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History and nature on Keuka Outlet Trail


The guns of September brought A Guy on a Bike to Penn Yan. The paths of Keuka Outlet Trail brought him to peace of mind.

The day’s destination, for the rider’s teenaged son and his two comrades in arms, was Black Ops Airsoft in Yates County. The owners call their 50-plus acres of fields, buildings and bunkers the No. 1 airsoft field in New York State. Airsoft resembles paintball, except the guns shoot various-sized BBs, which go farther than paintballs. Its players, as opposed to paintballers, focus more on military simulations.

The Sept. 15 “Operation Selective Reasoning” was an eight-hour affair. When combatants hiked to the woods, A Guy on a Bike unhooked his all-purpose DiamondBack from the roof of his car and rolled down into the village of Penn Yan.

The destination was Keuka Outlet Trail. Its website notes it is one of “the very first rail trails.”

The seven-mile trail, maintained by Friends of the Outlet, begins in Penn Yan on Keuka Lake and links to Dresden in the east, on Seneca Lake. The trail is built on the track bed of the old Fall Brook Railroad (1884-1974). That track followed the towpath of the Crooked Lake Canal that connected the lakes until 1877 when the canal, with 27 locks, was shut down by the state. The trail’s name comes from the “outlet,” — technically a stream that connects Seneca and Keuka lakes. Its level is controlled by a dam in Penn Yan. On this day, the stream looked to be only a few feet deep in places, but water releases are sometimes made for fishing and kayaking enthusiasts and to lower the level of Keuka Lake.

The trail mixes bucolic scenes with the rubble of industry. The Washington, D.C.,-based Rails-To-Trails Conservancy notes that the canal at one time supported as many as 40 mills and 12 hydropower dams. Today, a person on the trail can view a crumbling mill at one turn and be awed by a waterfall on another.

The beginning of the trail in Penn Yan can be accessed at the village’s boat launch/recreation area off of Elm Street. Nearby, there’s the one mill still in operation in the village. The Birkett Mills on Main Street is the world’s largest manufacturer of buckwheat products. It’s been in continuous operation since 1797.

There’s a small segment of pavement for the trail’s beginning in Penn Yan, but the bulk of the trail is a mixture of either packed dirt, crushed stone or a track made by countless bicycle tires over fields of grass. Black walnuts, some nearly as large as lemons, are scattered on many parts of the trail.

The trail takes a very slight downhill to Dresden as it follows the creek, which drops approximately 270 feet along the way. In Dresden, the trail ends about a mile from Seneca Lake. An effort is under way by Friends of the Outlet to extend the trail to that lake.

From Penn Yan, about a mile into the trail at Fox’s Mill Road, a sign gives a warning that is so matter-of-fact that A Guy on a Bike wonders if it was created tongue-in-cheek, or more likely, as a necessity in this digital age: “Natural areas possess hazards not normally found in your home surroundings.”

There are several rest areas along the trail. The most elaborate is a pavilion at about the half-way point. Sponsored by the local Lions Club, it honors the memory of Bruce Hansen (1947-1999), one of the trail’s visionaries. A plaque about Mr. Hansen is situated on a boulder in front of the pavilion. Another plaque on a boulder nearby honors the memory of John M. Sheridan (1925-1984), a Yates County attorney who negotiated the purchase of the land for the trail.

Shawn K. Blauvelt of Penn Yan, who was on a nature hike further down the trail with his 5-year-old grandson, said the trail is a marvelous community asset. He recalled that Hurricane Agnes in June of 1972 wiped out a large segment of the railroad tracks along the outlet, shutting down the railroad and eventually sparking the idea for the trail.

A new fan of the trail is Dr. Karen James, a 2012 graduate of Cornell University, Ithaca. In July she began working at East View Veterinary Clinic in the village of Penn Yan, which got its name from its pioneers being equal numbers of Pennsylvanians and Yankees.

A Guy on a Bike caught up with Dr. James a few miles outside of Dresden on her way back to Penn Yan, where she began. She said it was her first time on the trail and that it was perfect for her late-’90s Specialized, front-suspension mountain bike.

The native of Charlotte, Maine, said that when she began her job, she was given a tour of the village by a wife of one of the doctors at her clinic. “I had seen signs for the Outlet Trail, but I didn’t know how to quite get there,” Dr. James said, after arriving back at the boat launch in Penn Yan. “She came down here and showed me where to go.”

Dr. James said the trail pleasantly surprised her.

“I didn’t know if you could easily get your bike from one end to the other,” she said. “But it was no problem.”

The Friends of the Outlet note that besides bicyclers and walkers, trail users include bird watchers, cross-country skiers, snowshoers and horseback riders.

A day of history and beauty concluded for this cyclist on the return climb to Black Ops Airsoft. The battle was still raging. But from the hill on State Route 14A overlooking the village of Penn Yan, a sense of appreciation and placidity was triggered. We all left on peaceful terms, hoping to return.

If you have a suggested ride/column idea for A Guy on a Bike, contact Times features writer Chris Brock at, or write to him at the Watertown Daily Times, 260 Washington St., Watertown, NY 13601.

Some previous columns can be read at

The details
WHAT: Keuka Outlet Trail.
WHERE: The approximately 7-mile trail in Yates County runs between Penn Yan on Keuka Lake and Dresden on Seneca Lake. There are access points in both communities and at points along the way.
OPEN: Year-round between sunrise and sunset.
MAINTAINED BY: The all-volunteer Friends of the Outlet, Inc.
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