story by Bill Banaszewski and Michele Howland Banaszewski,
photos by Bill Banaszewski
Once called “Crooked Lake,” Keuka Lake is the centerfold of just about any Finger Lakes map. Not only the heart of the region, it’s a standout among the eleven lakes with its distinctive “Y” shape and unmistakable beauty. Keuka’s bluff, an expansive seven-mile promontory, divides its two branches. The bluff is a perfect destination for those who enjoy scenic vistas, wildlife, historical treasures and outdoor recreation.
Before heading out, study your map, and don’t rely solely on your GPS. The bluff can hoodwink even the most assured Finger Lakes traveler. Lake vistas appear from any direction, which can be confusing. You’ll encounter precipitous seasonal roads, dead ends, and roads that change names at any given intersection, all of which can easily lead you astray. But don’t let this dissuade you from exploring the bluff – It’s hardly an uncharted wilderness!
Our route directs you onto the aptly-named Skyline Drive, which traverses the bluff. You can reach it by traveling Route 54A between Penn Yan and Branchport. We recommend following the signs for Keuka Lake State Park via Pepper Road. Immediately on your right, you’ll pass the future home site of The Finger Lakes Museum and then the entrance to the park. After a few miles, Pepper Road merges onto Skyline Drive, where your adventure begins.
The elevation gradually increases as you pass through a landscape featuring early growth forests, farm fields and vineyards. Five miles into the trip, you will find yourself more than 700 feet above the lake, wooded areas open to vineyards and grasslands. Voila! Seemingly out of nowhere awesome views appear before you.
High elevation grasslands, which are diminishing throughout the Finger Lakes, are ideal nesting habitat for songbirds such as meadowlarks, bobolinks and bluebirds. On calm spring and summer mornings, roll down your window to be treated to a symphony of birdsong.
In autumn, migrating hawks and the occasional bald eagle soar overhead, taking advantage of the thermals. During winter the bluff can be a harsh environment; however, the adventure is worth taking because you’ll likely encounter some unusual birds of prey. The abundant population of small rodents in the fields attracts red-tailed and rough-legged hawks, along with the threatened northern harrier and the endangered short-eared owl. Robin-sized northern shrikes are also drawn to the bluff to prey on mice, juncos, snow buntings and red polls. From the roadside, you can easily observe birds in flight or at rest on power lines, vineyard posts or utility poles.
The bluff is especially dramatic at sunrise and sunset and when weather fronts come through. After a late afternoon rain shower or thunderstorm, it’s rainbow heaven. Down the road, Skyline Drive dog-legs to the left and descends through thickening woods. This section of the road is closed in winter. On your left, a green wrought iron fence brings your attention to one of Keuka Lake’s historical treasures, the Garrett Memorial Chapel. Erected in 1930 by Paul and Evelyn Garrett, it commemorates the life of their son, Charles Williams Garrett, who died of tuberculosis at a young age. Charles always wanted to return to Bluff Point, the place he loved most. From 1902 to 1940, the Garretts ran Garrett and Company. They harvested grapes from the area, and their company was among the largest wine producers in the world.
Garrett Memorial Chapel, on the National and New York Registers of Historic Places, is a masterpiece of Norman-Gothic-inspired architecture. It is constructed of materials imported from near and far, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Vermont, Holland, Venice and even Algeria. The Tiffany-style stained glass windows depict scenes from the Bible as well as children’s literature and poetry. The fisher, student, scientist and artisan along with images of sports, music and motherhood are cast in silver and bronze on the door to the crypt. Bring your camera and binoculars. The views of the eastern and southern branches of Keuka Lake are stunning from the chapel’s stone patios and walkways. If you enjoy birding, warblers can be spotted from the terraces at eye level as they feed in the treetops during their seasonal migration. The grounds are usually open from March to October, sunrise to sunset. The chapel is open Tuesday and Thursday, 1 to 4 p.m., between Memorial Day and Labor Day with Sunday services during July and August.
Skyline Drive continues its descent and comes to an end at the intersection of East and West Bluff Drives. From there, you can return to Keuka Lake State Park along West Bluff Drive or head toward Keuka College via East Bluff Drive.
If the day is still young, there is plenty more to explore. Make your way back to Keuka Lake State Park and picnic along the lakeshore or take a refreshing dip. You can easily launch a canoe or kayak and paddle along the eastern shore of the west branch. In May, if you’re lucky, you’ll be in time to enjoy the white flowering dogwoods that brighten the spring-green forest along the shoreline to the south of the boat launch. If you enjoy fishing, the same shoreline is a good spot to troll with streamers or stick baits for Keuka Lake’s elusive land-locked salmon.
The Guyanoga Creek DEC launch site on Route 54A between Pepper Road and the hamlet of Branchport is another popular spot to put in small craft. A fishing hotspot, you can compete with kingfishers, great blue and green herons, or an occasional osprey, in pursuit of largemouth bass, pickerel and pan fish in the wetlands.
You can also follow the Keuka Wine Trail to the east or west from Route 54A. Explore unique shops, galleries and studios along the way. Savor a crisp Riesling at one of Keuka’s wineries, and as the sun sets, enjoy dinner at one of several area restaurants that offer lakeside dining and marvelous views.
We’re sure you’ll agree that we aren’t bluffing when we say this classic Finger Lakes day trip has it all!
If you are into noise and speed, this isn’t the day trip for you. Drive slowly and cautiously on the bluff and along the lakeshores, where the roads are narrow and without shoulders. People are out strolling or walking their dogs, and youngsters often dart across the road, anxious to get to the lake.
Lands on the bluff are privately owned. Please respect those who live there, and help keep it a safe and tranquil place.
Share the road with runners and cyclists along this popular route.
Explore Esperanza Road north of Route 54A to catch a glimpse of Keuka Lake and the bluff. As you descend, experience one of the most spectacular views in all of the Finger Lakes — a foreground of vineyards, forested hillsides of the bluff, and the west branch of Keuka Lake in the distance.