Getting Outside in an Unpredictable Winter

Photo: Nigel Kent

Your Guide to Getting Outside in an Unpredictable Finger Lakes Winter

Conditions in the Finger Lakes this winter have kept us guessing what outdoor activity is best on any given day. Fortunately, recreational opportunities abound in state parks and forests, nature centers, and rail trails, no matter what the weather brings. If you are not sure whether to use your cross-country skis or your hiking shoes, check out this versatile list of activities and locations chosen by the staff at the Finger Lakes Land Trust. Just be sure to check the forecast first.

People standing on the edge of a gorge with a frozen waterfall in winter
Photo: Nigel Kent

Winter Hiking with Waterfalls

If hiking through a snow-covered landscape while breathing in cool, refreshing air and marveling at beautiful waterfalls is your idea of fun, the Finger Lakes region is the place to be. While most gorge trails are closed in winter for safety reasons, there are still many locations to discover. Here is a list of places where hikers can enjoy winter waterfall scenery.

Labrador Hollow Unique Area

Letchworth State Park

Keuka Outlet Trail

Taughannock Falls State Park

Two people cross-country skiing
Photo: Nigel Kent

Cross-Country Skiing

Cross-country skiing in the Finger Lakes is a great way for people of all skill levels to enjoy the beauty of the season. From technical terrain in state forests to groomed trails and more, there’s something for everyone.  See our top ski spots!

Bear Swamp State Forest

Harriet Hollister Spencer Recreation Area

Highland Forest

Cumming Nature Center

More Locations

Bear tracks in snow
Photo: Hannah George

Animal Tracking

You can find animal tracks and signs in many places throughout the year; however, there is something magical about looking for them in the snow. Plenty of creatures are actively searching for food in winter and leave behind clues about their behavior. Locations with diverse habitats including fields, forests, creeks, and ponds will produce interesting finds. Here are some locations that fit the bill.

High Tor Wildlife Management Area

Lindsay-Parsons Biodiversity Preserve

Tanglewood Nature Center

Wesley Hill Nature Preserve

People riding bikes in the snow
Photo: Nate Hunter

Fat Biking

Yes, you heard that right—fat bikes. No need to wait for optimal trail conditions when you can ride through snow, mud, sand, and other loose terrain. Fat bike tires have a large surface area, providing more traction, stability, and weight dispersal, perfect for slippery environments. So, no more dreaming of dry trails all winter long. Saddle up and ride at these popular spots where small groups of ambitious bikers are sure to be found.

Shindagin Hollow State Forest

Green Lakes State Park

Morgan Hill State Forest

A snow covered trail in the woods
Photo: Brian Maley

Favorite Hikes on the Finger Lakes Trail

Over 950 miles long and covering some of the most scenic land in New York, the Finger Lakes Trail (FLT) system runs from Allegheny State Park on the Pennsylvania border to the Catskill Forest Preserve. Here in the Finger Lakes region, there are a few hikes along the FLT that really stand out, including hikes that pass through Finger Lakes Land Trust nature preserves, NY state forests, and county parks. We invite you to explore some of the best.

Birdseye Hollow State Forest

Danby State Forest

Finger Lakes National Forest

More locations

Accessible Outdoor Experiences in the FLX

Suitable for various abilities

Wild Places for Everyone

Photo: Brian Maley

Wild Places for Everyone: A Message on Racism from the Finger Lakes Land Trust

The Finger Lakes Land Trust believes that safe, easy access to quiet trails and open spaces is a right. We condemn racism and support the Black Lives Matter movement.



Watching the horrifying events across the country over the past month shows us that for many Black Americans, there is no such thing as safe access to nature. That for Black people in this country, watching birds, jogging, sleeping—everyday activities and human rights—are fraught with potential danger.

The Land Trust is working hard to ensure that our network of nature preserves and trails are safe, so that people from all communities will feel welcome. Our mission remains:  To conserve forever the lands and waters of the Finger Lakes region, ensuring scenic vistas, local foods, clean waters, and wild places for EVERYONE.

We can do better.

We recognize that we are beginners in this work and commit to amplify the voices and experiences of Black people, Indigenous people, and all people of color; to learn from groups working to diversify the conservation movement; and to work with partners to better serve the diverse communities of the Finger Lakes region.

“…scenic vistas, local foods, clean waters, and wild places for everyone.”

Join the Land Trust

Luna Moth

Photo: Chris Ray

Animals and Plants of the Finger Lakes

Goddess of the Moon: The Life History of the Luna Moth

We can thank Linnaeus for the name of the luna moth, Actias luna, an apt epithet for this, perhaps the most beautiful of our nocturnal insects.

