When people think of New York, their brains usually jump straight to the city and its boroughs. Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, Staten Island, Broadway, Times Square, Wall Street, the Rockefeller Center, the Statue of Liberty! As a native Western New Yorker though, I’m here to remind you that New York is, in fact, quite a large state that stretches far beyond the city—all the way west to Ohio and north past Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Vermont to meet Canada. In addition to the fashion capital of the United States, this beautiful state boasts tranquil forests, quaint little towns, rolling hills, rustic old farms, endless swimming opportunities in lakes, streams, and waterfall pools, and a surprising amount of wildlife.
Though I haven’t lived there in many years, scenic Western New York is where I grew up, went to college, and where most of my family still lives. It played a massive part in my love for the outdoors, and it will always have a piece of my heart. Recently, I made a trip back home to visit my folks, and while I was there, I decided to check out New York’s very own long trail—the Finger Lakes Trail—while reconnecting with some of my Appalachian Trail friends who live in New York and Massachusetts. It did not disappoint. Though I was only on the trail for about three days, I was totally charmed by it!
The Basics – What is the Finger Lakes Trail?
The Finger Lakes Trail (FLT) runs for 584 miles from Allegany State Park in southwestern New York (this part of the state is known as the Southern Tier) east to the better-known Catskill Forest Preserve. These 600ish miles are part of the much longer North Country National Scenic Trail, which spans 4,700 miles from North Dakota to Vermont. The trail crosses through state parks, state forests, wildlife management areas, and even across some private land. In addition, there are hundreds of miles of trails that extend from the main end-to-end FLT.
The FLT passes through the renowned Finger Lakes Region in Central New York, which is where the trail gets its name. The Finger Lakes Region is not only known for the eleven finger-shaped lakes from which it gets its name, but it is also New York’s wine country, where world-class Rieslings, Gewurztraminers, and other varieties are produced. (I attend the Finger Lakes Wine Festival every year—it is THE MOST FUN!). I was honestly hoping to stumble upon a winery as I trekked along the FLT but unfortunately it did not happen!
Planning a Trek Along the Finger Lakes Trail
When I was back home in New York, I wanted to reconnect with both the forests that I had called home for so long, as well as my AT tramily who lived in Eastern New York and Massachusetts. However, I had a limited amount of time to do so—just a long weekend—and my friends live hours away from my parents’ house where I was staying. Because the FLT crosses a large chunk of New York State and spans for so many miles, it ended up being the perfect choice, allowing my friends and I to meet somewhere in the middle. We ultimately chose to hike a 37.5-mile section of trail from Robert H. Treman State Park near Ithaca to Watkins Glen State Park in Watkins Glen. Both of these parks are absolutely stunning—known for their waterfalls and gorges carved out of shale, so I assumed the country in between would be stunning as well. (I was right).
If you’ve done much backpacking, then you know hiker hunger starts pretty much as soon as you get into the woods with your pack. Oh, you have to live on the ramen and candy bars that you have on your back? Your mind will immediately and urgently start thinking about all the “society food” that you can get upon finishing your miles. The FLT actually marches straight through downtown Watkins Glen, which is FULL of restaurants and eateries, which is a major reason we decided to hike it in this direction.
The Nitty Gritty
Unlike some of the more well-known long trails like the AT and the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), I could not find a ton of information about the FLT ahead of time. Luckily, there are paper and digital maps available from the Finger Lakes Trail Conference (FLTC), which is what we ended up using, but these don’t compare to the plethora of resources available for the AT and PCT, for example (what’s up AWOL and Guthook Guides!).
The FLT is broken up into 33 smaller sections (labeled M1 through M33), beginning with M1 in Allegany State Park and ending with M33 in the Catskills. The FLTC offers a free interactive map on their website, but if you want the locations of water sources, campsites, and more, you’ll have to purchase their more detailed maps, which I would recommend doing both for the knowledge and because it helps to support the maintenance of the trail. I also found helpful descriptions of each section on CNYHiking.com, which I’d recommend checking out for more detailed information.
