The Canandaigua Highlands

Paddling is a popular activity near the entrance of the West River at the southern end of Canandaigua Lake. Photo by Jim Kersting

Canandaigua Lake was named “the chosen spot” hundreds of years ago by the Seneca Indians who resided in the area. Since then, it’s lived up to the name in so many ways. The highlands surrounding the south end of the lake, for example, have become a chosen spot for those who seek active, outdoor recreational pursuits.

The Village of Naples serves as the jumping-off spot for those who want to explore more than 6,000 acres of protected open space. There are miles of hiking and mountain biking trails, three rugged gorges, outstanding scenery, wildlife watching opportunities, one of the region’s premier trout streams and opportunities for kayaking and canoeing.

For many, a visit to this area involves a trip to High Tor Wildlife Management Area. It boasts thousands of acres of state land that sprawl across two wooded hillsides and border the West River, the largest tributary to Canandaigua Lake and one of the best places for flat water paddling in the Finger Lakes.

A trip down the river is best started at first light. On an early summer morning, only the flapping of a Wood Duck’s wings or the squawk of a Great Blue Heron as it erupts from the adjacent marshland breaks the sound of your paddle stroke. Around the next bend, you might see a beaver or muskrat paddling through the wetlands.

Midmorning brings the sight of a soaring bald eagle scanning the marsh for its next meal. You finish your trip as you emerge from the tall marsh grasses, reminiscent of a scene from “The African Queen,” and look out upon the glory of Canandaigua Lake.

For those who want to stretch their legs, the nearby heights of High Tor have much to offer. The Finger Lakes Trail passes through it and offers a challenging assent as it leaves the Naples Valley. Hikers enjoy passing through towering stands of sycamore and black walnut trees along Naples Creek before following a winding path uphill through a lesser forest of pine, oak and maple. Access lanes within the Wildlife Management Area offer miles of additional hiking, skiing and mountain biking opportunities. An abandoned rail line also runs through the West River marshes, providing endless options for wildlife watching.

For many though, the gorges are what attract them to the scenic valley. Visitors can enjoy one glen and two major gullies, each with its own character and charm. To enjoy these natural wonders, all you need is a sense of adventure and the willingness to get your feet wet!

A short walk from Naples’ Main Street brings you to Grimes Glen, well known for its scenic cascades and clear, cool waters. The glen is a favorite spot for families; wading and splashing around in its pools is a popular summer pastime. Like most Finger Lakes gorges, the glen yields an occasional fossil to those with a sharp eye. In fact, an impressive fossil tree found there now resides at the New York State Museum in Albany.

For those seeking a more challenging adventure, Conklin Gully beckons from just across the Naples Valley. An informal path leads into the gully, just off State Route 245. A few steps up Conklin’s creek bed leads to a world of towering shale bluffs where you are struck by a profound sense of stillness, broken solely by the plaintive call of a phoebe and the murmuring waters of the creek. A one-half mile hike leads to a scenic series of waterfalls. All but the most intrepid turn back here. Adventurous types with good balance may venture on upstream at their own risk and return via an overland route at the top of the bluffs.

The last of the three gorges is Clark’s Gully. Lying just to the north of Conklin, it is known as a sacred site for the Seneca Nation. Legend has it that the forefathers of the tribe stepped out from this dramatic cleft in the earth and founded their tribe at the foot of South Hill, a massive forested ridge that provides a scenic backdrop to Canandaigua Lake. Today, visitors to the gully can savor pastoral views across the valley and imagine what it was like here when a Seneca village still stood nearby.

After a full day of activity, it’s time to head into Naples for a glass of wine at one of the community’s vineyards, a meal at a local restaurant and perhaps a show at the Bristol Valley Theater. For those who haven’t gotten enough of the scenery, the perfect way to end the day is to head up to South Bristol’s scenic overlook park on County Route 12. Providing a panoramic view of Canandaigua Lake and the surrounding countryside, this vista point draws visitors from all over the country.


Conservation Efforts Aim to Protect Habitats & Enhance Recreational Opportunities

To ensure that the natural wonders of the Canandaigua Highlands continue to inspire and invigorate future generations, two conservation organizations are acquiring critical wildlife habitat and enhancing education and recreational opportunities in the area. The nonprofit Finger Lakes Land Trust (FLTT) recently acquired Grimes Glen in partnership with Ontario County to create a new park. In a partnership with the Town of South Bristol, FLTT can protect lands adjacent to the scenic overlook there. The Land Trust also acquired the northern half of Conklin Gully and lands bordering the West River as additions to the High Tor Wildlife Area. The organization is now restoring native grasslands and working on the development of a scenic overlook and educational interpretive site next to the mouth of Clark’s Gully. The Nature Conservancy, an international conservation organization, has been active in this area during recent years, adding land to its West Hill Nature Preserve and acquiring lands along the West River and adjacent to High Tor’s extensive wetlands.

Additional information on these organizations and their conservation activities may be found at and

by Andy Zepp, Finger Lakes Land Trust