It seems likely that Linnaeus recalled the Roman moon goddess Luna in 1758 because of the moth’s distinctive hindwing spots – translucent discs with a dark crescent edge, like the moon when it’s nearly full. Perhaps he also realized that the entire moth is a living avatar of the moon – at rest by day, on the move by night, exquisitely pale, subtle yet spectacular.

A luna moth
Photo: Chris Ray

Luna moths are among the largest moth species in North America, with a wingspan of 3 to 4 inches. They are common in deciduous forests from Saskatchewan to Texas, and from Nova Scotia to Florida. Scientists believe that populations of luna moths throughout their range have adapted to prefer particular local hardwood trees as host plants, including birch, hickory, beech, willow, and cherry.

The larvae have five molt stages, or instars, culminating in the formation of a pupa encased in a papery cocoon and wrapped in leaves. After about three weeks, their metamorphosis now complete, adult luna moths cut their way out using serrated spurs near the base of the front edge of their wings. They typically emerge in the morning, leaving time to spread and dry their wings before their first night of flight.

Adult luna moths do not eat at all, and therefore have only vestigial mouthparts and no digestive system. Their sole purpose in life is to reproduce. They have only about a week to do so before they die.

The females emit a sex pheromone, which the males can detect even at a great distance with their broad, feathery antennae. They usually mate after midnight. The females begin laying eggs by the following night, continuing for several nights more. The eggs hatch after another week, and the cycle begins anew.

In the northern parts of their range, including our Finger Lakes region, luna moths typically breed once per year in June. In the south, luna moths breed up to three times a year. For the year’s last generation, the shorter duration of sunlight late in the season causes the pupa to enter diapause, a state of suspended development. Late-forming pupae fall to the ground in autumn with the leaves that encase them, and then spend the winter waiting in the leaf litter on the ground until the longer days of spring signal that it’s time to emerge.

Luna moths, especially large larvae and adults, are high-value targets for insectivores. Therefore, luna moths have evolved remarkable adaptations to foil predators. The caterpillars are light green, matching the color of the leaves they feed on. But when they sense a predator about to strike, the caterpillars abandon attempts at concealment. Instead, they rear up their heads, possibly to confuse the predator, sometimes making a clicking sound with their mandibles, followed by regurgitation of foul-tasting liquid.

Luna moths likewise rely on visual camouflage as adults. Their green wings blend right in among any cluster of broad leaves. Furthermore, the forewings have reddish-brown leading edges that branch to teardrop-shaped spots, looking just like twigs with little emergent buds. Therefore, people rarely find luna moths in their natural habitats, instead encountering them most often near buildings illuminated by artificial lights at night.

Most amazingly, adult luna moths have even evolved acoustic camouflage to evade capture by echolocating bats. The key is the long twisting tails on the moths’ hindwings. In 2015, biologists at Boise State University recorded that bats captured 81 percent of luna moths whose tails were removed, but only 35 percent of those whose tails were intact – in the latter case, commonly directing their attacks at the moths’ tails instead of their bodies. Then in 2016, experts in applied physics and neuroscience at the University of Washington and Johns Hopkins University determined that the tails not only shift the location of the echoes, but because of their twists, also scatter the reflected sounds in all directions.

Thus the luna moth embodies not only the full moon in its pale majesty, but also the new moon in its obscurity and unrevealed potential. Hidden among the green leaves, unseen on the forest floor, undetected even by close-range sonar calibrated through eons of evolution, the moth eludes the senses even as it fires the imagination. And just as the ancients saw divinity in the new moon advancing to fullness and waning again, so too can we marvel at the moth’s life history, from egg to caterpillar to pupa to adult and repeating in a never-ending cycle, miraculous in all its phases.

This story by Mark Chao first appeared in our newsletter, The Land Steward, as part of the Closer Look series about plants and animals of the Finger Lakes region.

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Photo: Jonathan Gorman

Animals and Plants of the Finger Lakes

Ol’ Greenie Back-eye: The Eastern Newt

The three weird sisters in Macbeth stirred eye of newt and toe of frog, wool of bat and tongue of dog, along with a number of other eclectic ingredients, into their cauldron.

Although there’s some speculation that “eye of newt” might have been an herbalist’s term for mustard seed or daisy, it’s quite likely that the witches were in fact using small amphibians to give extra oomph to their spirit-conjuring potion. Following are a few reasons why you, too, might want to consider using the eastern newt (Notophthalmus viridescens) in your own enchanted homebrew this summer.

A red newt
Photo: Chris Ray

Second of all, newts are, like adder’s fork or blind-worm’s sting, wonderfully poisonous. There’s probably nothing special about their eyes, but their eggs and skins are saturated with a powerful neurotoxin called tetrodotoxin. It dissuades fish, though apparently not frogs and turtles, and it’s the same substance found in the flesh of fugu, the deadly pufferfish prized by Japanese gourmands. According to urban legend, hallucinations can be induced by licking amphibians, but licking a newt is likely to land you in the hospital, or worse. (The newts of the West Coast are even more poisonous than those of the Finger Lakes. In one infamous case, an entire Oregon camping party died when a rough-skinned newt fell into their coffee pot.) Tetrodotoxin won’t pass through intact skin, though it can irritate eyes and mucous membranes. Ironically, we’re far more toxic to newts than they are to us: the oils, salts, and chemicals that coat human hands soak right into their permeable skins.

