story and photos by Derek Doeffinger
These rides are ideal for the casual bike rider, nature lover, foodie, and walker
Not the best. Not the most scenic. Not the easiest, nor the hardest. But perhaps at least one of them, and maybe both, are two of the more intriguing and enjoyable trails awaiting you.
There’s only one way to find out. Before the blustery months set in, you should choose one and take it for a ride. Both are well suited for casual bicycling, and one is also perfect for walking.
These two trails are Ithaca’s Black Diamond Trail and Rochester’s Turning Point Trail. I rode both of them recently and highly recommend them for casual riders and walkers, and especially the shorter Rochester trail for walkers. Both trails offer connections if you want to extend your ride.
Willem van Osselaer–creator of a little gem of a website* for all the Ithaca bike trails–says of the Black Diamond Trail: “This may be the best route in all of Ithaca! It brings you through forests, waterfalls, gorgeous gorges, even bison.” Area resident Indira says, “It feels like a meditative workout.”
The Turning Point Trail offers an urban nature ride, threading through the woods alongside the Genesee River in Rochester. It includes a singularly fun stretch before taking you to a variety of historical and recreational attractions. It’s the trail the locals love to walk, but I love to bike.
The 17-mile round trip Black Diamond Trail is full of surprises and provides a nice but easily doable workout. The 8-mile round trip (longer with extensions) Turning Point Trail offers a surprise that casual bikers will find irresistible but will also appeal to walkers. My neighbor Maureen exclaims, “I love this trail, especially seeing the fall colors reflected in the river.”
Both trails offer waterfront connections. At Turning Point you’ll find a historical lighthouse and carousel, and a beachside park known for its volleyball and swimming. The Black Diamond plays its trump card of Taughannock Falls but also teases you with a side trip trail to a farmer’s market, marina and Stewart Park (a large lakeside park), all the while entertaining you with Ithaca’s noteworthy eccentricity. Each also tempts with a wide variety of food choices to refuel and rest your legs.
Both trails are smooth enough for road bikes and can be explored in two to three hours.
About the Black Diamond Trail
Willem van Osselaer’s proclamation could be right. Ride on the Black Diamond Trail a few days after a good rainfall and it will become quite clear why “Ithaca is Gorges.” The hillsides will be dripping and splashing with unnamed waterfalls erupting from the refreshed streams, some only one or two feet wide, others as wide as highways. Best of all, with a short hike or road ride, the trail takes you to the 215-foot Taughannock Falls.
The trail name derives from the luxurious Black Diamond passenger line run by the Lehigh Valley Railroad to Ithaca from 1896 to 1959. The black diamond refers to the anthracite (hard) coal the company so profitably transported from eastern Pennsylvania mines for many years.
Perhaps the most surprising revelation of this finely crushed stone trail is not that it is all uphill, but that it’s an extraordinarily easy uphill ride. Why is that a revelation? Because if you’re familiar with the roads leaving from Ithaca towards the trail’s destination of Taughannock Falls, you know they travel up hills. Sometimes very steep hills.
You may think, “There’s no way I’m going to ride an entirely uphill trail.” But don’t let the word “uphill” intimidate you. That’s actually the appeal. While going uphill may sound difficult, it’s actually easy because the grade of this former railroad track is so slight that you’ll only drop down a gear or two.
Over its 8-mile length the altitude gain is only 434 feet, less than 62 feet a mile. And because the big treat is turning around for a chilling, possibly thrilling return ride, you should start your outing in Ithaca.
The rewards of riding this trail are threefold: bragging rights for riding an entirely uphill trail, exhilaration that lingers long after you complete the all-downhill return ride and best of all, serenity for pedaling to the alluring destination of Taughannock Falls via a nature trail.
Not convinced it’s for you? Here’s what our two riders have to say. My senior-aged neighbor Maureen–a self-proclaimed social rider who has taken on several dozen rail-trail rides around the state–says, “It’s very gradual, woodsy, shaded and a great payoff at the end–a beautiful waterfall.” Indira, in her mid-30s, exclaims, “I love the BDT; I can go if I’m in or out of shape, and still be challenged and enjoy the ride.”
