“Make your heart like a lake with a calm, still surface and great depths of kindness.” -Lao Tzu
This photo compares the lakes size and elevation.
The Finger Lakes Region of New York is a 9,000-square-mile area, roughly the size of New Jersey. Contrary to what some may believe, the Finger Lakes are not just five lakes like fingers on a hand. The area is made up of 11 lakes. Canandaigua, Keuka, Seneca and Cayuga are the four largest or major lakes and Conesus, Hemlock, Canadice, Honeoye and Otisco are considered the minor lakes. Between 1905 and 1918, the Seneca River Canal was created to connect the northern tips of Seneca and Cayuga Lakes. This canal connects to the Erie Canal system, creating a navigable water route to the Great Lakes, New York City and the Atlantic Ocean. Here are a few facts about each lake, starting in the west and going east. Pronunciation of each lake is in the first parentheses. Learn more about how the lakes originated at this link.
Conesus Lake (ka NEE shuss) ("Always Beautiful)
Length: 8 miles
Width: 1 mile
Maximum Depth: 66 ft
Seneca Native Americans named the lake “Ga-ne-a-sos” meaning “always beautiful” or “berry place.” The lake almost always freezes over in winter, making it ideal for ice fishing, skating, or snowmobiling. Beautifully mysterious turtle-like stones, or Conesus stones as they are known in many parts of the world, can also be found on the lake. These stones were formed in the ice age when glacial debris 10,000 feet thick created dams that built the Finger Lakes, and they’ve even been found as far as Siberia and Iceland.
Hemlock Lake (HEM lock) (The Working Man's Lake)
Length: 7 miles
Width: .5 miles
Max Depth: 91 ft
The only lake without a Native American inspired name. It was named for the hemlock trees that grow around it. Hemlock is one of the only Finger Lakes whose shoreline is undeveloped, and it will remain that way as it is the main source of drinking water for Rochester. Restrictions have been put in place to keep the lake clean. In addition to restricting shoreline development, boats are limited to 17 feet and 10 horsepower and swimming is not permitted. The forests surrounding the southern end of the lake are classified as "old growth" forests. This means that they were not cut down by settlers.
Canadice Lake (CAN a dice) (Long Lake)
Length: 3 miles
Width: .3 miles
Maximum Depth: 95 ft
Elevation of 1096 ft
Canadice is the highest (1096 ft) and smallest of the Finger Lakes. Ironically, the Native American name, “ska-ne-a-dice,” translates to “long lake”. It may be the smallest of the Finger Lakes, but it’s rich in the wonder and mystery of its historical, untouched wilderness. The area is quite remote and similar to the wilderness of regions like the Adirondacks. Like Hemlock Lake, it has served Rochester with a source of public drinking water since 1876. Because of the elevation the water pressure builds naturally and no pumps are needed to transport the water.
Honeoye Lake (HON ee oy) (Lying Finger or The Working Man's Lake)
Length: 5 miles
Width: .8 miles
Maximum Depth: 30 ft. - the shallowest lake
Its name is said to have come from the Iroquois Native American word “ha-ne-a-yeh,” or “lying lake,” because it lies north to south, though other legends say it is named so for a man whose finger was bitten by a rattlesnake and had to be chopped off. One would think that, as the shallowest of the Finger Lakes, Honeoye Lake has little to hide. Yet tucked into its peaceful, recreational cottage culture, surprises like river otters pop out to remind visitors how much the Finger Lakes have to offer. It has the shortest water retention rate. Water enters the inlet and exits into Honeoye Creek in 10 months.
Canandaigua Lake (can an DAY gwa) (The Chosen Spot)
Length: 16 miles
Width: 1 mile
Max Depth: 276 feet
Seneca Native Americans called this lake “kanandague,” or “the chosen spot.” The tribe’s founders are said to have emerged from this place. It retains such awe today that it is home to some of the most expensive lakefront property in New York State. Skenoh Island, one of two islands in the Finger Lakes, is located near the town of Canandaigua.
Steamboats carried passengers and goods across the lake to the City of Canandaigua until the last steamboat, the Onanda, was moved to the Hudson River in 1924. Humphrey Bogart spent his summers vacationing on Canandaigua Lake.
Keuka Lake (Q ka) (Canoe Landing or Crooked Lake)
Length: 22 miles
Width: between .5 and 2 miles
Max Depth: 187 ft
Unlike the rest of the Finger Lakes, Keuka Lake is in a "Y"shape. Keuka's beauty stand out in so many ways that it also nicknamed “Lady of the Lakes.” The name “Keuka” comes from the Native American phrase meaning “Canoe Landing.” It’s the third largest Finger Lake in area, length, and width. In addition to its distinct shape, this lake is also the only one that flows both north and south. At the south end of the lake, in 1829, the winemaking industry of the Finger Lakes was born. The Finger Lakes Region has blossomed into one of the most popular winemaking areas in the eastern United States. Keuka is considered to have the best fishing in the region, and is the only Finger Lake that flows into another one (Seneca Lake).
