Author seated in Stoney Brook Lean-To, North Country National Scenic Trail
Microadventures are important to me. I’ve been fortunate to travel to many incredible destinations all over the world. While a lot of people have only mental restrictions to not have similar experiences (Hint: Fewer shopping sprees, dine & drink at home, etc.), there are a lot of people with real obligations and limitations that keep them closer to home. But that is no excuse to not get out there and discover the wild wonders around you. Microadventures are a concept created by Alastair Humphreys, a Scottish author and adventurer who was once named National Geographic’s “Adventurer of the Year.” His definition of microadventure is “An adventure that is short, simple, local, cheap – yet still fun, exciting, challenging, refreshing and rewarding.” Alastair has circumnavigated the world by bicycle, raced a yacht across the Atlantic Ocean, canoed 500 miles of the Yukon River, and a ton of other really badass things that 99% of us will never do. Upon Alastair realizing this fact himself, and noting that people had a hard time relating to him and his big worldly adventures, he stayed home in the UK for a year and took daytrips and weekend excursions close to his home that didn’t require a lot of time, technical expertise, and most importantly money. He found these microadventures to be just as good as the big ones and I can vouch for this from personal experience. This post is the first in a series of microadventures around Western New York (and into the surrounding environs, no more than a half day’s drive) that can provide you with the dignity of assessing your own risk management and accomplishing an appropriately difficult task, moving out of your comfort zone and into your growth zone, and just be something cheap and fun to do that’s not a pitcher of beer and a basket of wings (no judgement there either, love ’em myself but I promise there is more to life)
Exterior of Stoney Brook Lean-To, including basic supplies left by thoughtful hikers
Our first WNY Microadventure takes us to the Stoney Brook Lean-To deep in the heart of Allegany State Park, approximately a 90 minute drive from downtown Buffalo. Allegany, herein referred to as ASP, is the crown jewel of the New York State parks with over 65,000 acres of rushing streams, enchanted mountains, old growth forests, miles of trails, and rustic accommodations that fit every level of “appropriate difficulty.” The opportunities for microadventure in ASP are boundless and could provide me with pages and pages of relevant content but this little overnight adventure is my favorite, because it can be made relatively easy or excruciatingly difficult depending on time of year and the route taken. I have been to Stoney Brook three times, each in winter. The first time was an overnight trip in December 2016 in a deep snow that required snowshoes to complete. The foot and a half of wet snow was like walking through wet cement and was physically one of the most gruelling ordeals I’ve ever been through. The approximately six mile one-way route took over six hours to complete, leaving us with only a few minutes of daylight to set up camp and start a fire. The second time was a day hike in December 2017 with only an inch or two of powdery snow on the ground. This hike felt like a breeze compared to the snowshoe version, as we did the round trip twelve mile hike to the lean-to and back to the parking area in less than six hours. The third trip was an overnighter in February 2018 with relatively little snow but bitterly cold with temperatures floating in the teens. We hiked the six miles in in about three hours which gave us all afternoon to enjoy camp, build a roaring fire, and cook multiple backcountry feasts. Each of these was an opportunity to enjoy the peace of the forest, to bond with friends, to challenge myself, and to enjoy a fresh perspective. I was able to do all of these while hardly spending a dime and not having to fly across the globe.