Finally, they’re even more spectacular shapeshifters than our other local amphibians. A newt starts life as a dull-colored, translucent, minnow-like larva that feeds on even smaller aquatic crustaceans and insect larvae. Its almost invisible, twig-like legs are dwarfed by feathery gills growing like squirrel ears from the tops of its neck.

A red newt
Photo: Chris Ray

After two to five months, the larva metamorphoses into the terrestrial juvenile form known as the eft. (Linguistic note: “eft” is an ancient form of the word “newt.” Through changes in spelling and pronunciation, mistakes in copying texts, and shifts in language patterns, “a newt” became the standard way to refer to certain members of the family Salamandridae, whereas “an eft” became a rare dialect form. Like the creatures themselves, one word slowly transformed into another over time.) The gills of the larva disappear and lungs develop; the rudderlike tail shrinks; the legs grow much more substantial, and eyelids grow over the eyes. Its body floods with tetrodotoxins, a fact that it advertises by changing its color to an uncanny red-orange that stands out like a neon sign against the dark forest floor. The larva had the furtiveness of a tiny prey item, but the eft moves with the doggedness of an animatronic toy. Like other animals with prominently advertised chemical defenses such as skunks, efts don’t need to move quickly or hide from predators. They look good enough to eat – I’ve always thought that they resemble Japanese gummy candy – but they’re ten times more poisonous in this stage, so please resist putting them in your mouth.

The eft’s noxiousness is so well respected by predators that several other species have evolved reddish coloration in order to piggyback on its success: the red salamander (Pseudotriton ruber), the northern redback salamander (Plethodon cinereus), and the spring salamander (Gyrinophilus porphyriticus).

After several years, the eft grows up. Skin that was dry and vermillion becomes slimy and dull olive-green; the rudder-like tail regrows and the adult re-enters the water, though it keeps its lungs for the rest of its life. Most of the poison ebbs from its body and it will rely mostly on camouflage for protection. Its wild teenaged years may be over, but it retains tiny red spots on its back that are a sign to the local fish that it still contains enough tetrodotoxin to make a charm of powerful trouble: like a hell-broth, boil and bubble.

This story by Jacqueline Stuhmiller first appeared in our newsletter, The Land Steward, as part of the Closer Look series about plants and animals of the Finger Lakes region.

Want to know more about animals and plants of the Finger Lakes?

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River Otters

Photo: Scott E. Levine

Animals and Plants of the Finger Lakes

River Otters: Neither Fish Nor Flesh

Izaak Walton’s treatise, The Compleat Angler (1653), is a meditation on the practice and poetry of sport fishing. Walton has little affection for river otters, which he believes must be exterminated because they take the fish that sportsmen want to keep for themselves.

Yet, he explains, their predatory nature can also be handily exploited by human fishermen. Otters captured as pups can be trained to bring back fish or to drive them into waiting nets. Otter fishing is surprisingly ancient and widespread: Marco Polo reported seeing Chinese fishermen using trained otters, and the practice is known to have existed on every continent where river otters are found.

A river otter
Photo: Long Creek Photography

Our local otter species – which European settlers were still using as a fishing companion as late as the nineteenth century – is the North American river otter (Lontra canadensis). It inhabits the same inland wetlands as beavers and muskrats. These three brown furbearers might at first glance be confused with each other, but they are from very different families. Beavers and muskrats are rotund, frumpy rodents, whereas the river otter is a mustelid, a fierce and sleek carnivore related to weasels and fishers. His flat head, which is topped by tiny ears, big eyes, and a wide nose, do not merely help him catch fish in murky water but also give him the cutest face in the Finger Lakes. The word otter is related to the Greek word hydra, or water-serpent. He does indeed look a bit like a furred eel or a small seal: as Izaak Walton says, he seems to be neither fish nor flesh. On land, his lithe, liquid leap-bounds are unmistakable, even from a distance. He slides on mud or snow whenever he can to save energy, leaving fluid tracks behind. And in the water, he is pure mermaid.

However, the long, streamlined shape that makes the otter such an agile aquatic hunter is also a serious liability. The large surface-to-volume ratio of his body plan loses heat very quickly in cold water, a particular problem because otters do not hibernate and must feed themselves constantly. Massive marine carnivores such as whales are protected by thick layers of blubber. But the otter is small and must remain supple in order to loop and harrow after fish; he cannot accumulate fat that might slow him down or render him too buoyant.

