Throughout New York’s history, railroads and canals connected communities throughout the state and allowed industries to thrive as they were able to ship their goods around the state, country and world.
In the Finger Lakes, Keuka Lake and Seneca Lake are connected via a seven-mile river known as the Keuka Lake Outlet that was home to several modes of transportation. This short river is the outlet of Keuka Lake and flows downhill from Penn Yan to Dresden on the shores of Seneca Lake.
In 1790, the first mill in western New York was completed. Located several miles upstream from the main settlement along Seneca Lake, this is the site that would later become known as Seneca Mills.
To support the growing number of mills along what was then known as the Crooked Lake Outlet (another name for Keuka Lake) better transportation was needed. In 1833, the Crooked Lake Canal was completed along the shores of the waterway and helped spur the development of more mills in the area.
In 1877, the canal was abandoned, but fortunately for the residents of the area, the Fall Brook Railroad was completed along largely the same route as the canal in 1884. Active train tracks were located along the Keuka River Outlet until they were destroyed by Hurricane Agnes in 1972.
After years of work, the Keuka Lake Outlet Trail was opened in the late 20th century. The trail follows along the old train and canal route for 6.8 miles from Penn Yan to Dresden. The trail is most popular for hiking and biking but is also open to horseback riding, as well as cross-country skiing and snowmobiling in the winter.
While the entire trail is beautiful, the two main points of interest along the trail are the two beautiful waterfalls, both of which are surrounded by the ruins of old mills. These waterfalls are perfect if you are looking for some unique and lesser-known Finger Lakes waterfalls.
Seneca Mills Falls and Cascade Mills Falls are located about 1.3 miles apart along the trail. While you could park in one spot and visit both, you can save some time and distance by utilizing two different parking areas.
Seneca Mills Falls is located near the mid-point of the trail, just over three miles from both Penn Yan and Dresden. If you only have time to visit one spot along the Keuka Lake Outlet Trail, this is where you want to head.
From the closest parking area, it’s an easy 500-yard walk to this beautiful waterfall.
Seneca Mills Falls is surrounded by the crumbling walls of the old mill that used to sit on this spot. This creates an incredible scene that combines natural beauty with history and the appeal of abandoned ruins.
The waterfall is a combination of a man-made dam and natural waterfall, though most of the waterfall appears to be natural. I’ve seen this waterfall listed as being as high as 40 feet, but I’d probably say it’s more like 30-35 feet. Either way, it’s very impressive.
While visiting this waterfall, take a minute to explore the area around it and the ruins of the mill. However, use caution when you do as the walls are definitely crumbling and there are sheer drops from these old stone walls.
Once you’ve had your fill of Seneca Mills Falls, head back to the parking area. From here, you have two options.
The first is to continue walking down the Keuka Lake Outlet Trail towards Cascade Mills Falls. If you opt for this, it’s about a mile walk along a relatively flat trail to this second waterfall (giving you a hike of around 2.6 miles in total).
However, while the trail is beautiful, there isn’t much to see along this section. So, if you want to save some hiking distance, drive to a second parking area at the intersection of Outlet Road and Ridge Road.
This will cut your hike to Cascade Mills Falls in half. However, it’s worth noting that this parking area is quite small and can only accommodate 4-5 cars. If you are visiting on a busy day, you might want to consider keeping your car in the main parking area and walking the extra distance.
From the second parking area, it’s about 0.5 miles to Cascade Mill Falls. The trail here is wide, though it’s more of a traditional trail than a rail trail. However, it’s still flat and an easy walk or bike ride.
About two-thirds of the way to Cascade Mills Falls, the trail opens up and enters a clearing. Here, you’ll find several old buildings that showcase the industries that used to thrive along the river.
While the buildings all have “No Trespassing” signs, it’s still really neat to see them from the exterior.
Just beyond this clearing is a viewing area for Cascade Mills Falls. Like Seneca Mills Falls, this waterfall flows down a serious of drops, though it’s only about 15 feet in total height.
From this viewing area, you can also see the ruins of the Seneca Paper Mill on the left side of the stream. While entering this building isn’t allowed, there are some cool things to see outside of the building. Just use caution as there was some rusty metal laying around during my visit.
Both waterfalls on the Keuka Lake Outlet Trail are well worth visiting. While Seneca Mills Falls is the larger of the two, a bit more historic, and more beautiful, as someone that enjoys abandoned places, I probably enjoyed Cascade Mills Falls the most.
The next time you are looking for something to do in Yates County, New York, definitely take the time to explore the Keuka Lake Outlet Trail. Whether you walk or bike the entire 6.8-mile trail or simply visit one or both of the waterfalls, this is a beautiful and historic area that shouldn’t be missed.
How to Get to the Waterfalls on the Keuka Lake Outlet Trail
The waterfalls along the Keuka Lake Outlet Trail are located in northern Yates County between Penn Yan and Dresden.
The parking area for Seneca Mills Falls can be found along Outlet Road at the following coordinates: 42.664390, -77.002437. From here, head about a third of a mile to the right to visit Seneca Mills Falls.
You can also head down the trail to the left to check out Cascade Mills Falls, or you can cut your hike in half by parking at the small parking area at the intersection of Outlet Road and Ridge Road at the following coordinates: 42.667199, -76.994317.
From here, take the trail away from the road for about half a mile to the crest of Cascade Mills Falls.