Updated: Apr 26, 2022
by Laura Henry
There are a lot of goals to be set and accomplished out there, and this article is the result of a goal that I set and accomplished myself this year.
None of you reading this need me to tell you that 2020 has been a tricky year for goal-based endurance athletes. Without races to look forward to, athletes all over the world have had to revisit their goals, rediscover their “why” for being involved in endurance sports, and find a way to keep themselves moving in a healthy, joyful way.
In May 2020, I found myself sidelined with bursitis in my hip - specifically in my iliopectineal bursa. This injury is a side effect/surgery-related complication from an injury I sustained five years ago. Long story short, the pain was so severe that I couldn’t walk or sit without extreme pain. As such, I was off of all activity, in physical therapy, and left wondering what was next for me.
As my pain levels reduced and I started to get stronger, my physical therapist gave me the blessing to start cycling again. We did try to re-introduce running, but my body didn’t respond well to that, so I eliminated running entirely and focused on cycling only as the summer progressed.
New York State has had strict travel limitations since June 2020; our governor requires a 14-day quarantine upon entering the state after visiting about 75% of states in this country. As such, travel is a complex option for New York State residents like myself.
All of these circumstances - my injury (and subsequent limitation to only cycling for cardio), travel restrictions, and a lack of races - led me to set a goal in August to ride around each of the 11 Finger Lakes in Upstate New York before the snow flew (and the snow can fly here as early as mid-late October). The geographical history of this region of New York State is very interesting, and it’s a very beautiful area of the state.
In addition to getting me traveling to somewhere “new” (without any of the complications of having to quarantine), planned properly, the Finger Lakes can serve as an “automatic” fitness/endurance builder, since they lend themselves to gradually (and safely) building cycling strength and endurance over time.
I am a fairly experience-driven athlete at this stage of the game. I’m not a big repeat racer and I’m usually deeply motivated by experiencing new places, things, and interacting with new people that I meet along the way. I have ridden around a few of the Finger Lakes over my time as an endurance athlete, but I haven’t ever ridden around all of them, let alone all of them in a single season. As such, this entire experience felt like a fun, good, comprehensive goal, so I knew it was the right one for me in 2020.
So, without further ado, here is my comprehensive guide to cycling all 11 Finger Lakes in Upstate New York.
Since this goal was a two-fold goal for me (to build endurance/strength and to ride routes that are not part of my normal routine), my sequence of riding was based on this. Due to the length of travel time and overall goals I set for myself, I did combine some of the lakes (I rode around each of the four Western Lakes in a single day). For the most part, I used each of these as my long ride in a given week, and progressively built up to Cayuga Lake over the course of several months.
Otisco Lake - 16 miles
Owasco Lake - 31 miles
Skaneateles Lake - 40 miles
Canandaigua Lake - 42 miles
Keuka Lake - 57 miles
Seneca Lake - 76 miles
Cayuga Lake - 92 miles
Total Planned Mileage: 419 miles
Total Planned Elevation Gain: 22,145 feet
For the most part, I wanted to ride clockwise around each of the lakes. This was for two reasons:
Right-hand turns are inherently safer than left-hand turns for cyclists.
Going clockwise would keep the lakes to my right, which would allow me to be “closer” to them and have better, unobstructed views as I rode around them.
For two of them (Otisco Lake & Hemlock Lake), riding counterclockwise was critical since some of the grades on the clockwise routes were too steep for me to climb at my current fitness level. For Seneca Lake, I chose to ride counterclockwise for nostalgic reasons because it’s the same route used by the annual Seneca7 (a team relay race that I did several years ago).
I also tried to plan routes that would keep me as close to the lakes as possible; one of the reasons I wanted to do these rides was to enjoy the views and scenery of the region. I’ve always really enjoyed being near water, and cycling isn’t any exception for me. Over my time as an endurance athlete, my happiest memories of cycling are usually tied to routes where I was near a body of water.
Some gear is critical to accomplishing this goal (read: a bike and a helmet), other gear is incredibly useful, albeit not totally necessary. Here is my list of what I used:
Bike: 2019 Specialized Roubaix Expert (with Shimano Ultegra Di2 & Hydraulic Disc Brakes)
Tires: Specialized Armadillo All-Condition 700x25C
Helmet: Specialized Evade
Shoes: 2016 Specialized S-WORKS 6 Road Shoes
Bike Computer: Garmin Edge 1000
Pedals: Garmin Vector 3
Taillight: Cycliq Fly6
16 Miles | 1,276 feet | Planned Route
Start/End Point: Otisco Lake Park, 2525 Otisco Valley Rd, Marietta, NY 13110
It was a good thing Otisco Lake was the first lake on my plan, because I ate a slice of humble pie and learned some valuable lessons the first time I attempted it. My first attempt was a clockwise course (for all the reasons listed above), but I made a rookie mistake and didn’t truly take stock of the grades that I would be required to climb on that route.
