Finding Your Tug Hill Trails

BY: NORAH MACHIA
The Tug Hill region is often described as “one of the last untouched wildernesses” in New York State. It covers 2,100 square miles of land, including numerous trails that offer stunning views of its unique forestlands, rivers and wildlife. 
 

     But it may not be the first place people think about visiting when the snow finally melts, and spring arrives.  

    The Tug Hill Plateau, the area with the highest elevation and the record-breaking snowfalls, has earned a reputation as the “snowiest place” east of the Mississippi. That reputation has helped many rural Tug Hill communities build their winter economies with outdoor activities such as snowmobiling and cross-country skiing, said Katie Malinowski, executive director of the NYS Tug Hill Commission.  

     But the Tug Hill region, including the areas which receive such large snowfalls, also offers many recreational opportunities during the warmer weather as well, she noted. These include hiking, camping, kayaking, mountain biking and fishing.  

     “It would be great if more people were to look at the Tug Hill region for alternative hiking experiences,” said Mrs. Malinowski, noting there are a large variety of trails with an abundance of beautiful natural scenery that many north country residents may not realize is right in their own backyard.  

     For those unfamiliar with the Tug Hill region, a good way to explore is to start with a hike. There are a multitude of trails with a range of distances and varying levels of terrain, and several have been expanded in recent years to attract more visitors, including those with physical challenges, Mrs. Malinowski said.   

    Many of the trail development efforts reflect partnerships among different agencies and volunteers, who have worked together to create year-round recreational opportunities inside the protected forestlands of the Tug Hill region:  

The Tug Hill Traverse Trail is the newest trail under development, and volunteers completed 3.5 miles of the work last summer. When fully completed, it will be 20 miles long and become the first “foot trail” for hikers and cross-country skiers to cross through “the heart of Tug Hill,” said Robert R. Quinn, immediate past chair, Tug Hill Tomorrow Land Trust.  

      The current 3.5-mile trail is located on the East Branch Fish Creek State Forest. It’s part of Tug Hill’s core dense forest of nearly 175,000 acres, which contains a variety of trees, both northern hardwoods and softwoods. Part of that forest has historically served as a bountiful source for wood products and paper manufacturing, and it also protects the headwaters for six major rivers.  

    Prior to the start of the Traverse Trail, any travel in the core forest had been primarily done with all-terrain vehicles or snowmobiles, said Mr. Quinn.  

     Last summer, the land trust worked with volunteers from the Black River Chapter of the Adirondack Mountain Club to clear land for 3.5 miles of the trail, providing an opportunity for hikers to explore portions of the Tug Hill Plateau that had not been accessible by foot in the past.  

    That effort was led by two dedicated naturalists, Robert J. McNamara and Zach Wakeman, who came up with the idea a few years ago. Mr. McNamara is also a member of the land trust’s board of directors.  

     In addition to hiking, there are places along the trail for fishing (primarily brook trout). A range of wildlife habitats are also located in the region, including different bird species, white-tailed deer, otters and beavers.     

     “This trail offers some beautiful views and gives the public an opportunity to see a remote part of Tug Hill,” said Mr. Quinn said. “And that area will stay remote as a result of conservation easements.”  

    When complete, the proposed 20-mile trail will run through state land and acreage owned by the Nature Conservancy and Molpus Woodlands Group. All three organizations approved the creation of the trail, and the state DEC amended its unit management plan to allow for the project.  

    There is an entrance at the southern end of the trail off Michigan Mills Road in West Turin. The Lowville office of the DEC is helping to oversee the trail entrance, which has a kiosk and gate. The gate is expected to be open Memorial Day Weekend, depending on the mud conditions.   

      For more information, contact the DEC Lowville office at 315-376-3521 or the land trust at 315-779-8240.  

The Joseph A. Blake Jr. Wildlife Sanctuary is a good place to start for beginning hikers and families with young children.  It’s located on the edge of the Tug Hill region, just several miles outside the city of Watertown off the Middle Road in the town of Rutland.   

     The location has also been gaining popularity among people who are interested in cross-country trail running, said Linda M. Garrett, Tug Hill Tomorrow Land Trust executive director.   

     The property, owned by the land trust, offers five miles of trails, where visitors may catch glimpses of different bird species and other wildlife, along with a variety of plants and shrubs in wooded areas and an open marsh.   

     The Tug Hill Tomorrow Land Trust acquired the property from the North Country Bird Club in 2012, which transferred ownership of the 140-acre parcel to the nonprofit organization so it could be used as an educational tool for the public. The nonprofit land trust manages the area for recreation, education and wildlife conservation.   