An abandoned lean-to along the trail, don’t worry you don’t have to sleep here
The hike I describe here begins at the ASP Red House Administration Building, which is one of my favorite buildings on earth. Built in 1928 this massive tudor style lodge is a comfy place to warm up before or after a hike, reserve cabins, and has a restaurant, museum, and gift shop. Its is also where the park ranger station is. *If you are doing this hike overnight it is imperative that you check in at the ranger station, it could save your life* Tell the friendly folks in the ranger office where you’ll be going, when you expect to come back, and you license plate number because you are leaving your car there overnight. Once you are checked in and ready to rock head straight up the hill behind the building following the sign that says “to hiking trails.” All the trails in ASP are numbered and have easy to follow markings and free maps are always available. Our hike begins on trail #10 Conservation Trail. Follow this trail for approximately two miles up and over the mountain. This 700′ gain in elevation is immediate and might leave you winded, especially if you are snowshoeing or carrying gear. Don’t worry, after this 700′ climb its all downhill from there. After approximately two miles you will pass an abandoned lean to (pictured above) and the #10 Conservation Trail will link up with the #9 North Country Trail. Notice the trail markings change here. Because the #9 trail is part of the North Country National Scenic Trail (NCT) as well as the Finger Lakes Trail (FLT). The NCT runs all the way from North Dakota to the Adirondacks, and while running through New York State uses white rectangular trail markings on the trees instead of metal disks. After a little more uphill you will reach the highest elevation of this hike, approximately 2300′. This may not seem very high but considering the hike started at around 1600′ this is not a small hill. I personally love the gentle mountains of WNY. They’re more personable, more accessible, more enchanting. Once the trail plateaus here you will walk through beautiful old growth hemlocks until the NCT links up with the ASP #17 Eastwood Meadows trail. Eastwood Meadows is a 4 mile side loop so if yo’re really looking for mileage here you go. I’ve skipped it each time but if hiked it before there are some nice views. After about two miles from the #9/#10 trail junction you will cross a paved park road, ASP 1. From here the NCT/FLT briefly follows an equestrian trail before branching off and heading down into the valley of Stoney Brook. For about two miles you will walk over and around this meandering creek. The ground can be quite wet here but there are planks and bridges to walk on to keep your boots dry. And finally, after six miles of up and down hiking, you will have reached your five star hotel, the Stoney Brook Lean- To
The author enjoying a sneaky restorative yoga session in the lean-to
If you’ve never heard of or stayed in a lean-to before, the description is as basic as the structure itself. A lean-to is a three walled and roofed structure built for hikers and backcountry campers. Stoney Brook has a raised wood floor, so no sleeping on the ground. This site has everything you could need, a firepit, a picnic table, an outhouse, and best of all a fresh mountain spring right behind the lean-to to fill up on fresh clean drinking water. (Again, “appropriate difficulty”) Located just a few hundred feet further up the trail is the old lean-to, so you can see is clearly not as nice as this one. You will find pots, pans, camp tools and tarps. There are two lock boxes attached to the structure that previous thoughtful campers have left maps, toilet paper, fire starters, tea, snacks, etc. in. *Remember kids, always leave camp better than you found it. Also, you are very much sleeping in black bear country, so bring rope and a durable bag to make a bear bag at least 50 yards from where you are sleeping to put all food, toiletries and anything with a strong scent in*
Melting snow in a backpacking stove to make pad thai and a little bourbon to stay warm
Your time in camp at the Stoney Brook Lean-To can be spent at your leisure and will depend on what gear you have available. I recommend having a framed backpack, a warm-enough sleeping bag, a pad of some sort (yoga mat will do if you really want to be tough), lightweight backpacking stove (seen above), flashlight,fire starting instrument, and a knife. As far as meals go, avoid the temptation to get fancy or something with too many ingredients. Think bagged, non perishable foods and things that cannot be squished. I recommend rice and noodle based dishes, oatmeal for breakfast, peanut butter, granola, and some fresh fruit and veggies depending on temperature and duration of adventure. Seen above is a delicious pad thai made from noodles, peanuts, packaged tuna fish, and a packet of grocery-store pad thai sauce. When going to sleep its a good idea to hang some of the tarps at the entrance of the lean-to to keep out some wind and trap some body heat.
Walking on ASP 1 heading back to Red House
Upon waking in the morning after a rejuvenating night of deep sleep on a hard surface in the wilderness, enjoy a breakfast of oatmeal with bagged tea, or I recommend Starbucks’ Via instant coffee packets. After breaking camp and packing up you will hike the two miles out of the valley to ASP 1. Here you have the option to return to the Red House building via your original route on the NCT, or you can head north and walk along the paved road, which will also lead you to the same destination. Check back in with the park rangers and let them know about the adventure you had, and you are on your merry way home. If you’re still hungry stop in Ellicottville for a tasty bite to eat at a number of restaurants or maybe stop in Olean and treat yourself to a cold craft beer from Four Mile Brewing Co.
I hope you enjoy your microadventures in Western New York as much as I do. As much as you explore the wilderness outdoors, remember to explore the wilderness within.