While I think the FLTC does a decent job with their maps and I’m sure spent a good deal of time creating them, I would caution that since they are just static maps, they do not reflect recent trail conditions, etc. For example, because we were hiking during a drier time of year, the water sources listed on the map were often dried up. Even predicting this could happen, a couple of the people in our group almost ran out of water, so I would caution extra preparedness, especially for those used to the up-to-date information from programs like Guthooks.
In addition, even though we researched places that we could park ahead of time, one of the parking lots that we planned to park at did not allow overnight visitors, though we did not know that until we arrived. Luckily, this was the lot in the middle of Watkins Glen where we had cell reception and a visitor’s center to ask at so we were able to find a new place to park, but by the time we got to Robert H. Treman State Park, our service was nil. So, all I’m saying here, is that without the availability of up-to-date comments from users, etc., it does not hurt to be extra prepared with information and resources.
One last consideration is that because the FLT runs through some private land, there are special rules at some points of the year. For example, deer hunting is especially popular in many regions of Upstate New York, and the FLT is no exception. We happened to be there during bow hunting season, so we were sure to wear right colors (check out my sexy orange vest in my photos from the trail!), and in some places, we were rerouted around sections of the forest that were closed because of this. Check the FLTC trail conditions page for information such as this before you go.
The Loveliness of the Trail
This trail, despite never running into a winery like I’d hoped, was absolutely lovely. The terrain was easy, leading us up and over gentle rolling hills through serene forests, and we passed multiple little gorges with little waterfalls running through them. We were lucky enough to be there during peak autumn, when the hills popped in Fruity Pebble oranges, reds, and yellows. Despite it being leaf-peeping season, we hardly saw another soul on trail the entire time we were out there! Though there was some road walking, especially as we got close to Watkins Glen, most of it was on back country roads, and it was fun to pass by the houses and yards, taking a small peak into life in rural Western New York. There was even an AT-style shelter or two, which we were obviously charmed by. One even had a pond with a dock and Adirondack chairs, which in hiker world is living LARGE! There must be some really engaged trail volunteers out that way, and we sure appreciated them for it!
Our second night on trail, we found ourselves at one of the most stunning campsites that I have ever stayed at. We had planned to hike even farther, but this place was too good to pass on by. It was a forested little pond with incredible views of the hill beyond, with a nice grassy patch with a campfire ring in front of the pond where we cooked dinner, made a fire, and sipped on boxed wine and hard ciders. (Pro tip: always pack out wine!). The leaves were popping vibrantly in their autumn colors, and their reflection in the water made the pond look otherworldly.
Two hikers even came by the pond looking for a cranberry bog in the area, which I did not even know grew in New York! Apparently, they found it less than a quarter mile away, warning us that the water was insanely cold and they wouldn’t recommend going in. We tried to find it the next morning, but having never seen a cranberry bog before, we were unsure if we wound up in the right place, though we did see a bunch of red berries growing on bushes farther out in the bog. The verdict is still out on if that was the cranberry bog or not! We also passed many grape vines along our trek, though of course their season was past by the time we went through in autumn. From what I’ve been told, because birds eat the grapes at wineries, they end up dropping seeds all over the region, so grapes are liable to pop up anywhere!
Because I was out on the trail with tramily, I felt magically transported back to the Appalachian Trail, but the very easiest, most gentle parts of the Appalachian Trail with the fewest crowds imaginable (zero crowds, and barely any other people, in fact). It was a phenomenal way to spend a weekend, reconnecting with friends and nature alike, and if you find yourself in Upstate New York and you’re looking for a bit of adventure on the easier side, I would definitely recommend the Finger Lakes Trail. If you do visit, please let me know if you find a winery along your trek (I want to know where they’re hidden!), and if not, I’d definitely recommend checking out one or two Finger Lakes wineries afterward (but stay away from reds!).