At the bottom of Otisco Lake, there is a road called Moon Hill Road that has a 22% grade that lasts a mile. Well, I am here to tell you that I could make it up about a third of it, but not all of it. I ended up walking the rest of it, and then continuing to finish the loop. Since my goal was to actively cycle around each of the Finger Lakes, I decided to come back the following week and ride it counterclockwise, which was much more pleasant (and attainable!) for me.
Otisco Lake Park is very peaceful and lovely, but the parking area is small and there are not any facilities there, which is something to be aware of prior to heading to this location.
31 Miles | 1,434 feet | Planned Route
Start/End Point: Emerson Park, 6877 E Lake Rd, Auburn, NY 13021
I’ve ridden around Owasco Lake in the past (mostly when I was training for IRONMAN Louisville back in 2016), and it’s truly a beautiful ride. I was excited to be back.
The wind was FIERCE out of the south that day, which made for such a fun ride back once I rounded the southern portion of the lake. I really like Owasco Lake because the west side is flat, fast, and has amazing scenic views.
Emerson Park is a large, nice park. There is plenty of parking and facilities are available.
40 Miles | 2,783 feet | Planned Route
Start/End Point: Tops Friendly Markets, 40 Fennell St, Skaneateles, NY 13152
Skaneateles Lake is the Finger Lake that I am most familiar with from a cycling perspective; I’ve ridden around it at least 5-10 times in the last six or so years. It’s one of the cleanest lakes in all of the United States; the City of Syracuse actually uses its water as their drinking supply, and they do not filter it prior to routing it to city residents.
Skaneateles as a town is extremely picturesque and welcoming. There is a lovely “downtown” area that you can walk around in that features a lot of shops and local eateries.
There is a shorter route that can be taken around the lake (using Vincent Hill Road as a cut-through), but I’ve done that in the past and sorely regretted it (it’s steep on both sides and in really rough shape). As such, I do recommend the route that I have listed above, as the road quality is much better.
Parking in the lot at Tops Friendly Markets is reserved for customers who are actively shopping in the store; I parked nearby on the street, and went into Tops to use their restrooms and to purchase some hydration and snacks.
42 Miles | 2,887 feet | Planned Route
Start/End Point: Wegmans, 345 Eastern Blvd, Canandaigua, NY 14424
I’d never been to Canandaigua, NY before I did this ride, and I really liked this location. This route in reverse would have been too challenging for me to complete at my current fitness level (a counterclockwise route would require climbing Bopple Hill Road, which is a 25% grade).
The weather on the day I did this ride was spectacular. I specifically remember waving to a lot of residents who were out doing yard work that day. In particular, I remember an older woman who had BEAUTIFUL gardens. Her property sat up on a hill overlooking the lake, and her gardens looked like something you’d see on a postcard from England. She was wearing a big sun hat and gave me the biggest smile and wave as I rode past.
All of this being said, this was probably the second most challenging course out of all of the lakes. The 2,887 feet of climbing is accomplished in essentially three climbs, which definitely makes the legs feel a bit tired! While none of the Finger Lakes are flat courses, the elevation totals on most of them are reached through more “rolling” climbs, and those breaks end up being significant. The lack of those breaks in the climbing portions around Canandaigua Lake made for a more challenging course.
Starting and ending at Wegmans was one of my better ideas in this plan. In addition to having plenty of parking and restrooms, they have literally any post-ride food you could dream of. (I personally chose my go-to Tuscan Garlic Bread from their bakery; I highly recommend it.)
57 Miles | 2,644 feet | Planned Route
Start/End Point: Indian Pines Park, 69 Old Pines Trail, Penn Yan, NY 14527
Keuka Lake is arguably the most interesting of the Finger Lakes due to its “Y” shape and southern position (relative to the other ten lakes). I’d been out in this region a few times to participate in the Keuka Lake Triathlon, but I hadn’t ever ridden around the entire lake.
Despite it being a longer route to get around the lake (again, due to the lake’s “Y” shape), it’s actually the flattest route of the Finger Lakes (when comparing total elevation gain to total mileage). That being said, the day that I rode around it, State Route 54A was closed at the southern part of the lake, and there was a significant detour that added about 1,000 feet of climbing to my planned route.
This detour, while challenging (because I couldn't build momentum before I had to start climbing from the road closure point), did provide for some really amazing views, including some where I could see all branches of the lake (which make up its “Y” shape).
