Wild rivers in New York are typically thought to be found only in the Adirondack Park, but the Chemung River is a great alternative for paddlers looking for a scenic trip local to the Finger Lakes region. Much of what has kept the river wild is what makes it so gorgeous, namely steep shale cliffs that were carved by glaciers a millennia ago.
The Chemung River is over 45 miles long, but many first-time visitors will prefer the six-mile stretch between Bottcher’s Landing in Big Flats and the Fitch’s Bridge pullout just west of Elmira. This stretch of the river is particularly picturesque and passes under the steep Palisades, a long sinuous cliff hundreds of feet high that looms over the river along its southern shore.
The scenic cliff-top woods are part of a collection of nature preserves, namely Steege Hill Nature Preserve, Plymouth Woods, and the Kehoe Nature Preserve — a recent addition along the river. All of these natural gems are managed and cared for by the Finger Lakes Land Trust and are complemented by the equally picturesque Tanglewood Nature Center and the Nature Conservancy’s adjoining Frenchman’s Bluff.
Thanks to these natural refuges, nesting bald eagles are often seen on this charming stretch of river. The preserves, as well as other conserved public spaces up and down the river, are part of Chemung River Greenbelt. The greenbelt is an ambitious open space plan that will tie the many Chemung River communities together through a variety of outdoor recreational activities. If this stretch of the river is any indication of what is to come then paddlers, hikers, fishermen, and birders should all be truly excited about the possibilities. See the Regional Conservation Agenda by the Finger Lakes Land Trust for more about the Chemung River Greenbelt.
Paddling the six-mile stretch should take a couple hours but trips of a few days are also possible with many river islands serving as serene primitive camping sites. For the most part, the river has few rapids, is slow-moving and lacks major hazards such as steep drops, but rivers are always dangerous and need to be respected. (Note a low-head dam within the City of Elmira is one well-known and dangerous hazard that requires a portage.) It is even possible to continue along the Chemung to the Susquehanna and eventually to the Chesapeake Bay on a river adventure of epic proportions.
Paddling wild rivers is inherently dangerous and it’s strongly recommended that new visitors take their first trip with someone familiar with the river or utilize one of several river outfitters that provide boat rentals and guided trips. Complete novices should go with a guide or outfitter until they have sufficient experience to paddle safely.
Before paddling it is essential to get updates about river conditions and new hazards. Rivers are constantly changing and it’s essential to be prepared. Fortunately, information about river conditions, rentals, and outfitters, as well as locations for ten publicly accessible put-in and take-out spots are available at the Friends of the Chemung River Watershed. Their interactive boat launch site is quite useful in planning the perfect trip. Their river advice is particularly poignant about the need to respect the dangers and power of wild rivers, for both novices and experts.
The Friends of Chemung River Watershed is a non-profit group that has blazed the way in making the river not only accessible to the public but also in preserving its beauty through continuous advocacy and regular cleanup activities.