If you have a hankering for wide open spaces and appreciate the beauty of nature, there are so many ways to enjoy the great outdoors in CNY. Central New York’s diversity extends to the natural landscape, whether you’re looking on land, on water or in the air. Here are 10 ways to take in the scenery that are a breath of fresh air.
The New York State Parks in CNY provide a little of everything: spots for hiking, swimming, golf, sand volleyball, history lessons, unique geology and picturesque views. Parks in the Finger Lakes and Central regions are perfect for a few hours of fun or overnight stays; most have campsites or cabins. New York has worked to make state lands accessible and family friendly.
Watkins Glen State Park, in the Finger Lakes region, was ranked third in a USA Today 10Best list of state parks in the US. Many allow pets if they’re leashed.
Most New York State Parks charge a vehicle use fee to enter the facility. Fees vary by location and season. The state offers an Empire Pass that costs $65 and entitles you to free admission to most state parks for an entire year. The pass pays for itself with six to eight visits.
To “visit” some of our area’s parks in advance, check out these virtual tours.
Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge
Located 35 miles west of Syracuse at the north end of Cayuga Lake in the Finger Lakes region, the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge has been a destination since 1938.
The refuge consists of 9,809 acres spread across three counties. Its mix of habitats – including forest, marsh and grassland – is home, at least part of the year, to 242 species of birds, 43 species of mammals, 15 species of reptiles and 16 species of amphibians. The bald eagle was endangered; now the refuge has six active nests and dozens of eagles.
A visitor center is open from mid-March through December 1, and the Wildlife Drive opens on April 1. Dog walking is allowed on the Seneca Trail if dogs are leashed. There’s an ADA-approved fishing area, environmental education programming and wildlife photographers can test their skills.
Speaking of birds, you can brush up on your avian knowledge with Cornell University’s Bird Academy.
Whether you’re into bird watching or just like to listen along to the birdsong in your backyard, take advantage of the offerings from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Free online lectures, educational videos and games for kids are available. For those with a more serious interest, free and paid courses in range in commitment from one hour to 100 hours. Start with the eBird Essentials (free), try your hand at Nature Journaling and Field Sketching, identifying species, or work your way through the university-level Ornithology: Comprehensive Bird Biology course (paid).
In and around Ithaca, where Cornell is located, there are several can’t-miss waterfalls: Taughannock Falls, Buttermilk Falls, and Lower Falls. Taughannock is actually three stories taller than Niagara Falls. At the base of Buttermilk Falls, swim in a natural pool. Lower Falls itself provides a scenic backdrop for swimmers jumping off the diving board; Lucifer Falls is in the same park.
Waterfalls elsewhere in the area that are worth a trip include Chittenango Falls, Rainbow Falls at Watkins Glen State Park and the Salmon River Falls.
The beautiful Finger Lakes are an extremely popular tourist attraction and place to live. Renowned for its wineries, gorgeous waters, arts and culture, the region offers so many ways to enjoy the outdoors, such as:
The Finger Lakes Land Trust – 35 nature preserves conserved by the FLIT are open to the public at no charge. Walk or hike through these different landscapes to appreciate what we have access to year-round.
Have some old-fashioned fun at the Finger Lakes Drive-In Theater just outside Auburn. New York State’s oldest continually running drive in has been operating since 1947. Order some popcorn and other snacks for car-side delivery while you enjoy the show.
Of course, swimming in or boating on the lakes themselves provides low key fun.
Another famous waterway in our area, the historic Erie Canal is responsible for the growth of so many towns and cities along its path. The Erie Canalway Trail covers 363 miles from Albany to Buffalo following parts of the original canal, particularly between the state capital and DeWitt, an eastern suburb of Syracuse. On the other side of Syracuse, the trail picks back up in Camillus and largely follows the Enlarged Erie Canal heading west. It’s a favorite spot to run, walk and cycle.
Anglers of all ages can find great fishing and ice fishing in Central New York. Our waterways are well-ranked by enthusiast publications Bassmaster Magazine and In-Fisherman Magazine. Some of our fishing hot spots include:
The Finger Lakes, especially these options
Lace up your hiking shoes or some comfortable sneakers for hikes of varying degrees of difficulty all throughout our area. Of course, the state parks offer plenty of great hiking trails. CNYhiking.com is a comprehensive website highlighting a variety of hikes in the counties of CNY (Onondaga, Tompkins, Cortland, Oneida, Oswego, Madison and Cayuga) and beyond.
Top places to hike include Highland Forest (called the “Adirondacks of Central New York”), Green Lakes, the Cascadilla Gorge Trail, Baltimore Woods Nature Center and Beaver Lake Nature Center. If you’re prepped for cold weather, here are some recommended winter snowshoe hikes in CNY and throughout Upstate New York.
Many of the places where Central New Yorkers walk and run are also great places to bike. Local shops such as Bike Loft and Mello Velo put together group rides at different locations. Cyclists can also join groups like CNY D.I.R.T. or Cycle-CNY for more cycling camaraderie. For an urban spin, check out groups like Slow Roll Syracuse.
Loop the Lake
Loop the Lake is a project to connect different stretches around Onondaga Lake that will allow pedestrians to traverse the entire perimeter of the lake – a 12-mile loop. The existing trails will be joined to each other and to the Onondaga Creekwalk. This work is expected to be finished by the end of 2020. By the end of year, people will be able to walk from the Inner Harbor to the New York State Fairgrounds and all the way to Liverpool, around the northern tip of the lake.
Construction on a planned Lake Lounge, a large deck with tiered seating on the lakeshore at the terminus of the Creekwalk, is expected to begin this summer.
Bonus: Your own backyard: If you live in Central New York, you’re bound to encounter a variety of wildlife to appreciate, as outdoors reporter Dave Figura can attest.
What is your favorite way to enjoy the great outdoors in CNY?