By Margot Russell
In Chautauqua County, fall trumpets its arrival with crisp, cool afternoons and swaths of scarlet and yellow leaves that alight the woods in the western region of New York State Forest System. There is no better time for a hike than autumn, and here among the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains, visitors can traipse through fields and old-growth woods, stumbling upon gurgling streams, hidden waterfalls, or our majestic gorge— all found within the county’s miles of well-kept trails. There’s something here for every hiker, whether you’re looking to make a day of it, or you just want to take a walk in our well-trod autumn paradise. See below for some suggestions, all with trails labeled moderate, although some segments of the longer trails may vary in difficulty.
Chautauqua Gorge State Forest
A short hike (1/4 mile) down a wooded trail brings you to the bottom of Chautauqua Gorge where you can walk by the creek and while away an afternoon exploring waterfalls and fossils in the heart of beautiful foliage. Take note that the shale stone along the creek is very slippery when wet. There are several short trails along the gorge (averaging one mile) along with picnic areas, and a fire ring. For more information on trails along the gorge visit www.dec.ny.gov/lands. Location: Hannum Road, Chautauqua, NY. From Mayville, take Rte. 430 west to Hannum Road. Follow the road until it ends (it will become a dirt road). To reach the swimming hole, drive to the end of the road and park: a short trail (less than 1/4 mile long) will continue downhill from the end of the dirt road, leading to the creek.
French Creek Preserve
This is a beautiful one-hour hike that takes you along the historic French Creek, made famous by a young George Washington who traveled up the Pennsylvania portion of the creek when tensions were heightened before the French and Indian War. The trail loop in Chautauqua County is abundant in sugar maple and red maple trees, although the real stars are the fields of wildflowers that grow four-feet tall by summer’s end. The path skirts three-quarters of a mile of frontage on one side of the creek and then up along a bluff. Keep your eyes open for wildlife—especially migratory birds—in this 90-acre preserve and bio-diversity hotspot. Location: Off Route 4 in Clymer. Take Exit 6 (Sherman) from I-86 and turn south on Route 76. Take a right on Route 4, a left on Route 15, and then a right on Route 4 again. The trailhead is 2.5 miles on your right and has a space for parking.
Maybe one of the county’s best hidden gems, Dobbins’ Woods is a 100-acre preserve with two types of forest habitats to explore. The trail makes a loop and is a lovely 45-minute walk through maples, birch and hemlocks and an expanse of wetlands that are covered with wooden walkways. For more information and directions see www.rtpi.org/dobbins-woods-preserve.
Location: Off Rte. 394 on Bly Hill Road. From Exit 8 (Mayville, Lakewood) off I-86, take NY 394 east approximately 2.5 miles to Bly Hill Road on the right. Turn right onto Bly Hill Road and proceed to Dobbin’s Woods. The woods are located on the left side of the road. They begin approximately 0.5 miles from NY 394 and end approximately 1.2 miles from NY 394. Park beside the road.
If you’re looking for a lovely hike but not a big commitment, Panama Rocks has a mile-long trail set within an ancient forest. And what makes it unique is a series of rock-forming crevices along the trail with interesting passageways and hidden caves. It’s kid-friendly, too, although you’ll need to keep an eye on younger children. You can spend an hour on the main trail— or an entire day if you want to veer off the beaten path. And here’s a little secret: Bring a picnic lunch and spread out a blanket next to the barn and in the shade near the entrance. It’s a great way to relax after you’re done exploring. For more information, visit www.panamarocks.com or call (716) 782-2845 . Rates: $7.50 Adults; $5.00 Children.
Location: 11 Rock Hill Rd, Panama, NY.
Earl Cardot Eastside Overland Trail
One of the county’s premiere trails, the EOT covers 19 miles starting in the town of Gerry and heading north to Arkwright, making up the eastern side of the county trail system. Serious hikers can traverse the whole trail, spending the night at Adirondack lean-tos, which feature latrines, fire pits and tables. Day hikers can hike in a mile or two and then hike back or look for shorter segments of the trail on the map. The EOT boasts a variety of terrains, including woodlands and ponds. For information on the EOT, including a map visit www.tourchautauqua.com/Where-to-Play.
Fred J. Cusimano Westside Overland Trail
Also a well-marked and beautifully maintained 24-mile trail, the WOT makes up the western side of the county trail system running from Mayville to Sherman. It’s a great trail for both day hikers and long-haul hikers who often take two days or more to traverse the trail from beginning to end. Lean-tos with water and picnic facilities are available. Suggested Segment: The trailhead that begins off Route 474 (which can be picked up from Route 394 in Lakewood and then heads west past Panama) can be hiked for a mile or two before turning around. This segment of the trail is lovely in autumn and great for families with pets and kids. To see maps and a brochure of the WOT, visit www.tourchautauqua.com/Where-to-Play.
Rails To Trails
Twenty-seven miles of unused railroad corridors between Sherman and Brocton were turned into hiking paths, making this a popular choice for day hikers who can choose from segments that range from one to seven miles in length. The paths wind through wetlands, hardwood forests, vineyards and picturesque countryside and offer the hiker plenty of opportunities to spy a diversity of plant and wildlife and more than 170 species of birds.
Segment Suggestion: Ideal for longer backpacking trips, the seven-mile Ralph C. Sheldon, Jr. Trail winds through beautiful woodlands and wetlands. For a description of the Rail to Trail segments and to download a map, visit the Chautauqua Rails to Trails website at www.chaurtt.org.
Note to hikers: Most of these trails operate on a “carry in-carry out” basis so please be mindful of your garbage. Segments of the trails wind through private property, whose owners have given permission for their property to be used for recreational purposes. Please be respectful of private lands.
And, a helpful hint: Request the annual Chautauqua County Visitors Guide for help in planning your hiking trips. It includes a full size map and trail indicators.