Sonyea State Forest: Hidden and Historic

January 29, 2011 at 11:56 am 11 comments

Sonyea State Park

Snowy Entrance Road into Sonyea State Park

Sonyea State Park is a treasure tucked away so tight that it’s really tough to find your way in. It took me 2 attempts to locate it because of bad map info for both my GPS and Google. It is close to the Sonyea (near Mount Morris) exit on 390 — fooling me into thinking that it was very accessible

Sonyea State Park

Google Map on the left, park map on the right

I used a combination of my maps app on my Droid — innacurate — plus Google directions — WRONG — and finally just looked at the park map and a gps and ignoring the inconsistencies, bungled my way close to the entrance, BUT the road is not serviced December to April so I got to ski my way in!

There are NO signs for the park at the head of Union Corners Road, nor at the Park entrance. In fact no there is no signage anywhere except the round state park signs on the trees.

Sonyea State Park

Old Road, perhaps built by the Shakers, then used by Craig Colony

The forest shares a common boundary with Groveland Correctional Facility (I drove illegally onto the grounds following Google driving directions). The image above shows the trail connecting the Facility wit the State Park.

The current size of Sonyea State Park is about 931 acres. Prior to acquisition by the DEC, this area had been administered by the NYS Department of Mental Hygiene as a epileptic colony and state mental hospital. Many remnants of the Craig Colony remain on the state forest. (The Craig Colony opened its doors to the first neurologically impaired resident of the State of New York in 1896. It was closed in 1988.)

Sonyea State Park

200 ft cliff walls rise from the creek bed

The park has 2 areas: up and down, with a significant ridge of vertical cliff  separating the upper access road and the lower creek that winds though. There are huge cliffs of sedimentary rock that curve along the creeks edge, creating dramatic views — like a curved amphitheater. I took a gradual winding trail down to the creek edge and then was able to follow a nice raised path (railroad bed) along the edge of the Keshequa Creek

Sonyea State Park

View from the railroad bed trail south

Factoid: sedimentary rock blankets the basement over three-quarters of the earth’s continental area, and The northeastern United States has undergone more violent tectonic events over a longer period of time than any other region of the country — that means we get to see the most interesting stuff — like 200 foot high sheer rock walls!

Sonyea State Park

One of the falls on Keshequa Creek

It turns out that the path I skied along the creek is actually the remains of a major branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad. This helped explained a couple tightly walled passages where the rock must have been blasted away.

I noticed several other transverse raised ridges (like mine) — 4-8 ft above the height of the ground, that fanned from the rock walls, spreading to the river. Could these be eskers? Like the path I was on, they were long raised, and relatively straight, fanning out from the eastern cliff walls.

How come no one has ever heard of this cool park? It just happens to be close to Letchworth, which is quite a bit more impressive. I felt lucky to get a private tour of the park.

Entrance road to Sonyea

Union Corners Road is the ONLY public road access into Sunyea

View of Sonyea State Park from across the Creek

Canal Bed and Park as viewed from across the creek

Here is what looks like evidence of a canal once passing through here. This shot is taken from the other side of the creek from the park (on a much nicer day ) while making my first attempt.

Here are the BIG questions I wanted to know:  What does Sonyea mean, and why did they put an epileptic institute here?

I found those answers on the website of the Groveland Correctional Institute. Way to go New York State!

“At the crossroads of what were once well-traveled Native American trade routes, the area is just beyond the icy reach of lake effect weather: the climate here is generally mild and pleasing. As a result, Sonyea (in the language of the Seneca Nation, “The Valley of the Eternal Sun”) was settled thousands of years ago. The area has been continuously inhabited, it is thought, since the Ice Age.”

This land was originally purchased by Shakers. When their numbers dwindled they sold the land and buildings to the state, with the provision that the land be used for charitable purposes.  “In 1874, the state Commissioner in Lunacy noted that the state mental asylums contained 436 dependent epileptics, and that many more were inhumanely confined in county poorhouses and jails. His calls for a separate institution for epileptics, who were neither lazy nor crazy nor criminal, went unheeded for two decades. … Upon the establishment of the epileptic colony, initially, males and females were housed on opposite sides of the gorge running through the property. The gorge’s sheer 200 ft high cliffs made a natural boundary.

Today it remains: hidden and historic. Take the time to discover it for yourself.

Sunny Woods = Sunyea

Sunny Day — Sunnyea


Entry filed under: Activities, Cross Country Skiing, DEC, Finger Lakes, Fossil Hunting, Hiking, Mount Morris, Snowshoeing, Sonyea, Swimming. Tags: , , , , , , , .

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11 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Blair Boone  |  February 6, 2011 at 3:22 am

    Nice post. Cool place to ski with great scenery.

  • 2. Dan Dangler  |  February 8, 2011 at 9:10 pm

    Great post! Glad to have found this, I enjoy looking at the pictures. The history is fun to read about as well.

    Sonyea State Forest is one of my favorite area places to go shoot pictures.

    Here is my collection:

    • 3. Finger Lakes Summer  |  February 9, 2011 at 7:10 pm

      It was quite a surprise discovery. I am glad I finally located it. Guess being next to Letchworth it gets overlooked.

    • 4. Greg  |  April 1, 2012 at 11:43 pm

      Hey Dan. Great pics! I’ve been searching for that secret spot and I finally found it. I’ve been checking out all the NY State Land around Greater Rochester to find an untouched gem. I loved it. I had limited time so i just drove the dirt road, remote and rugged. Untouched and unknown. Great car camping too. How do you access the Keshequa River? Thanks Dan.

      • 5. Dan Dangler  |  July 2, 2012 at 6:17 pm

        Sorry for the delayed reply, Greg:
        Keshequa Creek is easiest reached by hiking the trail with the yellow gate at the top. There are a few other ways but I wouldn’t suggest them until you are more familiar with the forest. I just returned from there yesterday, another great weekend!!

  • 6. Jeff K  |  February 11, 2011 at 5:28 pm

    Enjoyed the post and pictures. Think I’ll take my son there this Spring to enjoy the creek.

  • 7. Greg  |  April 1, 2012 at 11:28 pm

    Glad to find the is site. I’ve been combing NY State Land for 10 years now looking for a that super seclude secret spot. And now I have found it. I love how remote it is. Can’t wait to explore it again! So happy. Great

  • 8. Travis Clark  |  October 1, 2012 at 3:36 pm

    Just drove out there yesterday. The rain held off all day until we jumped out of the car! I love secluded little spots like this and your blog was instrumental in helping me find this so thank you!

    • 9. Finger Lakes Summer  |  October 2, 2012 at 12:24 pm

      Funny how many people love that spot. It gets eclipsed by Letchworth. Thanks for the props!

  • 10. Nancy Brink-O'connor  |  February 19, 2013 at 2:49 pm

    When I drove by Sonyea yesterday I started wondering what the name meant….so I looked it up and ran across your site….can’t wait to check it out!!

  • 11. Rock  |  April 10, 2014 at 9:55 pm

    Sonyea State Forest is one of my favorite places to go hiking in Finger Lakes area. Such a variety, from deep woods to river bed to small gully…


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