Thoughts For Future Hikers
First off, nothing I say here is meant to demean the efforts of the FLT association or hundreds of volunteers who work hard for the FLT. This trail in particular, with all the private property easements, seems like a real bear to continuously manage.
With that being said, I want to provide my honest opinion for future hikers when planning a hike. I found very little good planning information in other hikers blogs and there is a definite lack of thru-hiker information provided by the FLT. Keep in mind, these are just my opinions, you may certainly disagree.
OVERALL: This is my 14th long trail and it ranks at the bottom of my hiking enjoyment. I honestly didn't really enjoy the trail all that much. This is a first for me. You can absolutely disagree with me. Feel free to look at my guestbook, second entry, for an opinion from a section hiker completely disagreeing with me.
I will admit, I enjoy the openness much more than the forest so that's partly to blame, but it's not just that. The best way I can describe the trail is as an unprotected Appalachian Trail without any hikers, with some good farm walking.
The biggest problem is that there is very little public land in the areas the trail traverses. One National Forest for less than 10 miles and no wilderness areas (other than the Catskills). Any public lands are State Forests and frankly, state forest sucks. Unlike the west where there are huge swaths of public land, all the land out here was settled in the 1600s and 1700s. The only reason public land even exists is because during the Great Depression a lot of farms were abandoned and the state reclaimed the land and turned it into state forests. They planted trees and now the land is managed for multiple use. 2 main problems. One, the state forests are tiny, usually like 1000 acres. Two, there is or has been a lot of logging. Even if they aren't actively cutting trees there are tons of old logging roads constantly (and I mean constantly) being crossed plus lots of drivable roads. Put together, the forest walking in my opinion is pretty crappy. You are walking through tiny parcels of land which are constantly being utilized for non hiking purposes. It's hard to find a single mile of trail where you don't cross a drivable road or old logging road. And worst of all, the State forests are completely viewless. You never get a single view, the only views are from farmland.
The FLT attempts to utilize as much state forest as possible so it needs to then connect these tiny parcels of land which are spread out all over the place. It tries to do this by hand shake agreements with private landowners typically through their forest which is very similar to state forest or through farm land. I did very much enjoy the farmland and it's scenic views. If the trail can't get on private property then it usually utilizes rural roads. I didn't mind the road walking that much and even preferred it to get out of the boring state forest. One big problem though is that the FLT is always gaining new private property easements only to lose one because of a new land owner or other issue. The trail then ends up super convoluted trying to connect all these pieces of state land with private property. One estimate I heard was that half the trail is on public property and half is on private property.
So that's my high level summary of the trail, but my main complaint is just it's all the same and it's all just pleasant to mediocre. Pretty much the entire hike looks the same. All the forest looks the same and all the farmland looks the same. All the rolling hills of the Finger Lakes look the same. I could call it pleasant, but 600 miles of sameness loses the novelty. There's nothing to delineate a day or section other than going to a town. There's no major peaks, wilderness, special places (other than a few gorges mentioned below and the Catskills) or anything to really differentiate itself from one day to another. There are barely even any lakes and this is the Finger Lakes Trail.
PLANNING INFO AVAILABLE: First off I'll say that the FLT does an amazing job of trying to put a trail together and does some fantastic maps, but there is a major lack of information for thru hikers on their website. I literally had to go to Wikipedia to read a description of the branch trails because nowhere on the FLT's website is there a description of the trails or distances. There is no information on seasons to hike which is extremely important. You have to purchase resupply information and it's pretty poor.
I'm not really sure why this is. The FLT has been around for a really long time. I think they just don't realize that providing some simple information would be really helpful. Also, I later learned that thru hiking the FLT is much rarer than I initially thought so maybe there just isn't any demand for it. When I was trying to quickly plan this hike at the last minute I called the FLT and no one could really answer some very simple questions. It was so strange. Anyway, here are some thoughts......
OTHERS HIKERS: As a thru hiker there is really no one else on the trail. This surprised me, the FLT website lists almost 400 hikers who have completed the entire FLT. But after closer inspection, it looks like less than 20 were thru hikers. The trail is much more popular with section hikers. I saw one other thru hiker the entire way and based on the trail registers there are only a couple thru hikers each year. What was surprising though, was that I didn't really see anyone else on the trail. I never saw a single section hiker, not a single person with a backpack. I only saw a few day hikers the whole way. Basically I saw just about no one on the trail. Of course, you will see plenty of farmers, cars and towns along the way and every day so it's not exactly lonely, but it's nice to see other hikers and they were pretty much non existent for me.
WHEN TO GO: Unfortunately, the FLT's website doesn't have any information on hiking seasons. Pretty strange. DO NOT TRY AND THRU HIKE IN MAY OR OCTOBER, NOVEMBER, DECEMBER. This is turkey and deer hunting season and most private property easements are closed to hiking during these months. You then have to walk a road route around the closure. Sometimes it doesn't add many miles and sometimes it adds a lot of extra miles. There are already enough road walks normally and with so many hunting closures your hike would be terrible.
