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100 Things: Camp in Allegany State Park

Most people only get to read the children's classic "Little House in the Big Woods."

Here in Western New York, we get to live it.

What a joy to unplug, and to head to Allegany State Park, near Salamanca in the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains. (Yes, the spellings are different. Isn't life around here fun?) The largest state park in New York State, Allegany has almost 65,000 acres of woodland. It's divided into two sections, Red House and Quaker. It has more than 300 cabins. One of them is yours.

"Camping is such a tradition here," said Thomas Livak, the park manager. "They come back every year, the same patrons."

[PHOTOS: Explore Allegany State Park with Sharon Cantillon's gallery]

Hiking is a big part of the parks attraction, especially Thunder Rocks. The beautiful collection of giant boulders provide climbing fun. Amanda Kuczmanski back to the parking area. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

"It's a little community," said John Larson, manager of the park's Quaker side. "In the summer, it's a small city." Up to 5,000 people at a time, he reckons, camp in the park in the summer. "There are 1,600 people just in cabins."

Allegany is a 90-minute drive from Buffalo, and just getting there is enchanting. You pass through ski country, near Holiday Valley, where we snow tubed earlier on our 100 Things odyssey. You swing through the sleepy town of Springville.

Speaking of which, what a wonderful time to make this trip, in the spring. The whole world seems awash in green. Entering the park, there's no admission yet. There's a sweet silence.

The beaches on both their lakes are popular summer spots. Quaker Beach has a new bath house this year. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

One bird call stands out. It's not a bird call you would hear in the city. It's an osprey. You might see it wheeling overhead. You also might see a hawk or a bald eagle. Keep your eyes open.

Aside for the birds, there's hardly a sound but the murmur of the creek, the splash of a waterfall.

Katelyn Parks, of Buffalo, was relaxing by a fire pit in the Creekside campsite on the park's Quaker side. The embers were smoldering, and a smoky aroma filled the air.

Parks was a manager at one of the Sears stores that recently closed. She used her newly free time to camp at Allegany for a week with two fellow Buffalonians. They had just left on an errand.

"My friends asked me, what are you going to do for all that time? Nothing!" she shrugged happily. "Sit in the sun. Drink wine."

A man kayaks on Quaker Lake. No motors are allowed on the lake except for small trolling motors for fishing. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Home was a Spartan cabin with a propane stove, a few cots and little more. An outhouse was nearby. Bottles of beer and pop were tethered in the creek, keeping cold.

Parks returns to this particular campsite again and again.

"This is my spot," she said. "It's gorgeous. So quiet. You can see the stars at night, which is crazy. This is the best time of year."

Still, she loves Allegany in any season.

"Summer's crazy busy," she said. "But it's great, 'cause you make all these friends." Even on this off-season trip, they had good neighbors. "The people in the cabin next door left, and they had a half a cord of firewood. They said, 'Hey, do you want it?' "

A cormorant hangs out on the swimming pier at Quaker Beach. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

On this quiet, off-season weekday, you could be alone, or not.

Thunder Rocks, a kind of natural Stonehenge with huge rocks in unusual formations, is a popular hiking destination. A few dozen folks were wandering about. A family was fishing at quiet Science Lake, a man-made lake that dates to 1926.

But it's fun simply to stay put. Paul Rzyrkowski and his wife, Marylou, were kicking back at a rustic cabin with their cat, who stays happily indoors, and their friendly German shepherd, Ingrid. They come to Allegany in the spring and the fall, camping at various locations. Wherever they stay, they make it home, festooning their campsite with colorful banners.

Thunder Rocks is a very popular spot. The beautiful collection of giant boulders provides climbing fun. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Marylou Rzyrkowski is a photographer and loves Allegany for artistic reasons.

"The colors, the scenery, the availability of wildlife," she said. Allegany is famous for its creatures, including otter, beaver and legendary black bears. We didn't see any bears, and they're more under control than they used to be. But you have to keep watch.

"It's a wonderful place to come for all age groups," Rzyrkowski said, raising her voice over Ingrid's enthusiastic barking. "Not just for families with kids, but for retired people."

Like the weather in Western New York, the camping experience at Allegany can vary wildly. Some cabins are out in the open, while others are secluded. Especially in the summer, some areas can be noisier than others. Loud parties aren't just a city issue.

There is a special beauty to the park in springtime as the trees and plants begin to bud. Here, kayakers navigate a calm Quaker Lake. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

You can choose, too, how much you want to rough it. If you're not up to one of the rough 1940s cabins, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, you could shell out for a spiffy 2015 cottage with beds, glistening floors and an in-house bathroom and shower.

Do your research before you rent. Take a day trip. Take a hike. Talk to campers. Get a feel for the lay of the land. Ask questions at the welcoming rental office.  Think about what kind of experience you want.

With luck you'll end up like Parks, exactly where you want to be. Relaxing by her fire pit, she planned to settle down with a book. After her friends returned, perhaps there would be a hike. Much later, when the stars came out, she would drop off to sleep to the rustling of the creek and the splash of the waterfall.

"I love it here," she said.


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