The Eastern Lakes – Owasco, Skaneateles, and Otisco Lake Watersheds

by Kelly Makosch, Finger Lakes Land Trust
illustration by Chris Ray

Traveling from west to east lie Owasco, Skaneateles and Otisco lakes, the three easternmost Finger Lakes. If you were to sort by size, you would get a different result. Skaneateles is the longest of the three at 16 miles long, with Owasco and Otisco following in good order. All three lakes have very developed lakeshores with limited opportunities for the public to access the water.

Owasco Lake has a large watershed compared to its overall volume and it stretches across three counties, 15 towns and two villages. The watershed has a rich history of agriculture, which provides iconic Finger Lake views and may also increase the lake’s vulnerability to nutrient-laden runoff. With so many cottages surrounding the lake, gaining access to the water can be difficult. Sites open to the community are located at the lake’s northern end, at the well-developed Emerson Park, and at the southern end along the Owasco Flats, where visitors will find short trails as well as paddling and fishing opportunities. The Finger Lakes Land Trust (FLLT) recently opened the Owasco Bluffs Nature Preserve, the third publicly accessible conservation area on the lake itself. 

Known for its clean, clear waters, Skaneateles Lake is the unfiltered drinking water source for more than 200,000 Syracuse residents and, as such, is a high priority for protection. At the lake’s northern end, the shoreline is quite developed, and public access is limited to Cliff Park in the village and a boat launch just outside the village. However, the southern end of the lake is dominated by cliffs and forests, so development has been slower to arrive. Here, you can access the lake at the Town of Scott boat launch. This southern end, with its steep, erodible slopes, is a conservation focus for the FLLT. The organization has partnered with New York State to protect places like Carpenter Falls Unique Area and add to Bear Swamp State Forest. 

Otisco Lake is the easternmost Finger Lake. Its well-developed shores feature private homes that occupy most of the lakefront real estate, again making public access difficult except for the small, three-acre Otisco Lake Park. Recently, the FLLT has worked with partners to open two new nature preserves on the lake that are free and open to the public. Otisco Lake Preserve is on the lake’s western shore and has a trail to a cove beach that protects 1,300 feet of wild shoreline. The newly opened Otisco Shores Conservation Area, a partnership project between the FLLT and Onondaga County, protects more than 2,000 feet of lakeshore.

The eastern Finger Lakes are beautiful in all seasons, and there are plenty of adventures to be had around and between the lakes as well. Whether you prefer your hiking boots or the conditions this winter call for snowshoes or cross-country skis, there are great places for people of all skill levels to enjoy the outdoors. Here are a few suggestions within the Owasco, Skaneateles and Otisco Lake watersheds.

Owasco Bluffs Nature Preserve

The 74-acre Owasco Bluffs Nature Preserve features low, forested cliffs overlooking the lake as well as wetlands, meadows and a rugged gorge. Best traversed with sturdy boots or snowshoes in winter, the one-mile trail leads visitors through fields and forests, ending at a wooded hillside with spectacular lake views. This is a special spot – it’s the first FLLT preserve in the Owasco Lake watershed and only the third publicly accessible conservation area on the lake itself.

Fillmore Glen State Park

Early summer or after periods of heavy rain are the best times to see Fillmore Glen’s stunning waterfalls in their most torrential states. However, late autumn and deep winter are also notably beautiful times to visit the park, when fallen leaves reveal parts of the gorge previously hidden from view and quiet walks in the woods take the place of the crowds of summer.

Two trails are available to explore in the winter months: the north rim and the south rim trail. While these trails are open year-round, it is important to note the gorge trail is only open from late spring to late fall. 

Bear Swamp State Forest

Known for its “Adirondack-like” character, Bear Swamp features extensive wetlands along with 15 miles of multiuse trails that are a favorite for cross-country skiing. The forest overlooks the southwestern shore of Skaneateles Lake and is in an area that typically receives ample lake-effect snow. For the most part, the trails weave around, up and over two ridges that flank Bear Swamp Creek. As such, there are some climbs and descents when moving east to west, but the terrain is mostly flat while moving north-south, which is why many find cross-country skiing the trail here so much fun.

Bear Swamp Creek is the largest tributary of Skaneateles Lake, which in turn supplies unfiltered drinking water to Syracuse-area residents. The swamp and riparian woodlands buffer and help purify the water as it wends its way northward to its dramatic, stunning conclusion at Carpenter Falls and Bahar Nature Preserve. These conserved woodlands are therefore not only a great asset for outdoor adventurers, but the community at large. 

Hinchcliff Family Preserve and High Vista Nature Preserve

Slip into your sturdy hiking boots or snowshoes and find peace and solitude in a diverse hillside forest this winter. Together, these two FLLT nature preserves protect over 450 acres high above the shores of Skaneateles Lake. They are connected by a one-mile trail that can be accessed either from the High Vista trailhead or from a trail within the Hinchcliff Preserve itself. Ambitious adventurers can follow the interconnected trails for nearly five miles, catching glimpses of the lake along the way. 

The two preserves are part of a 2.25-mile corridor of conserved land above the southern end of Skaneateles Lake that remain a priority focus area for the FLLT. 

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