The Wild Side

These days, it’s the Pacific Coast Trail (hiked on-screen by Reese Witherspoon) that’s getting all the attention, but the Lake Erie region has thousands of miles of its own to offer. Whether you want to fill an afternoon or an entire week, there’s a footpath to follow. We’ve highlighted a few epic trail systems that follow ancient overland routes. So lace up those boots and get ready for your own adventure into the wild. 
New York
The Finger Lakes Trail 

Description: The Finger Lakes Trail (FLT) starts at the Pennsylvania border in Allegany State Park and ends in the Catskill Mountains. Several branches veer off, including the Conservation Trail, which ends at Niagara Falls State Park. 585-658-9320,
Trail identifier: White blazes
What we hiked: The 1-mile Little Rock City Nature Loop Trail.
Located between Ellicottville and Salamanca, New York, this section of the FLT wanders among giant natural rock formations. End of Little Rock City Forest Road, Little Valley, New York, 716-372-0645,

A crack in the earth at my feet reveals a portal to another dimension. Barely 5 inches across and 30 feet deep, I might have missed it entirely had it not it been for Ellie, an energetic golden retriever belonging to my hiking partner, Jean Kirsch.
A few moments after starting our foray into the Rock City State Forest, Ellie had bounded ahead, stopping suddenly to sniff the ground at the crevasse. She seemed slightly nervous.

“Come on, Ellie,” her owner says. “You’ve done this before.”

And with that, the two of them, with Kirsch in the lead, disappear through an access point nearby that’s large enough for a human and her furry friend to squeeze through.

Little Rock City, as this particular area is known, is made up of giant rock formations that were once part of an ancient sea floor. As the years passed, the soft earth began to erode away, leaving massive sedimentary conglomerates exposed with a labyrinth of narrow passageways snaking between them. There are many rock cities in the state of New York, including some on private land. Rock City Park, just south of Olean, and Panama Rocks Scenic Park in the town of Panama, charge an admission fee. Little Rock City doesn’t cost a thing and is just as rewarding.

“I really like Little Rock City,” says Kirsch, who owns The Jefferson Inn, a Victorian B&B located in nearby Ellicottville. “I send people up here all the time. From here, you can do a short scenic hike or a much longer one.”

Kirsch hits the trail at least four times a week. On weekdays, she and a few friends, inn guests and anyone else who wants to tag along, head out for short adventures on the area trails, many of them suitable for mountain biking, too.

The Finger Lakes Trail winds through Little Rock City and intersects with the Conservation Trail, a branch of the FLT that leads to Niagara Falls, before connecting with the Trans Canada Trail at the Canadian border. Just beyond the junction, the path emerges from a forest into what looks like a high meadow. In reality, this section of the forest was mowed clean by a tornado that tore through the park in 2010.

After surveying the damage, which is slowly being erased by waist-high ferns and grasses, we take a detour through moss-covered boulders, exploring the nooks and crannies, which are damp from recent rains. In fact, a few sprinkles are still filtering through the layers of leaves on the trees above us. We start to sink into the mud, which forms a vacuum seal around our boots with each step. Ellie’s thick fur becomes matted with brown guck, making her far less golden than before.

Luckily, Kirsch knows just the spot, about 4 miles farther along the FLT, where Ellie can take a quick dip. Located at the top of Holiday Valley’s ski mountain in Ellicottville, Spruce Lake is a popular watering hole along the trail. In the summer, it’s usually packed with swimmers, but we have the whole place to ourselves. Ellie leaps into the lake, wriggling her entire body as she splashes along. I dodge as she emerges shaking the excess water from her body.

If we had more time, we could continue along the FLT and head down the mountain into Ellicottville and straight to Kirsch’s doorstep, less than 2 miles from where we are standing. Instead, we make our way back to the car and head into town with Ellie spread out on blankets and towels in the back seat. She’s one happy dog.

Rough it. Between the Pennsylvania border and Ellicottville, there are lean-tos and bivouac areas along Finger Lake Trail no more than 8 miles apart. Camping is permitted on state forest land for up to three days in the same location. First come, first serve. 

Go soft. The Jefferson Inn has four bedrooms and one luxury suite, all with private bathrooms and a full gourmet breakfast. Jean Kirsch and her dog, Ellie, will be there to great you. Rates start at $89. Ellicottville, 716-699-5869,

The Buckeye Trail 

Description: The Buckeye Trail (BT) loops around Ohio using a combination of city streets, rural routes, railroad beds and parkland trails. 740-832-1282,
Trail identifier: Blue Blazes
What we hiked: The portion of the Buckeye Trail that runs through South Chagrin Reservation in eastern Cuyahoga County. 440-247-7075,

By the time I pull into the parking lot at South Chagrin Reservation on Cleveland’s east side, a small group of people have gathered in front of the Look About Lodge. The historic log cabin rests among hemlocks overlooking Sulphur Springs Gorge and a scenic section of Ohio’s Buckeye Trail along which we’re about to trek.

On the first Tuesday of the month between April and September, the Cleveland Metroparks hosts free evening hikes along the trail that end with a demonstration of backpacking skills. The program is designed to prepare participants for long backpacking trips, especially one the Metroparks organizes on the Appalachian Trail in October. 

“These hikes build skills and endurance for the challenge you are working toward,” says Rachel Nagle, the outdoor recreation manager for the Cleveland Metroparks. “Anything can happen out there, so you should be prepared.”