In place of fat, he has a luxurious, oily pelt. His underfur is almost unimaginably dense and velvety, and is further protected and insulated by long, hollow guard hairs. Under an electron microscope, individual hairs look a bit like the segmented stems of Christmas cactus; the fins that project from each hair interlock when the fur is mussed. Through a variety of adorable grooming behaviors, the otter knits his fur into a glossy wetsuit that keeps his skin perfectly dry.

For all the river otter’s resilience, he is also quite delicate and quickly disappears from polluted wetlands. As an apex predator, otters were never as numerous as other furbearers, and overhunting decimated their numbers. By the early 1990s, they were gone from western New York and rare in the rest of the state. There is, of course, little interest in reintroducing extirpated predators that might pose threats to humans, such as cougars and wolves. However, almost everyone agreed that the charismatic otter deserved to return. (Otters, it should be said, are shy but can be fierce: do not approach them.) Thus the New York River Otter Project was formed, a joint effort involving the NYS DEC, veterinarians from Cornell, numerous non-profit organizations, trappers, wildlife rehabilitators, and a group of enthusiastic citizens led by Dennis Money. Over several years, otters were trapped in the Adirondacks and released into the Finger Lakes and Genesee River. Now, twenty years later, the otters seem to have recovered and the project has set the standard for river otter reintroductions in both the U. S. and worldwide. It is a task made more urgent by the fact that most river otter species are in steep decline. Otters have assisted humans for thousands of years; it is now time for us to return the favor.

This story by Jacqueline Stuhmiller first appeared in our newsletter, The Land Steward, as part of the Closer Look series about plants and animals of the Finger Lakes region.

Want to know more about animals and plants of the Finger Lakes?

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Photo: Bill Banaszewksi

Animals and Plants of the Finger Lakes

The Surprisingly Common Bobcat

Each year, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) receives many reports from people who think they have seen cougars or lynxes, both animals that are considered extinct in New York state.

Sometimes these mysterious animals turn out to be nothing more than house cats, fishers, or even dogs. If it really is a large wild cat, it’s almost certainly a bobcat (Lynx rufus).  A recent rash of local media coverage — the animals have been spotted in Canandaigua and Lansing — might lead you to think that bobcats are rare in this area, or that they are recent arrivals.  Although sightings of this secretive and solitary animal may be newsworthy, the animals themselves are fairly common.  Unless you live in the middle of a city, chances are very good that a bobcat lives somewhere nearby.

Photo: Bill Banaszewksi
Photo: Bill Banaszewksi

The bobcat is a stocky animal about the size of a cocker spaniel and weighing twenty to thirty pounds. Its species name, rufus, is Latin for “red,” and in forested areas bobcats tend to be reddish-brown above, white below.  (In drier climates, and in the winter, their coats are more grayish.)  The bobcat’s fur is marked with black spots and bars, patterns that render it almost invisible on the sun-dappled forest floor. From a distance, the most obvious difference between the bobcat and a gigantic domestic cat is the former’s very short (“bobbed”) black-tipped tail.  If you are fortunate enough to see the animal up close, you will notice a ruff of facial hair and large ears topped with black tufts that may act as antennae.  Hind legs that are longer than the front legs give the bobcat more power when jumping, as well as a bobbing gait.

Historically, the bobcat was present in all lower forty-eight states, but its population was dramatically reduced in the intensely cultivated midwest and the heavily populated eastern seaboard.  However, it seems to have made a remarkable comeback in recent years: currently, it is found in every state except Delaware. Despite the pressures of development and widespread hunting and trapping, most populations seem to be stable or increasing, and possibly even spreading.

This success story is attributable to several quirks of bobcat biology, as well as a few serendipitous events caused by human activity.  The bobcat is a density-dependent breeder: the fewer cats there are, and the more food there is, the more litters will be born.  Thirty-nine states, including New York, allow a bobcat harvest, but thanks to the animal’s reproductive habits, these harvests don’t seem to have put a dent in the population.  Furthermore, the bobcat’s solitary nature means that populations are not as susceptible to communicable diseases as are social animals like the raccoon.

Unlike the lynx, which prefers the snowshoe hare, the bobcat will prey on everything from voles to small livestock.  Bobcats are nothing if not enterprising: in the Adirondacks, a large part of the cat’s winter diet is made up of deer, including full-grown bucks that can be five or more times its size.

Bobcats are also successful because they are habitat generalists.  They can live just about anywhere —from swamps to forests, desert to “urban edge”–– as long as there is sufficient cover for them to stalk their prey and raise their young.  As Nathan Roberts, at the Cornell Department of Natural Resources, puts it: “All they need is a bush to hide behind, and a rabbit, and that’s bobcat habitat.”  Over the last century, the abandonment of farms in upstate New York has created a patchwork of forest and farmland that is perfect for this little predator.

