Paddling in the Finger Lakes region of New York has a long history. Canoeing, in particular, dates back hundreds of years, perhaps even thousands, to the original residents of the Finger Lakes, the Iroquois, and their birch bark canoes. Keuka Lake, one of the region’s most unique spots for paddling, is a testament to how important a role the canoe played for the Iroquois— “keuka” means canoe landing in the native tongue.

Carved by glacial movement, many of the area’s long, skinny lakes have steep and rocky shorelines. But Keuka Lake is special because it has a sloping shoreline that makes access to the water easy. Even inexperienced paddlers can feel safe here as the shallowness of this lake means it gets warm and heats up faster than the surrounding lakes. Ready to get started? Here’s what you need to know to get the most out of a paddling trip to this scenic region.

Canoeing and Kayaking on Lake Keuka

A kayak is a relaxing way to enjoy the Finger Lakes region. Stu Gallagher

Early settlers called it “the crooked lake,” due to its unique y-shape. About 20 miles long, Keuka Lake has plenty of sprawling shoreline dotted by boat docks and restaurants along the way. If you’re not already renting a house with its own dock access, there are many spots to launch a boat, including the wonderful Keuka Lake State Park. Nestled on the Bluff Point hillside, the park has a lovely beach along the shore of the west branch of the lake. And as an added bonus, you’ll find spectacular views of the lake from up on the bluff.

Keuka is the only one of the Finger Lakes that drains into another lake, lending itself to one of the area’s most popular day trips—paddling up the Keuka Lake Outlet on the eastern branch. This seven-mile canoe or kayak venture connects the towns of Penn Yan on Lake Keuka to Dresden on Seneca Lake. This scenic tour includes a couple of lovely waterfalls that need to be portaged, but it’s well worth the effort, particularly in the fall when foliage is changing.

If you want to put your paddling skills to the test, consider the Paddle Keuka 5K Race held in August. Now in its fourth year, it’s a fun adventure for newbies and experienced paddlers alike, who will travel across Keuka Lake and back to support the Finger Lakes Museum & Aquarium.

Is it fireflies or fairies? On the Saturday before Labor Day, boaters on Lake Keuka might not be sure. Perhaps one of the most fun ways to experience the magic of canoeing on open water is during the annual Ring of Fire, when residents along the shore light fires, torches, and fireworks creating sparkling lights around the lake all evening long. It’s a magical experience.

Paddling Beyond the Lake

South of the lake in Steuben County and running through a glacial valley, the Chemung River is prime for a paddling adventure. It forms at the intersection of the Cohocton River and the Tioga River in Corning, New York, and the gently flowing Class I river meanders along for 46 miles before eventually reaching the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania. It’s an excellent option for both serious paddlers and those who would rather enjoy the view and let the river do most of the work. Either way, it’s a scenic ride, and you’ve got a good shot to spot falcons, bald eagles, sandpipers, egrets, great blue herons, deer, and other small mammals that call the region home. If you take the river all the way to Elmira, you might be able to spot some ospreys that are nesting there.

If unsure where to begin, you can book a guided trip with Southern Tier Kayak Tours, which will have you laughing and learning as you travel down the river with passionate and knowledgeable guides. Guests can choose from one of three paddling tours of the region, and each includes a lesson, all of the gear you’ll need, and a shuttle service back to the car.

The History of Boating in the Region

Canoeing and kayaking have become popular ways to explore the region, and if you don’t have a boat of your own, you can find lots of rental options. Corning and the Southern Finger Lakes

For more on the history of the region, paddling buffs won’t want to miss the Finger Lakes Boating Museum in Hammondsport. Founded to preserve the boating history of the Finger Lakes, the museum now houses about 200 vessels, many of which were locally built. Most were constructed by the 40 or more commercial builders operating throughout the Finger Lakes Region during the last century.

The most famous, and largest, of the boat builders was the Penn Yan Boat Company, whose heyday was the roaring 20s into the mid-1930s. It built a full line of wooden boats including magnificent canoes and rowboats, several of which are on display. In fact, the region was once one of the top rowboat producers in the country, and the visit to the museum offers a glimpse into this period of the region’s history.

From Native American birch bark canoes to sleek modern kayaks, paddling in the Finger Lakes has evolved quite a bit. But while the boats may look different now, a self-powered adventure on the water here is a memory worth making.

Written by Lisa Collard for Matcha in partnership with Steuben County and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to