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The Chaumont barrens is a very unique hike for us in this area. It doesn’t get talked about much, but holds a special place for those who know of it. It’s not real long or terribly difficult, but worth taking the time to find it and enjoy its rare charms.
The barrens are referred to as an Alvar grassland. Alvars are a limestone based environment, and have little or sometimes no soil. These are very similar to prairies, and are primary found in the Great Lakes regions or northern Europe. The plants that occur here are very rare to this region. One of particular note is a plant called Prairie smoke (Geum triflorum). The trees and shrubs that you find here tend to be stunted. In places the limestone is under a shallow layer of soil, others place it forms a barren pavement. The cracks and fissures allow many of the plants protection to grow. Another thing of interest is the number of fossils to be readily found in the limestone. The Barrens today are Managed by the Nature Conservancy. https://www.nature.org/?intc=nature.tnav.logo
The physical address is 29924 Vanalstyne Rd, Chaumont, NY 13622. From NYS RT12E, you will turn Northeast on to Jefferson County RT 125 (may also be referred to as the Morris tract road). This is next to a convenient store/gas station, and there is a sign for the barrens. Follow this road for about three miles and then turn North (left) on Van Alstyne Road. The parking area is about a mile & a quarter ahead on the left.
Normally at this point, I would tell you about when the preserve was purchased, previous uses, land owners and such. I was unable to find anything of the sort on this particular place. The town of Lyme historian, NYS historical newspapers, and all other avenues came up blank. Even numerous inquiries to the Nature Conservancy offered no insights. Given the area and its present and past land use, I feel it’s safe to say that this was likely used as farm pasture land at one time.
The history that is available goes back a bit further than what I usually include. According to the Nature Conservancies website, the limestone bedrock is somewhere in neighborhood of 450 million years old. It is thought that it was one time the present barrens were near the equator, underneath a tropical sea. The landscape as we see it today, was a result of the glaciers retreat, some 10’000 years ago. The melt water formed the cracks & fissures that we see today.
Following the trail to left of the parking lot will take you to a very informative kiosk, and will give you some insight to the place. There are numbered points along the way that correspond with a brochure, but they were not available the day we hiked. Here, you can go left or right – it’s a loop, so either way you’ll end up back where you started. We went left.
Not very far from the start, we found the first bedrock with fossils. One of the ones that you will see first are cephalopods -an early ancestor of the squid & octopus of today. According to the map at the kiosk, this section is classified as calcareous pavement barrens. This is a shrubby, savanna like section. You will also cover coniferous and deciduous (softwood & hardwood) limestone woodlands, as well as the alvar grasslands. Each section is markedly different from the others.
The many flower species change from section to section. The prairie smoke is easily seen in the first section, as well as lady slippers (Cypripedium parviflorum), Golden Alexander (Zizia aurea) and wild geraniums (Geranium maculatum) and many others. Even though we know very little about wild flowers (let alone rare species such as we found here), we still enjoyed the different beauty each one offered. This is also a very popular spot for bird watching.
The trail is nothing more than a footpath, not a groomed & graded road- so pay attention to your travels. We ended up in a search and rescue mission of sorts the day we hiked here. A couple in their late sixties had gotten lost. They had gotten off the main trail, and were following a deer trail. They got into some heavy brush and could not find the trail again. We volunteered to go find them, as we were probably the best choice. As we traveled the trail, we would shout every couple hundred yards. We located them about a mile and a half in from the trailhead. They were in a nasty swamp, and headed the wrong way. The male had some health concerns (pre-existing), but we gave them some water, guided them back to the trail, then accompanied them to the parking lot. It could have been a much worse situation- please, hike safe. For more tips on trail safety, sell this article. https://hikingthetrailtoyesterday.wordpress.com/2017/06/07/trail-safety/
You will hike through some hardwoods of oak, maple and hickory, and there is also an interesting section of cedars. The trial, with our side forays, was about two miles round trip. While the ground is mostly flat, some of the rocks are cracked & uneven so take your time and wear some sturdy footwear. Take extra time to look close, many of the fossils are right under your feet. This is a worthwhile trip, and is fun and safe for most any age. I hope you get a chance to hike here yourself. Also, while in Chaumont, check out some of the history of the area. There are some beautiful old homes and several fine places to eat. A pair of local sisters also keep up a great Facebook page- Historic town of Lyme, it’s well worth visiting and “liking”. https://www.facebook.com/HistoricTownOfLymeNewYork/
The Nature Conservancy
NYS Department of Environmental Conservation
Town of Lyme Historian
Historic Town of Lyme Facebook page
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About the Author
I am a life-long resident of the north country, calling Edwards my home. I have always had a passion for the outdoors, and for local history. I recently started this site to share places that have been part of our local history and heritage. I hope you get a chance to hike some of these trails for yourself, and reflect on the rich history of those that walked here before you. And if not, sit back and experience these from where ever you are right now. Either way, enjoy!