For just about any New Yorker from Binghamton and over, Western New York is a podunk little region of the state so worthless that it doesn’t even warrant being split off from “Upstate,” the name given to all parts of the state that aren’t Long Island or the confederated bits of New York City. Let’s get it out of the way: yes, Buffalo and Rochester pale in comparison to the vibrant, cosmopolitan epicenter that is the Big Apple, but what we lack in city culture we more than make up for in our plethora of beautifully varied state forests and parks. From Letchworth to Stony Brook, WNY has more than its fair share of the state’s natural wonders.
Carlton Hill State Forest, located in Wyoming, NY, is one such paradise. Strangely, despite living only 25 minutes from the forest, I hadn’t ever been there — not before today. Carlton Hill, part of a multi-use land project sponsored by the Department of Environmental Conservation, features some of the best hiking around. Varied landscapes, diverse flora and fauna, and challenging, winding trails make for an enjoyable day hike — so long as you pay attention.
What Can You Expect of the Trails?
Carlton Hill is located in one of the most remote areas of any state owned nature preserve I’ve yet visited. Driving to the crest of Bank Road in the center of Wyoming, you’re treated to views of farmland and woods of birch, evergreen, and maple to the horizon and beyond. Somewhere in between, there are farmhouses and homes, but this is a part of Genesee county that is very much ruled by the verdant.
After parking your car in a stone driveway at the highest point of the road, you can find your way to Carlton’s trail system, marked with yellow squares, only five-feet away. Now, admittedly, the first 20 feet of the trails are disappointing, to say the least. My eyes were immediately drawn to a makeshift fire circle filled with smashed bottles of Budweiser Platinum; the litter was enough to get my hackles up, but when you realize somebody actually buys Bud’s pisswater, it adds a whole new level of rage to the equation.
Pushing beyond the effrontery, Carlton Hill starts to glow, in both a literal and figurative sense. The woods begin to drop steeply into a set of glacier-carved ravines and gullies, many of which form brooks that feed the county’s nearby creeks. You’ll want both a solid walking stick and a pair of boots that stand up well to some muddy, steep conditions, if you want to stay upright as you negotiate these hills.
This is the predominant landscape for Carlton Hill: winding gullies and steep drop-offs followed by some tough inclines. That being said, however, where the forest really shines is in its ability to make this all seem varied. Hardwood sections seamlessly transform into dense thickets of evergreens. Evergreens, in turn, morph into birch stands, and from there, tree lines give way to open meadows of aureolin dandelions and fallow fields still holding the remnants of last season’s corn. Likewise, ivy-lined trails soon turn to paths of wild mint and chive, before snapping back — suddenly, I should add — to poison ivy, oak, and other things you want to keep away from your skin.
The fauna of the forest is just as impressive. From one area to the next, you have the chance to spot white-tailed deer, woodpeckers, golden finches, bluebirds, chickadees — the variety of animals on display in Carlton is staggering. Even so, my favorite part of the hike was listening to the cry of the chickadee follow me through my six-mile journey. Undoubtedly, the little nutcracker passed his signal down a line of birds, but I like to think it was the same songbird looking to illuminate my journey painting the woodland symphony the whole way.
The biggest recommendation I can make for anyone planning to dive into Carlton Hill is to know where the sun is when they start and to get a feel for where Bank Road, the north-south bisecting line, is. This park, by and large, has extremely well-marked trails. Even so, there are a number of points that feature a single trail marker between two trails going in completely opposite directions, without any noticeable topographical features to set them apart. Now, for many, myself included, this sort of ambiguous trail marking is fantastic. You can get lost and see a lot more than you would if you stayed on whatever the trail is “supposed” to be. On the other hand, if you don’t have much experience outdoors, this is a great way to walk a lot farther than you planned or to find yourself in the middle of the pheasant hunting grounds on the opposite side of the road. Your best bet is to start on the trails when the sun sits due east in the sky. That way you’ll know that the sun on this 2.5 hour hike is the general direction of east, the road will be directly behind you in the west, and that your parking spot will be to the north on your left, if you’re looking toward the sun.
Other than getting your bearings and bringing more than you think you’ll need for food and water, the only other piece of advice I can give is to pay attention. Most of what I saw on the trails were fresh deer prints. However, there are bears in this area of the state, a point driven home when I came across an older print a few miles into the hike. Similarly, there are multiple places in the woodland where the only thing you’ll hear is the hum of bees. At one point, I looked up to see so many beehives as to paint the picture of a city in the sky. Whether you’re allergic to bees or you have the same aversion to being mauled that I have, just keep your head on a swivel.
Carlton Hill and other DEC projects only work when we, as stewards, make an effort to keep the land clean and avoid disturbing private property. Much of the land that makes up Carlton Hill is open to the public only at the largess of some generous landowners. Remember to always carry out what you carry in, but also be sure to pay attention to some of those screwy trail markings I mentioned. If you mess up and find yourself walking through posted land, you’re going to give the DEC and the idea of public lands a stigma. That’s not going to help anybody.
This is one of the many points where a good day’s hike turns into trespassing if you aren’t paying attention.
If you think about it, I recommend you actually try and take more garbage out of the park than you bring with you. There are a few locations where people went in with a case of beer and some food, only to have their fun and leave the forest to deal with the detritus. Be an active steward of the land, and help keep the trails clean.
Carlton Hill was a surprisingly varied, challenging hike in my backyard. What treasures have you found recently that are only a stone’s throw from your home? Let me know in the comments below, and maybe that will be the next park I cover!