Hiking in Beautiful Potato Hill State Forest on the FLT

Where is Potato Hill State Forest?

Potato Hill State Forest is located in the Town of Caroline, within southeastern Tompkins County, about 15 miles southeast of Ithaca, New York.

The 915-acre Potato Hill State Forest is divided into two sections by private land.

The eastern or northern portion of the forest is adjacent to Andersen Hill State Forest near Route 79. 

location of potato hill state forest

from NYSDEC website

map of potato hill state forest
from NYSDEC website

Why Visit Potato Hill State Forest?

I ventured into the western portion to hike a section of the Finger Lakes Trail.

I’m sure the name makes you curious about its origin; I will include a bit of the history of Potato Hill State Forest below.

Potato Hill State Forest is open to many recreational activities besides hiking.

These include primitive camping, fishing, trapping, hunting, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and mountain biking. However, not all activities are allowed in all areas of the State Forest.

Hiking in Potato Hill State Forest

The only marked hiking trails are in the western portion of the forest.

The Finger Lakes Trail cuts the western section of Potato Hill State Forest diagonally from the northeastern corner down through the narrow corridor by Level Green Road. It exits in the southwestern corner before traversing private land and crossing Route 115 (Old 76 Road).

The Finger Lakes Trail isn’t the only trail system. The Finger Lakes Trail and the 4,000+ mile North Country Trail (NCT) follow the same white blazes through this section.

The Finger Lakes Trail Through Potato Hill State Forest

I entered Potato Hill State Forest when I crossed Blackman Hill Road, the forest’s northern boundary.

You can use the interactive maps on the Finger Lakes Trail website to take screenshots of the trail if you haven’t downloaded or printed the map.

Blackman Hill Road is one of only two parking areas providing forest access. The other is located on Level Green Road near the narrow connecting corridor.

parking at potato hill state forest

On my end-to-end attempt at the Finger Lakes Trail, I started my hike several miles to the north near State Route 79 and Robinson Hollow Road.

I hiked out of Potato Hill State Forest westerly into Shindagin Hollow State Forest lean-to, turned around, and walked back to my car—a nearly 18-mile day.

However, the FLT through Potato Hill State Forest is only about 1.8 miles long and fairly level, and the trail is smooth. It is one of the easier sections of the FLT that I have encountered so far. 

The Finger Lakes Trail North of Potato Hill State Forest

The trail enters the state forest from the north, but when referencing the FLT, it is eastbound. 

I previously hiked from Robinson Hollow State Forest to the parking area on Robinson Hollow Road.

So my westbound journey on the FLT continues from the parking area on Robinson Hollow Road. My hike started with a road walk on Robinson Hollow Road and then west on State Route 79 for a short distance. The road walk is about 2/3rds of a mile.

The walk along the shoulder of Route 79 is not fun, especially with a dog. Two bridges need to be crossed, and one has no extra room on the shoulder.

Traffic moves along this stretch well above the posted 55-mph speed limit. Be careful.

Tarr-Young Natural Area

Once the road walk is out of the way, you enter the Tarr-Young Natural Area, a Cornell Botanic Garden project.

tarr-young natural cornell

I’m not sure what is included in this Natural Area other than the boardwalk that crosses a wetland and enters the woods.

caden and board walk

The marshy area honors Gary Mallow, a current or past president (?) of the Cayuga Trails Club who maintains this section of the Finger Lakes Trail.

cayuga trails club

The trail turns after the boardwalk and angles up the hill, eventually reaching an old logging road that, in places, steeply traverses the hillside.

caden on finger lakes trail

After that hill, the trail becomes easy and is very enjoyable. 

Although dry when I hiked it, depending on the time of year, a wet area or two might be a possibility.

Right before cresting the hill, you come out of the woods into a hay field. The trail crosses the field, and at the top of the hill, there is a nice bench with some rock tables that is an excellent place to take a break and enjoy the views and breeze. 

near potato hill state forest

The views from this location are great!

view along finger lakes trail

A short distance from the bench, you cross Blackman Hill Road and enter Potato Hill State Forest. 

A photo of the parking area is shown below. It is quite spacious compared to many parking areas along the trail. 

parking area on Blackman Hill Road

The trail continues to be easy as you hike through the forest and cross Level Green Road. 

There is shoulder parking on Level Green Road, and it isn’t much of a road, so you don’t have to worry about your car getting hit if the shoulder is narrow. 

Heading west on the FLT, you hike down a small gully to an intermittent stream, and as you hike up and out of the gully, you leave Potato Hill State Forest on an easement through private property.

The FLT is in Potato Hill State Forest for about 1.6 to 1.8 miles.

Continuing on the Finger Lakes Trail westward, you will eventually come to some neat rock sculptures and Shindagin Hollow State Forest, which I will write about once I finish traversing that forest.

Caden and rock cairns

All in all, the hike through Potato Hill State Forest is enjoyable and very easy hiking. It is short as well. 

I recommend parking at the Blackman Hill Road parking lot, hiking westward toward Old 76 Road (Rt 115), and then backtracking to the parking area. 

If your legs feel good, take the FLT eastward (actually north) to the lookup in the field and then continue into the woods and hike down the hill to the boardwalk in the Tarr-Young Natural Area. It is a steep descent and ascent on the way back, but worth it.

You will have hiked between 9 and 10 miles if you hike it out and back.

Be aware that portions of the trail east and west of Potato Hill State Forest are closed during deer season. Also, wear something with orange blazes even on state land during hunting season.

Potato Hill State Forest History

European settlers and Revolutionary War Veterans cleared the land that is now Potato Hill State Forest for farming and homesteading.

The name of this forest attests to the large-scale planting of potatoes in the area by early Irish Immigrants. The highest potato yields occurred before the civil war and decreased by almost a third afterward. 

However, the soils are thin and, in many places, steep leading to major soil erosion and poor fertility after a few decades of farming.

Combining that with harsh winters and short growing seasons above 1500 feet in elevation was not ideal for successful continual habitation.

Potato Hill State Forest came into being between 1938 and 1940 utilizing the State Reforestation Law of 1929 and the Hewitt Amendment of 1931, which authorized the Conservation Department (now the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC)) to acquire land for reforestation efforts.

However, some Potato Hill State Forest sections were not purchased until the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Under Article 9, Title 5, Environmental Conservation Law protects acquired land as state forests to be “forever devoted to reforestation and the establishment and maintenance thereon of forests for watershed protection, the production of timber and other forest products, recreation and kindred purposes.”

The Norway Spruce, Red Pine, and White Pine plantations that cover much of Potato Hill State Forest were planted by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a work program established by the Roosevelt Administration to create jobs.

More than 600,000 trees were hand planted between 1939 and 1941. The Caroline Center Youth Camp hand-planted an additional 2,000 trees in the mid-1960s.

Some of these trees are now being harvested to make way for new natural growth to the relief of the deer and bird populations that can now thrive in the abundance of pioneer plant species growing in place of the stark and barren softwood plantations.

Clearing these plantations allows natural regrowth, and after a year or so, these reforestation projects are great places for wildlife, especially for those interested in bird watching.

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