Like the persons for whom they were named, Fellows Hill, Jones Hill, and Morgan Hill are next-door neighbors. Spread over these three hills, all about 2,000 feet in elevation, are 5,508 acres of state land, making a varied hiking terrain. Officially, this area is called Morgan Hill State Forest, although locally it is known variously as Fabius Forest, Morgan Hill, or Shackham Woods.
Through this state land and over some adjoining private land runs the Onondaga Trail. Designed, marked, and maintained by members of the Onondaga Chapter of the Adirondack Mountain Club, it is one of the spur trails to the Finger Lakes Trail (FLT). The trail is well groomed and marked with orange blazes painted on trees.
The several dirt roads (officially called truck trails) make ideal mountain-biking routes. They are hard packed and well maintained by the state, making cycling a pleasant experience as you climb moderate hills and speed along the level stretches of Shackham Road and Morgan Hill Road.
The entire Morgan Hill State Forest area is covered with trees, with about 70 percent in pine and spruce plantations and the other 30 percent natural hardwoods. In the middle of the forest, there is even a section of virgin timber several hundred years old. You will find some fine overlooks here, as well as magnificent Tinker Falls, a pond stocked with brook trout, a lean-to, a rushing wilderness brook, and a series of hills, gullies, and ravines to add variety to your hike.
The area in and around Morgan Hill State Forest also displays a variety of landmarks produced by the several ice sheets that once covered New York—a kettle lake, a through a valley, a hanging falls, and outwash hummocks. In short, the Morgan Hill area is a hiker’s delight.
You begin your hike on the Onondaga Trail at Spruce Pond, a small impoundment just 0.2 mile southwest of Fellows Hill.
Spruce Pond, in turn, can be reached from I-81 by exiting at Tully (about halfway between Syracuse and Cortland) and then heading east on NY 80. Just beyond the hamlet of Apulia, look for Herlihy Road, a hard-packed, two-lane dirt road. Turn right onto it; in 1.2 miles you reach Morgan Hill State Forest, marked by the end of farm fields and the beginning of woods.
From this point, another 0.7 mile brings you to a fork. Take the one-lane dirt road to your right and drive 0.1 miles past a stand of evergreens to a parking area by the dam at the south end of Spruce Pond. Leave your car here.
You will notice that this area is used for picnicking and camping. If your interests include fishing, you can try the pond for the beautiful red-spotted brook trout stocked by the state.
On a tree near the parking area, you can read the word “Hike” and an arrow pointing across the dam. On the other side, a second sign indicates the beginning of the trail. Follow the trail halfway around the pond and then to your left up a relatively short but steep hill.
Where the orange-marked trail reaches the crest, it flattens out and heads west. In about 5 minutes, you start a gradual descent that brings you to a large stand of smooth-barked beeches. Beyond this point, the trees become smaller and gradually thin out as you enter what was once a field, now taken over by saplings and evergreens. From here you are hiking on private land for the next mile.
You soon leave the field and enter a stand of trees that shades an unused wagon trail and a small brook that flows southward to Tinker Falls. After crossing the brook, you pass through another abandoned field before reentering the woods. The trail wanders a bit here and then brings you to the summit of Jones Hill (elevation 1,964 feet).
Your path now descends sharply for about 100 feet. To your immediate right, an opening through the trees offers you the first vista—a grand view of Labrador Hollow. The hollow is an excellent example of what geologists call a “through the valley”—a valley gouged out by advancing glaciers which overran New York State several times during the Pleistocene epoch, with the last period of glaciation climaxing about 12,000 years ago. Also notice the distinctive U-shape of the valley, another sign of the work done by the advancing glaciers.
The drop-off at the overlook is an abrupt and breathtaking 700 feet. Below you lies the half-mile-long Labrador Pond, a “kettle” lake left behind by the retreating glacier. It is tucked in a narrow valley between Jones and Labrador Hills. A little to your right, Labrador Hollow fans out to the north around and beyond the hamlet of Apulia Station. Still farther north, you see a series of smaller hills covered with crop fields and pastureland.
The trail continues for a mile along the crest of Jones Hill to an open area with a fine overlook, once used by hang-gliders for their flight down to the fields on the north side of Labrador Pond. It is a nice spot to stop for lunch while enjoying the sights of Labrador Hollow. In the next = mile you follow an abandoned lane before turning left on the hiking trail as it heads downhill, eventually leading to a brook. In early spring this brook is high, but by midsummer, it may be nothing more than a trickle.
Turn right and follow the path to Tinker Falls, where the water plunges some 20 feet off a limestone ledge. This is a “hanging falls,” created when the glaciers produced and then deepened the through the valley that is now Labrador Hollow. Tinker Falls is a pleasant sight at all times, but most impressive in spring when the brook is running heavy with meltwater.
From Tinker Falls continue south along the ridge for another = mile. You now begin a descent, with the trail switching back and forth until it emerges on Shackham Road, a well-maintained, two-lane dirt road 470 feet below the ridge crest. The trail crosses this road and drops sharply for 80 feet to Shackham Brook, a picture-book scene in spring and early summer when its water flows over rocks and boulders, forming riffles and small pools en route through the ravine past large stands of pines and hardwoods.
Cross the brook, and follow the trail along the edge of the ravine on your right. You climb fairly steeply for a little better than = mile, at which point you come to a lean-to and a stone fireplace. This is an ideal place to stop for a breather. If you are planning a camping trip, the lean-to can be your overnight shelter.
Morgan Hill Road
Continue uphill for another less than a mile to Morgan Hill Road, a one-lane hard-packed dirt road. Follow the trail markers across the road. A 10-minute walk brings you to an open area, once the site of a fire tower which was removed in the mid-1980s. There also is a dirt road leading from Morgan Hill Road to the old fire tower site; it parallels the hiking trail a short distance to the north.
You are now at the summit of Morgan Hill (elevation 2000 feet). This is a good place to camp if you are a weekend hiker or a through-hiker looking for an alternative site to the lean-to you passed earlier. On the southeast edge of the clearing, the orange trail continues south along an abandoned road that now serves as a foot trail. If you follow this route, it brings you downhill to a cluster of farm buildings, then via a blacktop road to the hamlet of Cuyler, and later to Cuyler State Forest.
Retrace your steps across Morgan Hill Road and downhill past the lean-to to Shackham Road. Turn right and continue north for 2 miles to the first intersection.
Here Herlihy Road crosses Shackham Road. Through the trees on your right, you see a small pond, a human-made impoundment that is large enough to bring canoeists here for an afternoon of paddling. Turn left onto Herlihy Road and head uphill. After a gentle climb, the road flattens out, and it is an easy 1-mile hike back to Spruce Pond and your car.