Interestingly, although humans have often made life hard for the bobcat, they may also have contributed to its success.  Cougars compete with bobcats and may even kill them where their territories overlap, so the extirpation of the larger cat in the northeast may have benefited the smaller.  Farming and logging in northeastern forests destroyed lynx habitat but created ideal conditions for the bobcat.  Global climate change may turn out to be the greatest boon of all for the feline.  Bobcats, unlike lynxes, are not suited to deep snow.  If milder winters with less snow are in our future, it is likely that the bobcat will expand further north and into higher elevations, at the expense of its shyer and less adaptable northern cousin.

This story by Jacqueline Stuhmiller first appeared in our newsletter, The Land Steward, as part of the Closer Look series about plants and animals of the Finger Lakes region.

Want to know more about animals and plants of the Finger Lakes?

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Photo: Melissa Groo

Animals and Plants of the Finger Lakes

Our American Mink

Several members of the family Mustelidae are native to New York State:  fisher, marten, two kinds of weasels, river otter, and American mink (Neovison vison).

These animals differ in size but otherwise look quite similar to each other, with long, narrow bodies; tiny, rounded ears; dense fur; and well-developed anal glands.  All of our native mustelids are cute, but the mink, with its curious, alert face and shiny, button-like brown eyes, looks especially like a toy.  Don’t be fooled, though: it punches far above its weight of a mere one to three pounds.

Photo: Melissa Groo
Photo: Melissa Groo

The long, narrow body of the mink allows it to hunt successfully in many different environments.  It prefers to be in or near water, and slips as easily as an eel after fish, frogs, crustaceans, and muskrats.  It can wiggle into burrows to catch rodents — it has occasionally been tamed and used to hunt rats — or shimmy down holes to grab snakes.  Its bounding, rolling gait is comical, but it is fast enough to catch rabbits and birds.  Amazingly, it does not seem to be handicapped by its tiny head and jaws and doesn’t hesitate to attack animals several times its own size.

Because mink sometimes wreak havoc in henhouses, destroying entire flocks at once, people assume that they kill for pleasure.  This behavior is not completely understood, but probably has more to do with physics than hedonism.  The same body shape that makes the mink such an agile, adaptable predator also has a high surface-area-to-volume ratio that leaves the animal extremely vulnerable to heat loss.  In order to stay alive, it must eat a third of its own body weight every day, and since it is a solitary animal, it must find food on its own.  The problem is compounded when the temperature drops, because the mink does not migrate, hibernate, enter torpor, or stockpile a significant amount of food in winter.  Perhaps because it must remain light and sleek in order to hunt effectively, it doesn’t store much body fat, either.  In order to gain a little more food security, it may kill more than it can eat at one time and cache the rest under the ice and snow.  The mink that kills all of the chickens in a coop and leaves the carcasses lying around is probably only following its instinct to kill whatever, and whenever, it can – after all, in the wild, animals do not live in large densities inside small spaces that have no escape routes.

The mink is of course synonymous with its thick, glossy, dark brown fur (domesticated mink, which are larger and less hardy than wild mink, have been bred for many different coat colors).  Hundreds of thousands of mink pelts were exported to Europe between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries; when the price was not high enough to justify the transport costs, the pelts were simply burned at the trading posts.  Its cousin, the sea mink, was driven to extinction by this merciless overexploitation, but the tough little American mink somehow managed to ride out the era of the fur trade.  In fact, the animal still apparently occupies the same range that it did before Europeans arrived in North America, endemic to most of the U. S. (with the exception of the arid southwest corner of the country) and almost all of Canada.  Today, the most serious threats to the mink come from the destruction of wetlands and water pollution.  Because of its position at the top of the food chain and its extreme sensitivity to toxins, the mink is a bioindicator for aquatic environments.  A study is currently underway to measure how PCBs in the Hudson River are affecting the species.

The story of the mink has taken an ironic twist.  When mink fur became extremely fashionable in the early and mid-twentieth century, fur farms stocked with American mink were established in many areas of Europe.  Over time, animals escaped (or were deliberately released by animal activists) and established themselves in the wild.  The American mink is now a serious pest in Europe, where it is contributing to the precipitous decline of native species.  One of the hardest hit is the European mink, which is now critically endangered.

This story by Jacqueline Stuhmiller first appeared in our newsletter, The Land Steward, as part of the Closer Look series about plants and animals of the Finger Lakes region.

Want to know more about animals and plants of the Finger Lakes?

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Accessible Outdoor Experiences

Photo: Kevin Sio

Accessible Outdoor Experiences in the Finger Lakes

The things that many people love about getting outdoors in the Finger Lakes region—deep gorges, majestic waterfalls, lake views, and rolling forests—are often inaccessible to people with physical or cognitive challenges. Nonetheless, there are opportunities to experience nature for people of all abilities. See what our region has to offer with this list of inclusive outdoor spaces. For more locations, check out the map with the “accessible” filter selected.

