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

Bobcat

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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Mink

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?

Take a closer look!

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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Watch more nature videos on the Land Trust web site!

Go to fllt.org/video

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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Show the blue filter bar on the map page and set the “activities” filter for “waterfalls” and any other factors you are looking for!

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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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Merlin

Photo: Melissa Groo

Animals and Plants of the Finger Lakes

The Mysterious Merlin

The Merlin (Falco columbarius) has had a long and distinguished relationship with humans.

Falconry was a cherished pastime of the medieval European aristocracy, and a bird carried on the fist was a conspicuous sign of wealth and sophistication.  According to one popular falconry manual, the Merlin was the perfect bird for a lady; at about a foot long and no more than half a pound in weight, it would certainly have made a handsome, portable accessory for a fashion-conscious noblewoman.

Photo: Melissa Groo
Photo: Melissa Groo

Merlins are a circumpolar species, inhabiting the prairies and boreal forests of the higher latitudes of both Eurasia and North America.  There is no evidence that Merlins were ever any more than occasional visitors to New York State, which is situated on the migration route between their historical breeding grounds in Canada and their wintering grounds in the tropics.

Scientists were therefore surprised when breeding Merlins were sighted in the Adirondacks in the 1980s. The birds established themselves in the park very quickly and, from there, spread to the rest of upstate. They now both breed and winter in almost every corner of the state, from Rochester in the north to Buffalo in the west and Binghamton in the south, and have become increasingly common in urban areas.

The reason for this dramatic shift in range is not yet clear.  Global climate change is pushing the ranges of many birds northward, but the range of the Merlin is expanding south, against the trend.  The landscape of New York has transformed dramatically in the past hundred years as cultivated land has reverted back to forest, a change that has benefited many species. However, because the Merlin catches small songbirds on the wing and so prefers more open habitats, it is not clear that reforestation has been to its benefit.  In the nineteenth century, Merlins declined in some parts of their range due to persecution; later, their numbers were again seriously reduced by the widespread use of organochlorine pesticides, including DDT.  When these chemicals were banned, Merlin populations rebounded.  Yet this still does not explain why there seem to be more Merlins now than ever before.

There is no obvious answer for why Merlins have dispersed so widely around the state.  It may be that, for whatever reason, the Merlin population in the north has grown, forcing individuals to colonize new territory further south.  Or perhaps a few pioneering birds deviated from their usual migratory route and found that the boreal forests of the Adirondacks were suitable habitat.  Bird behavior is far more malleable than most people suspect, and Merlins seem to be a particularly adaptable species.

Photo: Marie Read
Photo: Marie Read

Scientists have a better idea of why these birds have chosen to breed and winter in cities.  Merlins are tolerant of people, able to thrive in many different habitats, and feed on birds that commonly live near human habitation.  In the 1970s, Merlins began appearing in cities on the Canadian prairies, apparently attracted by high numbers of Bohemian Waxwings which, in winter, feed from ornamental fruit trees. The city-born birds were much less likely to migrate than others.  It is worth noting, however, that the availability of small birds in urban areas has not increased appreciably in recent years; if anything, it has declined.

If small prey items were more common in cities in past decades, why have Merlins only recently moved into urban areas?  The most likely explanation is that there has been a dramatic change in human-crow relations over the last thirty years.  Merlins do not build their own nests and usually take over abandoned crows’ nests, but until recently, crows have been unwelcome in areas of human settlement. Crow hunting was not regulated in the United States until 1972, the same year that DDT was banned. Around the same time, it became illegal to discharge firearms in many urban areas.  Crows are intelligent and curious birds, and they seem to have learned rather quickly that cities were now safe places to live.  Parks and cemeteries, which often contain old trees, make particularly attractive nest sites for crows and the Merlins who occupy their old nests.