Hammondsport was a quaint little town to ride through, and was bustling with summer activity the day I was there. This is a good place to stop/refill hydration mid-route. Another nice stopping point is Keuka Lake State Park, where there are facilities available and nice informational placards about the region and how Keuka Lake itself was formed during the last Ice Age.
Indian Pines Park isn’t very busy, has plenty of parking, and restroom facilities available.
18 Miles | 709 feet | Planned Route
Start/End Point: Sandy Bottom Park, Honeoye, NY 14471
Honeoye was stop #1 for me on the day that I rode the four Western Lakes. The route around the lake is much longer than the actual circumference of the lake out of necessity since there are not many roads that cut close to the lake due to the Honeoye Inlet Wildlife Management Area on the southern end of the lake.
Sandy Bottom Park had limited facilities the day I was there (mostly due to COVID-19 restrictions that the local municipality had in place), but would typically have ample parking and restroom facilities available.
18 Miles | 596 feet | Planned Route
Start/End Point: Vitale Park, 5828 Big Tree Rd, Lakeville, NY 14480
Conesus Lake was stop #2 for me on Western Lakes Day. This was probably the route that felt the most “fun” to me; for whatever reason, I felt really good and strong as I rode it. (Having winds in my favor for most of it might have helped!) The lake is visible for the entire route, which, in my opinion, definitely adds to the enjoyment factor.
Vitale Park has plenty of parking and restroom facilities. Despite being “hidden in plain sight” (it’s buried in between other buildings/places on a very busy stretch of road), it actually feels a bit like a hidden oasis and has lovely views of the lake.
22 Miles | 2,032 feet | Planned Route
Start/End Point: Hemlock Lake Park, 7412 Rix Hill Rd, Hemlock, NY 14466
Hemlock Lake was stop #3 for me on the day that I rode the Western Lakes. This turned out to be really excellent planning on my part, though not for the reasons I originally thought.
Hemlock Lake was the route I was looking forward to the least; after learning my lesson at Otisco Lake, I had thoroughly analyzed the route in both directions (clockwise and counterclockwise) and knew that no matter which direction I went, this route was going to test my current fitness level. Not only does this loop average 100 feet of climbing per mile, but the grades are quite steep. I decided to plan to go counterclockwise since that loop seemed slightly easier based on the data I had available to me.
Within the first mile, I had climbed 300+ feet, and most of that at a 15% grade. As I got closer to the southern end of the lake, the road transitioned to be unpaved. I thought that this was construction-based, but I was wrong. This is the normal condition of this road (Marrowback Road). What ensued was 4+ miles of descending on an unpaved road (really, more like a trail) that averaged out to 8%. When I uploaded my workout file to Strava later that day, I saw that this portion of the route is actually a Strava Segment called “Irresponsible Marrowback Descent.” I’ve never seen a more appropriate title for a Strava Segment in my life.
I made a spontaneous route change near the end of this course; I realized I was going to be routing onto another unpaved road, and I didn’t want to do that again. So, I continued on State Route 15A to finish the loop.
If you read the description of my equipment above, I can tell you that two things in particular were game-changers for me this day. #1 is my Specialized Roubaix, which, despite being a road bike, has built-in shocks and is equipped with hydraulic disc brakes. #2 were my Specialized Armadillo All-Condition tires, which contain substantial anti-flat technology. The bike, its responsive braking, and its robust tires allowed me to safety navigate this section of the course and come out on the other side without any mechanical issues or crashes.
I’ve also been practicing riding in the drops of my road bike ever since I attended my USA Cycling Level 2 Coaching Certification Clinic in 2019. This ability to maintain that position in the drops was also critical to my successfully safely navigating this section of the route. I cannot emphasize how important it is to always continuously be working on improving your bike handling skills, no matter how long you’ve been involved in sport or how much you think you know. You literally never know when that practice might pay off in spades.
In addition to this route being absolutely crazy, it doesn’t allow for any views what-so-ever of Hemlock Lake; literally the only time I saw the lake was when I was in the parking lot where I started/ended my route. Hemlock Lake is contained entirely within the Hemlock-Canadice State Forest and is the water supply for the city of Rochester, NY. It is entirely undeveloped and will always stay that way.
All-in-all, this was by far my least favorite of the lakes to ride around. That being said, it was certainly memorable and confidence-inspiring. I recommend planning a different route than the one I’ve listed above. It will add mileage (and possibly elevation), but I strongly recommend trying to stick to paved roads.
There were not any facilities available at Hemlock Lake Park when I was there (possibly due to COVID-19 restrictions), and there isn’t any cell coverage at all for this loop.
