If you're planning a road trip with your horse in the Northeast, don't pass up the opportunity to ride the Otter Creek Horse Trails in New York State's North Country.
New York State is often misrepresented as being urban in nature. Contrary to this image, the state is largely rural, particularly north of I-90. The Adirondack Park, situated in the state's northeastern region, encompasses approximately six million acres and is constitutionally protected state forest preserve.
Adjacent to the western edge of the Adirondack Park - to the east of Lake Ontario, south of Lowville in Lewis County - are two public forest areas managed by the State Department of Environmental Conservation, (the DEC): the Independence River Wild Forest, and the Independence River and Otter Creek State Forest. There are arguably 65 wonderful miles of riding trails through these two adjacent wilderness areas. They're called the Otter Creek Horse Trails, and this is where Vanessa and I found a slice of trail-riding heaven.
The Otter Creek Horse Trails are a series of old sandy roads and wooded trails that traverse a beautifully diversified region, populated with wildlife. Once off the sandy roads, the trails wind their way along sand flats and through wooded areas, access picturesque glacial ponds, and have climbs that lead to fine river vistas. The state provides a map of the trails, which all loop and are well-marked.
If you and your horse like water, the trails follow or cross the Independence River and no less than seven smaller waterways: Otter, Little Otter, Beaver Meadow, Chase, Burnt, and Crooked Creeks. All eventually flow into the Black River that continues on north into Lake Ontario. It's truly a beautiful area in any season of the year. Yes, even in winter.
Most riders agree that the greatest attraction of The Otter Creek Horse Trails is the Assembly Area, a state-managed, exclusively equine camping facility that the riding public can use for free. From there, you can access all the Otter Creek Horse Trails.
The Assembly Area is a well-maintained, horse-friendly zone comprised of a series of campsites connected by one-way driveways. It has trailhead parking and an overflow camping area. The state provides a dumping station that enables campers to empty their black-water holds when full or upon leaving.
You and your horse will like the Assembly Area amenities. There are 100 roofed tie stalls that have horse water taps within reach. The public restrooms have running water, but no showers. There are accessible toilets and three mounting platforms in camp to assist persons with disabilities. Additional mounting aids can be found at rest stops along the trail.
Each camping area has horse ties, hefty picnic tables, concrete fire pits, and a manure-dumping enclosure. For gatherings, the state recently built a pavilion with a community fire pit. The state has also taken into consideration diversity in rider interests. Two stud stalls are available for those who enjoy taking their stallions down the trail. Vanessa and I agree that these are some of the most horse thoughtful facilities we've seen east of the Mississippi River.
There's not much more than minimal regulatory control needed in the Assembly Area. Riders are asked to register at a central kiosk. Rules and notices about trail problems are posted there. There's a good supply of maps. You'll also find a ranger station with a pay phone that's usually manned by groundskeepers during the day. An emergency call to 9-1-1 will summon the law or medical help.
In terms of horse papers, bring your current Coggins certificate to show your horse is negative for equine infectious anemia. If you're not from New York State, a 30-day health certificate from your veterinarian is also required.
Once on the trail, you'll find that this is a fun place to ride. The trail system is laid out in a series of loops; this provides many options as to the type and length of ride you want to take. If you aren't a morning rider, sleep in, ride a couple of short loops, and be back in time for dinner. At the evening campfire, you'll hear your fellow riders' stories and probably get some free advice.
One of our favorite rides is from the Assembly Area to a restaurant called the Trail Side, which is located on a town road in the southern reaches of the trail system. The ride takes anywhere from 45 minutes to 1½ hours, depending on how you ride and your familiarity with the trail.
We start by riding out of camp down Blue Jog, a wide, level, sandy road that soon intersects with a winding trail called Icicle. This is an easy trail, mostly sand, that varies in elevation and offers a diversity of scenery. The trail descends to sandy flats that become rolling trails through the woods. Ride the Erie Canal Trail, a wooded path that descends to a rest area at a shallow Otter Creek crossing. Horse ties and a picnic table offer a halfway resting spot.
A short distance from Otter Creek crossing is Cats Paw Lake Rd. Be sure to turn left. It leads to Blueberry Trail, my favorite. This is a narrow, sandy path that goes through several wild blueberry patches. If you're there in late July, stop and pick a few berries for quick energy. Horses like them, too.
Follow the signs, and soon you'll arrive at the rest area below the Trail Side. Tie your steed in the shady grove, and climb the hill. An upscale, friendly atmosphere awaits you. The lunch menu offers sandwiches, appetizers, and beverages. Try a glass of lemonade or a Genesee Cream Ale with your lunch. They're the local favorites.
Full and rested, follow your trail back to camp, or pick a different way; the maps are easy to read. Trails are marked on trees and posts with colored-plastic markers. As with all trails in the Otter Creek system, if you follow your map and know your primary colors, you can't get lost.
There are many other great rides to scenic locations in the trail system. Pack a lunch, and ride into the High Banks area overlooking the Independence River. Along the trail is a rest area with horse ties at a scenic overlook. This is a full-day adventure of easy to moderately difficult riding. Our 7-year-old geldings, Khan and BeBop, like this ride. By adding another loop, they can head north into the trails around Cleveland Lake, and it adds only three hours on their day.
There's no doubt that the Otter Creek Horse Trails are increasing in popularity, but, the State of New York has no plans to expand the Assembly Area. Consequently, in recent years, there's been a trend toward accessing the trail system from outside the Assembly Area.
Several private horse camps are available. Join Debbie and Jerry Van Zile at Mane Stay Stables, or reserve a spot at the Ottercreek Stables, where Luke and Michelle Widrick are your hosts. Early reservations are a good idea.
New York's horse friendly North Country, with its three-season riding, is now attracting land-seeking horse owners, who are purchasing private camp lots and land for second-home construction.
Sellers are getting creative in their marketing, too. One development company boasts of trail access, cable television - and good cell-phone service. Hence the name, Three Bars Ranch. (For more on land in this area, visit www.myhorse.com.)
For years, Vanessa and I would spend a week in the summer and a week in the fall riding in the North Country. We finally got the fever in 2006, and acquired a parcel of land that provides direct trail access. Our camp, Hiawatha's Kettle, is on Bad Rd., just off the Hiawatha Lake Trail - which, of course, leads to the Assembly Area.
Stop and say "hi" when you ride by. If we aren't there, we're probably visiting at the Assembly Area. Or, more likely, on the trail enjoying a beautiful day riding with our happy horses in New York's North Country.