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TRAIL REPORT: CLARK GULLY at HIGH TOR

Since this report, I’ve released a “Clark Gully Map” of sorts.
You can check that out and download it here.

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I like running mountain races. So, logically, I train on steep terrain. Around here it’s hard to find really steep, sustained climbing terrain. Don’t get me wrong, we have limitless miles of amazing trails, and I’ve been able to string together some really demanding routes that pack in roughly +/-600’ elevation change per mile, but to find the REALLY steep stuff (anything that cracks 1,000’ in under a mile), I have to drive out to the Adirondacks or Catskills. Which, at 4-5 hours one way, just isn’t a practical solution.

I’d heard about a hidden corner of High-Tor (a State environmental conservation area about 45 minutes away down in the Finger Lakes where we frequently train) known as Clark Gully. So I looked it up. It’s just barely on the radar. There are no trail maps or GPX data to be found. Online research turns up a few obscure mentions of waterfalls and ice climbing routes, along with a decade-old NY Times article noting Clark’s significance to the Seneca Indians as the birthplace of the world. But, that’s about it. However, through word-of-mouth, I’d been told things like, “lots of unmarked trails… super steep… lots of scrambling… shale scree and tree roots… don’t get hurt.” Which basically screams (to me), “Go there!!!”

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I pulled up the topo map (above, lower right) and was immediately intrigued with fairly steep looking terrain that rises over 1,000’ pretty quickly from the South end of Canandaigua Lake up to the summit of a long ridgeline. But I didn’t know how much of that was navigable, or even had trails, so I went down and checked it out last week. I was not disappointed.

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What I’ve written up here is a very rough trail description that will, in theory, get a trail runner with relatively competent navigation skills up the East Rim of Clark Gully to the top without getting too lost or hurt. But this is certainly not a guide (and I bear no responsibility for your adventures). If reading this description leaves you thoroughly confused then you have no business going. It is steep. The terrain is sketchy. It’s remote. There are BIG drops into the gorge. You will get lost. You could get hurt (you could, in fact, die). That’s not hyperbole. Be careful.

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The trailhead parking lot for Clark Gully is off of Route 245 on Sunnyside Drive where it meets West Ave. near the creek. Park, walk across the bridge, take the yellow blazes along the creek which will be on your left. (As an aside, you should definitely just keep hiking back the gorge sometime to see the falls (first image)… pretty amazing. Mind the rockfall.) Roughly 0.15 miles in on the yellow trail there will be a single orange blaze to your right. There’s a “trail” that scrambles up some steep shale scree and tree roots, hits the ridgeline and keeps climbing North (image above). Take that. From here the trail climbs roughly 700’ feet in 0.35 miles. There are no blazes. Just go up. And up. And up. The trail is pretty well-worn, so it’s not hard to follow. There are a few forks here and there and it will take a little trial and error to learn which is the correct one (hint: ones too far to the left will drop you into the gorge (image below) while ones too far to the right will shoot you off into the woods). There are several sections with big drops (anywhere from 100’-400’) into the gorge below with only inches between the trail and the drop. Don’t trip. No, seriously. Do not trip. If you’re given a choice of trails, take the one furthest from the edge. As long as you’re still headed uphill, you’ll get to the right place.

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As you’re ascending this steep section you’ll scramble across a small stream cascading down into the gorge. If you cross this then you’re on the right track. Keep climbing until the trail levels off for a bit. As it levels off there will be a clearing overlooking the gorge with a big dead tree laying across it and views of the valley behind you (image below). You’ve just climbed from roughly 800’ in elevation to 1500’ in elevation. (If you’re doing steep repeats – from the road to that spot and back is about one mile and 1,400’ of elevation change – then you’ve reached your turnaround point.) If you want to go to the actual top, then keep climbing.

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From here to the top the trail climbs less steeply while still making you work. There will be a teepee on your right (Funny story, I met the guys, don’t think they were up to anything terribly illicit. I’m gonna go with “20-something, pot smoking, survivalists.”), and the orange blazes will suddenly reappear. Some of them are fresh. Some of them are really old and faded. Keep going uphill following blazes. You’ll still be heading mostly North. Once you cross over a large fallen tree (with an orange blaze on it) across the trail, the orange blazes will go downhill and dead end at the stream. Don’t follow the blazes. Keep going straight on a very narrow (6” wide?), off-camber herd path that winds its way along the side of the gully through deep pine forest (image below). No more blazes here. You’ll start climbing again and head more East than North and eventually notice a switchback headed uphill over your shoulder to your right. Take it and you’ll come out by an old tree with a faded red blaze… unless you make your turn at the wrong spot in which case you’ll come out at the wrong place.