A view of a waterfall from a wooden viewing platform
Photo: Max Heitner

Carpenter Falls Unique Area

A dramatic gorge and waterfall await visitors to Carpenter Falls Unique Area, adjacent to the Finger Lakes Land Trust’s Bahar Nature Preserve. New York State recently completed access improvements at Carpenter Falls, including an elevated boardwalk leading 630 feet from the parking lot to an observation platform, accessible to people with mobility impairments.

Two people on a paved trail with a lake in the background
Photo: Friends of Stewart Park

Cayuga Waterfront Trail

Used by people of all abilities, the paved Cayuga Waterfront Trail (CWT) is a safe and accessible eight-mile, multi-use trail connecting Stewart Park to the Allan H. Treman State Marine Park, linking many popular waterfront destinations along the way. The CWT can be accessed at a variety of locations by car including Cass Park, Ithaca Farmer’s Market, and Stewart Park which is home to an accessible playground. Nearly all of the CWT is 10-12 feet wide with few exceptions, and electric-assist wheelchairs are allowed on the trail at a speed below 10 MPH.

A wooden boardwalk flanked by evergreen trees
Photo: Rob Howard

Labrador Hollow Unique Area

A popular destination at Labrador Hollow is a 2,000-foot boardwalk that traverses a diverse wetland complex and is accessible to those with mobility impairments. Labrador Pond also features an accessible fishing pier located off Markham Hollow Road, on the west side of the pond.

A large waterfall
Photo: Nigel Kent

Letchworth State Park

Letchworth State Park opened the country’s first nature trail specifically designed to address the sensory needs of people on the autism spectrum in 2021. The Autism Nature Trail is a one-mile hiking loop that includes eight sensory stations, each designed to address a different sensory experience in a safe and supportive environment. Activities along the Autism Nature Trail support and encourage sensory perception and integration, while also providing enjoyable activities for visitors of all abilities and ages. Located near the park’s Humphrey Nature Center with parking and restrooms, the ADA-compliant trail was designed with input from Dr. Temple Grandin, one of the world’s most well-known advocates for the autistic community.

A sign welcoming visitors to Lime Hollow Nature Center
Photo: Lime Hollow Nature Center

Lime Hollow Nature Center

Lime Hollow Nature Center offers a plethora of community programs and events on its 430-acre property in Cortland. A quarter-mile trail—the Trail for All—is wheelchair accessible and continues to various scenic overlooks on nearby Gracie Pond. A trail-ready wheelchair is available at the visitor center along McClean Road, if needed, for venturing further into Lime Hollow.

A woman sitting on a bench in front of a wetland area
Photo: Kevin Sio

Lindsay-Parsons Biodiversity Preserve

Wildlife viewing opportunities abound at the Finger Lakes Land Trust’s Lindsay-Parsons Preserve wetland overlook. The wetlands are home to Great Blue Herons, Kingfishers, and the occasional river otter. While there are no accessible trails on the preserve, the overlook has a bench and nearby parking and can be found on Sylvan Lane, opposite the main preserve entrance.

A scenic vista of green hills
Photo: Nigel Kent

Ontario County Park at Gannett Hill

From an elevated platform or within a stone-wall encircled viewing area at Gannett Hill, the Bristol Valley sprawls across the western horizon in a stunning panoramic vista. The view is illustrative of the major influence that glaciers had in sculpting the U-shaped valleys and overly steepened hillsides of the Finger Lakes region. What is even better is that this overlook can also be accessed via a short ADA-accessible path so every member of the family can enjoy the view.

Other Places to Explore…

Cornell Botanic Gardens

Sampson State Park

Taughannock Falls State Park

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Top Waterfalls

Photo: Nigel Kent

Top Finger Lakes Waterfalls – Secret Spots and Famous Falls

Waterfalling in the region’s iconic gorges is a quintessential Finger Lakes experience, right up there with wine tasting and lazy summers on the water (see the best paddling spots!).  Visitors flock to famous spots like Taughannock Falls, with a vertical drop that beats Niagara Falls, and the breathtaking cascades at Watkins Glen State Park.  Our well-traveled staff here at the Finger Lakes Land Trust helped us list our favorite waterfalls including famous spots and lesser-known gems.  Put these Finger Lakes waterfalls on your summer to-do list:

Photo: Chris Ray

Lick Brook Gorge

During the last ice age, glaciers thousands of feet thick blanketed much of northern North America, sculpting the beautiful topography of the Finger Lakes region. The effects of these glaciers can be seen in the multiple waterfalls that splash down along Lick Brook on its journey to Cayuga Lake, including one that is nearly 140 feet tall. The Finger Lakes Land Trust’s Lick Brook Gorge preserve hosts a popular stretch of the Finger Lakes Trail that runs along the gorge. Ambitious hikers can continue along the trail to Buttermilk Falls State Park to the east and Robert H. Treman State Park to the west.

