GPS/Locations: Parking off of Ridge Rd: (N 42.66724 / W 76.99413)
Directions: To get to our recommended parking area: from the NYS Thruway, take Rt 14 south through Geneva and along the west side of Seneca Lake to the village of Dresden. Turn right (west) on Rt 54 and then shortly after make a left (south) on Hopeton Rd. Follow this hilly, winding path and veer left onto Cascade Mills Rd and cross into Rt 9 (Ridge Rd.). The road will dip at the outlet and there will be an intersection. Don’t cross the creek, but look for the small parking area and sign for the Outlet Trail on the left.
Or use Google Directions.
Parking: For the waterfalls there are two recommended parking areas. One, with room for 3-4 cars is right at the trail-head and junction of Ridge Rd and Outlet Rd. Another (with room for 10 cars) is just west of this on Outlet Rd.
Number of falls: 2.
Size/Types: Seneca Mill Falls is a 40+ foot cascade in three sections, one being an old mill dam spillway. Cascade Mill Falls is a 20 foot cascade with irregular drops, and a small dam spillway several feet upstream.
Best time to visit: For the waterfalls, spring and fall give you the best flow. The Keuka Lake Outlet Trail is wonderful year-round.
Flow: Moderate to low. Spring often has the best flow, but flow releases from the Penn Yan dam may cause ugly flooding.
Time: Plan for several hours to see both falls and check out the old mill structures. Hiking the whole Outlet trail from Penn Yan to Dresden (one way) will take about 3 hours.
Seasons/Hours: The trail is always open.
Handicap accessibility: No.
Pets: Allowed if on a leash. For your pet’s safety, and the safety of other hikers, keep your pet on the leash! It doesn’t matter if your dog is “friendly,” it’s the law. Please clean up after.
Accommodations: Restrooms (at the visitor center at Cascade Mills); trail register; visitor center; restaurants and shops at the trail ends in both Penn Yan and Dresden.
Friends of the Outlet Trail, Inc.
The Keuka Lake Outlet is a natural waterway that drains the waters of Keuka into Seneca Lake crossing over 8 miles and dropping nearly 280 feet along the way. Once spotted with numerous mills, the outlet now caters mostly to recreation and is lined with a gem of a multi-use trail that offers unparalleled access to the outlet waters. It runs along the foundations of mills and factories that the outlet brought power to, and even goes through the remains of one of the 27 locks that once serviced the adjacent Crooked Lake Canal.
From the parking area we outlined here, you can start out in any direction along the trail to see either of the waterfalls first. Seneca Mill Falls is the most popular stop and is easily the most beautiful setting along the trail. This three-tiered cascade starts as a small dam spillway and then crashes down two large limestone drops into a deep pool. This section of the gorge is lined by giant stone walls, remnants of a large paper mill complex that was once here. When we visited in the spring of 2010, a large portion of the northern wall had collapsed into the outlet waters, creating a dangerous slope near the falls. There are no plans at this time to restore this wall. Adjacent to the falls is a massive cement wall with sealed conduits, once used to carry outlet water into the mill that was once here. Above this wall and atop the falls is the spillway and a grouping of rusty mechanics that once harnessed the power of the outlet, and was probably a component of the electrical plant that took over the site after the paper mill left. Just above the falls, a small pavilion is a nice place to stop and enjoy the roar of the falls. Beyond that, the trail joins the former Crooked Lake Canal bed as you pass through a crumbling stone lock.
From the parking lot, in the opposite direction, a relatively shorter hike east will get to you to the Cascade Mill Falls complex and the Keuka Lake Visitor Center (which never seems to be open). Although Cascade Mill Falls is about half the size of Seneca Mill Falls, and not one of the prettiest cascades in the region, it makes up for its lack of beauty with its interesting surroundings. The Cascade Mills complex is a series of old mills, factories and oddities that are in an advanced state of decay. Most notable, the Baker Chemical Company’s carbon bisulfide plant, which resides right next to the falls, and the Kelly Tire building (tire reconditioning was a major industry that relied on carbon bisulfide to make rayon). Warning signs are up, and it’s pretty obvious from the crumbling brick and brittle cement that these structures are dangerous to explore, but the views of vines and saplings reclaiming these properties back to nature are easily enjoyed from the outside and certainly worth checking out.
Although we will only cover the waterfalls in this guide, don’t pass up the rest of the Keuka Outlet Trail. It is not only massive; but well cared for, allowing for easy enjoyment of the water, nature, and history of the waterway. It follows an old rail bed; previously a canal towpath, that even earlier, was a pioneer dirt trail. The canal, though mostly dismantled or buried, can be traced by swampy, mosquito-infested ditches and crumbling locks. Old factories and mill foundations can be spotted along the way, leaving visitors to guess about what was here, and when and why things changed.
From the parking area to Seneca Mill Falls
Markings: There is a sign at the trail-head. Otherwise the trail is dirt and gravel and follows the outlet.
