What Are The Finger Lakes?

The Finger Lakes are a group of eleven lakes in upstate New York, United States, named for their long, narrow shape. They consist of Otisco Lake, Skaneateles Lake, Owasco Lake, Cayuga Lake, Seneca Lake, Keuka Lake, Canandaigua Lake, Honeoye Lake, Canadice Lake, Hemlock Lake, and Conesus Lake. 

The lakes are glacial lakes formed by the receding of large glaciers, which created over deepened glacial valleys that later filled to become lakes. Although the above is also the geological definition of any finger lake, these 11 have been given the proper name of the Finger Lakes. 

Geology Of Finger Lakes

The finger lakes are thought to have originally been a series of north-flowing streams. Around two million years ago, glaciers from the Laurentide Ice Sheet shifted southwards, away from Hudson Bay, causing a glaciation. The presence of the glaciers widened and deepened the former streams and river valleys significantly, while debris from the glaciers dammed the river flow, creating lakes. 

It is thought that the ice sheet and glaciers which formed these lakes were very thin. The higher ground around the lakes shows little glaciation evidence, although tributaries were left behind in these upper regions, like those near Seneca and Cayuga, roughly 120 meters above the valley bottoms. 

The 'Major' Finger Lakes

Cayuga Lake and Seneca Lake are two of the deepest lakes in the United States, and are part of the 'major' Finger Lakes, in comparison to the minor lakes in the grouping. A little about each of the lakes follows:

Seneca Lake

Seneca Lake
Seneca Lake

Seneca is the largest of the Finger Lakes, the deepest, and is one of the deepest lakes in the country. It has an average depth of 89 m and a maximum depth of 188 m. Its surface area is roughly 173 km2, with a length of 61 km. It is best known for being the unofficial trout capital of the world and being home to many wineries. Named after the Seneca people, the Lake now hosts the towns of Geneva and Watkins Glen along its shores. 

Cayuga Lake

Cayuga Lake
Cayuga Lake

Cayuga is the longest Finger Lake, measuring 63 km. It is also one of the deepest lakes in the United States, with a maximum depth of around 133 m. Cayuga is also the second largest in surface area and second largest in volume. It has nearly 153 km of shoreline and is named after the indigenous Cayuga people.

Skaneateles Lake

Skaneateles Lake
Skaneateles Lake. Editorial credit: PQK / Shutterstock.com

Skaneateles Lake is best known for being the cleanest of the finger Lakes, and is in fact, the second cleanest of all the lakes in the United States. The city of Syracuse is actually able to use the lake's water unfiltered. The lake measures 26 km long, with a surface area of around 35 km2, and a maximum depth of 96m. The name itself is derived from an Iroquois term meaning 'long lake,' and is sometimes called "The Roof Garden of the Lakes" due to its altitude of 263m, which is the highest of the Finger Lakes.

Owasco Lake

Owasco Lake
Owasco Lake.

Owasco Lake is the sixth largest and third easternmost of the Finger Lakes. It measures nearly 18 km long, and just over 2 km at its widest point. It has a maximum depth of 54 m and a surface elevation of 217 m above sea level. It is also home to Auburn, which is the lake's largest city, at its north end. 

Keuka Lake 

Keuka Lake
Keuka Lakes

Keuka Lake is different from the other lakes because it has a distinct "Y" shape, rather than a long narrow shape like the other fingers. This has led to it being sometimes called 'Crooked Lake'. Keuka also feeds into Seneca Lake by way of a large stream. The lake measures 32 km long, has a surface area 47.5 km2, and a maximum depth of 57 m, though the average depth is around 31 m.

Canandaigua Lake

Canandaigua lake

Canandaigua Lake is the westernmost of the Finger Lakes. It measures 25 km long, by 2.4 km wide, and has a shoreline running roughly 58 km. The City of Canandaigua sits at the northern end, and the city dwellers gain their water from this particularly high-quality freshwater lake. The name comes from the Seneca name Kanandarque, or Ganondagan, which translates roughly to "the chosen spot." 

The 'Minor' Finger Lakes

Otisco, Honeoye, Conesus, Hemlock, and Canadice, and are considered the minor Finger Lakes

Otisco Lake

Otisco Lake
Otisco Lake

Otisco Lake is the easternmost of the finger lakes, and is located in Onondaga County, southwest of Syracuse. It has a surface area of 8.3 km2, a length of 8.7 km, and measures 1.2 km at its widest point. The average depth of Otisco is only 10 m, with a maximum of 20 m, making it one of the shallower lakes in the Finger Lakes region. 

Honeoye Lake

Honeoye Lake
Honeoye Lake

Honeoye Lake sits mainly within the town of Richmond, New York, and is the second smallest of the Finger Lakes. The name is thought to come from the Seneca word ha-ne-a-yah, which means "lying finger". The lake has a length of just over 7 km, a width of 1.3 km, an average depth of 5m, and a maximum of 9m. 

Conesus Lake 

Consensus Lake
Conesus Lake

Conesus Lake Conesus Lake measures 13 km long, and has a maximum depth of 20 m. It also has a distinct south-north inflow for Conesus inlet and various gullies. The lake is located in Livingston County, New York.

Hemlock Lake

Hemlock lake
Hemlock Lake

Hemlock Lake measures 11 km in length, roughly 0.8 km in width, and has a surface area of 7km2. It has a maximum depth of 28 m. The lake is a primary water source for nearby Rochester, and because of this, shore development has been restricted, and there is also a limit on the size of boats allowed on the water. Additionally, swimming is prohibited. Like most of the Finger Lakes, Hemlock has a healthy population of fish, including the uniquely landlocked population of salmon.

Canadice Lake

Canadice lake
Canadice Lake

Canadice Lake is the very smallest of the Finger Lakes of New York. It sits 48 km south of Rochester. Though it is small, the name is derived from the Iroquois word ska-ne-a-dice, meaning long lake, and it measures 4.8 km in length. Its surface area is 2.63 km2, and its maximum depth is 29m, with an average of 17m. 

Fish In The Finger Lakes

 The Finger Lakes have a large abundance of fish species living in their waters. Many different types of trout, including brown, lake, and rainbow trout can all be found in most of the lakes. Similarly, smelt, smallmouth and largemouth bass, northern pike, pickerel, bluegill, yellow perch, sunfish, rock bass, black crappie and even Atlantic salmon are common in the Finger Lake waters. 

Visiting The Finger Lakes

Visitors at Skaneateles Lake. Editorial credit: PQK / Shutterstock.com

Known for their picturesque landscapes and beautiful clean waters, the Finger Lakes region is a popular travel destination. From resorts to cabins, camping and hotels, accommodations vary, and there is a wide range of recreational activities to enjoy. Hiking, cycling, boating and fishing are some of the most popular, but the area also has several museums including a boating museum, the Museum of Earth, and the Corning Museum of Glass. There are also various notable historical sites in the region such as Belhurst Castle; Seneca Falls (where the women's suffrage movement began); the birthplace of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; the Harriet Tubman Home; and places connected to Glenn Curtiss and Mark Twain. On top of all that, the area has a successful wine industry and various craft breweries and eateries to enjoy. There is truly something for everyone. 

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