Cohorts Ashley Mowen and Dan Sahli, both outdoor recreation specialists for the Metroparks, kick off a round of introductions before we head out through the trees. A few people are gearing up for big backpacking trips, but most of the hikers have come for the camaraderie and the opportunity to get outside for some exercise. 

Once we’re underway, I strike up a conversation with Claudia Allen, an energetic 20-something with lofty backpacking goals. 

“I have decided I want to hike the entire Buckeye Trail,” she tells me as we walk along a tributary of the Chagrin River. “But, I've never done anything like it before.”

The 1,444-mile-Buckeye Trail forms a loop around Ohio, although Lake Erie’s Headlands Beach State Park in Mentor is considered the northern terminus. From that point, the trail heads west toward Toledo, passing through our location, or south along the eastern edge of the state. The two branches meet up again in southwestern Ohio before heading to the southern terminus in Cincinnati. The views along the way include incredibly beautiful natural areas, such as the Cuyahoga Valley National Park and Hocking Hills. 

For less dedicated trekkers, there are plenty of options. “In our own backyard, there are great hikes,” says Nagle. “There are nooks and crannies of the trail that can capture the imagination, even if it’s a day hike.”

Our group is captivated by what lies beneath a nondescript square piece of plywood on the side of the trail on the return to Look About Lodge. Allen bends down and lifts one corner, revealing a snake curled up beneath. 

“These are snake boards,” she says, fearlessly reaching for the slithering reptile. The boards are purposely placed in sunny spots on the edge of the forest by the Metroparks for educational purposes. After everyone gets a good look, she places the snake back under the board and we continue back, making it to the trailhead at dusk.

Rough it. Lake Metroparks recently added primitive camping spots at some of its parks, including Girdled Road and Penitentiary Glen reservations, both on the Buckeye Trail. Campers must request a permit at least 48 hours in advance. Free. 440-358-7275,
Go soft. Rider’s Inn, which opened in 1812 as a stagecoach stop for travelers heading out West, has 10 guest rooms filled with vintage furnishings. Bed-and-breakfast rates start at $89 for a double room with private bath. Painesville, Ohio, 440-354-8200,

The Trans Canada Trail

Description: Initiated for Canada’s 125th birthday celebration in 1992, the Trans Canada Trail (TCT) is one of the world’s longest networks of multi-use recreational trails stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific to the Arctic oceans. By 2017, the entire trail will be connected., 800-465-3636
Trail identifier: Blue, yellow and green TCT logo
Scenic spots around Lake Erie: John E. Pearce Provincial Park, 
What we hiked: In the Springwater Conservation Area, several trails intersect within the 618-acre Carolinian forest that surrounds Springwater Pond. To the north, the North Shore Trail Loop includes a boardwalk through the wetlands. To the south of the pond are the Main, South Shore and Jaffa trails. Aylmer, Ontario, 519-773-9037,

I’m on the Trans Canada Trail with avid outdoorswoman Katherine Thompson, who works in tourism for the county of Elgin. Specifically, we’re in the Springwater Conservation Area in her hometown of Aylmer, Ontario. “It’s one of my favorite spots,” she says. “It’s beautiful here. And it’s a great place to go any time of the year.”

Intersecting trails wind around Springwater Pond through marshland and a mature swath of Carolinian Forest with tree species that include the American sweet chestnut, tulip, paw paw, white mulberry, blue ash, heart nut, sassafras and maple. Bird lovers can appreciate the rare birds that can be spotted here, including tundra swans, which pass through the area each spring. 

Beyond Springwater Conservation Area, the TCT follows rural roads and passes through the town of Aylmer, before heading south toward Port Burwell, then east toward Fort Erie. 

Eventually, the trail will connect the entire country, from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean to the Arctic Ocean. And Canadians have been focused on reaching a coast-to-coast-to-coast connection goal by 2017, which coincides with Canada’s 150th birthday. The hope is to fill the gaps between the country’s trails, such as the Niagara River Recreational Trail and The Friendship Trail in Ontario.

When all is said and done, the TCT will be one of the longest networks of footpaths, stretching 15,000 miles through every province and territory of Canada, from the Atlantic to the Pacific to the Arctic. It will link 1,000 communities and 33 million Canadians, many of whom already use the section trails to hike, cycle, ski, horseback ride, canoe and snowmobile.

While a few sections of the TCT in southwestern Ontario have yet to be completed, 68 percent of the trails are operational in the entire province, up from 55 percent just two years ago. 

“Our dream of building a national trail connecting Canadians from coast to coast to coast by 2017 is becoming a reality,” says Valerie Pringle, co-chair of the Trans Canada Trail Foundation. “I can’t think of a better gift to Canadians than a trail that allows us all to walk freely, to learn, to think and to dream.”

Rough it. Pitch a tent at Port Burwell Provincial Park, which has more than 200 forested campsites a short distance from the beach. Sites 66 and 67 in the Alzora Campground are closest to Lake Erie. If you still have some energy, the park has volleyball courts, horseshoe pits and a disk golf course. 888-668-7275,

Go soft. As the Trans Canada Trail heads through the middle of Port Burwell on Route 42, you’ll come across Grey Gables, a bed-and-breakfast with five comfortable rooms. Owner Jim Hevenor prepares a hearty breakfast with locally sourced ingredients that will energize you for your day of hiking. Rates start at $99 CAD. 519-874-4644,