Several times in its history all of New York has been covered completely in glaciers one mile thick. These ice sheets did not melt gently like cubes in your summer lemonade. Instead, the glaciers died an angry death - clawing and scraping and gouging the land as they retreated. Their handiwork can be seen in the Finger Lakes, 11 elongated parallel lakes in the center of the state. Surrounding the lakes are hundred of gullies and gorges, seven of which have been developed as New York state parks. Much of the work building trails and overlooks in these parks was done during the Great Depression of the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, the "tree army" put to work by President Franklin Roosevelt.
Most of these gorge trails are closed in the winter and often the ice lingers in the cool shadows of the gorge walls into May so this is a good time to consider visiting with your dog. Gorges can be dangerous places to hike (the Ithaca Fire Department has many a sad tale to tell of a gorge rescue) but stay on marked trails and don't cross barriers where trails are closed and you will be fine. Here is a survey of the the seven Finger Lakes gorge parks:
WATKINS GLEN STATE PARK (Franklin Street/Route 14 in town of Watkns Glen at south shore of Seneca Lake)
Let's start with the most famous and least appealing for your dog - Watkins Glen. Watkins Glen is the only gorge your dog cannot hike through. Dogs are allowed on the South Rim Trail and Indian Trail above but views are few and far between. Watkins Glen was the first gorge to open when newspaperman Morvalden Ells received permission to charge admission to the series of wooden walkways and bridges built for workers to access a mil in the glen. The grand opening was July 4, 1863. History buffs might recognize that date as one of America's most important. On that day Lee's invasion of the North was stopped at Gettysburg, insuring the South would never win the Civil War and at the same time the critical river town of Vicksburg, Mississippi was surrendering to Ulysses S. Grant, winning the West for the Union. Chances are the opening of a private concession in a New York gorge was not front-page news.
LETCHWORTH STATE PARK (Exit 7, Mount Morris) off I-390)
The biggest and most popular of the parks is a bit west of Conesus Lake, the westernmost of the Finger Lakes. The Genesee River attracts plenty of spectators to gawkat its hydrospectaculars in the "Grand Canyon of the East" so, if you can, come early with your dog to hike the Gorge Trail. You can certainly escape the crowds on the park's more than 70 miles of trails behind the museum on the Mary Jemison Trail where you'll learn about the woman kidnapped by marauding Seneca Indians as a child who the lived more than 70 years among the Iroquois. In the northern expanse of the park, around the cmapground, are several isolated trails that lead to gorge views.
BUTTERMILK FALLS STATE PARK (Route 13 south of Ithaca)
Buttermilk is the shortest, narrowest and most intimate of the gorges. You will feel like you are being squeezed through the gorge with the water as you lead your dog into this chasm. Ther eis only one rim trail, on the north side and it climbs steeply to complete your loop. The plunge basin of Buttermilk Falls is a fine place for a doggie swim if the pool is not open.
ROBERT H. TREMAN STATE PARK (Route 327 off Route 13, west of Ithaca)
This is the biggest canine gorge hike with the Gorge Trail and both rims trails clocking in at about two miles. The park is named for New York banker Robert H. Treman and Buttermilk Falls in the 1920s. This spot in Enfield Glen was Treman's favorite. He served as the first Finger Lakes state park commisioner in 1924 and helped shape these public treasures. At Treman you will probably enter in the Upper Park and I would suggest taking the Rim Trail down Enfield Glen, rather than plunging right into the gorge. Delaying your pleasure does two things: one, you will be hiking through the gorge upstream that affords longer views of such cataracts as the 120-foot Lucifer Falls and two, your dog will be going down the amazing Cliff Staircase instead of trudging up it. Dogs are not allowed in the swimming area in Enfield Creek but she can slip in for a refresher from both sides on the Gorge Trail and the Rim Trail, which gives you an idea of the ups and downs waiting for you on the rim.
FILLMORE GLEN STATE PARK (Route 38, south of Moravia)
The park is named for the 13th President of the United States, Millard Fillmore, who was born in a log cabin about five miles from here. Fillmore was the first unelected President, ascending to office when Zachary Taylore died mid-term. Filmore then served without a Vice-President of his own, the only chief executive to do so. After taking the Gorge Trail through this pretty glen, the favored return route is on the North Rim Trail that rolls through a rich hemlock forest. The South Rim Trail mainly connects picnic areas.
TAUGHANNOCK FALLS STATE PARK (Route 89, north of Ithaca)
This park is the opposite of its gorge park sisters - the Gorge Trail here is the gentle, benign hike. So easy in fact, that it remains open all year long. Only 3/4-mile through a flat, wide opening between 400-foot walls, your destination is 215-foot high Taughannock Falls, the second highest single-drop waterfall in America east of the Rocky Mountains and three stories higher than Niagara Falls. The two rim trails can be combined for a sporty canine hike of about an hour.
STONY BROOK STATE PARK (I-390 Exit 4 south on Route 38)
Stony Brook glen was developed as a resort in the late 1800s - you can still see the massive concrete supports in the gorge from a high railroad brdge that once brought tourists to a train station where the campground is today. Your dog will be going about one mile into the gorge, passing three major waterfalls along the way.
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