While we hear plenty about the Appalachian Trail, New York’s long-enduring Finger Lakes Trail(FLT) has managed to slip beneath the radar of most East Coast hikers and backpackers. Meandering across the southern portion of west-central New York for 580 miles, the trail showcases some of the most spectacular scenery in the Empire State—past family farms and historic towns, through hardwood forests, and along precipitous gorges, all while skirting the region’s ancient glacial lakes.
While charting its course across New York from Allegany State Park to the Catskill Forest Preserve, the main Finger Lakes Trail also splinters off into an extensive series of branch, loop, and spur routes, creating a massive trail system totaling nearly 1,000 miles. The Finger Lakes Trail system also offers access to a handful of the East Coast’s other long-distance footpaths, including the Great Eastern Trail, the Long Path, and unheralded gems like western New York’s Conservation Trail, which meets Canada’s Bruce Trail in Niagara Falls. For approximately 420 miles, from the Pennsylvania border until just northeast of Cortland, the Finger Lakes Trail also serves as the route for the North Country National Scenic Trail, a 4,600-mile hiking path running from New York to North Dakota.
Inspired largely by the Appalachian Trail, the FLT was envisioned just a few decades after Benton MacKaye first pitched the idea for the East Coast’s most iconic footpath. In 1961, after hiking portions of the Appalachian Trail and the Long Trail in New England, and reflecting on the landscape of the Finger Lakes region, outdoor enthusiast and western New York resident Wallace Wood dreamed up the notion of a long-distance footpath across central New York. Just a year later, Wood’s vision was set into motion with the creation of the Finger Lakes Trail Conference. Five decades after Wood first conceived the idea, the non-profit organization still maintains and continues to expand the epic footpath, relying on assistance from volunteers and regional outdoor clubs.
There are plenty of sections perfect for a day hike if you don’t want to tackle the entire thing. Photo courtesy of Corning and the Southern Finger Lakes
Why Hike It
The Finger Lakes Trail provides an enticing blend of scenery, history, and bucolic charm. The bulk of the trail is located in central New York’s eponymous Finger Lakes region, a glacier-chiseled landscape punctuated by deep, slender lakes, plunging gorges, and towering waterfalls, which also happens to be one of the country’s most prolific wine-producing regions.
Between the Pennsylvania border and the Catskills Forest Preserve, the FLT strings together dozens of state forests, eight state parks, and the Finger Lakes National Forest—but also serves as a portal to some of central New York’s most inviting towns. Hikers can deviate from the trail to explore the smattering of lakeside wineries outside Hammondsport, sample the offerings at Ithaca’s famed ice cream parlors, or tour the iconic Corning Museum of Glass in Corning.
In comparison to other distance trails like the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail, hikers on the FLT will get two priceless commodities: solitude and serenity. Less than 400 thru-hikers completed the entire Finger Lakes Trail between 1974 and 2017, according to the tally kept by the Finger Lakes Trail Conference. In addition to mingling with central New York’s trademark dairy cows, the solitude afforded by the Finger Lakes Trail provides hikers ample opportunity to spot the region’s resident fauna, including white-tailed deer, barred owls, and coyotes.
If you’re looking for solitude, try the Finger Lakes Trail. Photo courtesy of Corning and the Southern Finger Lakes
For hikers and backpackers without the time to tackle the entire Finger Lakes Trail system, there are many ways to get a bite-sized taste of the extensive footpath. The ample mileage and breadth of side trails means there is something for all sorts of outdoor lovers.
Birders can search for scarlet tanagers and black-capped chickadees at Birdseye Hollow State Forest in Bath, while seasonal petal peepers can catch the spring wildflower bloom at the Sweedler Preserve just outside Ithaca, and budding geologists can gape at towering trailside formations in the Little Rock City State Forest, along the western leg of the Finger Lakes Trail.
While the footpath is named for west-central New York’s Finger Lakes, the distance trail also showcases some of the state’s most dramatic scenery (think glacier-carved gorges and thundering waterfalls), providing plenty of fodder for epic day hikes and backpacking trips.
In central New York, a 21.5-mile portion of the Finger Lakes Trail winds through Letchworth State Park, treating hikers to a natural wonder fondly nicknamed the ‘Grand Canyon of the East.’ At the southern edge of the park, hikers can peel off the Finger Lakes Trail to tackle the 7-mile Gorge Trail, which provide an eyeful of the tumbling waterfalls adorning Genesee River Gorge. Farther east at Watkins Glen State Park, the Finger Lakes Trails parallels a stream-laced chasm bedecked with 19 waterfalls.
Wedged between Seneca Lake and Cayuga Lake, the Finger Lakes National Forest treats hikers to a quintessential Finger Lakes Trail sampler and opportunities to cobble together a multi-day loop. Only about 4.5 miles of the Finger Lakes Trails runs through the lake-cradled national forest, but the footpath serves as a portal to a 30-mile trail network ideal for weekend outings. Inside the national forest, the Finger Lakes Trail crosses paths with the 12-mile Interlocken Trail, a northbound route running through the heart of the protected area, and providing options for easy weekend loops linking the Burnt Hill or Chicken Coop trails.
The Finger Lakes Trail is a favorite for serious hikers, families with young children, and everyone in between. Photo courtesy of Corning and the Southern Finger Lakes
Tips for Thru-hikers
While the Finger Lakes Trail meanders through some of New York’s most spectacular public lands, nearly a third of the footpath’s route is on private land. When planning a trip on Finger Lakes Trail, thru-hikers should be mindful of portions of the trail traversing private property, and plan a route which ensures tents are pitched only in places where camping is permitted. The volunteer-driven Finger Lakes Trail Conference provides detailed maps and trail updates, while also offering critical logical support to thru-hikers, including arranging ‘car spotters’ to assist with transportation along the route.
Written by Malee Baker Oot for RootsRated Media in partnership with Steuben County.