If part of the fun of getting lost in the middle of nowhere lies in using the stars to navigate yourself back to civilization, or just if you’re an amatuer star gazer who packs the telescope in on your four legged cud chewing assistant, star gazing is at its best in the woods. Sugar Hill State Forest boasts one of the highest spots on public land near Lake Seneca that is also a significant distance from town, ( thus low light pollution). On a good clear and very cold night the Milky Way and Andromeda Galaxy are clearly visible to the naked eye at the tent horse camping area at Sugar Hill State Forest. So enjoy a good hike and a late night watching stars to celebrate the beginning of the thaw!
(http://cnyhiking.com/NCT-SugarHillStateForest.htm has an excellent walk through of the section of the FLT described)
Location: Sugar Hill State Forest
Is it goat approved? Yep. This park is primarily devoted to horseback riders, (since New York State took the enlightened approach of giving the two trail users that hate each other most – bikers and horses – their own separate parks), so goats are totally cool. I have camped here twice, once in the winter and once in the summer, and had no real issues. I even had a park ranger come over and say she thought the goats were cool.
How you get there: You want to get on Tower Hill Road inside Sugar Hill State Forest. Near where Tower Hill Road intersects with Maple Lane there is a small gravel parking lot off to one side of the road. Next to the parking lot is a road going out through the woods perpendicular to Tower Road. If the gate is across the perpendicular road you can park at the small parking area. If the gate is not across the perpendicular road, you can drive up this road to the camping area and fire tower, (if you see the tower you are in the right spot).
Be careful using google maps for roads in the park as google has a distressing tendency to think power line cuts and other non-road artifacts are roads for some reason in Upstate New York. Sometimes it doesn’t show the full length of a road either, so to be safe use the official park maps from the department of natural resources.
Time for hike: The distance is approximately 4 miles one way, so 8 miles total.This is an out and back hike.
Best season to do this hike: If you really want to star gaze after you finish the hike, go in late winter when the snow has begun to melt. The skies are at their clearest, the park at its emptiest, and the snow is gone enough you can actually get to the camping area.
Trails to Take
There are many roads in the forest which are worth walking, but I like the FLT because it lets you go through the woods rather than down roads. I have done the roads, visited the many primitive camping shelters in the park, and also done the FLT, but still the FLT remains one of my favorites.
To start the hike, there is a trail running out of the campground area. It is a big cut through the woods down hill from the main camping field, almost directly east of the shed with all the tie stalls for horses. Follow this definitely a logging trail that someone just repurposed because it was convenient until you run into a graveled road.
Now, I’m never quite sure how I do this, (because my navigation relies more on luck and prayer than I like to admit), but as the gravel road kind of comes around a corner it runs into the FLT. You want to go left on the FLT, which is initially headed south, but will eventually become east. Mostly this is going to be a walk through the woods. You’ll cross county road 21, then cross the abandoned section of Locust Lane.
As you travel through this area you will run across lots of singing/croaking/getting their freak on frogs if you come at just the right time in the spring. These will be especially apparent around the old rock lined hollows that you will run across. Someone told me that those were originally water collecting pools to water cattle that were kept far from the few rivers/creeks in the area. Not sure if this is true or not… There were also some small trees that reminded me of balsams, which are not usual in the area.
In any case, as you approach the Buck Settlement Lean-To you will be walking on what was a pre-1850s road, and there will be some stone ruins in the area, so keep an eye out. Once you pass the Buck Settlement Lean-To you’ll run into what looks like a road, (and is another historical road remnant), and you go left to go down the road, passing by a cemetery. Then, go on to cross a small creek next to a horse camping spot on Templar Road. The FLT crosses the road, but I like to turn around here and head back up hill.
Once you’re back at camp, gather some downed wood, start the fire for dinner, and make the goat haul the telescope up from the car. Get out the star charts, line ‘er up, and wait for the show to start.
- The restrooms at the camping area, and the road up to the camping area off of Tower Hill Road, are closed during the winter season.
- I don’t recall ever paying to camp here, but make sure that’s still the case before you go.
- The roads into and around the park area are poorly maintained, (they even have signage telling you they don’t do a lot of road repair). I got a Ford Focus hatchback in, but I won’t say it was pretty.
- There are coyotes in the park that can be heard talking sometimes at night, but they do not seem to enter the camping area.
- There is a permanent wooden trail map at the camping area. Be careful of this map! One of the roads on the map actually runs exactly where two pieces of wood are joined to make the map. If you aren’t paying attention you can do what I did, which is not realize that it’s a road, not just a joint, and get really confused on where you are.
- The fire tower is a popular place for locals to visit, so expect to see some possible foot traffic to it even in winter.
- The camping is really only set up for tents and is basically camp where ever you want to in a big open field. Though I have seen people pull small trailers out there too.
In sum: Man has gazed at the stars for eons, but never before has one had to fight a goat that’s trying to eat the tripod for the opportunity.