Green Lakes State Park is aptly named, as the centerpieces of the park are two glacial lakes showcasing a deep green to turquoise hue. These lakes were formed roughly 14,000 years ago during the last ice age when the massive ice sheet covering this area of New York gradually receded northward as the climate warmed. The torrents of water from the melting ice carved out two deep basins, which became Green Lake and Round Lake because all of the more interesting names were already taken. Let’s just move on to a photo already!
The water appears greenish blue for a number of reasons, which I’ll explain in a minute, but these lakes truly are stunning. We arrived in the park on a Sunday afternoon and after setting up camp for a short four-night stay, we immediately biked to the designated swimming area to look around. Since it was Sunday and the weather was perfect, the beach was crowded with people enjoying the sunny afternoon. We snapped a few photos and walked around the perimeter of the beach before deciding to return the next day to explore a bit more. But we were already impressed with the view, and I think I hastily decided after the first glimpse of Green Lake that this was my new favorite state park.
So back to the color – the water itself is actually crystal clear, without any muck or cloudiness that you might see in other lakes or ponds. The water takes on this emerald tinge because of the depth, light absorption, and presence of calcium carbonate. When light penetrates the water, the longer wavelengths at the red end of the spectrum are first absorbed near the surface. The green and blue wavelengths penetrate deeper, where they are scattered and reflected back to the viewer’s eyes. The calcium carbonate in the water removes the filtering effect of dissolved organic materials. Alright, how about a quick break from the science for another photo.
The calcium carbonate in these lakes is precipitated by small photosynthetic bacteria living in the water. These bacteria actually help to form giant reefs, called microbialite, visible in many shallow areas near the shoreline. One group of these bacteria live near the surface, providing the main food source for tiny floating animals. Purple and green sulfur bacteria live 55-75 feet below the surface, creating a three foot thick layer of rosy pink water. Both lakes manage to sustain these delicate ecosystems because they are meromictic – the surface waters don’t mix with the bottom waters, so no spring and fall turnover takes place. Only a handful of these types of lakes exist in the entire United States. What this also means is that the potential to discover evidence of ancient plant and animal life is incredibly high.
Round Lake, the smaller of the pair, was designated as a National Natural Landmark in 1975 because of these unique attributes. At a total depth of 180 feet, Round Lake is surrounded by old-growth forest and cut into limestone in a deep, circular basin. The hilly watershed combined with the thick belt of white cedar trees ringing the shoreline protect the lake from wind, which helps prevent the surface and bottom turnover mentioned earlier. The state park has a nice trail network, with the heaviest traveled trails leading around the two lakes. These are pedestrian-only trails, but if you bike to the beach where the lake trailhead is, you can find plenty of bike racks available to lock up your ride. And, yes, we did manage to do a little swimming at the beach area one afternoon because I couldn’t leave the park without dipping into a glacial, bacteria-filled, meromictic lake.
Speaking of biking, we rode through the Old Erie Canal State Historic Park which lies just outside the main entrance to Green Lakes. The Canal Park is actually a 36-mile trail following the original towpath from DeWitt to Rome NY. Between 1820 to 1880, mule teams towed barges up and down the canal, making villages along the canal, such as Utica, Rome, Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo, into boomtowns and transforming New York into the Empire State.
The trail is, of course, very level and the surface ranges from smooth pavement to packed crushed gravel. When it snows in the winter, the trail opens to snowmobile traffic. We enjoyed a leisurely ride from Green Lakes, past Fayetteville, out to Kirkville, and back. It’s an interesting variation on a rail trail, because the premise is essentially the same – flat, level land repurposed for recreation – but based around a hybrid of water/land travel as opposed to rail travel. The trail features lots of info boards so you can learn about the history and the area as you wander outside.
For anyone looking for a little first-hand info on the Green Lakes State Park camping experience, we stayed in site 48 in the Pine Woods area. The campground features 145 sites, 96 of which are electric (in the Pine Woods area) and the rest are primitive tenting sites in the Rolling Hills area. Pine Woods is organized into two loops – one electric only with smaller sites in mostly shaded areas, and the second with full hook-ups (advertised this way, but I haven’t seen any sewer hook-ups at these sites) on large pull-through or back-in sites basically arranged in a large open sunny area. None of the spots are necessarily private, they are separated by a few trees at most – but the electric-only loop offers a bit more seclusion from your neighbors (although not much). The bathrooms are very modern, with huge, private shower rooms, flush toilets, and hot water. All of the sites in the Pine Woods area appear fairly flat, with just a bit of leveling necessary. We never made it out to the Rolling Hills area to check out the primitive sites.
The beach area has a large building with a concession area (burgers, fries, ice cream, etc.), meeting rooms, and full lifeguard staff. The park also offers rowboat and kayak rentals from a smaller building along the beach, but no privately-owned boats are allowed in Green Lake (and no boating at all in Round Lake). The park also has a short nine-hole disc golf course, which I played a couple of rounds one afternoon while Ashley claimed to be doing something in the RV. I think she’s still recovering from losing one disc in the cornfield at Climbing Bines Brewery (even though I’ve told her it happens to everyone, and I stopped counting how many I’ve lost over the past few years).
BONUS FINGER LAKES WINERY – Buttonwood Grove Winery
Before we headed to Green Lakes, we did stop at one last Finger Lakes winery named Buttonwood Grove. I wanted to mention it specifically because the wines were very good (the Sycamore Red was excellent), we listened to a lively band named Miller’s Wheel (featuring mandolins, guitars, a fiddle, and a washtub bass, among other various makeshift instruments), and we got to spend the night next to Melody, the Scottish Highland cow. If you’re visiting the Finger Lakes, try to stop at Buttonwood Grove on a weekend with music and relax on the deck with a bottle of wine.
We’re heading further north into the less-populated areas of New York state over the next week and a half, so I’ll try to post the next update when we have a strong enough signal again. Our next stop is Whetstone Gulf, followed by Buck Pond Campground. If you’ve ever visited either one, feel free to comment and hopefully we’ll be able to read it before we get too far into the wilds!