Green Lakes State Park was created in 1925 to preserve two aquamarine-colored glacially-carved lakes in Central New York. There are trails circling both of these jewels, Green Lake and Round Lake, which you can combine for a peaceful and easy 3.25-mile hike. The trail is almost entirely level, providing a casual 90-minute walk through the verdant forest that frames the lakes. Green Lake and Round Lake are two of the world’s only meromictic lakes (more on what that means later), which contributes to their rare beauty and significance.
A large parking lot next to the beach at the north end of Green Lake makes a convenient starting point for this hike in Green Lakes State Park. You can hike the loops in either direction, but this write-up will present things in a clockwise direction.
Turn left when you reach the paved trail around the north end of Green Lake and start walking past the lifeguard stands. You will pass a small playground on the left as you get a long view to the right up the lake. Green Lake covers 65 acres on its surface and goes down 195 feet deep at its deepest point.
Pass the bathhouse and the main swimming area in the northeast corner of the lake and proceed toward the forest on the east side of Green Lake. The pavement ends when you reach the trees and pick up a wide pebble trail along Green Lake. Pass one last building on the left and immerse yourself in a lakeside woodland dominated by maples and basswoods.
Green Lake Trail hugs the lake, giving you views of the beautiful green body. The lake’s distinct color is a result of deep, clear water being affected by light absorption and calcium carbonate, as a sign along the trail explains.
When light penetrates water, the longer wavelengths (red end of the spectrum) are absorbed first. The green and blue wavelengths penetrate to deeper water where they are scattered and reflected back to the observer’s eyes. During summer, the lakes have a greenish-white appearance, while in fall, winter, and early spring, they are more deep blue-green in color. This difference is due to a “whiting effect” created when an explosion of the cyanobacteria population in late spring causes dissolved calcium carbonate (limestone) to separate out of solution and bind to the cell walls of bacteria. The whitish color is from the carbonate held in suspension. Some clumps of carbonate-bound bacteria remain suspended for a long time. Others form larger clumps with greater density and quickly settle out of suspension.
Reach Deadman’s Point Reef at 0.55 miles from the start. This is not a typical reef where you would go snorkeling with tropical fish. Instead, the “reef” at Deadman’s Point and formations elsewhere along Green Lake are made up of microbialites, living organisms like marl, composed of calcium carbonate bound to small cyanobacteria. The microbialites build up over centuries to form mats that look like reefs. Algae, mosses, sponges, and fallen trees get encrusted by the marl, adding to the underwater charm. Deadman’s Point is the best example of this reeflike formation along Green Lake, and when the water level is low, the top of the reef actually becomes exposed. To be safe and help preserve the lakes, do not walk or sit on the reef formations. The water is deep and the limestone surface can be slippery.
Continue along the trail through a forest of basswoods, maples, cedars, and hemlocks. There are patches of poison ivy along the forest floor, so be careful if you decide to stray from the wide trail. In the late spring you will also spot Jack-in-the-pulpit, trillium, and hepatica blooming along the trail. Around a mile from the start, you’ll reach the south end of Green Lake and get a good perspective back up the lake toward the beach on the north shore.
At 1.1 miles, you will come to an important junction. If you stay to the right, you will continue walking along Green Lake Trail, which is a two-mile loop on its own. A connector trail to Round Lake breaks off to the left. Turn this way to reach Round Lake for the two-lake double loop.
Turning left on the connector trail, you will pass through a lush forest. Maidenhair ferns cling to the bank on the left side of the trail. On the right, you will pass a spur path out to a wooden viewpoint along the creek that flows between the lakes.
After 0.15 miles, you will breach the gap and arrive at the shore of Round Lake. There is a picnic table and a small building here at the beginning of Round Lake Trail. A plaque along the lake explains that the National Park Service designated Round lake as a natural landmark in 1973, because:
This site possesses exceptional value as an illustration of the nation’s natural heritage and contributes to a better understanding of man’s environment.
Round Lake is therefor nationally significant for its natural geological features, covers 34 acres, and is 170 feet deep in the center. The trail around the lake is 0.95 miles long, and most of the trail is covered in wood chips that are lovely to walk on. Proceed straight to hike clockwise around Round Lake.
At the south end of the lake, you will pass a connector trail the ventures deeper into the old growth forests in Green Lakes State Park. Stay to the right to continue around Round Lake. Like Green Lake, Round Lake is a meromictic lake, an unusual class of lakes. A panel along the trail explains:
Green and Round Lake are two of only a few lakes worldwide that do not experience “turnover” or mixing of the upper and lower water masses. Several factors contribute to this complex and unusual condition known as meromixis. Difference in density and salinity between the upper and lower water masses, the lakes’ depths and surface areas, and their locations in deep basins with tree-rimmed shorelines that protect the water from strong winds are all conditions thought to help prevent turnover.
Round Lake and Green Lake have three distinct layers: mixed water at the surface, denser unmixed water deeper down, and layered carbonate sediments at the bottom of the lake. Most lakes mix constantly and undergo seasonal turnover that Green lake and Round Lake do not. These glacially carved meromictic lakes are deep and stable, making them particularly adept at preserving ancient plant and animal remains.
As you make your way back around to the north side of Round Lake, you will come to a junction where a decision must be made. You can turn left and take this new connector trail back to Green Lake, or continue the last tenth of a mile around Round Lake and take the original connector back to Green Lake Trail.
If you continue straight and complete the circuit around Round Lake, you will turn left at the connector trail by the picnic table and the building and walk back along the creek to the T-junction with Green Lake Trail. Turn left and cross a wooden footbridge to continue up the west side of Green Lake. After a tenth of a mile, you will pass the other connector trail from Round Lake. There is one climb on this side of the lake where you will gradually ascend about 25 feet, but that’s the biggest obstacle this very level hike puts in your way. When you see a wooden ladder breaking off to the left, stay straight on Green Lake Trail, sticking close to the shoreline.
Green lake Trail finishes by passing through a charming grove of northern white cedars. Leaving the trees, you will return to the paved trail along the beach at the north end of Green Lake. Close the loop and make your way back to the parking lot.
Dogs on leashes are welcome on trails in Green Lakes State Park but bikes are not permitted on these loops. Swimming is only permitted in designated areas (like the beach) and not out on most of the trail. Benches along both loop trails offer picturesque places to relax. You can extend your hike on additional trails in Green Lakes State Park, or by visiting the trail along the Old Erie Canal, located just outside the park. In the summer, there is a fee of $8 per vehicle to enter Green Lakes State Park.
To get to the trailhead: From Syracuse, drive east on Interstate 690 for a few miles to exit 17 for Bridge Street. At the end of the offramp, turn left onto Bridge Street and drive north. After 0.4 miles, continue straight onto Route 290, which curves to the right. In 3.6 miles, make a left onto Green Lakes Road, which is also Route 290. In another 1.5 miles, turn right into Green Lakes State Park. Drive a third of a mile down Green Lakes Park Drive, passing the entrance station, and turn right into the parking area at the north end of Green Lake.
Trailhead address: Green Lakes Park Drive, Fayetteville, NY 13066
Trailhead coordinates: 43.058018, -75.964424 (43° 03′ 28.86″N 75° 57′ 51.92″W)
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