Just as Hammond Hill is a premiere cross-country skiing destination for Ithaca folks, and Highland Forest the likely destination for Syracuse cross-country skiers, Harriet Hollister Spencer Recreation Area is a well-deserved hub for Rochester-area skiers. With an elevation greater than 2,000 feet, the dense woodland receives far more reliable snow cover than elsewhere in the region.
Indeed, visiting in the summer feels a bit odd as the trails are all marked with winter activities in mind: slope difficulty for skiers, snowmobile crossings, and pleas for snowshoers to walk beside (and not on) skier tracks. But what makes it ideal for these winter activities — a deep woodland feel with broad stable trails that include lots of lengthy lines-of-sight — also makes for an enjoyable hike or bike ride in the other seasons. Not to mention the picturesque panoramic view of Honeoye Lake and its steep-sided valley along the Overlook Trail.
The roughly 20-mile trail network weaves through mostly deciduous forest that is currently reclaiming the previously developed landscape. Vestiges of past uses dot the area, but the transformation is well-underway and a friendly reminder of nature’s persistence. The majority of trails follow old forest roads, but single track paths also round-out the network of interconnected and parallel loops. Trips of varying length and difficulty can be accomplished and though difficulty is often noted on the trail, the rating is related to skiing and not necessarily other uses.
If there is a downside it may be that there are perhaps too many options. Though many intersections are clearly marked, some are not and many intersections occur within such close proximity that it can be a bit unclear exactly which intersection you may have reached. Of course, thanks to trail grooming by the Rochester Cross Country Ski Foundation, the right track is readily clear for winter adventurers.
The recreation area began as a charitable gift from the site’s namesake, Harriet Hollister Spencer, a Rochester civic leader and horticulturist in 1962. The original donation was 679 acres, but the preserved acreage has grown to over 1,550 acres thanks to the combined effort of New York State and the Nature Conservancy. As a state recreation area, the site has some of the features you would associate with a state park, notably a pavilion and picnicking areas, but it is considerably less developed and allows more activities. It lies somewhere between the rigorously maintained but structured state park and the slightly wilder and more flexible state forest.
The recreation area performs admirably in its role to provide multiple healthy outdoor recreation opportunities, but it also has the mutual benefits of protecting water quality and providing a continuous natural connective corridor between the Finger Lakes smaller gems: Hemlock and Canadice and Honeoye Lakes.