A naval base in the middle of New York State might sound like the beginning of a joke, but it is one of those weird quirks of history that led to the creation of Sampson State Park. As the United States prepared for war in the 1940s there was a growing need for training bases and on May 14, 1942, President Roosevelt approved the construction of the naval base on Seneca Lake. The base was named after a local Spanish-American War hero William T. Sampson.
After WWII, the base was converted into a college for returning veterans. It was repurposed yet again during the Korean War as an airfield to train Air Force personnel. All in all, over three-quarters of a million airmen and sailors were trained at Sampson, and today there is a combined air and naval museum dedicated to this history.
In the 1960s, the land was transferred to New York State, and its new life as a recreation park began. Hundreds of buildings were dismantled and much of the park is slowly reverting to woodland and fields. Today its campgrounds, boat slips, and launches, as well as a designated swimming area along Seneca Lake’s shoreline, provide many ways for the public to access and enjoy the Finger Lakes’ largest lake.
Origins and military history aside, what really shines at Sampson State Park for outdoor enthusiasts is the three and half-mile long Lake Trail, much of which follows the shore of Seneca Lake. Despite hundreds of miles of trails throughout the Finger Lakes region, few of the trails are actually found on the shores of one of the Finger Lakes. (Another notable exception is at Hemlock and Canadice Lakes). Here, the access road between the village of Willard and the state park has been designated as a trail and follows within feet of the extraordinarily deep lake; Seneca Lake extends 173 below sea level.
Cyclists will enjoy the lakeside breezes that accompany them as they coast along the Lake Trail road while hikers can soak in a bit more of this unique setting. More than 1.5 miles of the road is blocked from vehicle traffic so cyclists and hikers can coast and stroll in peace. The other roads in the park have sparse traffic, so cyclists who want an extended, virtually vehicle-free ride can do so as well. Note that bicycles are available for rent at the park office if needed.
Along the route are informational placards for a phone-based guided tour as well as numerous benches to relax. At the benches, the trees are thinned providing open vistas of the lake as well as footpaths that lead down to the rocky shore. Views of the lake are even more expansive after autumn has striped the wooded roadway of its foliage.