The Syracuse area is home to some truly amazing sites such as Green Lakes State Park, Skaneateles Lake, and Pratts Falls. And another lesser-known spot that can be added to that list is Clark Reservation State Park.
Clark Reservation State Park is a 377-acre park located near Jamesville, New York, and is less than six miles from downtown Syracuse.
Believe it or not, this park is said to have once been home to a waterfall that was as much as 180 feet tall, making it larger than Niagara Falls! This waterfall was created by the receding glaciers 10,000 years ago but disappeared many, many years ago.
Today, the lake, known as Glacier Lake, lies deep in the gorge of Clark Reservation State Park and is the remnant of the waterfall’s plunge pool. Though, to be honest, it looks more like an impact crater as high cliffs nearly surround the entirety of this beautiful lake.
Another feature that makes Clark Reservation State Park special is that it’s a meromictic lake, which means that the water at the bottom and the top of the lake don’t mix. While there are less than 20 lakes like this in the United States, two of them are located only a few miles away in Green Lakes State Park.
While the water in Clark Reservation State Park’s lake isn’t quite a green and clear as the water at Green Lakes State Park, it’s still quite remarkable to see and looks very different from above and from lake level.
In order to explore this geological wonder, I decided to go for a hike through Clark Reservation State Park. While you can fairly easily see the lake from above (I’ll explain later on how to do that), doing a hike along the rim and to the base of the cliffs is the best way to really explore this beautiful area.
The hike that I did was approximately 1.5 miles in length and took me along the rim above the lake, down to the shores of the lake, and then up a stairwell build along the old face of the extinct waterfall.
The hike at Clark Reservation State Park starts off in the main parking lot. This lot can be found at the following coordinates: 42.994986, -76.094158.
From here, there is an obvious trailhead that passes the park’s bathroom and a small, but a fun-looking playground for kids.
You’ll also find an informational sign here with a map of the park. It’s worth noting that, for some reason, this map does not sure the entirety of the trail network in the park. Specifically, it cuts off the far end of the trail I’m suggesting here.
So, don’t worry that that map doesn’t show the Cliff Trail and the Lake Trail connecting. They do, and the park’s online map does show this connection.
While you could do this hike in either direction, I’ve always done it in a clockwise direction as I think that works best.
So, to start your hike, walk past the bathroom building and follow the chainlink fence along the cliff edge, with the fence on your right, and follow the Cliff Trail.
The trail will soon enter an area known as Table Rock where there is a raised and flat rocky area. Getting up onto and off of this area requires a few large steps with tricky footing, so this isn’t a great hike for those with any kind of mobility limitations.
It’s also worth noting that these rocky areas on the rim trail can be a bit slick when they are wet, so use extra caution if there has been rain recently.
The Cliff Trail follows along the rock and fence line for a short distance. Along the way, keep your eyes out of peekaboo views of the lake far below.
After a short distance, the trail climbs down the rock face (which can be a bit tricky, so, again, watch your footing).
From here, the trail is on more level ground as it passes through the woodland above Glacier Lake. At times, it can be hard to figure out exactly where the trail is going because of the light undergrowth, but it’s not too hard to head in the correct direction and stay with the trail.
At one point, the trail passes onto a rock ledge that is 6-8 feet wide. While I felt very secure here, this is an area that those with a fear of heights or those hiking with small children will want to keep an eye out for. While the woodland obscures it to a bit, the cliffs are probably 30-feet above the forest floor.
However, this area also features the best views of Glacier Lake from the Cliff Trail so it’s worth the short walk on this official part of the trail.
The entire Cliff Trail is roughly 0.6 miles in length and other than some tricky footing in a few spots, is quite an easy hike. Keep your eye out on your right for the Lake Trail, which heads downhill sharply. (If you reach the power cut, you’ve gone a bit too far.)
The Lake Trail starts off with a quick descent of about 100 feet to the base of the cliffs. The forest here is quite beautiful and this is a very enjoyable part of the hike.
Once you reach a trail split, hike past the signs for the Swamp Trail and continue along the Lake Trail. While both trails end at the same spot, the Lake Trail isn’t significantly longer than the Swamp Trail, but is often drier and allows you to see more of the lake.
In fact, the Lake Trail passes directly along the banks of the northern, western, and southern sides of Glacier Lake, affording some pretty incredible views of this beautiful body of water.
Definitely take a few minutes to stop and enjoy the incredible scenery here. I especially enjoyed peering into the water and seeing the fish swimming around in the depths of this crystal clear lake.
Because the trail winds its way so close to the lakeshore, it’s worth noting that this trail can be muddy during periods of higher water. Unless it’s been pretty dry, I recommend wearing shoes that you can get wet (or at least having a change of footwear in your car).
Nevertheless, the incredible views here make this a very worthwhile section of the trail.
Once you reach the southern end of the lake, you’ll see a large stone staircase. This staircase contains roughly 200 stone and concrete steps and is your route back to the rim.
Along the way, contemplate the fact that you are climbing the face of an extinct waterfall that was once larger than Niagara Falls. Truly an impressive thought.
At the top of the staircase, you’ll find yourself at a picnic pavilion. The area around the pavilion offers probably the best views of Glacier Lake from above (It would be even better if they would trim the trees back a bit).
Take a moment to soak in the great views and the beautiful color of Glacier Lake.
From here, it’s a short walk across the grassy field back to the parking area and the completion of your 1.5-mile hike.
For those that aren’t interested in the hike or think it sounds a bit too challenging, this pavilion is a quick and easy walk from the parking area. If you are facing the trails with your back to the parking lot, head to your right to reach this great vista without having to do the entire loop.
Overall. Clark Reservation State Park is, in my opinion, one of the best hidden gems in the Finger Lakes, and if you are looking for things to do in Syracuse, this park should absolutely make your list. In fact, I enjoyed it so much on my solo visit that I returned a few months later to show the park to my wife.
So, all that is to say, don’t miss this great New York state park!
[Click here for information on how to use the coordinates in this article to find your destination.]