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Patrick McCarthy headshot

A Sustainable Travel Guide to Central New York

erie canal central new york

An aerial view of the Erie Canal in Central New York. (Image: Thomas/Adobe Stock)

The wonderful waterways and unique natural formations of Central New York tell a story of conservation and appreciation for the environment. Through consistent preservation, many of the area’s most fantastic formations retain their beauty, while others are in the process of being restored to their former glory.

The Syracuse metro area is home to a plethora of parks, reservations and heritage areas abounding with natural wonders. Next time you find yourself in Central New York, use this roundup of must-see nature locales — all within a 30-minute drive from Syracuse — to tailor your visit to support local businesses, conservation and sustainability efforts.

Onondaga Lake Park - conservation sites in central new york
 A view along the shoreline at the north end of Onondaga Lake as seen from Onondaga Lake Park in the town of Salina, New York. (Image: Andre Carrotflower/Wikimedia Commons)

1. Onondaga Lake 

Once the most polluted lake in America, steady conservation efforts are revitalizing Onondaga Lake, resulting in the return of its most iconic denizens. The ancestral land of the Onondaga Nation is once again home to a thriving bald eagle population. 

In winter months, the spectacular birds of prey nest in the trees of the shoreline commonly known as Murphy’s Island. An avid community of birdwatchers has developed around a shared appreciation of these massive birds. Visitors vying for a view can join a guided eagle watch tour with the Onondaga Lake Conservation Corps. 

What’s more, the Skä•noñh Great Law of Peace Center, a museum and cultural center chronicling the story of the Haudenosaunee people, is just down the road from Murphy’s Island. Learn about the significance of the bald eagle and the sanctity of Onondaga Lake from the original conservationists of this remarkable body of water. 

Cap off your explorations at one of Central New York’s most beloved eateries, Heid’s of Liverpool. This historic hot-dog haven slings the Syracuse-based Hofmann Sausage Company’s famous franks and coneys, and it's just down the road from the Great Law of Peace Center.

A lake in Green Lakes State Park.
A lake in Green Lakes State Park. (Image: New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation)

2. Green Lakes

Ever heard of a meromictic lake? Most Central New Yorkers have! Meromictic lakes are bodies of water that don’t have seasonal turnover, resulting in incredibly clear, blue-green waters. These lakes are exceedingly rare, with just 36 in the world, and Central New York is home to not one but two of these incredible formations. 

Green Lake and Round Lake can be found in Green Lakes State Park in the town of Manlius, and consistent preservation has maintained their beauty and relevance for locals and tourists alike. Visitors will delight in hiking the easily-traversed trails around both lakes. A slew of other activities like canoe and rowboat rentals, lifeguarded beaches with swimming and diving areas, an event center overlooking Green Lake, golf and disc golf courses, and campgrounds are also on offer.

cyclists on the Erie Canal - conservation sites in central New York
Cyclists on the Eerie Canal. (Image: Russ Nelson/Wikimedia Commons)

3. The Erie Canal

A great engineering marvel of the 19th century stretches across Central New York. The Erie Canal has connected the Empire State since 1825, first through commerce and now through recreation and shared historical appreciation. Across the state, Erie Canal parks are a consistent draw for tourism and local outdoor pursuits, such as boating, fishing and biking. 

An engaged community of canal enthusiasts maintains the canal’s history. They preserve the abandoned locks and bridges of the “Old Erie Canal," upkeep and install historical markers, and clean up the operational barge canal — which is the third iteration of the original. Activists in Rochester, Syracuse, and other canal cities are also working to restore and reincorporate historic canal sections that once flowed through their downtowns. 

In Syracuse, visitors can check out the Erie Canal Museum for a bevy of information on this storied waterway. Old Erie Canal State Park is just a 15-minute drive from the museum. The park is a 36-mile stretch of the now-defunct second iteration of the canal, and makes for a serene walk any time of year. Walk the same path once trod by young boys leading mule teams, explore old lock systems, and enjoy the variety of natural life that calls these waters home. One entrance to the park is located right across the street from an entrance to Green Lakes State Park, so industrious day-trippers could feasibly explore both. 