I don't know a lot more about the other months. Obviously it gets cold and snowy January-March. April might be an OK shoulder month if you don't mind being sometimes cold or cold rain or possibly some snow (but I don't know a lot about this month). For me June was very hot and humid, typically around 80 and warm nights. I'd rather be hot than cold so June was good for me. I didn't get much rain although I did time a couple days off when it rained a fair bit. Thunderstorms are pretty common and some can be violent. Twice I got 4 inches of rain in less than a day. I suspect July and August to be similar to June. September might be another good shoulder month. Another hiker mentioned that later in summer the brambles can be problematic so June was a good month for no overgrown brambles.
GETTING TO THE TRAIL:
The information in the end to end guide on how to get to the beginning and end of the trail is vague and unimpressive. It should be a lot better.
Here are a few thoughts on how to do it without shuttles or taxis. In order to get to the start in Allgany state park there are several options. The main goal would be to get to Bradford, PA. From the west side of the small town of Bradford you can easily hitch the 12 or so miles west on one road to the start of the trail. There is an Enterprise in Bradford so one option is doing a one way rental to Bradford. For me the Enterprise drop off fee was very expensive, but one town away in Olean was a Hertz that was really cheap for a one way rental. I took a local bus from Hertz in Olean a few miles to the south side of town and then hitched to Bradford. Wasn't a problem.
If you are coming by bus then Greyhound and NY Trailways should be able to eventually get you to Bradford. By plane, the biggest city would be Buffalo and then a bus down to Bradford. You can fly to Jamestown which is nearby but I don't think you can get a bus from Jamestown to Bradford.
Another option is starting south a few hiking days in Allegany National Forest on the North Country Trail and hiking to the start of thr FLT. These would be the most continuous forested miles on the entire FLT (other than the Catskills) and might be nice. I noticed a thru hiker did this and documented it in the FLT newsletter (i think it was either Spring 2014 or the one before that).
At the end, in my opinion, there is a super easy option that the end to end guide doesn't even mention. At the end up the FLT continue north 17 miles on the Long Path to the small town of Phoenecia. From here a NY Trailways bus to can get you to bigger towns, etc., including Albany or NYC for airports. This extension goes over 3 major peaks, all above the highest elevation on the FLT and one is the highest peak in the Catskills. It's 11 tough trail miles and then 6 miles of rural road walking, but worth the effort. The other option is turning around and walking the mile back to the dead end parking lot and figuring out how to get 8 miles back to Clayville and then having to hitch to Liberty for a bus. If there isn't anyone in the parking lot then you'll have to at least walk back to the YMCA camp to get a ride if very lucky. If not you'll have to most likely walk back to New Hill road, from this point there were a decent amount of cars and you'll probably get a ride. Frankly, the first 7 miles on the Long Path were the best miles of the entire hike, seriously.
TRAIL TREAD / MARKINGS: Overall, the trail is pretty well marked and has decent trail tread. Tread wise, the trail can be pretty muddy, sometimes very bad. In most sections there isn't a lot of effort to put down rocks or branches or anything to stave off the mud, it's just muddy. The trail can also be quite overgrown at times. I'm sure, like mud, this depends on the season. In June, I walked through a fair bit of low to moderate overgrown trail. It wasn't too bad at all, but I was concerned with poison ivy which is common so I always wore pants. A couple or few times a day I would generally have short stretches of severely overgrown trail. A lot of this depended on who was responsible for maintaining the section and how seriously they took their job. The typical really bad areas were near roads and near farmland on private property. A lot of this literally needs to be mowed and when it's not mowed the grasses can be waist high easily. The other problem is that there just aren't enough hikers to mat down a good trail when the vegetation is growing so fast. Don't expect a nicely groomed Appalachian Trail, but otherwise it's not terribly bad. I'd say the mud can be much more annoying.
Marking the trail is interesting. The trail is incredibly convoluted and twists and turns constantly. Typically on a trail you are following some sort of feature, maybe a ridge or a valley or a creek and you get a sense the direction you are going and when you might turn. Not on the FLT. You make dozens of non sensical turns all day long. Mostly the trail doesn't ease into them either, you'll be walking on a good path and the trail will just do a hard turn with the path you are on still continuing on. Super easy to miss turns. Because of all this the trail needs to be marked very well. The maps are pretty high level and not adequate for the detail navigation required by the convoluted trail.
Overall, the trail is well marked, but it's so easy to still miss a turn, you really do have to pay attention. Plus, it depends on the section. Some sections are marked incredibly well, while others are fairly poor. But if you pay good attention you shouldn't have any major difficulties. Like the Appalachian Trail, if you don't see a blaze for a short time, turn around and see where you missed your turn.
