On March 12, my wife and I woke up in the French Alps to the news that President Donald Trump was closing the U.S. border to travelers from 26 European nations. As U.S. citizens we were exempt, and life in the mountain resorts continued as normal despite the spread of the coronavirus, so we stuck to our plan: to ski until the day before our March 15 departure for home.
The evening of the 14th, the French government ordered the closing of all nonessential establishments—including restaurants, cafes, movie theaters and, yes, ski resorts. The next day, as we donned face masks and boarded a plane in Geneva, Switzerland, for the first leg of our return trip to Rochester, I wondered: How long will it be before we see Europe again?
These days, as the number of COVID-19 infections and deaths continue to rise, that ranks very low on a list of concerns. Still, for those who are passionate about exploring new places or revisiting old favorites—whether abroad or around the U.S.—the pandemic is a disheartening barrier, even as the lockdown begins to lift. “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page”—a quote attributed to Saint Augustine—distills what has been lost. A world of possibility and new understanding has been replaced by four walls.
At the same time, perhaps it’s also an opportunity—a reason to view our own part of the world with fresh eyes.
Discovering our region
A Buffalo native, I’ve lived in Upstate New York for most of my life; Rochester has been home for the last 30 years. Yet for the first 15 years I lived here, I did little exploring locally. My sights were always set on some far-flung destination.
In 2003, that changed. At the time, I was editor of the Rochester Business Journal, and as a side project we decided to publish a regional guide, Explore Greater Rochester, to be placed in local hotel rooms. As we worked on the project, it became clear we were thinking too narrowly: Visitors from out of town weren’t the only audience for a guide to discovering all our area has to offer; it could open the eyes of people like me who might be surprised to learn what can be found here. (You can check out the most recent online edition of Explore Greater Rochester on the Visit Rochester website.)
For me, the annual publication of Explore Greater Rochester became an excuse to search for the best things to see and do in the Rochester-Finger Lakes region. Over the years, I’ve drawn up a list of favorites—in particular, places that can be explored for free, on foot or bike, or by car. Now, with warmer weather on the near horizon but the pandemic’s end still off in the distance, it seems like the perfect time to resume my local exploration.
If you’re like I was a few decades ago, wondering where to start, here’s a half-dozen possibilities—in no particular order—from my list. All can be visited currently, though it’s good to check websites such as the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation before you hop in the car or on a bike. And, of course, adhering to social distancing and other health guidelines remains a must, even when you’re off the beaten path and seldom encounter other people.
No, I haven’t given up on skiing again in the Alps or the Rockies, or venturing elsewhere in the U.S. or abroad, but who knows when that will be possible again. For now, my sights are set much closer to home.
If you have other favorites places to explore locally, send us a photo and short description, and we’ll add them to my list.
1. The Lower Falls. Most area residents have visited High Falls, the 96-foot cataract at the edge of downtown Rochester. But many have not explored the area around the Lower Falls, which is even taller and equally dramatic. Located a couple of miles north of High Falls, the Lower Falls can be viewed from atop the Genesee River gorge or from Lower Falls Park, but I’d recommend hiking down from Maplewood Park to the river, where the falls is a truly spectacular sight. (You also can access the river from a trail that starts at Seth Green Drive on the east bank of the river.) It’s a spot well-known to fishermen; in autumn, you’ll find anglers casting their lines for salmon. Always be aware of the river’s current conditions; they can change unexpectedly. For historical information on Rochester’s waterfalls, see the lowerfalls.org site.
2. Turning Point Park. Farther north, as the Genesee River nears Lake Ontario, is Turning Point Park. Thirty years ago, around the time I moved to Rochester, Turning Point Park was a lonely, wooded corner of Charlotte that many Rochesterians knew only as the place where one of the victims of serial killer Arthur Shawcross had been found. Today, the park—which covers 275 acres along the river—is much more inviting. A highlight is the park’s boardwalk and trail, which was recognized in 2008 as one of the American Public Works Association’s transportation projects of the year. The winding bridge over the Genesee River Turning Basin is nearly 4,000 feet long. From the park’s trail, which is great for both hikers and cyclists, you can connect to the Genesee Riverway Trail, which stretches more than 16 miles, from Ontario Beach Park to downtown Rochester.
3. Chimney Bluffs. You might be able to find more dramatic shoreline on Lake Ontario, but I highly doubt it. Located roughly an hour from Rochester, Chimney Bluffs State Park is an undeveloped area whose strange landscape seems to have been dropped from another world. Drumlins chiseled by the wind tower over the stony beach. These “massive earthen spires,” as the park’s website describes them, can be viewed from along the lakeshore or from above on a nature trail—both vantage points are terrific.
On your way to or from Chimney Bluffs, stop at the Sodus Point Lighthouse, which dates to the community’s days as a key Great Lakes shipping port. The museum is closed due to COVID-19, but even at ground level, the panoramic view of Lake Ontario is exceptional.
4. The Canandaigua Lake circuit. OK, most of you—if you’ve lived in the Rochester area for even a few years—have been to Canandaigua Lake. But have you driven the entire circuit around the lake? Without stopping along the way, it takes more than an hour by car. But don’t be in a hurry. Great vantage points seem to pop up at almost every turn, but two that I’d recommend seldom draw many people. On the western side of the lake, nearly all the way to its southern tip, is the County Road 12 Scenic Overlook. The view to the north of the lake and steep hillsides surrounding it is remarkable. On the other side of the lake, the Bare Hill Unique Area (pictured below) has easy-to-walk hiking trails and yet more stunning views of the lake.
5. Finger Lakes National Forest. That’s right—there’s a national forest in the Finger Lakes. In fact, it’s the only national forest in the entire state. Finger Lakes National Forest, located on a ridge between Seneca and Cayuga lakes, totals roughly 16,000 acres and has more than 30 miles of trails through pastures, woods, gorges and ravines. The forest does not boast any jaw-dropping vistas, but hikers are apt to see plenty of wildlife including deer, wild turkeys, beavers and maybe even a bobcat or red fox.
6. Erie Canalway Trail. Taking a solitary walk along the Erie Canal is not as easy today as it was before the coronavirus outbreak. Some days it seems as though half of Rochester’s population can be found walking or cycling on the path, especially between Pittsford and Fairport. But there are two ways to beat the crowds. Either head farther out of town—the stretch from Palmyra to Newark, for instance, is an easy, picturesque 18-mile roundtrip bike ride—or opt for off-hours outings. As we get farther into spring, the path at 6 a.m. should be fairly empty of people—though you’ll see plenty of ducks, probably a deer or two—and perhaps even a mink.
Paul Ericson is Rochester Beacon executive editor.