Chestnut Ridge Park served as her own version of the wilderness when Cheryl Peluso was growing up in South Buffalo. She had moved to Massachusetts and discovered an affinity for hiking, but, upon her return to Western New York, felt out of place with her desire to trek in the woods.
"When I first moved back I couldn't find anyone here who went hiking. I felt like this freak of nature," Peluso said. "I'd just go out by myself and and I enjoyed it."
While she investigated places to hike on her own, she came across the Adirondack Mountain Club -- a hiking organization in New York State with regional chapters. While the idea of hiking in the Adirondacks seemed out of her reach, she learned the group also conducted local hikes and a new world opened up to her.
"I loved being around like-minded people," Peluso said. "And you never realize just how many places there are to go in Western New York."
Thanks to the geography of the area -- from the gorge of Niagara Falls to the beginning of the Allegheny Mountains in Cattaraugus County -- Western New York has a plethora of hiking trails with a wide range of difficulty. From easy walks in the woods to multi-day backpack adventures, the area's hiking trails are accessible for all fitness levels and continuously provide new experiences even for veterans of the trails.
"I?ve been hiking this area for more than 30 years now," said John Sander, author of two area fishing books and an avid hiker. "And even I'm still finding new places. Last year, I was standing in someone's office and saw a map of Erie County and saw a county park that I didn't even know existed. It was Franklin Gulf [located in Eden] and it was beautiful. It had several trails, a nice creek running through it and lots of things to see."
As the seasons change from summer toward autumn the weather provides a great opportunity to explore the trails since there is less heat, humidity and fewer bugs. Looking to take a trek? Here are five tips to get you started:
1. Find a trail. Western New York is filled with hiking trails of all kinds from easy walks in the woods to challenging terrain and hills. Whether novice or an experienced hiker, finding a trail to suit your pace and physical level is important. Things to consider when choosing a trail include distance, elevation and terrain. Is the trail rocky or a well-worn dirt path? Is it flat or will you have to climb hills or scramble up rocks? Where can you find trails? Pretty much all over Western New York. Check out county and state parks along with wildlife management areas. There also are numerous resources on hikes in the area from books to websites which give information about distance and terrain along with maps of the trails. One of the most popular local resources is the book "50 Hikes in Western New York" by William P. Ehling. Another way to learn about trails and the ins and outs of hiking is to join a group outing. There are several groups in the area, both formal and informal, which meet regularly for walks in the woods of all levels. The two biggest and most established local clubs are the Niagara Frontier Chapter of the Adirondack Mountain Club (www.adk-nfc.org) and the Foothills Trail Club (www.foothillsclub.org).
2. Wear the right clothes. Once you pick your trail, check the weather forecast and pick your clothes. You don't need lots of hiking gear to walk in the woods or try out the sport. "People don't need to buy expensive hiking boots and poles to start with," Peluso said. "A good, comfortable pair of sneakers can start you out." Whether you're wearing sturdy sneakers or hiking boots the key is to have comfortable shoes which will give you protection on the trails. Even well-worn and groomed paths give your feet a pounding. "The quickest way to ruin a hike is to have sore feet," Sander said. He also brings along an inexpensive rain poncho available at discount stores if there is any chance of rain in the forecast. "It can be quite pleasant to hike in a light rain," Sander said. "But it's no fun when you're soaking wet."
3. Bring water and food. Regardless of how long you think you will be in the woods, bring along plenty of water and some snacks. Erring on the side of too much water is better than being without. Dried fruit and nuts make good trail snacks.
4. Expand the adventure. Find a hiking partner who know about trees or wildflowers or geology and learn while you're on the trail. Most hikers in Western New York don't see much wildlife but there are areas for great bird watching and the region is more ecologically diverse than many realize. Sander recommends bringing a simple camera on the hike and a journal. Take photos of interesting trees, flowers, rock formations or water ways. In the journal, add notes to remember specifics about the photo including location, time of day and what interested you about the scene.
5. Making it a family day. While it can be a different type of challenge, families with young children can enjoy a day in the woods. The key is to plan ahead and be thoughtful in thinking about what the kids are really capable of. "One of the most important things, and it can be difficult to realize, is to try and get a handle on your own abilities and your children's abilities because you don't want to bite off more than you can chew the first time and end up with miserable kids," said Rob Laing, who has been hiking for 25 years. "I was never into forced marches. I wanted my kids to get involved in the outdoors and have fun. We started with shorter hikes and gradually as they got older we added more climbing."