Editor’s Note: With lake-effect snows reaching the Northeast this week, now seems like a perfect time to highlight one of the area’s hidden gems: Chautauqua County. This story appeared in the January 2014 issue of Snow Goer magazine. To regularly see similar travel adventures, plus machine reviews, aftermarket product evaluations, how-to stories and other features, subscribe to Snow Goer magazine by using this link.
The Lake Erie snow machine is famous for burying Buffalo in white fluff, but sometimes the national headlines can be deceiving. The serious snow usually hits farther south in Chautauqua County. With up to 1,500 feet of elevation above the second lowest of the Great Lakes, New York’s largest county outside the Adirondack region annually gets more than 200 inches of snow, providing great riding even when the rest of the multi-state area is browned out.
Relatively few outsiders know about this snowy secret, but we are letting you in on it. With its interesting terrain, dependable snow and some of the most snowmobile-friendly locals you’ll find anywhere, the Chautauqua County area is a far-too-overlooked sledding paradise. Located in the southwestern corner of the state, it’s an easy drive for many people who live in areas where big trail systems don’t exist — it’s almost as close to Cleveland, Ohio (2.5 hours) as it is to Rochester, New York (2 hours) — yet a worthwhile drive for anybody in the broader region.
For us, that drive started brown and ended white.
After a road trip past Buffalo where the ground was bare and no snow was in the air, my touring buddy, Ted Perkins, and I rolled into Chautauqua County where lake snow was falling hard. Driving up the hill from the lake plain was becoming dicey due to the accumulation of white stuff. It was mid-afternoon on a Monday by the time we checked in at Webb’s Resort in Mayville. A complete and comfortable base of operations with an access trail out the back of the spacious parking lot, Webb’s is a favorite of our friends who frequent southwestern New York. And as always, riding during the week avoids the crowds.
After meeting some local contacts, we enjoyed the first of four excellent dinners in Webb’s beautiful tavern and dining rooms that feature an inviting hardwood décor done by local craftsmen with regionally sourced materials. Few restaurants this nice offer convenient, finished-wood helmet shelves above spacious hardwood coat racks. But Webb’s is equipped to allow snowmobilers to enjoy its craft bourbons and upscale cuisine after a great ride. It’s what you get from the Webb family members, who really understand snowmobiling because they once had a Polaris snowmobile dealership as part of this multi-dimensional vacation complex.
Soon we discovered that this welcoming attitude toward snowmobilers is both widespread and very genuine in Chautauqua County.
Our trail hosts the first two days were Bryce Stefan and Dee Dippel, the exceptionally accommodating proprietors of Chautauqua Lake Snowmobile Services, but Chautauqua Lake Snowmobile Club President Chris Jaynes was first to arrive for our initial ride. Jaynes guided our group south on his club’s freshly groomed trails through open fields, forest lanes, a bit of rail-trail and a powdered roadside detour past the village of Sherman, then into the twisties through snow-clad, mixed-wood state forests in one of the more remote areas of the big county.
The glacier-manicured, rolling hill country that comprises most of Chautauqua County is situated on a plateau above the Lake Erie plain, so lake-effect snow comes often and sticks around. And on this fairly warm and mostly sunny day we were treated to fresh snow clinging to the evergreens, making it look like the heart of winter in northern Quebec.
County Federation President Steve Smith met us on the trail in Clymer. We were running ahead of schedule, so Jeff Richards took the lead for a detour south into Pennsylvania. The fast and smooth 10-mile rail-trail blitz across the state line was also reminiscent of riding in Quebec. Hustling back into New York, we continued across the gently rolling hill country to lunch at Peek’n Peak Resort, a well-known downhill ski center that surprisingly welcomes snowmobilers with open arms to its four different restaurants. After all, how many ski areas do you see with multiple ads on a snowmobile trail map? The sled trail runs right through the resort’s gas station, providing a very convenient chance to fill up after lunch.
With our midday meal behind us, it was back on the trail to Findlay Lake, where the enterprising Richards showed us his soon-to-be expanded snowmobile and boat storage facility, and then on to Pine Junction, a popular pit stop where the specialty of the house is a chocolate-covered peanut butter dessert treat called Moose Balls.
We headed back by way of the Chautauqua Lake Snowmobile Club’s clubhouse, with a final stop at a snowmobile dealership located almost across the street from Webb’s Resort. The day’s total was 93 miles and the variety of trails that we had seen was almost as impressive as the snow-clad scenery.
