The dark winter is upon us. Not solely the short days and lengthy periods when the sun fails to break through the thick blanket of clouds, but also the most difficult stretch yet of the coronavirus pandemic, as foretold by Joe Biden and health experts.
In January, a record number of Americans died as a result of COVID-19. With the emergence of several variants that spread more rapidly and may be resistant to current vaccines, the next few months could offer scant relief.
How to hang on till spring? One way is to hunker down inside your home, safely isolated from the virus and the wintry elements. But I’d like to recommend an alternative: Get outside.
I’m not suggesting that you abandon COVID precautions and go bar hopping or spend the evening with friends inside their home. On the contrary, go outdoors. Don’t hide from winter; embrace it.
Last spring, when we were grappling with the initial wave of COVID cases and deaths, I wrote that even though shutdown orders meant travel as usual would not be possible in the near future, the pandemic offered a reason to see our own part of the world with fresh eyes.
That article appeared as warm weather was arriving here. But exploring in winter has its own rewards.
Scandinavians face some of the longest, darkest and coldest winters on earth, yet research says they rank among the happiest people found anywhere. How can this be so, when for so many people, lack of sunlight in winter can trigger negative feelings or even seasonal depression? In Nordic cultures, adaption has produced a positive winter mindset. This is true in cities as well as in the countryside, but Scandinavians are particularly drawn to nature, which has its own benefits—research has shown that well-being is boosted by as little as two hours a week spent in natural environments (including parks and green spaces).
The Norwegian language has a word that captures this mindset: friluftsliv, or roughly “open air living.” (Another useful word to know: utepils, which refers to drinking a beer outdoors.)
Fortunately, we live in a region where nature is never far away. With more cold, snowy weather in the forecast, it’s an ideal time to throw on some warm clothes and head outside. The following, in no particular order, is a list of some of my favorite Rochester-area outdoor destinations in wintertime; all can be visited for free—and are best explored on snowshoes, cross-country skis or at least with a good pair of all-weather hiking boots.
1. Mendon Ponds Park. With 2,500 acres of woodlands, ponds, and open space, Mendon Ponds Park is Monroe County’s largest park. It was named a National Natural Historic Landmark in 1969 (check out this information on its glacial history) and has some 30 miles of trails offering frequent sightings of wildlife, from a wide variety of birds to deer. The two-mile Bird Song/Swamp Trail has moderate terrain for either hiking and snowshoeing (cross-country skiing is not allowed), and in winter chickadees will readily eat out of your hand. The nearby Devil’s Bathtub Trail features some of the park’s notable glacial formations.
2. Powder Mills Park. It’s less than one-fifth the size of Mendon Ponds, but Power Mills Park packs a diverse array of terrain into a relatively compact area. Some of the hills are quite steep, and with a rope tow operating in winter, it’s a great place for kids to learn downhill skiing. For a less-athletic outing, visit the Fish Hatchery at Powder Mills Park; established in 1933 and operated since 2003 with funding from the Riedman Foundation, the hatchery is open year-round.
3. Corbett’s Glen. This 52-acre park in the town of Brighton has two miles of trails including a loop trail that starts along Allens Creek, then winds around a meadow and cattail marsh. The Woodchip Trail extends the length of the park between Glen Road and Penfield Road. (The small parking lot off Penfield Road, closed for a period during the pandemic, reopened as of Jan. 7.) The Corbett’s Glen Preservation Group maintains a website with a detailed map and historical information including Native American use of the glen.
4. Channing H. Philbrick Park. Formerly known as Linear Park, this park in the town of Penfield has two trails—Mills Trail and Honey Creek Trail—that follow Irondequoit Creek and Honey Creek. While not extensive, these trails seldom have large groups of visitors, especially in winter, and they are quite picturesque, with several waterfalls and old mill foundations visible on the creek banks. For a short outing, it’s hard to beat.
5. Ellison Park. The first park officially established in Monroe County, Ellison Park is nearly 100 years old. Its 447 acres include range from steep slopes to a broad plain on either side of Irondequoit Creek. As with many of the region’s parks, reading in advance about its history—including Fort Schuyler and the Lost City of Tryon—adds a dimension when exploring the park.
6. Harriet Hollister Spencer State Recreation Area. Though it’s a bit of a drive (just shy of an hour from downtown Rochester), Harriet Hollister Spencer State Recreation Area near Canadice is well worth the trek for a longer outing. It features nearly 24 miles of multiuse trails and often boasts some of the best snow cover in the area—thanks to its elevation of more than 2,000 feet and dense woodland. Snowmobiles are allowed on some trails, but with many other options for those on snowshoes or cross-country skis, it’s easy to steer clear of them and surround yourself with only the sounds of winter birds and wind in the treetops. Along Overlook Road, there’s a terrific view of the length of Honeoye Lake.
7. Genesee County Park & Forest. Established in 1915, Genesee County Park & Forest was the first county forest in New York. It’s 45 minutes west of downtown in East Bethany, but like Harriet Hollister Spencer, it’s worth a visit no matter where you live in the area. The park has 430 acres of forest and gentle hills, with more than 10 miles of trails. In 1998, an interpretive nature center was constructed near the Bethany Center Road entrance. (During the pandemic, it’s best to call in advance to check on the center’s hours.)
8. The city parks. For city residents, exploring the natural environment outside the region’s urban core is a refreshing change of pace. It’s also possible, though, to embrace winter in the city—and for suburban residents who venture into Rochester only infrequently, it’s a great way to discover or get reacquainted with the city’s natural assets. First among them are the Frederick Law Olmsted parks: Genesee Valley Park, Highland Park, Seneca Park, and Maplewood Park. Many area residents enjoy these parks in the summer months, but on most days in winter only a relative handful are found there. Another wonderful destination for winter exploring is the 977-acre Durand Eastman Park. Take either of the wilderness-like trails around Durand Lake or Eastman Lake, and you find yourself amazed that you’re still within the city limits. Two other places in the city that I’d highly recommend for a winter walk: High Falls in downtown and Mount Hope Cemetery, with its beautiful rolling, wooded hillsides and graves of notable residents including Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass.
The slower pace of life during the pandemic brings with it the opportunity to explore not only parts of our region you may rarely visit but also pockets of nature not far from your doorstep. Take Perinton, where I live. Within walking distance is Hart’s Woods Trail, designated a National Natural Landmark in 1972. Only a few minutes’ drive away are Horizon Hilland Indian Hill. The entire Crescent Trail system is so expansive, one could spend the entire winter exploring it.
To me, whether I’m heading somewhere nearby or farther away in the Rochester-Finger Lakes region doesn’t matter. In winter, it’s where I’ll be that counts: outside.
Paul Ericson is Rochester Beacon executive editor.