of the Cayuga and Susquehanna, built in 1849 to haul coal from Pennsylvania to a canal in Ithaca. 

The trail itself is relatively flat with some astounding views along the way, meandering through a combination of residential neighborhoods, meadows and woodlands as well as a slew of gorges and ravines. Part of the route passes through the Mulholland Wildflower Preserve and Vincenzo Iacovelli Park, providing access to those sites and the Six Mile Creek gorge itself. 

In terms of its degree of challenge, the trail is perfect for a quick day hike along some spectacular scenery and shouldn’t provide much of a challenge for hikers young or old. Well-traveled, it could also be considered one of the safer bets of these three trails. 

Moderate Trail – Taughannock Gorge Trail

Taughannock Loop

Length: 3.3 miles

Trail end points: Base of the trail is accessible by NY Route-89 and the top is accessible by Rt. 96.

Trail surfaces: Gravel

Facilities: Seasonal restrooms 

Likely the most famous of all the trails in Tompkins County (though the same could be said for any of the state parks) Taughannock Falls is one of the most-travelled of any trail in the area, no matter what the season is. Though the rim trail itself is closed, the gorge itself is still open and still offers the same spectacular views that attracts people from miles around.

For the uninitiated, expect generally gentle grades along the rim of the trail with occasional steep stretches that will provide some strenuous minutes. However, the rejuvenation of the views you will see should go a long way to restoring some of your energy.

If you’re looking to mix it up, the side trails at Buttermilk Falls and in Treman State Park provide a similar degree of difficulty to Taughannock Falls, and without an attraction like, say, a giant waterfall, the odds will be in your favor for some peace and quiet on your journey.

Challenging Trail – Abbot Loop

Abbott Loop

Length: 8.1 miles

Trail end points: Accessible via Michigan Hollow Rd, Hill Rd. or Bald Hill Rd. (Seasonal)

Trail surfaces:Dirt 

Facilities: None

An isolated trail in the Danby State Forest near Spencer, this trail is difficult to access and its location, very remote. This author’s favorite trail, preferred access to the trail is by parking at the base of Bald Hill Rd. (a seasonal road, so if it’s winter, prepare for a rough ride) and hiking up the steep grade until you see the trail’s blazes – marked by two orange x’s.

Once on the trail, expect to see the ruins of old farmhouses in the abandoned Bald Hill community and examples of the reforestation efforts of the state from back in the 1940s. The trail itself is narrow, but well-maintained from the efforts of the Cayuga Trails Club and at times, very steep and relatively strenuous as it winds through high elevation woodlands. At its precipice, be prepared for a spectacular view of the valley below. Very lightly-trafficked, other hikers along the route are uncommon and in the winter, you can expect to be all alone so, of course, use caution and bring provisions.

Follow Nick Reynolds on Twitter @Nickthaca

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