MAPS, ETC.: Here is where the FLT excels. The maps are really, really well done and essential to hike the trail. The back of each map has a detailed mile by mile description which is also well done. The maps are high-ish level, 100' contours and sometimes 20 miles to a page so you couldn't navigate too well with them, but paired with the mostly well white blazed trail, they are perfectly fine.
I carried a GPS and the FLT's GPS track is also very, very good. A GPS isn't necessary, but was nice to have occasionally.
I also purchased the end to end guide which is poor, but needed for the resupply info. First off, 90% of the end to end guide is repetitive of the trail notes on the maps, but not as up to date as the maps are updated much more frequently. I don't get why all of this info is in the end to end guide. It's not needed as everyone carries the maps. Waste of weight and out of date info.
Second, the resupply info is buried in all the trail notes and super vague at times. Before the hike, I had to browse the entire guide and underline all resupply info to make it obvious. Then I had to list it in an excel sheet with mileages and type of grocery so I could begin to figure out where I might resupply and distances between resupply. This should already be summarized in the end to end guide but it isn't.
Resupply terms such as "several miles down the road" pop up all too frequently. Or "spread out town with motels". A hiker, who is tired and on foot, wants to know a cheap motel in a big town that's near a grocery or restaurant, but this is rarely mentioned in the bigger towns. There are local buses that appear to come out to the trail for at least Ithaca and Cortland, but this isn't mentioned. Many, many times it just says "convenience store" with no other description. A convenience store can range from soda and chips to a nice, huge one with practically a long term resupply. Also, it frequently excludes when there is hot food/cafe food at the convenience store. It also frequently excludes operating hours for places that are closed certain days or open late and frequently excludes a phone number to call and check. All of these things are rather important to a hiker on foot, trying to not carry a ton of extra food and wanting to know what kind of resupply or restaurant or town to stay in.
Fortunately I mostly had cell reception so I found myself calling places for operating hours, researching a convenient motel in town or checking out a bus schedule so I wouldn't have to hitch into say Ithaca. It's really dumb that I would have to do that when it's all been done before by other hikers, but not documented not to mention that they actually charge for this (only $ 7, but it's the principle, put out a decent product).
I took notes on everywhere I went and gave them to the FLT. If you happen to read this and want my notes, email me offline.
RESUPPLY: Resupply on the trail is very easy. My biggest gear mistake was bringing my cookset as I hit so many towns and convenience stores that I barely ever used it. Hiking 20-25 miles a day, I hit town food every day for the first 14 days! As noted above the resupply info in the end to end guide stinks, but it's better than nothing and a starting point. Hopefully it will be improved. There are several good towns with cheap motels, grocery, restaurants. I stayed in Bath and Bainbridge which to men were great hiker towns. Motels can be expensive in the Ithaca region. Some of the stops that are a mile or so off trail you can frequently walk in one way and out another making it easier to resupply without adding miles.
ALTERNATES: Whatever you do, make sure to take the gorge trail into Watkins Glen and also Ithaca. The maps don't mention these and the end to end guide only vaguely mentions them. They are highlights of the trail. I also got a ride from the FLT up to Mt. Morris (where the FLT office is) and then hiked the Letchworth side trail 26 miles back to the FLT. It was pretty nice and worth the detour. Lastly, I'd HIGHLY recommend at the east end, continuing on the Long Path to Phoenicia, see notes above.
ANNOYANCES: This is mostly seasonal dependent. I saw a ton of poison ivy, especially the western half and walked through a lot of stinging nettles on the eastern half. Long pants were essential. Mosquitoes were not bad at all. I only put on DEET a few times. Gnats, at times, were terrible. They don't bite, but they are super annoying swarming the head. I used a headnet a few times. Surprisingly, I never saw a single tick. I was kind of freaked out by ticks at Lyme disease so this was good. On roadwalks, dogs can be a bit scary. I never had a real issue, but you never know. It only takes one asshole owner's pit bull to attack you. I carried pepper spray just in case.
WATER: In June water was everywhere. I never carried more than a few ounces and just drank all day as I walked. There were a million creeks and on road walks, occasionally I would use a house hose if it looked like a dog wasn't going go kill me.
CAMPING: There is a network of AT style shelters along the trail, however there is no pattern to their spacing. They just kind of come and go. They are typically built near a road so you might find more people at the shelter than hiking. Personally, I made sure to never stay at a shelter on a weekend night. Camping was easier than expected. You have to pay attention a bit so you don't end up road walking when you want to camp, but the road walks are typically not very long do it's usually not a problem. You are not supposed to camp on trail that is on private property, but that can be almost impossible sometimes. I camped on private property a few times, but always made sure to be deep in the woods where no one would ever see me and of course, never made a fire. Otherwise I mostly camped in State forest which was good camping.