Merlins are not retiring birds, and are especially noisy when feeding their young.  For this reason, they are not difficult to spot, once they have moved in. Appropriately enough, a pair of Merlins — “scrappy little birds,” Andy Zepp called them — nested for several years in a cemetery near the Land Trust office in Ithaca.  That pair has since moved on, but Merlins are becoming more visible in the Finger Lakes.  In all likelihood, the species’ range will continue to expand and the aerial acrobatics of this intense little falcon, once a sight granted only to a privileged few, will be more and more common with every passing year.

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?

Take a closer look!

Top Gorge Hikes

Photo: Nigel Kent

Top Gorge Hikes in the Finger Lakes

Gorges—those narrow, sinuous openings in the landscape that often reveal eons of geological activity. They also happen to make for a fascinating and vigorous hike! There is much to appreciate on a trek through one of our region’s iconic gorges: dazzling waterfalls, beautiful stonework, flowing streams, and a variety of plants and wildlife. Many gorge trails and their associated rim trails can be adjusted for longer or shorter hikes, depending on preference. If you’re looking for a quintessential Finger Lakes adventure, check out one of these gorge hikes chosen by the staff at the Finger Lakes Land Trust.

A waterfall and gorge with a stone staircase
Photo: Chris Ray

Robert H. Treman State Park

A marvelous way to experience the gorge at Treman State Park is to walk up the Gorge Trail and then climb down the long stone staircase along the Rim Trail. The 115-foot Lucifer Falls is clearly central, and the handsome stonework winding up along the sheer cliff is equally remarkable. Like many state parks, the beautiful work done by the Civilian Conservation Corps can be admired for its appearance but also in the feat of constructing the trail which literally clings to the cliff. A beautiful stretch of the Finger Lakes Trail (FLT) runs through the park, and hikers can follow the FLT beyond Treman to Lick Brook Gorge and then all the way to Buttermilk Falls State Park.

A large gorge with waterfalls and a stone bridge
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.

Two people standing in front of a large waterfall
Photo: Nigel Kent

Letchworth State Park

A lot of places claim to be the Grand Canyon of the East, and while none truly compare in terms of scale, Letchworth State Park’s grandeur and unique opportunities make it a can’t-miss natural wonder. The park and its rich history encompass seventeen miles of staggeringly sheer gorge, three towering and broad waterfalls, dozens of smaller waterfalls, and 66 miles of trails. There is a greater quantity of trails on the western side of the gorge, leading to scenic overlooks with panoramic views. Hikers have a lot of options at Letchworth, and can even plan overnight or multi-night backpacking trips.

A rocky creek in the woods
Photo: Nigel Kent

High Tor Wildlife Management Area

Opportunities abound for all types of outdoor enthusiasts at the High Tor Wildlife Management Area, including creek walking and gorge exploration in Conklin Gully-Parish Glen and Clark Gully. Conklin Gully is a recent addition to the WMA, with trails that follow the rim and have several stunning scenes of the gorge and Angel Falls. The more adventurous and sure-of-foot can creek-walk the gorge.  Expect to get your feet wet along this unmarked scramble and be cautious of slippery and high water conditions.

A gorge with a rocky creek bed and long waterfall
Photo: FLLT

Taughannock Falls State Park 

The gorge at Taughannock Falls is perhaps more accurately described as a canyon and its namesake waterfall is one of the tallest in New York State. But the falls are not the only impressive aspect of the park. The Rim Trail that encircles the lower and upper gorges provides stunning views down into the canyon. And many will find the history of how the long, broad gorge was formed to be equally impressive while walking through the canyon and viewing the 400-foot-high gorge walls.

A rushing creek and trail separated by a stone wall
Photo: Nigel Kent

Fillmore Glen State Park

In the quiet village of Moravia, is another beautiful gorge park — Fillmore Glen. After an initial climb, the Gorge Trail here is relatively flat and easily negotiated.  Further along are several stunning smaller cascades and waterfalls that culminate with the tallest falls, Dalibarda Falls, followed shortly after by Upper and Lower Pinnacle Falls. Autumn is 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.

