Weeks ago, I started looking at places to go in New York. Originally, we were thinking the Adirondacks and the Catskills, and then ideas morphed as they often do. A few years ago, we quickly passed through the Finger Lakes Region, and thought we'd like to spend more time there. A search of New York's "best state parks" revealed Letchworth and Watkins Glen consistently listed, and they are both are in the Finger Lakes vicinity.
In fact, Letchworth was voted the number one state park in the country according to the 2016 USA TODAY 10Best Readers' Choice award for Best State Park AND Watkins Glen was voted number three. Since we visited the number two park - Porcupine Mountains in Michigan - last Fall, we figured these two New York parks should be worth a look.
Our timing worked out to visit Letchworth these past few days and there was plenty of camping in the park Sunday - Wednesday. However, Watkins Glen seems to be harder to get into, so I started looking for other options.
There are six state parks with gorges, waterfalls, and hiking that are in the Finger Lakes area, but all sites were booked for the weekends. I did find some availability at Keuka Lake State Park for nine nights, but my research led me to the Sugar Hill Recreation Area in the Sugar Hill State Forest. It was located within 10 miles of Watkins Glen, it was close to other Finger Lakes state parks, it was on the Finger Lakes Trail and Six Nations Recreation Trail System for hiking, and it was FREE.
This map shows why it's called the Finger Lakes Region.
Description of Sugar Hill Recreation Area:
The Sugar Hill Recreation Area, located off of Tower Hill Rd, is the largest designated camping area on Sugar Hill State Forest. Available on a first-come first-serve basis is a nine-acre open field for camping, with a limited number of fire rings and picnic tables. Other facilities there include a picnic area with picnic tables, pavilion, accessible horse-mounting platform, open horse stalls, during summer months a restroom with potable water are available, and access to the Six Nations Trail System, as well as the Sugar Hill Fire Tower.
The description says "potable water available" but I couldn't find anywhere that gave more details on whether there was a place to fill up our fresh water tank or whether there was just a drinking fountain. We don't like to travel with an extra 800 lbs of water, so need to fill up at our destination or at least close to it. That was the biggest issue for today's travel, but since we have a 45-gallon portable water bladder and a pump, I could go fetch water somewhere if necessary.
The final decision was made. We were going to make the 75-mile drive to the Sugar Hill Recreation Area (Google Maps shows it as "Sugar Hill Fire Tower") and see if space was available and if it was suitable for our rig. We were also hoping to stay for the full 14-day limit which would get us through the 4th of July holiday weekend. For those of us that don't make advanced reservations, having a place to stay on the long holiday weekends is always a good thing.
I drove the four miles into Perry to fuel up the truck while Linda got the inside of the rig ready to go. When I returned, she reminded me that I needed to get up on the roof to blow the debris off the slide toppers. Being under the trees, there were a few sticks and a blanket of pine tree stuff on the roof and slide toppers.
I got out my big folding ladder and climbed up with my little leaf blower to take care of that chore.
Finally we hitched up and pulled out of our spot around noon. After a stop at the very nice dump station, we were on the road.
We took the Park Road north and out the Mt. Morris entrance onto NY 36. We drove into the town of Mt. Morris and took took NY 408 for an easy jaunt over to I-390. I-390 merged onto I-86 toward Corning. We exited at the town of Savona and took NY 226 north for about 13 miles to Schuyler County Route 23.
I had noticed on my Google Maps that there appeared to be a place to park the rig at the intersection of NY 226 and County Road 23.
If it looked okay, we decided I would pull in there and Linda would drive on to check things out just to be sure. If it Sugar Hill didn't look good or was too difficult to get to with our rig, we would just stay on NY 226 and head toward Keuka Lake State Park 30 miles away.
The parking area in front of an abandoned building was a little rough, but I got in just fine. Linda headed on to do her scouting trip. Soon, she returned and gave the okay to continue. She said there was a steep one-mile 15% uphill climb on 23, but we would be fine after that.
