The Big Lakes

Catharine Valley Trail Photo by Bill Hecht

Outdoor Recreation and Conservation in the Cayuga and Seneca Lake Watersheds

Of the 11 Finger Lakes, Cayuga and Seneca are the biggest, with Cayuga Lake taking first prize for longest at over 38 miles long, and Seneca winning for deepest. Seneca Lake lies in the geographic center of the Finger Lakes. It is an extraordinarily deep lake, extending 173 feet below sea level, and is nearly three miles from shore to shore at its widest point. 

Its large size and central location made Seneca Lake a surprise choice for a naval facility. A naval base in the middle of New York State might sound like the beginning of a joke, but it’s one of those weird quirks of history. As the United States prepared for war in the 1940s, there was a growing need for training bases and, in 1942, President Roosevelt approved the construction of the naval base on Seneca Lake. In the years following WWII, the base was converted first into a college for returning veterans and then again as an airfield to train Air Force personnel. All in all, over three-quarters of a million airmen and sailors were trained in what is now Sampson State Park, and today there is a combined air and naval museum dedicated to this history.

Cayuga Lake doesn’t share Seneca’s military history, but does share more mysterious lore. Both lakes were reportedly home to ancient sea monsters – the Seneca Lake Sea Monster and Cayuga Lake’s Old Greeny. Although you can imagine how the dark, stormy waters of these big lakes could conjure images of monsters, a more logical explanation may be the presence of lake sturgeon. These giant ancient fish are indigenous to Cayuga Lake and can live to be well over 100 years old, nine feet long, and weigh up to 300 pounds.  

The two lakes are connected by folklore and by water. At Cayuga’s northern end, the Seneca River connects it to Seneca Lake to the west. 

A great way to experience these big lakes and some of their history is on one of the many repurposed rail-trails. 

Cayuga-Seneca Canal Trail

The Cayuga-Seneca Canal Trail is a microcosm of a drive along a wine trail beside a sinuous Finger Lake, but rather than taking it in at 50 mph, the pace along the trail is more leisurely. The corridor is lined with trees and features a broad, level, stone-dust trail that is a pleasure to ride, walk or ski. 

The trail follows an old railroad bed beside a canal that links the two largest Finger Lakes while connecting picturesque villages along the way — or at least it will when complete. Presently, roughly 7 of the eventual 19 miles are finished and open to the public. Through the trees and between the wetlands, travelers find sprawling agricultural fields and boaters and paddlers cruising the canal. 

The western end can be accessed by parking at Seneca Lake State Park or at the Bishop Nature Preserve, owned by the Finger Lakes Land Trust. The preserve has a large gravel parking area off West River Road and a stone dust path that connects directly with the Cayuga-Seneca Canal Trail.

Catharine Valley Trail

The Catharine Valley Trail is another great example of a conservation effort that yields dividends for the natural world and the communities it connects. Following the old Chemung Barge Canal towpath and sections of the abandoned Northern Central Rail lines, the trail is contiguous from downtown Watkins Glen to the hamlet of Pine Valley. It’s a great natural corridor that utilizes compact stone dust paths designed for hikers, bikers and skiers.

Stretches of the trail that run between towns delve into deep forest and are thoroughly shaded and simply serene. It’s as if you have your own personal wooded highway. The entire trail is ADA compliant, though access to some sections is much better than others.

The corridor itself is well worth the trip, but nearby are several notable locations that outdoor enthusiasts will enjoy and should try to include in their excursion. First is the stunning gorge within Watkins Glen State Park. Second, and also nearby the village of Watkins Glen, is Queen Catharine Marsh, which has foot trails accessible from the Catharine Valley Trail. The marsh is one of only a few remaining headwater marshes in the Finger Lakes and lies along the Atlantic Flyway, an important east coast path for migratory birds.

Black Diamond Trail

Seen by many as a linchpin for connecting Ithaca’s numerous existing trails and parks through an off-road trail network, the first phase of the Black Diamond Trail is complete. This is great news for not only Ithaca and nearby residents, but all outdoor enthusiasts.

Though evocative of a hazardous downhill ski run, the Black Diamond Trail is actually a broad, mostly level, multiuse trail – limited to cyclists, walkers, runners, cross country skiers and snowshoers – connecting amazing waterfalls and gorges along an off-road corridor. 

First-time visitors should remember to double their mileage when planning out-and-back routes, while one-way trekkers may want to note that the grade slopes downward most of the way from Taughannock Falls State Park in Trumansburg to the Cayuga Waterfront Trail in Ithaca.

The trail is another success story of repurposing old industrial infrastructure to serve and enhance present-day communities.

Read more about the Black Diamond Trail on page 44 of Life in the Finger Lakes, Sep/Oct 2022. 

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