Please note: periodic flooding at Owasco Flats can occur after heavy rains. Please exercise caution when paddling the inlet and lake, and be on the lookout for trees, branches, and other debris.
At the southern end of Owasco Lake lie an inlet and diverse floodplain that provide excellent birding, paddling, and a couple of short nature trails. Commonly known as Owasco Flats, the inlet serves as an important habitat for fish spawning within its emergent marshes, which also does double duty as a natural water quality buffer for Owasco Lake. Nearly 70% of Cayuga County’s water supply comes from Owasco Lake and over half of the lake’s water filters through the inlet, so the wetland’s importance for the community cannot be overstated.
Schools of small fish are frequently seen in the inlet and show how important this habitat is in ensuring a thriving fish community, including species like northern pike, walleye, trout, and bass. During the spring, runs of rainbow trout will find fishermen nearly shoulder to shoulder along the inlet trail. But the habitat promotes other wildlife as well. Beavers can be seen at work and even the wily river otter has been spotted. Not to mention the abundance of birds that can be seen and enjoyed throughout the wetlands.
The Flats are part of the Greater Summerhill Important Bird Area (IBA). IBAs are places that possess valuable habitat for Priority Bird Species — rare and endangered bird species whose habitats are in decline. The New York Audubon includes the Owasco Flats, Summerhill State Forest, Fillmore Glen, and the Finger Lakes Land Trust’s Dorothy McIlroy Bird Sanctuary in the Greater Summerhill IBA. Species of note in this IBA are the Cerulean Warbler, the American and Least Bittern, as well as Bald Eagles, which have been sighted in the flats and hopefully will nest in the area in the future.
Parking is available at the end of Firelane One, accessible just past the South Shore Marina (which incidentally rents boats), and has an information kiosk. Additional parking is also available along Rt. 38. The park is open dawn to dusk, year-round.
There are two trails — the Inlet Trail and the Lake Trail. The Lake Trail is a roughly quarter-mile-long bushwhack on well-worn footpaths along the southern tip of Owasco Lake. The Inlet Trail can be hiked as a loop by following the fishermen’s footpath along the inlet’s western shore and then returning to the fire lane access road via a short section of the old Lehigh Valley rail bed. This loop totals 1.6 miles and can be combined with the lakeshore loop. Though the Inlet Trail starts along a boardwalk, many sections of the trail are muddy and require a bit of hopscotching around the muck during wet conditions.
Paddling along the inlet is the activity that really shines here and is easily accessed via the car-top boat launch at the end of Firelane One, along a short portage from the Rt. 38 parking area, or at the South Shore Marina. In summer, when the lake level drops, the area immediately adjacent to the parking area may be too shallow/mucky to launch, but boats can easily be put in along short portages either north to the lakeshore or further down the Inlet Trail.
The slow and quiet paddler will be rewarded with ample bird spotting and rare photo opportunities. Paddlers can explore the inlet all the way to Rt. 38 in Moravia. Paddlers should note that submerged logs and branches are found throughout the inlet and may make sections inaccessible depending on water levels.
The publically accessible parts of the Flats comprise Owasco Flats Park (managed by Cayuga County), parcels owned by the City of Auburn, and the Owasco Flats Nature Reserve (a non-profit grassroots organization dedicated to nature conservancy and land stewardship).
Currently, the area is under consideration to become part of a larger DEC Wildlife Management Area (WMA). The future plan would be to unify and expand the boundaries to include the 1,500 acres between state Rt. 38 to the west, Rockefeller Road to the east, Owasco Lake to north and the Village of Moravia to the south. The expanded area would enhance the water quality of Owasco Lake and expand recreational opportunities for hikers, skiers, birders, fishermen, hunters, and paddlers alike. This site shines already, but hopefully will be cherished even more by generations to come.