Now, note that NY 23 has a sign saying "5 Ton Limit" with a phone number to report violations. But that is the recommended route, and I know big rigs go to Sugar Hill all the time. So, hoping that the sign was intended to discourage heavy commercial trucks, we continued on. We were only on the road for 2.3 miles.
We struggled up the hill and eventually came to Tower Hill Road which is mostly gravel with some random paved areas. It's a pretty decent road.
I followed Linda as she turned into the Sugar Hill Recreation Area entrance .....
and we went up the gravel road.
I parked in front of the restroom, and the on-site ranger, Creighton, came out to greet us. We asked about the procedure, and he said we could pretty much park anywhere. For a stay of longer than three days, we would need a permit, and he said he would do that in the morning.
As for taking on water, it turns out there are several water spigots scattered about in the field.
There were three horse trailers already parked near the horse stalls and one Class C motorhome towing a horse trailer also in that area.
We pretty much had our choice of parking although the field on the edges drops down the hill and we didn't want to get down in there. Creighton said sometimes big rigs get down in there and get stuck.
We chose a spot near some trees that would allow mid-day and afternoon sun on our solar panels, gave us a large southwestern window for satellite, and provided a little privacy by keeping folks from parking right next to us on our door side. When 4th of July weekend rolls around, I think I'll be able to show why creating a buffer was a good idea. :)
We took on water, and then got parked.
Here's a distant view with our current neighbors (we're on the far left of the photo).
There are a limited number of picnic tables and fire rings. The picnic tables can be moved, but the fire rings are anchored. I asked one of the maintenance guys who was doing some weed-eating if he would help me move a picnic table to our "site". He reluctantly agreed, but he eventually warmed up and we had a nice conversation.
This is a place locals have been coming to for years, so his question for me was "How did you find us here?". I told him it's shown on FreeCampsites.net and a recent reviewer posted a link to a video he took.
Dave and Ron, another maintenance guy, said they were completely empty this morning, and then folks started coming in after noon. By the time we were settled, there were about seven horse trailers and two tent campers in addition to us. We know that it might get a bit crowded on the weekends, but that's okay.
We have restrooms with flush toilets (no showers), water spigots I can reach with a combination of hoses, trash cans (a surprise as I thought it was completely carry-in, carry-out), a recycling center, a picnic table, a good Verizon signal, and an open sky for solar and satellite. And we can't believe it is free. :)
There is also a fire tower behind the restrooms.
I climbed the tower to check out the views.
Our rig is to the left behind the trees and can't be seen from the tower. Here are views out to the rolling hills and a few of the area lakes.
After going back down the steep, wooden steps, .....
I walked down to the entrance of the recreation area.
Looking at the entrance from the road, there is a fenced parking area also available for free camping.
There is one picnic table and a disgusting outhouse across the road .....
that, apparently, no one is in charge of. But this parking area would certainly do if the top of the hill was packed.
Also, just past the entrance heading east, maybe a quarter mile, on the left is a large single boondocking spot that would fit any unit. There is a picnic table and a trail there.
I'm very, very happy with our Sugar Hill boondocking spot. And I still can't believe it's free and in the middle of the Finger Lakes region where it's difficult to find anything at a paid campground on the weekends.
Once we got settled, I got out the big ladder and washed all the windows with a dry wash. That carried over to washing the cap of the rig to get the bugs off which led to washing the entire lower half of the rig. That led to washing the truck.
Linda sat in the shade continuing to read her book until she got too cold and had to go inside. Eventually, sometime after 8:00, I finished up, put the ladder away, and joined her. I washed stuff for about four hours and was worn out. But it feels good that it's done.
I hopped in the shower reminding myself to be quick as we'll be here two weeks and don't know where we'll have to go to dump tanks. There is no dump station here - forgot to mention that.
We turned on the inverter and watched TV for about an hour before turning it off and going to bed reading ourselves to sleep.
Quiet hours are 10:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. and that means no generators during those hours. However, we didn't hear any generators at any time - very nice.
This time our "wingin' it" strategy really paid off. We have a great place to camp close to lots of nature activities, and we'll save $300 - $500 in camping fees over these two weeks. :)