A Paddler's Paradise: Kayaking in New York's Finger Lakes

Sunset on Keuka Lake in New York's Finger Lakes region
Sunset on Keuka Lake in New York's Finger Lakes region Stephanie Cohen
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Do yourself a favor and forget about every other place on your fall outdoor wish list. Actually, ball up the list and chuck it in the trashcan. There's only one spot worth escaping to from the city this shoulder season: the Finger Lakes Region in Central New York. Four hours from the bustle of NYC, the Finger Lakes region is a place that feels worlds away.

With a chain of 11 lakes and hundreds of miles of shoreline, one great paddling place practically flows into the next. As for the Finger Lakes name, it comes from the resemblance the lakes have to a splay of boney digits—at least when you’re looking from above or at a map.

A popular spot for all kinds of watercraft, the Finger Lakes are generally more busy—and choppy—on the weekends. If kayaking is your focus, include a couple of weekdays in your trip so you can enjoy a few more peaceful outings.

Below is a where-to-guide to get you on some of the biggest lakes. Hours to days of kayaking adventure await, depending how long you can get away.

Keuka Lake

Early morning on Keuka Lake in the Finger Lakes, NY
Early morning on Keuka Lake in the Finger Lakes, NY Stephanie Cohen

Keuka (pronounced Kyoo-ka) Lake is almost 20 miles long and just about two miles across at its widest part. When kayaking, there's always a chance it may flip. For an anecdotal tip, put some sort of strap on your glasses or sunglasses. If you go for a swim, unintentionally or on purpose, a lake depth of up to 180 feet makes it unlikely you'll find any lost possessions.

For easy water access, consider renting a house on the lake or head to Keuka State Park, located off Route 54A just east of Branchport. You’ll have to pay a park user fee to park unless you buy an Empire State Pass in advance (which gets you into most New York state parks and recreational facilities for one annual fee).  Something worth thinking about before you go. You can also camp at the park.

With a giant "Y" shape, Keuka Lake is an easy place to explore while you get your kayaking confidence. For more fun, simply go further and cover more terrain. If you want to kayak the length of the longest part of the “Y,” head to Village of Penn Yan (pronounced Penn Ann), located at the northern most point of the lake. There are ramps and docks and no fees.

Seneca Lake and Cayuga Lake

Glenora Outlet on Seneca Lake
Glenora Outlet on Seneca Lake Alex

If you want to cover long miles, consider the two longest lakes. Seneca Lake is 37-miles long and Cayuga is 40-miles in length.

The largest of the Finger Lakes, Seneca Lake is surrounded by hilltops filled with grapes and wine—a perfect outing once you've finished kayaking for the day. While plenty of people also travel to Seneca for the chance to hike Watkins Glen, it is a kayaker's heaven with loads of rental shops and convenient access to the water.

Seneca Lake State Park in Geneva, at the northern end of the lake has public boat launches, a marina, picnic area, and a swimming beach. The Municipal Campgrounds and Marina in Montour Falls is another convenient camping spot with lake access for kayaks. Boaters can access the lake through the Old Barge Canal.

At the southern tip of Cayuga Lake is Allen H. Treman State Marine Park, one of the largest inland marinas in New York, where you can also rent kayaks until November 30. This is a great option if you’ll have just one day on the water. When you’re done, leave a little time to hop over to the Robert H. Treman State Park, just five miles south, and check out the incredible waterfalls and gorges.

Reagan’s Canoe and Kayak Livery, which is based on the western side of Seneca Lake rents single-and double-kayaks. They'll also deliver them to your dock so you don't have to try to fit them in a car.

Canandaigua Lake

Kayaking in the Finger Lakes, NY
Kayaking in the Finger Lakes, NY Stephanie Cohen

Canandaigua (pronounced Can-an-day-goo-ah) is a smaller 15-mile long lake that sports Squaw Island, one of only two islands in the eleven Finger Lakes. Canandaigua Lake State Marine Park , at the northern end of the lake, has a short canal. You can rent a kayak onsite through November 30.

Kershaw Park is another spot to visit at the northern end if you have your own kayak. There are also public launch areas on the east side of the lake and the Canandaigua Lake State Boat Launch in Woodville at the southern end. The Hi-Tor Wildlife Management area in Naples, N.Y. also has several access points and lets you feed into Canandaigua, Lake.

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