A large flowing waterfall
Photo: Chris Ray

Cascadilla Gorge Trail

Connective corridors are typically parks or natural areas that connect two distinct areas within a community—for example, separate neighborhoods or villages. Within the heart of Ithaca, there is no better example than Cascadilla Gorge. It is a stunningly beautiful connective corridor that runs from downtown to the Cornell campus. The gorge is a short three-quarters of a mile in length, but it is long on amazing waterscapes.

Other places to explore…

Buttermilk Falls State Park

Grimes Glen Park

Lick Brook Gorge

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Creating New Trails Across from Taughannock!

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GFLX Locations Without Hunting

Photo: Chris Ray

Go Finger Lakes Locations Without Hunting

Many of your favorite trails and outdoor locations may be closed or have limited access during the fall hunting season. For anyone looking for peace of mind and open space without trail closures, explore this list of places where hunting is not allowed. We also advise you to check with each location before visiting as hunting policies can change.

A leafy trail in the woods
Photo: Baltimore Woods

Baltimore Woods Nature Center

Rolling wooded hills, well-groomed trails, and varied niches make this small gem in Marcellus a must-visit for all members of the family. Short trails through an arboretum as well as wildflower and herb gardens near the John A. Weeks Interpretive Center are perfect for those who just want a brief, easy stroll. The longer Valley, Boundary, and Field to Forest trails offer extended trips to expand the experience and are thoroughly enjoyable by hikers of all levels.

View of a lake from a park with benches
Photo: FLLT

Cayuga Waterfront Trail

Whether you walk a mile or run the full, 16-mile round trip, the Cayuga Waterfront Trail (CWT) is a great way to experience all that Ithaca’s Cayuga Lake waterfront has to offer. Benches, scenic overlooks, interpretive signs, and trailheads with decorative paving and kiosks help make the CWT a special place to relax or exercise, all while enjoying Ithaca’s beautiful waterways.

A pagoda and bench overlooking a pond
Photo: Brian Maley

Cornell Lab of Ornithology

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, more commonly known as Sapsucker Woods, is a birding haven and great resource for long-time birders and those with an aspiring interest. Four miles of trails wander through the 230-acre sanctuary, with multiple interconnected loops that can be intermixed for longer trips. The mostly level trails weave through deep woods, atop boardwalks in swamps, and beside ponds bursting with wildlife of all kinds.

The entrance to the Lime Hollow Nature Center
Photo: Lime Hollow Nature Center

Lime Hollow Nature Center

Twelve miles of trails, open dawn to dusk year-round, weave through meadow, forest, and scrub land, often neighboring or encircling the numerous ponds and varied wetlands found throughout the 430-acre property in Cortland. The deep forest sections found along the Mill Pond Trail feature large-diameter trees that are reminiscent of the old-growth forest found at Green Lakes State Park.

A small waterfall and creek
Photo: Chris Ray

Roy H. Park Preserve

An easy meandering trail accessed from the south parking area of this Finger Lakes Land Trust preserve in Dryden leads you through a meadow that encircles a beautiful evergreen plantation. Follow the spur trail and you will find yourself in a mature forest that leads to the hemlock-studded gorge and waterfalls along Six Mile Creek. Please note that while hunting is prohibited in the Roy H. Park Preserve, it is allowed in the adjacent Hammond Hill State Forest which can be accessed from the preserve’s northern entrance.

A pond bordered by trees with autumn colors
Photo: Vinnie Collins

Steege Hill Nature Preserve

The 793-acre Steege Hill Nature Preserve in Big Flats has seven miles of hiking trails and is the Finger Lakes Land Trust’s largest conservation area. Located on a hilltop high above the Chemung River, hikers can choose from a series of connected loop trails for longer or shorter hikes.

A Merlin
Photo: Bridget Sharry

Tanglewood Nature Center

The Tanglewood Nature Center in Elmira is home to 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.

*Please be advised that hunting may be occurring on adjacent properties. We encourage every outdoor enthusiast to wear blaze orange, pink, or another bright color, especially during fall and winter. Doing so will allow you to be seen more easily and from greater distances. Learn more about hiker safety during hunting season.

