Believe it or not, the highest place in Cayuga County stands in the middle of a swamp.

Well, sort of.

"The highest point above sea level in Cayuga County is in Bear Swamp State Forest," says hiking activist and Footprint Press Publisher Sue Freeman, from suburban Rochester. "There is a swamp there but there are also hills."

Located about a mile southwest of the southern tip of Skaneateles Lake, a woody area inside Bear Swamp State Park rises to 1,860 feet, ranking 41st highest of New York state's 62 county high points.

Each of those 62 high points are explored in detail in the book, "Peak Experiences" by former Rochester Democrat & Chronicle journalist Gary Fallesen (Footprint Press, Fishers, NY; 288 pages; softcover/$16.95).

"Bear Swamp is the type of place that gives you multiple options in how to get from here to there," Fallesen writes. A baker's dozen trails criss-cross the 3,316-acre state forest, so if you're a dedicated hiker you can design a maze-like approach to the county's zenith, or you can take the easy way out.

The easy way

"Trail No. 4 takes you across the high point," Fallesen writes, "and since it's located one-quarter mile from Ridge Road, you could simplify this route a great deal. It's less about climbing and more like going for a walk in the woods - or a bike ride, or a horse ride or a cross-country ski."

Although the trails are well-marked with yellow, blue and red markers, they can get awful muddy when it rains and slushy when it snows. Visits to Bear Swamp are surely more enjoyable in summer when the sun's shining or in autumn when the leaves are turning.

Professional hikers aren't the only ones impressed with the little known high-spot. Sempronius Town Supervisor Kevin Court describes it as "a nice area with walking, hiking and biking trails." He assures potential visitors that, despite the name, there's not a lot of swamp left.

"The headwaters of Fall Creek start there," Court explains, "and it used to be quite swampy, but now there are quite a few evergreen trees."

Having long served as a fertile hunting ground for the Iroquois who - as the name implies - trapped bears there, white settlers first cleared the area after the Revolutionary War. Like most of the state, the land was used for farming until the soil was depleted by the end of the 19th century. After the Great Depression hit in 1929, farmers abandoned their fallow fields and the land was purchased and replanted by the state's Civilian Conservation Corps.

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"Now there's a mixture of hardwoods and conifers," Fallesen notes.

A harder hike

To reach the high peak, take Route 41A south from Skaneateles and turn left onto Curtin, Hartnett or Iowa road. For the parking area closest to the high point, take Iowa Road to the end and turn north onto Bear Swamp Road. The parking area is two-tenths of a mile from the junction. Beware, however, because Bear Swamp Road is dirt and not plowed during the winter.

Go northeast on yellow Trail 1, then Trail 7 north. Before you've gone two miles, the trail turns left and hits Ridge Road. Less ambitious hikers might want to try to start the hike right there at Ridge Road, just south of where the road turns southeast. A little ways into the pine woods you'll find Trail 4, and in no time you'll be at Cayuga County's top spot.

Experienced hikers know it's always best to have a map. To avoid getting lost, get a hold of a U.S. Geological Survey topographical map of the 7 1/2-minute Sempronius and Spafford quadrangles; or log onto www.maptech.com.

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Although it's called Bear Swamp State Park, Town Supervisor Court points out, "It's a state reforestation area, not really a state park." Nevertheless, camping is permitted, although you must receive permission if staying more than three nights or with a group of 10 or more. The state Department of Environmental Conservation office in Cortland oversees what it calls the Auburn-Moravia State Forests, and the office can be reached at (607) 753-3095, Ext. 222.

Plenty of privacy

In any case, even if you head up there during mid-summer's peak vacation season, you can pretty much count on plenty of privacy.

"There's not really any tourism in Sempronius," Court admits. "People come here for a day, but there's nowhere for them to really spend money."

Every now and then some teenagers may go up there and do what teenagers do in the woods, Court says. "But it was more of a party spot during the '70s, as I recall."

If you didn't know that the county's highest "peak" stands humbly on a little wooded hill in the southeast corner of the county, you're not alone.

"The people in the town (of Sempronius) are aware of it being the highest spot in the county," Court says, "but I don't think that people outside the town are aware of that fact."

For information about the book "Peak Experiences," call 1-800-431-1579, or visit www.footprintpress.com. To Reach Staff Writer Russ Tarby, call 253-5311, Ext. 248.

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