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Go left and continue bushwhacking uphill through the woods. The “trail” roughly follows the line between coniferous and deciduous trees for a little while. You’ll be able to loosely connect the dots between faded old red and orange blazes on the trees. There’s not a terribly discernible trail. You’ll cross a dry stream bed. Again, you’ll be headed more Northeast than anything else. And then the blazes will end and you’ll cross another stream bed. Look for a large fallen tree with a big, exposed root structure. Cross near there and keep heading uphill keeping the small stream perpendicular to your right. There are two more faded red blazes on saplings through here (bushwhack this short stretch) before you hit a small clearing. If you hit the clearing then you did it right. If you don’t hit the clearing then you did it wrong. From the clearing take the dirt access road (from what I can tell, it’s the one labeled ‘Hi-Tor Preserve’ on the topo map, but I’m not certain) and follow it for a bit. You’ll still be going ever so slightly uphill. Shortly after you pass between two old (burnt out) big fence beams there will be a small opening in the trees to your right and you’ll see a brush cut headed up to the top of the hill. Take that. There’s a few thorns, so that’s fun (image below). You’ll come out in a big field with a birdhouse and a huge old (walnut?) tree towards the very top. You’re there. Turn around and you’ll have some nice views out over the valley.

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From there, retrace your steps back to the beginning. From what I remember there are noticeably fewer blazes on the way down. Good luck. Took me just under 30 minutes to make it to the top. And then another 18-20 minutes to get down. That’s at a comfortably steady pace, so faster is definitely possible. I wasn’t out to set any records, but managed to do a few repeats, knocking out a bit over 10 miles with roughly +/-8700′ of elevation change on the day. Have fun up there. It’s a beautiful, remote part of High Tor well worth checking out! Oh, and the best trailhead sign ever (below).

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All Photographs Copyright Ben Murphy, 2015. All Rights Reserved. Use without Permission is Forbidden.

7 Comments

  1. Dan Lopata Dan Lopata

    “lots of unmarked trails… super steep… lots of scrambling… shale scree and tree roots… don’t get hurt.”
    ~ I think I’ve said those words

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  4. Chuck Rudat Chuck Rudat

    I’ve been going here most of my life. The beauty of this gully is the natural aspect, and the upper falls is absolutely stunning. Where the article above says it’s a dead end to left after your cross a small feeder, you descend down to the upper falls. It’s a beautiful, tranquil place. The trail does infact loop around near the top, before South Hill Rd., and you can descend the west side of the gully, but beware of the misleading dead-end that lead you back to the gorge, where you can descend/rappel at your own risk, but your life is at potential loss! Basically, stay to the right and give yourself extra time. 2 hours if you’re walking, 1 if your running. The final 150′ of the descent cut to the west before cutting sharply back to the east.

    • Thanks, Chuck! I’ve spent the last year further exploring the terrain up there and getting to know the various herd paths and bushwhack/scramble connectors. Such an incredible place – discover new and wonderful terrain (including the connector you mentioned) every time I’m down there!

  5. ARM2008 ARM2008

    When I was up there today the orange blazed “dead end” also had orange tape at the creek’s edge – it really looked like you could cross there and access the west side of the gorge.

    Not sure if the field with a large tree and bird box you describe at the end is the one I came to. I bushwhacked along the top of the gorge to a clearing with South Hill road just beyond. 50 feet to the left of the large tree is a late 1800/early 1900 cellar hole, and the location I was aiming for. I was surprised to come out right on target since I didn’t have any points to take bearings from.

    I returned using the old road further east, following the trail you showed on your map. Thank goodness. I don’t think my knees could have handled going back down the east side of the gully! Your map and descriptions really smoothed the way – thanks!

    My loop was a little less than 4.5 miles, and I averaged 1.2 mph… my usual gully pace. I’m slow! But I get the job done. And I will sleep soundly tonight.

    • Glad you had fun up there! Such a great mix of terrain to explore – sounds like your time was well spent. Glad to hear the map – http://www.benmurphyonline.com/2016/02/clark-gully-map/ – helped! Exactly why I put it out there, and appreciate hearing back from folks who are putting it to use. Thanks! (And, per the updated “map”, yes, it doesn’t dead end. You can keep going over to the West side of the gorge. I’ve learned a lot of new game trails through there over the past year!)

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