In the heart of New York’s Finger Lakes Region is a rail-trail that is part natural wonder and part industrial archaeology, and the 7-mile trail Keuka Outlet Trail has a unique heritage. Technically a stream, the Keuka (KYOO-ka) Lake Outlet physically connects Keuka Lake to Seneca Lake in the east, the only two Finger Lakes in New York connected by a natural waterway. The outlet also connects the historic lakeside village of Penn Yan on Keuka Lake (settled in 1833 by Pennsylvania Yankees) with Dresden on Seneca Lake.
Settled in the late 1700s by the Society of Universal Friends, the waterway became a gateway to western New York State. At its height of development in 1830, the Keuka Lake Outlet, then called Crooked Lake, supported as many as 40 mills and 12 hydropower dams. The dams powered lumber mills and, to a lesser degree, tanneries, distilleries and mills producing linseed oil, grain and plaster. As the boon of canal transportation took hold, New York state built the Crooked Lake Canal along the length of the outlet. It was a colossal venture. Twenty-seven locks were built of stone and wood along the waterway (by comparison, the 360-mile Erie Canal has only 90 locks). After an initial positive impact on the economy, the canal required constant repair and construction. The state legislature eventually sold the land in 1878 to businessmen who converted the canal corridor to the Penn Yan and New York Railroad Company. New York Central ran the railroad until 1972 when floods from Hurricane Agnes destroyed the corridor.
The original canal dropped approximately 270 feet over an 8-mile section between Penn Yan and Dresden to the east. After the locks were removed, a number of waterfalls naturally developed; the waterway now attracts recreational paddlers. The water flow is controlled by a dam at Penn Yan and can change drastically from week to week, or even day to day. The trail itself remains fairly level for the entire 7 miles.
The countryside hosts fields of produce farms and vineyards, but remains of mills and dams along the corridor invoke the ghosts of 19th-century industrial America. Large rusting gears sit silent by beautiful rushing waterfalls; sections of trail meander through remnants of cut stone walls. In most places, the water has reclaimed the land and become a haven for wildlife and waterfowl. It is not unusual to see herons perched at the water’s edge.
The majority of the trail passes through lush vegetation and follows a narrow strip of dirt smoothed by countless bicycle tires. Several feet of mowed grass border the dirt path. A short section of trail in Penn Yan is paved with asphalt, but the majority of trail is crushed stone and dirt. At about the trail’s midpoint, the Seneca Mill Falls picnic area is a popular trailhead and picnic spot near the largest falls along the trail. Approximately 3 miles of the Keuka Outlet Trail between Seneca Mill and Hopeton Mill cut through a steep gorge carved from shale and limestone during the last ice age. This natural wonder contrasts sharply with the historic mill remnants that you can spot periodically at former mill sites along the way.
The villages of Penn Yan and Dresden are now tourist destinations; the people and businesses are open to sharing the wealth of their heritage with interested visitors. A bike rental is available in Penn Yan, and you’ll find an ice cream shop in Dresden.
Parking and Trail Access
To reach the trailhead in Penn Yan: From Main Street, turn west onto Elm Street (Route 54A) and follow to the community ball field on the left. The trail access is behind the vendor booth, to your left, as you are looking at the field.