North Of The Lake Ride
Bryce Steffan led Wednesday’s ride out of town heading north on yet another rail bed, this time right along a short stretch of the built-up shore of 17-mile long Chautauqua Lake, mostly unfrozen due to the warmish weather. Bryce and Dee brought their wives, Rachael and Kate respectively, and more Federation members including Secretary Robin Kayner also joined us for the day.
Turning northeast, we left the easy running on the rail bed behind, paused briefly for a view of Lake Erie in the distance far beyond Welch’s grapevines, and then began the climb into the high country. The grade got steeper and the trail began to roll and twist through the trees as we ascended. Shifting east near Brocton, we pushed on over the increasingly snowy hill tops to a coffee break at Sandy’s White Horse Inn in Casadaga. It was too early for lunch, but folks in our group advised that this is one of the best places to eat on the whole trail system, so we look forward to a return to see for ourselves.
With Federation past president Joe Sorrento of the Cherry Creek Sno-Goers taking the lead, we continued our climb into the county’s higher elevations, finding some impressive scenic views of multiple hilltops in the distance, until we hit Boutwell Hill State Forest. The ground was bare at home and across most of western New York, but there was plenty of snow up here on the roof of Chautauqua County. Weaving through the dense white-clad woodlands and cruising along well-groomed forest roads provided the best riding we had seen yet. Eventually we popped out of the state forest and struck out across open high country farm fields toward lunch at the South Dayton Hotel just across the line in neighboring Cattaraugus County.
Back on the trail again, Bob Volpe of the Lake Effect Trailbreakers took the lead as we entered his club’s territory, and it was uphill again to some of the county’s highest elevations for the deepest snow we had yet encountered and more of the impressive scenic views of the rolling hill country. The Witch Kitch Tavern in Sinclairville was our next stop, and proprietor Sean Feegan was in his riding bibs and boots when we arrived. The interior of this modest, old structure is uniquely decorated with photos of the past hundred-and-some-odd years of Sinclairville’s existence, making it the Village’s unofficial historical center. Sweet Ass Cream Corn, the band in which Volpe plays guitar, is a frequent entertainer here. Certainly unusual for a snowmobile pit stop, it’s another fine example of what makes riding in Chautauqua County a little different and definitely fun.
Rolling back toward Mayville through the twilight, we noted a distinct decline in the amount of snow as we dropped in elevation. It was dark by the time we made the turn at the north end of Chautauqua Lake and rejoined the rail trail we had ridden in the morning. The day ended with 124 miles on my odometer, and some great scenic views burned into memory.
East Side Ride
Our third day began by meeting a snowmobile-riding politician and his sidekick. We met County Legislature Majority Leader Fred Croscut and County Executive Greg Edwards at Dick’s Harbor House in Mayville for breakfast and conversation. A well-traveled snow rider who also drives a groomer for his local club, the engaging Croscut was our host for the day. We trailered over to the Gerry Rodeo Grounds to unload in another of the county’s many trailhead parking areas, and met Ed Hoene and Lance Hedlund.
Hoene led our group back up onto the high ground for a repeat visit to the smooth, inviting trails through snow-laden Boutwell State Forest, then on to the Cherry Creek Sub Shop for a relaxed lunch and good conversation with several other experienced and well-traveled riders. I was particularly impressed with the permanent trailside sign that welcomes snowmobilers to the village. It was yet another example of how Chautauqua County rolls out the white carpet for snowmobilers.
We cruised around the high ground some more after lunch, enjoying the well-maintained trails in the state forests for a couple more hours before heading back down to the trucks and trailers. Although it didn’t seem like we had ridden a whole lot that day, I had 78 miles on the odometer, giving me just under 300 for the three-day tour. Considering all the time spent inside businesses and club facilities, and all the time spent taking pictures and admiring scenic views, it was a little more than I had expected to ride on this trip.
On our truck trip back to Mayville, Croscut took us to the Ellery Sno Cruisers groomer barn and then on to Tom’s Tavern, another of the County’s snowmobile-friendly establishments and a great place to top off another great day on the trail.
Snow Ride Synopsis
Chautauqua County simply has some of the best riding and winter scenery that we’ve seen in western New York. Better yet, this county welcomes snowmobilers like few places we’ve ever seen anywhere stateside, and the trail system is well mapped, well signed and well groomed with possibly the largest groomer fleet of any county in the Empire State.
So now you know the secret. This is a great place to ride. And it has snow when many other parts of the tri-state area are brown.