According to the university website, St. Bonaventure is 70 miles from Buffalo, 195 miles from Cleveland, 220 miles from Pittsburgh and 360 miles from New York City.
As far as many are concerned, that places St. Bonaventure right smack dab in the middle of nowhere. And in many respects, they may be right. However, that doesn’t mean that the area surrounding St. Bonaventure is without things to do or places of interest. So for the next few weeks I will be exploring different things to do in Cattaraugus County and the surrounding areas.
This winter has been a disappointment to skiers and snowboarders in Western New York, including myself. However, the uncharacteristically warm weather does allow for other outdoor ventures that are much less expensive.
St. Bonaventure is situated near plenty of places to hike, but Allegheny National Forest, with over 200 miles of hiking trails, is just a short drive away. This Saturday, after having hearty pre-hike Burton burgers, my friends and I set out to take on a small portion of these trails for a chance at some fresh air and a change of scenery.
The 30-minute drive eventually veered from the highway to the winding roads leading into the park. The intense afternoon sunlight sparkled and flashed on the Kinzua Reservoir, a product of the controversial Kinzua Dam. Rumor has it you can still see the remains of some of the towns that were evacuated and flooded out when the dam was constructed in the early 1960’s, but to my disappointment I saw no sign of them.
As we entered the forest we passed a familiar looking sign. The universal indicator of a national forest displayed Allegheny in bold capital print and National Forest written in a curly script. The design indicates an earlier era, perhaps when national forests were more of a draw. Visitation has declined since the 1980’s and although the Obama administration plans to finalize regulations for management of the parks next month, many nature-lovers still worry about the forests’ future. For now, however, Pennsylvania’s only national forest is a thriving and expansive, containing over 800 square miles of land. While the park covers a large portion of northwest
Pennsylvania our destination, Tracy Ridge Hiking System, is close to the NYS border.
After parking, we marched up a long gravel road. Upon reaching the trailhead map, we examined possible hiking routes. The 33.7 miles of trails in this area are marked with numbers, which seemed easy enough. We chose a short loop of 15-16-17, which amounted to a little less than three miles in order to bring us back well before dark.
I imagine these trails to be overgrown with green life in the summer, but hiking in the winter allows for a different kind of natural beauty. The sun formed dramatic silhouettes of the towering trees, and views of the reservoir that would be hidden by foliage in the warmer months were made visible to us through the spaces between the trees. Hiking miles without seeing another soul is part of the appeal of solitude such an expansive forest can provide in the winter months.
We continued along 15 for what we all agreed was much longer than we had anticipated, but no one minded as the trail led us down a ridge that provided views of the reservoir on either side, a prime camping spot for the future. After admiring the scenery for a few moments, the realization that the sun was quickly sinking caused the question of navigation to resurface. We weren’t sure where we had gone wrong, but our intended route should have looped us back towards the trailhead by now. We decided it better to backtrack on the route we came, rather than wander deeper into the wo
ods with dwindling daylight.
With more focus on our direction than the views around us, we easily found the sign for 16 on our way back down the trail, however it was too late to take the meandering route back to the trailhead. Although we ended up doubling back, the different light and different direction made the trail just as interesting on the return trip. As a bonus, the extra time added to our route had us back just in time to pass back over the Kinzua Reservoir as the sun was setting.
While the short hike at Tracy Ridge provided a great first Allegheny National Forest experience, there are so many reasons to return. There are still miles of trails to be investigated in the Tracy Ridge area alone, in addition to other trail systems. Many would find the thousands of acres of old-growth forests, which don’t extend into the Tracy Ridge Area of interest as well. The Kinzua Sky Walk is another is another highly visited feature of the area.
In terms of total time required between departure and return, it is completely possible to leave St. Bonaventure after sleeping in and having a late brunch and still be back in time for dinner. So perhaps next weekend, if the choices consist of another Law and Order marathon or an afternoon of browsing Facebook, consider visiting one of the most beautiful and well-preserved places in the nation for the afternoon. Just remember, as nice as it can be to get a little lost in the forest, a map is recommended.