At mile 3.5 (the first road crossing after leaving Ithaca) look to the field up the hill on the left and you may spot a small herd of bison. At the Taughannock end of the trail, take the few steps to the pedestrian bridge crossing over the creek. If the park Grinches haven’t intervened, you may find it’s a love lock bridge. Even more impressive is the large, inaccessible waterfall beneath the bridge and the view upstream of the classic stone bridge that was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the depression.
To get to the Taughannock Falls overlook (and restrooms), you can either walk the rim trail or bike a short distance on the road. Back to my neighbor Maureen, who has both biked and walked to the falls overlook: “Walking the rim trail gives you some great wood views of the waterfall.” If you walk it from the pedestrian bridge, you get to keep that feeling you’re on a nature trail. To walk, continue across the bridge and follow the rim trail (bikes not allowed) a half mile to the falls overlook. To get there by bike, walk your bike the few yards down to the parking lot, turn right onto Jacksonsville Road, make an immediate right onto Taughannock Park Road and pedal the half mile to the overlook. Note that part of the road is a bit steep.
Turning Point Park Trail
If a long, hard, endorphin-releasing ride appeals to you, then the ride on Turning Point Trail won’t. Instead, you’ll find it a great leisure ride (or walk) with several points of interest to engage you. Maureen says she loves this trail and highly recommends it on any good weather day, but says it’s especially nice in mid to late October when the river reflects the fall colors.
Located in the northwest part of Rochester known as Charlotte, it provides an asphalt trail with a few gentle short hills (one short steep one, downhill at the start) and a very cool boardwalk. The trail goes all the way out to Ontario Beach Park. Stick solely to the trail and the roundtrip ride is about 8 miles. Do some meandering and you can bump that up to 10, 12 or even more miles. Keep in mind that it’s part of the much longer Genesee Riverview Trail, which is a combo nature-streetside trail roughly tracking the Genesee River as it moves through the city out to Lake Ontario.
Right from the start, you get to cross the usually placid broad throat of the Genesee River on a 3,572-foot long boardwalk bridge forming the sweetest S curve you may ever ride. You not only get the palpitating and muscle-pleasing vibrations of the boardwalk, but your tires striking the boards create an ear-pleasuring thrumming that sounds like a cougar’s purr (google it). There won’t be a cougar crouching in the brush, but keep an eye on the river for mute swans, ducks, herons and turtles, and for pileated woodpeckers and deer in the woods.
After the boardwalk, the trail winds a mile and half through woods alongside the river until you emerge at the marina. In a minute or two, right after you see Hemingway’s giant face, look to the left. You’ll spot a lighthouse turret and part of the 200-year-old handsome brick Charlotte Genesee lighthouse/museum. It’s open Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from 1-5 p.m. through October. To get there turn left at the end of the boardwalk trail and take the short road up to Lake Avenue. Turn left onto the traffic-facing sidewalk and, as you approach the first traffic signal, turn left onto the clearly marked trail leading from the sidewalk to the lighthouse.
Once you’re done looking, head back the way you came and work your way through the parking lots toward the river while keeping a northward (toward the lake) course. Soon you’ll spot the historic Dentzel Menagerie Carousel with 52 carved animals (open on nice fall weekends at noon). Finally, you can ride the pier out to the harbor light and then explore the beach and watch a volleyball game or two before heading to Lake Avenue or the riverside restaurants.
Why the name Turning Point? Because this is where the big cargo ships came and turned around after delivering their cargo. Even today, Canadian cement boats tie up right below the parking lot overlook and hook up their large hoses to existing pipes to transfer dry cement from the ship to the factory just across the street from the parking lot.
On the return leg, if you feel you’ve completed your outing, once you cross the boardwalk, turn right and go back up the steep hill to the parking lot. If you’d like to extend your trip and take on a moderate mile-long hill, keep to the left and follow the asphalt up the hill. At the half-mile point, you’ll see a trail branch and trail sign to the right that takes you back to your parking lot. Don’t go back yet, but remember it for when you return from this short outing.
Keep going up to Lake Avenue, turn left and take the street-side paved trail one-third mile to Riverside Cemetery. This sprawling cemetery offers a few miles of paved roads, lots of large trees and peaceful surroundings to cap off your trip. The rest of the Genesee River Trail awaits the truly adventurous, but for this outing, we’re done.