• Search

  • Contact

An Insider's Guide to Biking the Finger Lakes

Written by Sue Freeman of Footprint Press, Inc. 


The Finger Lakes were formed by glaciers scouring the land as they pushed southward. In addition to the distinctive lakes, this left dramatic north/south hills that today form the picturesque woods and vineyards that define the Finger Lakes region. Road biking the region is fine for avid bikers in good shape. For the rest of us there is another option–trails built on the low-land, level beds of former railroads and canal towpaths.

Early in the 20th century many railroad and trolley lines criss-crossed the Finger Lakes region.  Pulled by steam engines, the trains hauled products from our farms, factories and mines to market and fueled an economic boom. Likewise, electric trolleys transported people to work and to exotic vacation locales such as Canandaigua Lake and Niagara Falls. But economic hardship befell the rail lines in several ways. The development of cars, trucks and a system of roads competed for their freight and passenger business. The depression dampened the trade of goods. The rail lines changed ownership many times and struggled to survive. When hurricane Agnes ravaged this area in the early 1970s, it tore up many of the tracks.

The railroads were too financially unstable to rebuild, so many of the rails were torn up for scrap metal. The 1980 deregulation of the railroad industry allowed companies to swiftly abandon unprofitable lines. Many of the corridors were purchased for utility right of ways. Today, local towns and volunteer organizations are purchasing the land and building trails–a boon for the recreational bicyclist. In Skaneateles, the Charlie Major Nature Trail follows the abandoned Short Line which once served factories along Skanealetes Outlet. The 1.6-mile loop trail is a family favorite for visitors and residents. Another short rail-trail is the Auburn-Fleming Trail in Auburn. A 3.2-mile round trip ride on this hard-packed dirt trail offers a quick escape into nature.

Looking for a longer rail-trail experience? No problem. There's the 7-mile long Auburn Trail in Victor, the 7-mile long Middlesex Valley Rail Trail at the south end of Canandaigua Lake, the 20-mile long Ontario Pathways Trail between Canandaigua and Phelps, the 5-mile long Ridgeway Trail south of Ithaca, the 4-mile long Dryden Lake Park Trail east of Ithaca, the 14-mile long Cato-Fair Haven Trail, and the 9-mile long Hannibal-Hojack Trail, both near Fair Haven. No matter where you are in the Finger Lakes region, you can find a rail-trail close bye. Each of these (and more) are mapped and described in the guidebook "Take Your Bike - Family Rides in New York's Finger Lakes Region."

Canal Towpath Trails

The most famous canal–The Erie Canal– was built in the early 1800s between Buffalo and Albany. It connected Lake Erie to the Hudson River and created a boom in commerce that spurred the growth of New York and started the pioneer migration westward. Over the years, the Erie Canal was expanded and rerouted to meet the explosive demand for transportation of goods and people. Next to each iteration of the canal was a towpath where mules pulled the boats before the advent of engine power. What is special today in the Finger Lakes region is that these towpaths, from both the current Erie Canal and previous routings of the much smaller old Erie Canal have towpaths that have been converted to bicycle trails. You can literally ride through history.

Trails along old versions of the Erie Canal can be found at the Erie Canal Park in Camillus and at the Canal Park Trailway between Lyons and Clyde. In Palmyra, where the old and current canals sit close together you can ride a trail between them and ride over a change bridge that dates back to the era of mule power. The change bridge was a unique design that allowed mules to change from the towpath on one side of the canal to the other, without having to unhitch the mules.

The Erie Canalway Trail will some day span all the way from Buffalo to Albany, but today major segments of it exist as trail. In places (such as between Lockport and Newark) it follows the current Erie Canal. In other places (such as between Port Byron and Camillus) it follows old versions of the Erie Canal.

The Erie Canal was not alone. Its success spurred the building of other canals. The Crooked Lake Canal was built between Keuka and Seneca Lakes parallel to the Keuka Lake Outlet. Today you can ride this 7-mile trail and enjoy waterfalls and remains of former mills along the way. It's called the Keuka Lake Outlet Trail.

The Chemung Canal was the inspiration for the Catharine Valley Trail which runs for 12 miles from Watkins Glen south to Midway. Learn the history of these canals and gets maps to ride the canal trails in the guidebooks "Take Your Bike - Family Rides in New York's Finger Lakes Region" and "Take Your Bike - Family Rides in the Rochester Area."

Trails Along Water

The Finger Lakes region is known for its lakes. Several trails parallel the lake shores and provide picturesque views as you pedal. Two are the Canadice Lake Trail and Hemlock Lake Trail in the western Finger Lakes. As the water source for Rochester, these lakes were saved from development and now offer pristine shores. In the central Finger Lakes, you can ride the eastern shore of Seneca Lake out of Sampson State Park on the Lake Trail, or the north shore of Seneca Lake on the Lakeshore Park Trail.

Mountain Bike Trails

Mountain bikers, you are not forgotten in the Finger Lakes region. The rugged hillsides and acres of woodlands offer many opportunities to commune with nature from your bike. Starting in the west, Dryer Road Park in Victor was built by mountain bikers, for mountain bikers. It sports a serpentine network of hillside trails. Facing Bristol Mountain Ski Resort, on a hill just as high and steep, is Still Hill Multiple Use Area with 7 miles of trails. Another ski mecca, but this time for cross-country, Harriet Hollister Spencer Memorial State Recreation Area becomes bikerville in summer.
If you like steep stuff, try Hi Tor Wildlife Management Area in Naples, Connecticut Hill Wildlife Management Area midway between Watkins Glen and Ithaca, or Arnot Forest near Newfield. They all offer heart thumping trails. Not to be outdone by Shindagin Hill State Forest or Hammond Hill State Forest, both near Ithaca.

For a bit milder dirt trails, head to Howland Island near Weedsport (where you can have an entire island to yourself), Spafford Forest south of Otisco Lake, or Bear Swamp State Forest south of Skaneateles Lake. Each of these (and more) are mapped and described in the guidebook "Take Your Bike - Family Rides in New York's Finger Lakes Region."

Paved Bike Trails

Some of us prefer the ease of pavement, only safely tucked away from cars. Paved bike paths are the ticket. They can be found in the Finger Lakes region in the form of Lakeshore Park at the north end of Seneca Lake, Cayuga Waterfront Trail in Ithaca, the East Ithaca Recreationway in Ithaca, Onondaga Lake Trail in Syracuse and Bear Trap Creek Bikeway in Salina near Syracuse. Each of these (and more) are mapped and described in the guidebook "Take Your Bike - Family Rides in New York's Finger Lakes Region." 



Connecticut Hill Wildlife Management Area. Photo: Sue Freeman