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

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Finger Lakes State Forests

Photo: Nigel Kent

Favorite State Forests in the Finger Lakes

If you’ve ever visited one of the Finger Lakes region’s iconic state parks in the summer, you’ve surely witnessed their mass appeal. Where waterfalls, lake views, and plenty of amenities abound, so do the crowds! State forests, on the other hand, offer thousands of acres of undeveloped public land for outdoor activities such as hiking, paddling, mountain biking, camping, wildlife observation, and much more. Minus modern conveniences, state forest lands often feature established trail systems, popular among organized recreation groups. If you’re looking for an outdoor adventure with plenty of open space, check out one of these Finger Lakes state forests, chosen by the staff at the Finger Lakes Land Trust.

People mountain biking in the forest
Photo: Steve Gelb

Shindagin Hollow State Forest

Shindagin Hollow State Forest is over 5,266 acres and features more than 20 miles of trails — roughly fifteen miles of mountain biking trails and just under six miles of hiking trails.  The mountain bike trail system is located almost entirely in the section of the forest to the west of Shindagin Hollow Road.  The hiking trail traverses laterally across the forest and is almost exclusively along a 5.7-mile-long section of the Finger Lakes Trail.

A lean-to in the woods
Photo: Tim Starmer

Sugar Hill State Forest

In some ways, a trip to Sugar Hill State Forest is a bit like a trip to the Old West.  No, there are no deserts or arid plains or shootouts, but there are horses and horse camps and horse stables and horse hitching posts and horse… well, you get the point.  Much of the infrastructure throughout the vast 9,085-acre state forest focuses around making equestrians’ lives easier, but also note that the multiuse trails are usable by all.

A boy with a deer shed
Photo: Bill Banaszewski

Oakley Corners State Forest

The network of trails here was built by the Triple Cities Ski Club through the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s Adopt-A-Natural Resource program, and is another great example of how public and private partnerships can make natural resources accessible. The sixteen miles of deep, woodland trails follow many interconnected loops that allow for longer or shorter treks. Despite the lack of signage, the actual trails themselves are in great shape and offer a good deal of solitude.

A trail through the forest with tree signs
Photo: Chris Ray

James Kennedy State Forest

This 4,422-acre forest is a packed collection of named trails, including short, one-mile family-friendly loops; short half-day loops; and, figure-eights or more convoluted patterns to hike all day or overnight. But hiking is not the only activity here. There are also three annual competitive running events, and designated camping areas along the Finger Lakes Trail for extended camping stays.

People kayaking on a lake
Photo: Nigel Kent

Hemlock-Canadice State Forest

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. 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. The unique situation is thanks to the fact that Hemlock and Canadice lakes are the source of Rochester’s drinking water supply.

*Note – camping is not allowed at Hemlock-Canadice State Forest

An aerial view of green forested lands
Photo: Bill Hecht

Bear Swamp State Forest

The sprawling 3,316-acre forest features over 15 miles of multiuse trails and miles of quiet, unpaved roads. For the most part, the trails weave around and up-and-over two ridges that flank Bear Swamp Creek.  As such there are some climbs and descents when moving east-to-west, but the terrain is mostly flat while moving north-south. This habitat is vital for at-risk species, such as the Cerulean Warbler, a rare deep forest songbird.

A wooden footbridge over a creek in the forest
Photo: Tim Starmer

Birdseye Hollow State Forest

The 3,446-acre Birdseye Hollow State Forest has two day-use areas, two quiet water paddling opportunities (Sanford Lake and Birdseye Hollow Pond), seven designated primitive lakeside campsites, and nearly 11 miles along the Finger Lakes Trail. Deep woodlands and babbling brooks occupy the majority of the trail experience here, but there is also the short blue-blazed lakeside trail.  The blue trail traverses the transitional space between forest and wetland and offers ample wildlife viewing along the way.

Other places to explore…

Danby State Forest

Texas Hollow State Forest 

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Accessible Outdoor Experiences in the FLX

Suitable for various abilities