Seneca Lake (SEN a ca) (A Place of Stone)
Length: 35 miles
Width: 3 miles
Max Depth: 630' - the deepest lake
The boss of the Finger Lakes, Seneca Lake occupies center stage and takes its name directly from the Seneca Native Americans, likely because they revered it so much – for its size, mystery, and grandeur. Native American word “assiniki,” which means “stony place,” possibly referring to the steep, stony southern shoreline or to the many rocky streams, gorges, and waterfalls that feed into the lake. It’s so deep that the Native Americans are said to have believed it was bottomless. It holds over half the water of the entire Finger Lakes Region. Because of its size, it rarely freezes over completely; the last time was in 1912. The lake’s size moderates the surrounding temperature, making it ideal for the many vineyards sprouting up around it. The lake floor extends 200 feet below sea level and has been used as testing sites for submarines.
Cayuga Lake (k'YOO ga) (Boat Landing)
Length: 40 miles – the longest lake
Width: 3.5 miles at the widest point, 1.7 miles average
Maximum Depth: 435 ft
Cayuga Lake was named for the Cayuga tribe. The Native Americans alternatively called it “boat landing” or “tiohero,” which means “clear water.” From 1800 to 1857, a mile-long bridge stretched across the lake as a more efficient transportation route for goods and people. The Cayuga Long Bridge was at one point in time the longest bridge in the western hemisphere and it was three-wagon-widths wide.
Shale palisades, a kind of steep cliff, can be found along Bolton Point on the southeastern end of the lake. These are rare outside the British Isles. The lake also lays on top of the deepest rock-salt mine in North America. Three operational lighthouses decorate the lake in various spots and Frontenac Island is one of only two small islands in the Finger Lakes.
Owasco Lake (o WASS co) (The Crossing Place or Floating Bridge)
Length: 11 miles
Width: 1 mile
Maximum Depth: 177 ft
Its name comes from the Native American word “osco,” which means “the crossing place,” or “wasco,” which means “floating bridge”. The town of Moravia lies at the southern end of the lake. It's the birthplace of President Millard Fillmore and was the childhood home of John D. Rockefeller. The town of Auburn is at the north end of the lake and was home to Harriet Tubman and William Seward, Secretary of State to President Lincoln and Johnson. Harriet Tubman’s house is now a museum and national historical park, open to the public.
In the early half of the 19th century, Owasco Lake was known for its resorts and casinos, which catered to the upper class and social elite. The Syracuse Railway ran down the west side of the lake, and passenger steamboats were used to transport vacationers from one high-profile destination to another. Today, the profile of the lake has changed with lovely private homes and quaint cottages dotting much of the shoreline.
Skaneateles Lake (skinny AT less) (The Long Waters)
Length: 16 miles
Width: 1 mile
Max depth: 300 ft
It's one of the highest Finger Lakes, sitting 863 ft. above sea level. Native American legends say that the sky spirits would admire themselves in the reflective clarity of Skaneateles Lake. When the lake spirit fell in love with them, it absorbed the fine, deep blue color of their robes. It has some of the cleanest and clearest water out of all the lakes, because it’s not burdened by industrial and agricultural waste. The lake has been used as a water supply for both the surrounding town of Skaneateles and many Syracuse residents since the 1890s. It's one of only six unfiltered water sources in the country. Steamboats were active during the 1800s and smaller boats took over in the 20th century to deliver mail to boxes on lake-bound cottage docks. Several stops on the Underground Railroad were located around the lake.
Otisco Lake (o TISS co) (Waters Dried Away)
Length: 6 miles
Width: 1 mile
Max Depth: 68 ft
Its name comes from the Native American word “Otisco” which means “waters dried away”. It used to be marshland, but has since grown out of that name thanks to several efforts to set up dams. A dam was constructed in 1869 to both raise the water level of the lake and provide a storage place for water used in the Erie Canal. The lake was dammed again in 1908 to raise the water level so it could be used as a water supply for Syracuse. Together, the dams raised the water to a total of 13 feet.
A causeway that runs across the lake at the southern end used to be a wagon road. It divides the lake into two distinct basins. The southern section is smaller, shallower and quite murky, but the remaining lake is relatively clear. Because of its shallow depth and warm temperatures this lake is ideal for swimming and boating.