Photo: Chris Ray

Tinker Falls and Labrador Hollow Unique Area

The universally accessible, quarter-mile path to Tinker Falls is arguably the most popular destination in Labrador Hollow. Tinker Falls is a stunning example of a “hanging” falls. Over time, the crumbly shale beneath the crest of the waterfall and behind it washes away leaving an undercut capstone, a deep crevice behind, and an impressive waterfall. The cavern behind Tinker Falls is 100 feet wide, 30 feet deep and 30 feet high. Walking behind it is possible if you are brave and agile enough to climb the steep, stone staircase set into the crumbly shale.

Photo: Tom Reimers

Buttermilk Falls State Park

Located on the southern edge of Ithaca, Buttermilk Falls is a wildly popular spot for tourists and local residents, especially during the height of summer.  Upon entering the park, newcomers quickly see why.  Across a verdant lawn is a foaming and frothy waterfall with a deep pool and dammed swimming area below. The park’s namesake falls, Buttermilk Falls, tumbles down striated gorge rock in two distinct drops.  The first, nearly 90 feet in height, lies beside the trail that ascends quickly away from the swimming area.  The second is visible just above the first from a handsomely built stone-lookout.

Photo: Nigel Kent

Taughannock Falls State Park

Ithaca is most certainly a city of gorges, but the gorge at Taughannock Falls, in nearby Trumansburg, is the biggest of them all.  It is perhaps more accurately described as a canyon.  The waterfall at the end of the lower portion of the gorge is the tallest waterfall in New York State.  In fact, it is the tallest, single-drop waterfall east of the Rockies.  For comparison, Taughannock Falls is 215 feet high while Niagara Falls is 167 feet high.  The mile-long trail within the canyon is nearly level and easily accessed, making it an excellent trip for all members of the family, from toddlers to grandparents and everyone in between.

Photo: Brian Maley

Bahar Nature Preserve and Carpenter Falls

Within the folds of farmland next to Skaneateles Lake, lies a beautiful forest surrounding Bear Swamp Creek. From the top of the hill, hikers are rewarded with a startling view of Carpenter Falls. Here the water drops nearly 90 feet into a deep ravine. Explore the trail leading further down the Bear Creek Swamp gorge to see several other waterfalls cascading all the way to the lake. In 2008, the Finger Lakes Land Trust gave 36 acres to New York State, creating the Carpenter Falls Unique Area. The remaining conserved acres downstream are open to the public as the Land Trust’s Bahar Nature Preserve.

Photo: Chris Ray

Robert H. Treman

While other gorge parks hit you with some of their most dramatic views right from the start, at Robert H. Treman, also known as Enfield Glen, you have to work just a little bit harder to get to the wow factor. Mind you it is not much work, as the initial part of the gorge trail is relatively flat and meandering for a mile and three quarters.  But as you begin to hear thundering falls and see the route out of the gorge, it’s easy to see why “wow” might not be sufficient to describe the scene. The 115-foot Lucifer Falls is clearly central, and the handsome stonework winding up along the sheer cliff is equally remarkable.

Photo: Nigel Kent

Watkins Glen State Park

There is no place more iconic of the Finger Lakes waterfall and gorge experience than Watkins Glen State Park.  Stunning waterfalls, dramatic flumes, and picturesque potholes combine to make a gorgeous waterscape.  The scene is further enhanced by handsome stone staircases, arched bridges, and winding tunnels that weave up and through the scenic gorge.  The trail through the gorge is an awe-inspiring confluence of water’s persistent and powerful stone sculpting and a thoughtful merger of human craftsmanship.  Simply put, the gorge is a can’t-miss trail for waterfall lovers and anyone seeking a true Finger Lakes experience.

Photo: Brian Maley

Grimes Glen Park

Formed by gushing meltwaters at the end of the last ice age, Grimes Glen is typical of many Finger Lakes gorges that still carry runoff from uplands down into the ice-carved valleys below.  Two stunning 60-foot falls are accessible today by wandering upstream about a ½ mile from the parking area.  Waterfall sightseers should expect to get their feet wet, since the gorge narrows upstream to a point where there is no bank to speak of, forcing hikers into the rocky streambed.  For much of the summer and fall, except after torrential rains, the creekbed is easily navigable, but during spring runoff the flow comes on strong and turbulent.  The Finger Lakes Land Trust holds an easement on the property, and so has a responsibility to look out for the future of this remarkable gorge.