Distance: 0.75 mile one way.
Description: From the small parking area near the junction of Rt-9 and Outlet Rd. cross Rt 9 and head west along the grassy trail. At about .4 miles the trail will become paved and you will pass a small parking area and a trail register and donation box. Shortly after you will pass a memorial stone commemorating one of the founders of the trail. Just past that, the trail will emerge from a wooded area and you should see the falls on your left. You can continue uphill on the trail and take a look at the mill structures at the crest, or continue past the pavilion to see the old lock, which the trail passes through.
From the parking area to Cascade Mill Falls
Distance: 0.5 mile one way.
Description: From the small parking area near the junction of Rt-9 and Outlet Rd. head east along the dirt trail for about a half mile. When you reach the visitor complex you will see a bunch of old buildings. The waterfall is just past the Kelly Tire building, next to a red brick building. Walk around this building and scramble down into the creek bed to get a better view of the falls.
View Keuka Lake Outlet Waterfalls in a larger map
After glaciers gouged out the Finger Lakes and heavy torrents of melt-water poured through the lakes, the immature watersheds of the newly scraped land sought out any crevice to carry water. A natural fissure in the bedrock between Keuka into Seneca Lake took on overflow from Keuka Lake and, over thousands of years, eroded away the rock to form a large gorge and become the primary outlet for Keuka’s waters.
Frontier settlement along the outlet began in 1788 when evangelists belonging to the Society of Universal Friends sought out a peaceful location and found the outlet near Penn Yan to be a perfect place to power their mills. By 1790 they had built the first grist mill at Seneca Mill Falls, and within 50 years, several other grist and saw mills had sprung up. A conglomerate of mill owners constructed a dam and spillway to power a series of mills along the falls. Newer mills replaced the destroyed or obsolete ones and eventually the mills evolved into forges and woolen mills. Later, in 1825 Cascade Mills saw its first settlement with a grist mill and saw mill, and eventually more mills sprang up at the site.
At the time, horse and buggy along a dirt path was the only way to get products and raw materials in and out of the outlet. Seeing the potential to aid the milling industry and expand the new Erie Canal system, New York State commissioned the Crooked Lake Canal (at a cost of $157,000) to bridge Keuka and Seneca Lakes and open up the products of these mills to the Erie Canal and to the rest of the state. Since the Erie Canal system merged several waterways, destroying some waterfalls and flooding prime milling sites, the mill owners along the outlet agreed to the construction as long as it did not join with the Outlet waters, running parallel instead. The eight mile long Crooked Lake Canal opened in November of 1833 with 27 wooden locks (all of which delayed shipments and needed to be staffed). It lost money its first year, then the next… and so on…until the state finally gave it up in 1873 and abandoned it.
With trains taking over as the shipping method of choice, the Fall Brook Railroad was constructed along the canal’s towpath in 1885 (completed in 1888). With rail serving the mills along the canal, they continued to evolve, now offering more finished products such as wheel spokes, tools, and paper products. The large paper mill at Seneca Mills burned down and was soon replaced by an electrical plant that served the village of Penn Yan. Ironically, it was the arrival of electrical power that enabled factories to move away from water power, and led to the downfall of mills along the outlet. Even the most recent of the mills, the Baker Chemical Company plant, that operated from 1900 to 1966 utilized the power of the outlet waters to run a turbine to generate electricity for the electro-chemical process of generating carbon bisulfide, and a chemical solvent. With the versatile polymer rayon becoming big business, the tire industry took interest in stationing plants near carbon bisulfide sources, as it was a key element in rayon production. Eventually the Seneca Mill complex was taken over by Kelly Tire to recondition tires.
In 1972 Hurricane Agnes, and the subsequent flooding destroyed much of the Fall Brook Railroad, and put an end to industry along the canal. The properties sat abandoned until the county purchased a 6 mile tract of land in the early 1980s. With leadership from trail advocates, like Alfred Jensen, in 1984 the Friends of the Outlet Trail was organized as a non-profit to maintain a trail along the outlet. They began cleaning up the area and maintaining the former rail bed as a multi-use trail, opening it to the public that same year. In subsequent years they have acquired more land and extended the trail another mile. Currently the trail runs a mile short of the outlet at Seneca Lake, but the group is working hard to complete it.
Last Mill Standing
Although the dozens of mills that once drew power from the Keuka Lake Outlet are now just relics of crumbling stone foundations, there is one mill still in operation in Penn Yan. The Birkett Mills began operating in 1797 and today is the world’s largest producer of buckwheat products. Their website states: “The Birkett Mills usually operates 16 hours a day, five days a week, but in the early fall, its busiest season, the factory is producing 24 hours a day, with finished products shipped throughout the United States, Canada and Western Europe.” You can see their mill on Main Street in Penn Yan, right on the outlet.
Photographing the Falls
Silky water effect
Writing / Photography