There are many beautiful places to get outdoors in the Finger Lakes, but few allow you to explore the shores of an actual Finger Lake. Not so for the trails in Hemlock-Canadice State Forest. And to put a cherry on top, so to speak, the shores of these gems are free of development and utterly wild. The unique situation is thanks to the fact that Hemlock and Canadice lakes are the source of Rochester’s drinking water supply.
Paddlers are also welcome and can enjoy these tranquil waters, free of the common boat traffic found on all of the other Finger Lakes. Lacking the typical houses and cottages as well as large noisy boats, exploring Hemlock-Canadice State Forest is like stepping back in time to behold the Finger Lakes in their natural state. It’s an opportunity and experience to cherish but its destiny as such has not always been certain.
The lake shores were in fact at one time developed, but in the late 1800s the City of Rochester began purchasing land surrounding Hemlock and Candice lakes to secure a clean supply of water. This continued until the entirety of these small lakes were owned by the city. The forests surrounding the lakes act as natural purifiers; clean water is one of the many positive effects of land conservation.
In the 1980s, new EPA rules required that the water supply also be actively filtered. Concern developed that if the lake water was actively purified then the need for the city to preserve natural buffers would not be as critical. Fears grew that the city would sell off the land, and the pattern of over-development seen on the shores of other Finger Lakes would replicate here, threatening the pristine condition of these wild lakes. Fortunately in 2010, through a partnership between the Nature Conservancy and the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), the land was transferred from the city to the state to ensure permanent preservation and stewardship.
Since the need to preserve the integrity of the water supply still exists (natural buffers and natural filtration reduce the costs of purification), this state forest has a few extra restrictions. For outdoor adventurers, noteworthy restrictions include: no camping, no fires, no swimming, and no horses allowed.
The main restrictions for boaters are that boats must be less than 17 feet and cannot have motors more powerful than 10 hp. Additionally, boating and fishing are prohibited in the northernmost sections of the lakes: north of northernmost boat launch on Hemlock Lake and 500 feet from the north end of Canadice Lake. Otherwise, these preserved lands offer an abundance of recreational activities. With over 2,000 acres of placid water to paddle and over 20 miles of multiuse trails there is a lot to do and see and the opportunities are expanding.
Thanks to the Nature Conservancy, a swath of land between the already protected lands around Canadice and Hemlock lakes is conserved and serves as a corridor between the two once-divided preserves. The property is known simply as Rob’s Trail, named after Rob van der Stricht — a longtime conservationist and advocate for the Finger Lakes — and the property does indeed feature a trail. Originally, Rob’s trail had a short loop trail high on the western slope of Candice Lake as well as a spur trail down to Canadice Lake. In 2016, the dream of connecting the two lakes with an actual trail became reality. The new trail was built through a partnership between the Nature Conservancy, the DEC, and hundreds of volunteers. Hikers can now explore the two lakes, gorges, and a waterfall that were previously inaccessible.