Photo: Nigel Kent

Fillmore Glen State Park

The first falls, sometimes called Cowsheds Falls, are universally accessible while the other parts of the gorge are only reached after a brief but steep climb.  After the initial climb, the trail through the gorge is relatively flat and easily negotiated.  Further along the gorge are several stunning smaller cascades and waterfalls that culminate with the tallest falls, Dalibarda Falls, followed shortly after by Upper and Lower Pinnacle Falls.  These last pair of waterfalls lies in a visually striking square-cut section of the gorge near the terminus of the gorge trail.  Late spring, early summer, and/or after periods of heavy rain are the best time to see the waterfalls in their most torrential states.  However, autumn is also a notably beautiful time to visit, either when the leaves are emblazoned with contrasting colors or just after fallen leaves reveal parts of the gorge previously hidden from view by the dense understory.

Photo: Nigel Kent

Letchworth State Park

The impressive gorge at Letchworth State Park is so broad and deep that it’s heralded by many as the “Grand Canyon of the East.”  The mighty Genesee River roars through the gorge descending in three major waterfalls tucked between steep cliffs.  With over 60 miles of hiking trails and extraordinary waterfall viewing, this park is a must-see.  The adventurous can take it all in from above; hot air balloons frequently fly over the gorge in the summer.

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Easygoing Hikes in the Finger Lakes

Photo: Matt Champlin

Easygoing Autumn Hikes for Families and Seniors in the Finger Lakes Region

The Finger Lakes region is known for its rugged gorges, forested hillsides, and eleven awe-inspiring lakes. However, not all outdoor adventures require you to exceed your comfort level or ability. For families, seniors, or anyone looking for a leisurely stroll, there are many beautiful places to explore the natural and cultural history of our region.

Photo: Tim Starmer

Catharine Valley Trail

The Catharine Valley Trail is contiguous from downtown Watkins Glen to the hamlet of Pine Valley. It’s a great natural corridor that utilizes compact stone dust paths that are an absolute pleasure to walk or bike. Birdwatching opportunities await at the nearby Queen Catharine Marsh, accessible from the trail. When complete, the route will be roughly 12 miles long and will connect the communities of Watkins Glen, Montour Falls, Millport, Pine Valley and Horseheads.

Photo: Dave Duprey

Cayuga-Seneca Rail Trail

This trail follows an old railroad bed beside the Cayuga-Seneca Canal. The western end can be accessed by parking at Seneca Lake State Park or at the Bishop Nature Preserve, owned by the Finger Lakes Land Trust. The preserve has a large gravel parking area off West River Road and a newly constructed path that connects directly to the trail. Once on the canal trail, you can walk or bike along a broad, level, stone dust trail. Free of obstructions, the path allows you to take in the sights of the pastoral landscape.

Photo: Cornell Botanic Gardens

Cornell Botanic Gardens

There is something for everyone at the Cornell Botanic Gardens, formerly known as the Cornell Plantations.  There are hiking trails, nature walks, gardens, ponds, woodlands, meadows, glens, and more. The more cultivated and landscaped gardens and arboretum are ideal for young children, elderly parents, or simply for anyone wishing for a leisurely stroll.

Photo: Nigel Kent

Ganonondagan State Historic Site 

Experience firsthand the customs and beliefs of the Seneca at Ganondagan State Historic Site. Open year-round, the 7.6-mile trail system features a series of interconnected paths that can be adjusted for longer or shorter hikes. The Trail of Peace is a 0.8-mile mowed loop trail which passes the Bark Longhouse and details Seneca oral tradition, how the Haudenosaunee became a confederacy, and the story of the original town of Ganondagan. Visitors can also enjoy a variety of birds that inhabit the meadows here along this mostly level path.

Photo: Sarah Nickerson

Labrador Hollow Unique Area

The most popular destination in Labrador Hollow is the universally accessible, quarter-mile path to Tinker Falls. Tinker Falls is a stunning example of a “hanging” falls.  Its origin dates back to when New York and much of the North American continent was part of an inland sea.  Additionally, the Labrador Hollow accessible boardwalk is nearly 2,000 feet in length and traverses a diverse wetland complex that provides a glimpse of New York’s flora and fauna.

Photo: Tanglewood Nature Center

Tanglewood Nature Center 

The Tanglewood Nature Center features a variety of wildlife exhibits and a six-mile trail system. Multiple loops of varying difficulty and length, allow for leisurely strolls in the meadows or more vigorous excursions through the woodland.  The trails are peppered with placards that have quotes from Mark Twain whose wit and thoughts help frame our views of nature in new and amusing ways.

This list was compiled as a general guide for families and seniors wishing to get outdoors. Visitors should check the web site for each trail, nature center, etc., for specific details on closings and other restrictions due to Covid-19.

Other places to explore…

Black Diamond Trail 

Jim Schug Trail

Keuka Outlet Trail

Sampson State Park 

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