     The trails are open year-round for walking, hiking, mountain biking, running and wildlife observation. These same trails are used in the winter for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.   

     Since acquiring the property, the land trust staff and volunteers have worked on continuing trail maintenance and improvements, along with expanding the trail system.       

     Any interested school groups or nonprofit organizations seeking outdoor educational programming may contact the land trust for more information.   

     The land trust holds events throughout the year at the sanctuary. Upcoming ones include free family-guided walks with fun and educational activities. These walks are scheduled for July 27 and August 24 starting at 10 a.m. in the parking lot.   

   For more information on the sanctuary and other future events, check the website: www.TugHillTomorrowLandTrust.org. 

Salmon River Falls Unique Area is situated on 112 acres of state-owned land in the town of Orwell and is managed by the state Department of Environmental Conservation. It’s earned a nickname of “An Oswego County Hidden Treasure” and has gained a popular reputation for hiking and nature photography during the warmer weather.  

    The area’s highlight is the 110-foot waterfall, which is part of a large and scenic gorge where the Salmon River flows. The area has several trails offering different views, including some that lead down into the gorge, according to the DEC website.   

     The main walking trail, the Falls Trail, leads from the parking lot to a viewing area, where visitors can see both the spectacular waterfall and surrounding gorge. This includes a short distance trail that is wheelchair accessible with a hardened-surface. The trail runs along the northern edge of the gorge, and there are handrails at the overlook, along with a guardrail running along the edge of the trail.   

     For the more adventurous, the trails to the bottom of the gorge are open when the weather permits. One trail, called the Gorge Trail, was built in 2000 and is a 600-foot steep trail with two sections of stairway. It’s considered a physically challenging trek.   

    The trail was built by the Adirondack Mountain Club trail crew through a contract with the state Department of Environmental Conservation, and the same crew returned to the site in 2008 for additional maintenance and improvement work.   

     In 1995, the Oswego County Youth Bureau helped to develop the Upper Falls Trail, an extension of the Falls Trail that runs along the north side of the river to Dam Road. It’s approximately one-mile long.   

     It should be noted the state DEC set up a restricted area that prohibits public access within 15 feet of the fall’s edges and all cliff edges. Swimming and wading in the plunge pool are also prohibited.  

     For more information, visit the DEC website: www.dec.ny.gov/lands and search for “Salmon River Falls Unique Area.”  

Whetstone Gulf State Park in the town of Martinsburg just outside of Lowville is known for its spectacular 3-mile long gorge that is cut into the eastern edge of the Tug Hill Plateau. This gorge has been called “one of the most spectacular scenic vistas east of the Rocky Mountains,” according to the NYS Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, which oversees the park’s operation.   

    There are numerous trails used for hiking in the warmer months and cross-country-skiing in the winter, and a main trail circles the gorge, providing for some breath-taking views.   

    The park also has more than 50 campsites, along with a man-made swimming area and a scenic picnic spot along Whetstone Creek. Those interested in fishing will find opportunities in the Whetstone Reservoir above the gorge, which is stocked with tiger muskie and large-mouth bass. It’s also a popular canoe spot.   

    The NYS Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation lists the following amenities on its website: campsites, dumping stations, grills, natural trails, and playgrounds. Also, accessible pavilions, picnic tables, showers, and tent/trailer sites.   

    For more information, check the website: www.parks.ny.gov/parks and search “Whetstone Gulf State Park.”    

The Winona State Forest covers more than 9,230 acres in southern Jefferson and Northern Oswego counties on the western edge of the Tug Hill Plateau. The forestlands are managed by the state Department of Environmental Conservation, which has formed a special partnership with a recreational association for assistance.  

    The Winona Forest Recreation Association has a stewardship agreement with the state DEC, and its volunteers have spent hundreds of hours helping to maintain the trails. This park has gained a reputation for popular winter recreational events, including snowmobiling and cross-country skiing, and is the location of the annual Tug Hill Tourathon.  

     But there are plenty of recreational opportunities during the warmer weather months, including hiking, mountain biking, fishing, bird watching and horseback riding. Hiking is allowed on all trails unless otherwise noted, and there are special trails designated for mountain biking and horseback riding.   

    There are three accessible parking lots, and even an accessible horse mounting platform at the parking lot located off County Route 90.   

     For those seeking some real outdoor adventure, the Winona State Forest offers a small number of campsites, which are designated as “primitive campsites” and have special “Camp Here” yellow and black markers.     

     For more information: www.winonaforest.com (Winona Forest Recreation Association Website) or visit the DEC website: www.dec.ny.gov/lands and search for “Winona State Forest.”