Fall at the VIC

They say there's no place like home; well, there's no place like the VIC, either.

Every couple of weeks my family heads to Paul Smith's to hike our favorite VIC trails. A few weeks ago it was the Barnum Brook Trail, more recently it was the big Heron Marsh loop. Deciding which path to take is never hard -- pressed for time and we're hitting the long Barnum Pond boardwalk while admiring clusters of pitcher plants and fragrant patches of sheep laurel. When there's more time to take our time, it's straight to the floating bridge (yes, it's as cool as it sounds) and on to the fairy-tale like boreal forest that guards a truly magnificent outpost of tamaracks.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. VIC stands for Visitor Interpretive Center, and if you've never been there before it's worth checking out the main building before heading out. Inside there is a little nature museum, bathrooms, and information about the VIC's 25-mile trail network. You can also fill up your water bottles, because you definitely remembered your water bottles, right?

The VIC is open year-round and I swear it looks different every time we visit. In the summer its verdant forests are decorated with colorful streaks as songbirds fly by. In the winter it's quiet, monochrome, and expansive looking; in spring the wildflowers reflect off of mud puddles as the chirping of squirrels and chipmunks signal nature's reawakening.

And in the fall, the place is simply on fire. The VIC's many ecosystems are home to all manner of plant life, and they all contribute to the variegated landscape that's on display. Bracken ferns turn a reddish brown, maples light up with oranges and reds, and tamaracks -- the only needle-bearing tree to lose their needles in the fall -- morph from a sunny yellow to a blazing rusty orange as the season progresses. Then those amazing, soft needles drift to the ground, exposing the trees' bent, twisty trunks.

Yes, we love the VIC. During our most recent trip, we took the trail that begins beside the main VIC building. It's a short walk to the edge of a steep drop off, where there's a striking panorama of Heron Marsh and St. Regis Mountain behind it. We headed left, keeping the marsh to our right, and descended to the edge of the wetland. Like a lot of the VIC trails, this path is pretty wide and not too bumpy. That's good, because we had our daughter, Lucina, in a stroller. The big tired, ATV-style strollers can definitely handle the terrain here, just be forewarned that it'll be a bumpy ride. If that's an issue, carry the kid in a backpack.

Once the trail gets to Heron Marsh there are a few nice boardwalks that jut into the marsh and circle back to the main path. Do take these detours, as they provide unique views over the marsh -- there aren't many places where you can get this kind of perspective and walk away with dry feet!

After the boardwalks comes the floating bridge, my favorite human-made structure in the entire place. But before we cross the bridge, it's worth mentioning there's a waterfall just a little bit farther down the trail that shouldn't be missed.

The bridge isn't a marvel of modern engineering or anything, but it is cool. Adults and kids alike will love how it moves on the water. Jumping on it moves the entire structure, just don't go too crazy. This isn't a playground, after all. Besides making me feel like a kid again, the bridge also provides a great view looking up Heron Marsh. Take some time and scan the pickerel weed and lily pads for birds. Ducks love hiding out here, and we've seen also seen great blue herons quietly fishing among the grasses.

After the bridge, the trail enters a gorgeous hardwood forest that sports quite the vibrant canopy come fall. Next comes the boreal forest, a soft, mossy place that's dark, lush, and green year-round. There's a light at the end of the tunnel: a long boardwalk that crosses the end of the marsh. Tamaracks abound here, as does Labrador tea, cotton grass, and a bunch of other interesting bog plants. We always linger along this stretch because, once again, it's rare to be in the middle of a squishy landscape like this without standing knee deep in tannin-colored water, and it's a fascinating place to visit.

Once we've had our fill of marsh admiration, it's back into the forest for another stroll beneath the hardwoods. There are more scenic views along the way, and if we have time we extend the adventure by making the side trip along Barnum Brook to Barnum Pond. It probably adds another 45 minutes or so to the outing, but that's a story for another time.

Getting to the VIC

From Malone, take Route 30 south for about 31.5 miles and look for the VIC sign on the right. 

After you're done exploring the VIC, head back to Malone for some food and shopping!

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