Backpacking Near Home

by Sue Freeman

As spring blossoms in Rochester you may be yearning to get outdoors. Certainly the area abounds with day-hike opportunities, but to really commune with nature, there’s nothing like going on a backpacking trip. You get to day-hike and then set up camp and enjoy the sights and sounds as day turns to night in the forest. On various backpacking trips, I’ve savored the star-filled sky, eyed a baby porcupine who sat in a tree above my campsite, listened to the far-off howl of coyotes, been serenaded by a chorus of frogs, and lulled to sleep by the patter of rain on my tent.

With today’s light-weight equipment options, you are not required to have the strength of a pack mule for backpacking. A fully loaded pack can easily weigh less than 30 pounds. Only a few decades ago, the typical weight was well over 50 pounds. Carrying less weight makes all the difference in the world. It makes backpacking fun, not arduous.

Most people think of heading to the mountains when you mention backpacking. They envision the Adirondacks or the Catskills, or maybe even mountains further afield. But, there are options much closer to home. You can go for a weekend backpacking trip and not spend half the time driving to and from the trail.

The closest backpacking trail to Rochester is the Bristol Hills Branch of the Finger Lakes Trail. It runs for 54 miles from Naples to Hammondsport. The main Finger Lakes Trail runs east/west across the state from Allegany State Forest to the Catskills for 559 miles. Because the glacial hills all run north/south, this trail transects them and is just as rugged as climbing in the Adirondacks or Catskills. Besides the Bristol Hills Branch, there are other north/south branch trails off the Finger Lakes Trail. These include the Conservation Trail (175 miles), the Onondaga Trail (27 miles), and the Letchworth Trail (25 miles).

For beginners, or families with small children, the Westside Overland Trail, in Chautauqua County, is a wonderful option. It offers two lean-to’s facing a swimming pond and gentle hiking terrain. The full trail runs 24 miles but, as with all these trails, you can opt to hike a shorter segment. 5 miles per day is a reasonable distance for beginners and young children. Experienced backpackers can cover 15 to 20 miles per day, but that takes conditioning.

Heading southwest from Rochester, Allegany State Park and Allegheny National Forest both offer backpacking trails. Or, head east to hike in Finger Lakes National Forest between Seneca and Cayuga Lakes. These areas all offer the option of doing a loop backpacking trip, so you don’t have to shuttle or spot cars.

For a spectacular and truly unique backpacking experience, head across the Canadian border to try the Bruce Trail. You can camp along the trail or stay in Bed and Breakfasts as you follow the Niagara Escarpment from Queenston, near Niagara Falls, to Tobermory on the Bruce Peninsula. You’ll traverse rolling farmland and find views of aquamarine water below sheer cliffs, cobblestone beaches, and rare plant life. You can hike a few days or spend a month or more covering the entire 465 miles.

Plan now, for a near-home adventure in the woods this spring or summer. You’ll be glad you did.

A helpful guide covering where to backpack is the booklet “Backpacking Trails of Central & Western New York.” Or, to read a narrative of what it’s like to backpack the entire Bruce Trail, try “Bruce Trail – An Adventure along the Niagara Escarpment.” Both are available at or by calling 1-800-431-1579.

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