A New Perspective on Skaneateles Lake

Photo by John Sutton

The Finger Lakes Land Trust’s Hinchcliff Family Preserve

Thanks to the generosity of its donors, the Finger Lakes Land Trust recently acquired a mile of scenic hillside overlooking Skaneateles Lake’s eastern shore. This diverse tract of land is now open to the public and it offers visitors the opportunity to experience the scenic vistas and rugged gorges for which our region is so well known.

Comprising 206 acres, the Hinchcliff Family Preserve encompasses a mosaic of meadows, hardwood forest, and numerous ravines that deeply incise the hillside. The history of the land is evident in old farm foundations, stone walls, and a chimney which is all that remains of a once grand vacation home. And best of all, the preserve features a terrific view of Skaneateles Lake!

The Land Trust acquired the property as part of its ongoing effort to create a greenbelt around the southern half of Skaneateles Lake. To date, the organization has conserved 1,000 acres in this area through acquisitions, as well as conservation easements (perpetual agreements that limit future development while allowing the land to remain in private ownership).

The Hinchcliff Family Preserve was identified as a priority for protection in recognition of its value as wildlife habitat, its scenic vistas, and most importantly, its value to the health of Skaneateles Lake – the source of drinking water for Syracuse residents.

Once the Land Trust successfully negotiated a purchase agreement, a fundraising campaign was launched to cover the cost of acquisition as well as long-term stewardship of the site. The campaign was completed with broad support from the community, a grant from New York State Parks, and a lead gift from the Hinchcliff family.

From open fields to forest

A visit to the preserve starts at the end of Covey Road – a short spur off of State Route 41 on the east side of Skaneateles Lake. At the entrance to the preserve, a curving stone wall was created by using material from the farmhouse that once graced the site. Nearby, the first segment of a 1.4-mile loop trail passes through the remains of a dairy barn before entering one of several fields that provide distant vistas of the verdant hills that steeply rise from the shoreline of Skaneateles Lake.

Another remnant of the site’s agricultural history is a trailside truck – a 1937 Chevy that sports a U.S. Army star on its doors and rests next to the trail at the edge of a field. After serving the military and at least one farmer well, the truck now hosts an impressive garden of flowering jewel weed on its bed.

The trail heads downhill toward Skaneateles Lake alongside the depths of Randall’s Gulf – one of the largest ravines in this area. Fall is a great time to get glimpses of the lake here, among the reds, oranges, and yellows of the surrounding hardwood forest. The composition of the forest reflects a mix of northern and southern species. In addition to the commonly found oak, maple, and ash, the preserve hosts Yellow Birch that are more commonly found in the Adirondacks along with Tulip Poplars that are near the northern edge of their distribution.

One surprise to be found in the woods here is a massive stone fireplace, complete with inlaid staghorn coral fossils. This is all that remains of a large summer home that once graced the site. The house was built for the Wickwire family by company employees who traveled to the site from the family’s factory in Cortland.

An interpretive display at the chimney highlights a photo of the home from 1917. At that time, it commanded sweeping views of the lake from its perch on a grassy knoll. Today, this knoll is entirely forested and the lake is gone from view.

Our changing use of the land is evident throughout the preserve. In 1938, approximately 36 percent of the preserve was forested with the remaining acreage utilized for some form of agriculture. Today, these numbers are quite different – 83 percent of the preserve is now forested, while only 17 percent is open fields. To keep these last fields open, several are leased to the previous owner – Bill Burns, who farmed this land for decades. In exchange, Bill mows several other fields that are maintained as meadow habitat – a resource that has declined in many parts of our region.

A highlight of a visit to the preserve is a pleasant overlook at one of these fields where a bench invites one to stay awhile and take in the view – sweeping from the wall of forest on the west side of Skaneateles Lake to the distant views of the lake and surrounding farm fields to the north. Hawks and vultures are commonly seen soaring over these fields along with the occasional bald eagle.

Looking ahead

And what’s next for the Hinchcliff Family Preserve? Additional hiking opportunities, as the preserve includes a narrow corridor of land that extends eastward from Route 41 to Ripley Hill – the highest point in the Skaneateles Lake Watershed. Plans are underway for the development of a hiking trail that would connect the existing trail to a new access point near the summit of the hill.

If you get out to visit the Hinchcliff Family Preserve, consider also stopping by the Land Trust’s nearby High Vista Preserve, as well as Carpenter’s Falls – a popular waterfall on the east side of Skaneateles Lake.


Getting Healthy While Giving Back to the Land

The carefully crafted trail at the Hinchcliff Family Preserve came about through hours and hours of volunteer effort. Volunteers cleared vegetation, created trail grades, built stone steps, and helped in countless other ways. A weekly series of “Trailblazer Tuesday” work parties made the project progress rapidly. Participants enjoyed getting an aerobic workout while creating a community asset.

This is just one of many land stewardship projects that is being undertaken by volunteers at land trust preserves throughout the region. To learn more about getting involved and volunteering, check out the Land Trust’s web site (fllt.org) or call the Ithaca office at
607- 275-9487.


About the Finger Lakes Land Trust

Established as part of a Cornell University graduate student project in 1989, the Finger Lakes Land Trust has worked with landowners and local communities to conserve more than 19,000 acres of the region’s most cherished natural areas, parks and scenic farmland. The organization today owns and manages a network of 38 conservation areas that are open to the public and also holds conservation easements on more than 100 properties that remain in private ownership.

More information may be found at fllt.org.


by Andrew Zepp,
Executive Director, Finger Lakes Land Trust

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