Intrepid Erie Canal enthusiasts might even consider taking on the Erie Canalway Challenge by traversing a part or the entirety of the Erie Canalway Trail, a 360-mile, cross-state expedition. Thousands of people complete this trip each year, and canal towns are well-accustomed to taking care of bikers and kayakers on their way to earning the coveted title of “End-to-Ender.” Register to run with a group in the annual Cycle the Erie Canal Bike Tour, or complete the trip with a couple of close friends like I did in 2021. You’ll encounter Lockport dive bars and Rochester microbreweries, massive barges and little canoes, torrential rains and spectacular sunsets, historical markers and physical monuments, and, above all, an array of people from all walks of life — each with a story to tell. It is truly a life-changing adventure.

A birds eye vide of Skaneateles Lake.
A birds-eye view of Skaneateles Lake in the Finger Lakes Region of Central New York. (Image: FingerLakes.com)

4. Skaneateles Lake

Skaneateles is a quiet little village situated around an awe-inspiring lake known for attracting many big-name celebrities seeking a second home or summer retreat. When the last ices of the seemingly never-ending Central New York winters thaw, the lake comes alive with recreationists of every stripe. Yachts and pontoon boats sail past paddleboarders and jet skiers, while fishermen cast into the deep waters from all sides. You’ll get that classic communal feel of a small-town lake, while the tasteful homes in the neighborhood will make you consider relocating. 

Speaking of taste, you can treat yourself to some great eats of varying elegance once you’re out of the water. Doug’s Fish Fry offers delectable yet affordable fried seafood fare, and it's no wonder that the place is so beloved among locals and residents of surrounding areas willing to make a drive. Meanwhile, the village boasts an array of highbrow fine-dining options, such as the Tuscan-themed Rosies Cucina. Beyond the lake and the restaurants, the village boasts various shops selling local goods, art, souvenirs and jewelry.

Sheep grazing on the Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard.
Sheep grazing on the Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard. (Image: Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard) 

5. The Finger Lakes Region

The Finger Lakes Region is the only destination on this list that’s further than a 30 minutes from Syracuse. Home to some of the greatest wineries on this side of the Rocky Mountains, the region is a booming tourism destination just over an hour from the city. The area’s name derives from the five Finger Lakes, strangely narrow bodies of water that appear on maps like some sort of slash or claw mark. 

This Central New York region is home to a bounty of sustainable wineries. Their grape growing thrives in part because of the surrounding soil and the temperature-regulating effect of the deep lakes. Seneca Lake is the main of the five lakes, boasting more than half of the area’s wineries. Locations such as Hermann J. Weimer Vineyard set the standard in sustainable food and drink. The farm and vineyard uses no pesticides or herbicides, maintaining prestige while prioritizing environmentalism. 

Wine is just the tip of the iceberg around here. The Finger Lakes region boasts a plethora of breweries and farm-to-table dining options that consistently attract millions of visitors each year.

Tinker Falls in Truxton New York
Tinker Falls in Truxton, New York. (Image: Ian Walsh/Wikimedia Commons)

6. All of the rest

There are truly too many amazing outdoor locales to explore throughout Central New York, with no way to highlight them all. Here are just a few of the other natural attractions in this region:

  • Tinker Falls, located in the Labrador Hollow Unique Area, features a 50-foot waterfall that visitors can walk behind.
  • Chittenango Falls State Park is home to an impressive 167-foot waterfall and is the only home to the critically endangered Chittenango Ovate Amber Snail, the subject of many local conservation projects.
  • Clark Reservation State Park offers visitors the chance to traverse unique limestone trails that follow a ring of cliffs and crags overlooking a breathtaking little lake. The stone paths don’t present a challenge so much as a change of pace from a typical hiking trail. 

This article is part of Travel Month in our 2024 Sustainable Living Challenge, where we unpack accessible ways to see new places and get around your hometown with a lighter impact on the planet. Learn more and take the challenge here.

Patrick McCarthy headshot

Patrick is a freelance journalist who writes what the robots can't. Based in Syracuse, New York, Patrick seeks to uplift, inform, and inspire readers with stories centered on environmental activism, social justice, and arts and music. He enjoys collecting books and records, writing prose and poetry, and playing guitar.

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