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The Ontario Pathways Rail Trail is the crown jewel of the trail system managed by the organization for whom it is named in Ontario County, New York. Comprising two disconnected segments, including a long V-shaped route, the trail runs through woodlands and picturesque farmland in rural communities dotting the northern fringes of New York’s scenic Finger Lakes region. Although the trail was built on a former rail corridor and is open to a variety of nonmotorized uses, its rough surface of rocks and roots demands cyclists use mountain bikes or durable hybrids, and it may be better experienced on foot or horse.
The trail’s beginning can be traced to two rail lines developed separately in the 19th century. Ultimately the railroads’ successors were both acquired by the Northern Central Railroad, which in 1913 became part of the much larger Pennsylvania Railroad. An ill-conceived merger with the New York Central Railroad in 1968 led to the combined Penn Central’s bankruptcy in 1970. Fortunately, with the help of a loan from Rails-to-Trails Conservancy and a local bank, Ontario Pathways Inc. was able to purchase unsold portions of the rail corridor in 1994 to begin trail development.
Northern Segment (Phelps): 2.5 miles
If you are looking for a long and continuous experience, you can skip this segment, which is separated from the main, V-shaped trail by privately owned land and the New York State Thruway. But the stretch has its charms: its lack of road crossings promises a peaceful trip, and its green envelope of trees provides constant shade and the perfect perch for birds. Those who do visit this scenic section should be aware that the trail technically dead-ends in the north without an outlet at the Wayne County line. Therefore, an out-and-back trip from the parking lot on Gifford Road in Phelps at the southern end of this segment may be best; from there, the trail heads north, unmarked, for 2.5 miles and ends at a closed gate. Beyond that is private property.
Southern Segment (Phelps to Canandaigua): 21.8 miles
The main, V-shaped section of the Ontario Pathways Rail Trail begins on the opposite side of the New York State Thruway and spans nearly 21 miles. Start your trip at its eastern end in Phelps, where a large parking lot on NY 96 welcomes trail users. Like the northern segment, the trail proceeds through dense tree cover for its first several miles. Flint Creek is never far away, and a bridge offers trail users a close-up of the water below.
Before long, a short detour onto NY 488 is required. (Follow the signs; you will reach a dead end if you continue beyond the detour access.) Exercise caution on the detour, as NY 488 sees fast-moving traffic. Just over half a mile, the trail turns left off State Highway 488 onto Waddell Road in the hamlet of Orleans. The trail resumes at the end of Waddell Road under tree cover before emerging into open farmland, where the sudden sunlight may be jarring. After alternating between the two environs and passing over US 20/NY 5 via a trail bridge, the trail eventually reaches its halfway point at a large trailhead park in Stanley.
From the park, you must turn sharply right, briefly paralleling the section of trail you just completed, to continue your journey. About a mile in, you'll cross Flint Creek via the Great Stanley Bridge, a 362-foot trestle. You soon may have a feeling of déjà vu as you pass over US 20/NY 5 again via a second trail bridge. The scenery along this stretch is primarily farmland, although a constant strand of trees on both sides blocks most of the direct sun. You’ll feel more bumps and jolts from large tree roots and loose rocks (especially if you are on a bike) along this second half, so consider taking it slower until they clear up. There are also several road crossings along this stretch, many of which are offset; look for a green hiker sign at each intersection to locate your next move.
Eventually you’ll cross the Canandaigua Outlet and immediately begin to closely parallel an active rail line (a rail-with-trail configuration) on the outskirts of Canandaigua. Shortly thereafter you’ll emerge in the charming city’s downtown, where numerous restaurants await hungry trail users. The community sits at the northern tip of Canandaigua Lake, so if you’re not too tired from your trek, consider taking South Main Street south to reach the lake before beginning your return trip.
To reach the northern segment’s Gifford Road trailhead from I-90/New York State Thwy., take Exit 43, and turn right onto NY 21. Take the first left onto NY 96, and travel 4.5 miles. Turn left onto County Road 25, and travel 3.5 miles until the road ends at a T-junction. Turn right onto NY 88, then take your first left onto CR 26. Immediately turn right onto Irvin Road and proceed to the road’s end at a T-junction. Turn right onto Wilber Road, and then immediately turn left onto Gifford Road. The trailhead and parking lot will be on your left in 0.3 mile.
To reach the V-shaped segment’s eastern trailhead on NY 96 from I-90/New York State Thwy., take Exit 43, and turn right onto NY 21. Take the first left onto NY 96, and travel 7.3 miles. The trailhead and parking lot will be on your right shortly after NY 488.
To reach parking for the V-shaped segment’s western end in Canandaigua from I-90/New York State Thwy., take Exit 44 and continue onto NY 332 for 8.6 miles. In downtown Canandaigua, turn left onto Niagara St. Ample public parking can be found on your left, across from Lafayette Ave.
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