7 Miles | 249 feet | Planned Route
Start/End Point: Candice NorthEast Boat Launch, 6116-6306 Canadice Lake Rd, Springwater, NY 14560
Canadice Lake was the fourth and final stop on Western Lakes Day. I was pressed for time and running close to being out of daylight when I arrived (since Hemlock Lake had taken far longer than I thought it would). But since it was only seven miles and I had an hour to go until sunset, I thought I’d make it.
Well, it turns out that I repeated the same mistake that I had made when planning my route around Hemlock Lake; I didn’t realize that half of my planned route would be on unpaved trails. I’ll be honest: when my Garmin Edge told me to “turn right onto Unpaved Trail”, my heart sank a little. That being said, I knew from my experience at Hemlock Lake that I could safely navigate this type of surface with the bike I had with me, so my Roubaix and I descended down to this trail.
The route around Canadice Lake was honestly really picturesque and beautiful; I just had the wrong type of bike for this route. I would have enjoyed it more if I didn’t have to be so, so focused on my handling skills and safely navigating this trail with my road bike.
Like its neighbor, the entirety of Canadice Lake is contained within the Hemlock-Canadice State Forest and the lake is completely undeveloped. Fall had arrived in Upstate New York by the time I rode these four lakes, and the changing colors on the trail were honestly very beautiful.
There is minimal parking and there are not any facilities available at the Canadice NorthEast Boat Launch, but it serves its purpose of being a place to park one’s vehicle for less than an hour as they complete this 7-mile loop.
76 Miles | 2,808 feet | Planned Route
Start/End Point: Finger Lakes Welcome Center, 35 Lake Front Dr, Geneva, NY 14456
Ahh, Seneca Lake. Seneca Lake is MASSIVE; it contains half of the water of all of the Finger Lakes. In addition to having a large surface area, it is incredibly deep (over 600 feet) and has been used for military training since World War II. There is still an underwater sonar testing site within Seneca Lake.
There are dozens of wineries, breweries, distilleries, and farm stands around Seneca Lake, which makes for a fair amount of vehicle traffic. (This is something to be aware of if planning to ride this route on a weekend, especially on a Saturday.) There are a few opportunities to stop for hydration and facilities along the route, most notably in Watkins Glen at the southern end of the lake.
Even if you’re fast (which I’m not), riding 76 miles takes a little bit of time, which provides plenty of opportunity for interesting things to happen. On my ride, I got a flat that I ended up having to hand pump (still have no idea what caused it), was stung by an unknown species of insect, and had apples drop on my head as I rode under an apple tree (just call me Sir Isaac Newton).
This was the best weather day I had in my quest to ride around each of the Finger Lakes. In addition, the fall foliage was at its peak the day I rode, which made for a truly outstanding and memorable ride.
The Finger Lakes Welcome Center is a really great facility in Geneva with plenty of parking, really nice restrooms, food for sale, and a wine tasting area. If you need any bike supplies, Geneva Bicycle Center is definitely worth a visit!
92 Miles | 4,727 feet | Planned Route
Start/End Point: Fall Street Brewing Co., 106 Fall St, Seneca Falls, NY 13148
Out of all the Finger Lakes, Cayuga Lake is the one that I am most familiar with overall, having lived in Ithaca for four years. (I was lucky enough during one of those years to have an apartment that overlooked the lake!) That being said, surprisingly, my cycling experience is limited in this region, and specifically in Ithaca since I wasn’t as avid of a cyclist when I lived there. As such, this was a fun loop for me since it allowed me to experience an area that I am extremely familiar with in a new way.
I made a stop midway through the ride at Ithaca College, which is where I earned my undergraduate degree. Some of my friends still work on-campus, so it was great to see some of them and to have that to look forward to as I made my way south.
The weather on the day I rode this loop was honestly very good, but what made it interesting was that the wind was out of the south the entire time I was heading south, and then switched to be out of the north a mere seven miles after I had made the turn at the bottom of the lake to head back north. We always joke that there is 360º of wind here in Upstate New York, and this ride definitely was an example of why we say that.
There are a few gas stations/places to stop on the east side of the lake, but there are not any places on State Route 89 (which is on the west side of the lake) to stop for hydration, so it’s best to top everything off in Ithaca if using a clockwise route. Bathroom facilities are available at a few state parks and boat launches on the west side of the lake.
Fall Street Brewing Co. is a wonderful place to visit in downtown Seneca Falls. Owners Brad & Anna Luisi-Ellis brew their own kombucha and beers; they also serve coffee, hot cocoa, cider, and have light food options available. Parking is available on the street or in a municipal lot across from their location on State Street.
There and Back Again
There you have it! If you embark on the journey to ride around each of the Finger Lakes, I sincerely hope that your experience is as adventurous and memorable as mine was. Immersing myself in this region is absolutely one of the reasons why I truly do love New York, and it was great to experience a place I love so much from the perspective of two wheels.