By Mark Baldwin
In western New York, Chautauqua County’s main arteries – the NYS Thruway (I-90) and the Southern Tier Expressway (I-86) will get you quickly to your destination but they’re not engineered for appreciation of place. In fact, sometimes when driving on the Interstate Highway System it’s hard for me, a geography nerd, to know where in the world I am without those big green signs. To appreciate the graceful connections between nature and culture that animate places like Chautauqua County, you need the vantage point of less traveled roads. You need to be a back road adventurer.
The Natural Terrain
Chautauqua County embraces some of the natural world’s richest terrain. It has Lake Erie’s inland seacoast hemmed with bluffs, the shale of which formed when this part of the globe was a tropical sea floor in the southern hemisphere. It boasts one of North America’s most bountiful grape growing regions outside California, with a proud agricultural history going back nearly two centuries. And, along this narrow lowland plain, broad-winged hawks and other raptors soar toward northern breeding grounds each spring as they have for millennia.
“Rock city” outcrops, like Panama Rocks, over a third of a billion years old jut from the region’s hillsides. Each spring songbirds from Central and South America arrive by the thousands in brilliant breeding plumage to nest in old fields, forested hills and mossy ravines. Glacially formed lakes called “kettles” dot the county, evidence that colossal blocks of ice from the retreating glacier became stranded and buried in gravel thousands of years ago.
Running athwart the grape belt is an eight-mile historic portage, or “carrying place.” On the shore of Lake Erie near the mouth of Chautauqua Creek, American Natives once shouldered canoes for the 900-foot vertical ascent up and over the escarpment marking the rim of the Allegheny Plateau, a great highland where the glittering waters of Chautauqua Lake form northern headwaters of the vast Ohio-Mississippi River system.
Along NY Routes 394 and 20
Natural history begets cultural history. People have populated this part of the world for centuries and continue to today fundamentally because of the natural assets found here. The aforementioned Portage Trail grew deeply well-worn because it marked the shortest distance between two crucial points for transportation. Today, a well-traveled highway runs over the same route, more or less: NY Route 394 between Barcelona and Mayville.
Similarly, a Native American footpath traced the beach ridge of an ancient post-glacial forebear of Lake Erie, a body of water geologists call Lake Warren. Gravelly and well-drained, the route bypassed swampy, mucky places that would slow the pace of a warrior or messenger. Eventually it became part of a cart path known as the Buffalo Road. Today, U.S. Route 20 crosses Chautauqua County, linking two neighboring Erie Counties; much of it lies on the very same beach ridge as the old Indian trail. By the way, U.S. 20 is the longest single highway in the United States, stretching 3,365 miles from Newport, Oregon to Boston, Massachusetts.
Crossing a continental divide: Lakes Chautauqua and Erie
Here is one adventure to give you a taste of what Chautauqua County’s back roads have to offer the observant traveler. Head north on NY Route 430 into the Town of Chautauqua at the northern tip of Chautauqua Lake. Take the right fork at East 58 where it branches off of 430 and drive half a mile to the intersection of Stockton-Hartfield Road and Centralia-Hartfield Road (County Touring Route 54). In the village of Hartfield you will find the Olde Corner Deli. The sandwiches there are excellent and you’d do well to stop in and buy a lunch to pack for later. Just west of the deli, turn north onto Elm Flat Road and start measuring your distance. Immediately you enter Amish country so be especially careful; the road’s dips and curves can limit your sight distance and pedestrians, horse-drawn buggies and farm equipment share this road too.
Where Elm Flat Road veers to the left, keep right (straight) onto Burdick Road. Two and a half miles from where you turned at Hartfield, before you get to the intersection of Haight Road, is a place worth pulling over for a few minutes, especially on a clear day with good visibility. Look back south-southwest to see the Chautauqua Valley and the waters of the lake itself. Then, turn west to see Lake Erie. Wow! You’re practically on the continental divide separating the Great Lakes and Ohio-Mississippi basins. On this special spot, see for yourself why the Portage Trail linking Lake Erie and Chautauqua Lake was such a famous gateway to North America’s interior.
Continue on past Haight Road or, if you like, branch off to explore Amish country. If it’s not a Sunday, you might want to stop where you see one of their hand-painted signs and buy some fresh brown eggs, maple syrup, baked goods, maybe even a gorgeous quilt.
At Barnes and Dean Roads, Burdick Road starts being called Thayer Road but don’t worry, just keep going straight. At 5.2 miles on your odometer from where you started in Hartfield, turn right into Luensman Overview County Park. Park your car. Breathe in the fresh air. Find a picnic table under the pavilion or on the grassy hillside, or spread out a blanket and take in the view. Enjoy your picnic lunch. Then you have a tough choice: Do you relax, gaze out over the magnificent vista of America’s grape country to Lake Erie and the Ontario horizon beyond and get sleepy listening to the sound of birdsong and the breeze blowing through the trees; or do you learn more about this place, using the interpretive map, nature and geology brochures and hike the pleasant one-mile trail loop from the meadow’s edge back to the parking area? You might want to stay long enough to do both. Before you leave, be sure to get a drink and a face-splash of cold well water from the old-fashioned hand pump near the pavilion.
When you leave the park you can either backtrack by turning left, or turn right, heading downhill to where Thayer Road T’s at Ellicott Road. Turn left, then right, onto Fay Street. Surrounded by grape vineyards now, the road descends off of the ridge marking the ancient beach of another Lake Erie predecessor, Lake Whittlesey, the waves of which broke on the shore here some 13,000 years ago. Keep going on Fay Street to where it intersects with our old friend, east-west running U.S. 20 in the heart of America’s grape country.
Chautauqua County is laced with roads that offer different adventures, every one unique. Even traversing the same landscape always presents you with something different depending on time of day, weather, season, and the direction you’re traveling. The Chautauqua County Visitors Bureau’s website, www.tourchautauqua.com, has all kinds of resources to help you plan your back road adventures. Or, if you would like to learn more about exploring in the company of expert guides while experiencing some of the region’s best foods and beverages, visit Chautauqua Backroad Adventures. Check the website for scheduled tours and dates, including a geologic tour of some of the region’s “rock cities” on July 16, 2016.
Author Mark Baldwin is an educator devoted to place-based teaching and learning, environmental sustainability, and community vitality. He was principal author of “A Natural History Atlas of the Chautauqua-Allegheny Region”, and has made popular interpretive maps of the Chautauqua Lake Basin and America’s Grape Country. Recently he partnered to create Chautauqua Backroad Adventures, LLC, through which he shares his passion for this exceptional part of the world. He and his wife, Ardy, live in Jamestown.