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What are the Finger Lakes

Every year, millions of people flock to the 14 counties that make up the Finger Lakes region, visiting for its many wineries, breweries, summer and winter recreation, or merely to breathe in the scenic views, and there are many others who call this region our home. Year-round, no matter the season, there is always an event, festival, activity, or something new to explore and discover. But while the area offers fresh and exciting experiences, it is also steeped in history. There is even a creationism legend surrounding the lakes. 

Yet despite the lakes’ seemingly ancient presence, the first record of the Finger Lakes being referred to as such only dates back to the 1800s. And yet, the 11 lakes that resemble fingers laying a handprint across Central New York have existed for more than two million years, giving life, beauty, and recreation to our region.  

Forming a triangle between Syracuse, Rochester, and Elmira-Corning, the lakes— Canadice, Cayuga, Canandaigua, Conesus, Hemlock, Honeoye, Keuka, Otisco, Owasco, Seneca, and Skaneateles—were created during the last ice age when the glaciers receded, carving deep lakes from stream valleys. While there are many reasons and elements that make up the character of our region, the topography is at the heart of the Finger Lakes.

The Lakes

The perfect spot for nature lovers looking for peace and possible run-ins with local wildlife, Canadice Lake is free of development, allowing visitors to immerse themselves in a lake adventure or a hike surrounded by the natural world. Located in the southwestern part of Ontario County, the lake is nicknamed the “long lake,” but Canadice is actually the smallest of the Finger Lakes at three miles long and a maximum depth of 95 feet. While some recreation is allowed, permits are required for fishing and boating. Swimming is prohibited because the lake is used as a water source for Rochester. 

Of the 11 lakes, Cayuga Lake — located near Aurora, Interlaken, Trumansburg, and Ithaca—is the longest of the Finger Lakes at just under 40 miles, and it is roughly 435 feet deep. To dig in and truly embrace what this lake has to offer, take the 87-mile Cayuga Lake Scenic Byway, which runs from northern Seneca Falls to Ithaca. Our region’s topography is also known for producing award-winning wines, and Cayuga Lake is home to the country’s first designated wine trail, Cayuga Lake Wine Trail. Along the way, you’ll be sure to see a waterfall or gorge. 

Coming in at a close second in length is Seneca Lake at 38 miles long, running from the north end of Geneva to the southern end of Watkins Glen. But it is actually the largest lake by volume and has a maximum depth of 618 feet, making it the deepest of the Finger Lakes. Famed as the Lake Trout Capital of the World, it offers a hot spot for fishing. Its deep depths and microclimates, however, also make it an ideal spot for growing grapes, and it is home to the Seneca Lake Wine Trail.

A popular boating and swimming spot in the summer, Canandaigua Lake is the fourth largest of the Finger Lakes, running from the City of Canandaigua to Naples. Its name is said to be derived from the Native American word, “Kanandarque,” meaning the “chosen spot,” which was adopted by the city as its motto. Sprawling against the skyline, Canandaigua Lake is prime for adventure and is home to the 11,000-year-old Squaw Island, only one of two islands in the Finger Lakes. 

Located in Livingston County on the most western part of the region, Conesus Lake is eight miles long and considered a quieter, but still popular, destination for swimming, boating, and fishing in the summer, and ice fishing and snowmobiling in the winter. 
Much like Canadice, Hemlock Lake in Livingston and Ontario counties is used as a source for water, so development is restricted and swimming prohibited. However, boats no longer than 16 feet can be taken out on its quiet shores where fishing enthusiasts may try and catch one of the lake's landlocked salmon in an environment that has been preserved in its natural state. 

Honeoye Lake is the shallowest of the Finger Lakes, reaching only 30 feet at its deepest point, and it is also the second smallest of the lakes, situated near the town of Richmond in Ontario County. Its name is said to be derived from the Seneca word “ha-ne-a-yah,” which mean, “lying finger.” Like many of the other lakes, it offers visitors a prime spot for boating and swimming, as well as opportunities for fishing enthusiasts to catch bluegill, pumpkinseed, yellow perch, and black crappie. Because of its shallow depths, the lake freezes over in the Finger Lakes’ chilly winters, providing winter recreation for ice-skating and ice fishing fans. 

As the third largest lake, Keuka Lake is 19.6 miles in length and is known for providing the microclimate needed to grow grapes and produce delicious wines, which is why there are a number of wineries to visit along the shores of the lake.  Unlike the other lakes, it has its own unique shape and is known as the “crooked lake,” because it resembles a “Y,” similar to Lake Como in Italy which was also formed by glaciers. Keuka Lake has the distinction of being one of the only lakes in the country that flows both north and south. Nearby towns include Penn Yan, Branchport, and Hammondsport.

As the most eastern lake in the Finger Lakes, Otisco Lake is closest to Syracuse in Onondaga County and serves as a source for public drinking water and kept stocked with fish. A causeway at the south end of the lake is a popular spot for launching canoes and kayaks, and for fishing. 

Cayuga County’s Owasco Lake is the sixth largest of the Finger Lakes and located near the town of Auburn. It is 11 miles in length and shallower, much like Honeoye Lake, making it a prime spot in the summers for swimming because of its warmer waters. There are areas for camping along the shores. 

The cleanest of the lakes is Skaneateles Lake, which is considered one of the cleanest in the United States and passes to homes unfiltered. There are waterfront restaurants to enjoy its crystalline lake views and designated swimming areas. At 16 miles long, it spans through Onondaga, Cayuga, and Cortland counties. 

While the Finger Lakes region derives its name from the lakes that grace the land with their beauty and abundance of life, the area is comprised of so much more— from the recreation, wine, brew crafters, and amazing history that truly makes this a fascinating place to explore.