This past weekend I decided to head out to Chimney Bluffs State Park after reading about it online. It’s about an hour northeast of Rochester, right along Lake Ontario, making it a great day trip. The glacially carved hills are called drumlins, and lake effects erode them three to five feet every year. Sharp, jagged, and bare peaks are left behind. These drumlins can be found along the southern and eastern edges of Lake Ontario. Further up the bluffs, away from the effects of erosion, a verdant forest grows. The park brochure describes Chimney Bluffs as one of the most extensive drumlin fields in the world.
Parking ($5) and restrooms can be found at the east and west ends of the park, but there is no Visitor Center. Maps and park brochures are available at each parking lot with trails marked. Most websites suggest you park at the eastern lot and start a loop hike there. This works well if you arrive in the morning, but I arrived in the afternoon around 3:00, so hiking west to east gave me the better views. My path is outlined below in red (clockwise), with small detours made in teal.
Both parking lots allow you beach access, although swimming is prohibited. Some people prefer to take the Bluff Trail in one direction, and walk back along the beach in the opposite direction. Although I saw people walking along the beach from the eastern parking lot, I didn’t see anyone on the western side of the park. From high above on the Bluff Trail, parts of the beach looked inaccessible, or extremely narrow with the lake, so I decided to walk back through the forest in hopes of not getting wet.
The East-West trail was a bit hard to pick out at first. It’s really just well-trimmed grass, which I wasn’t used to seeing and didn’t expect. Once on the trail though, the signs were plenty easy to follow. My goal of not getting wet was almost immediately thwarted by the huge mud puddles along the forest floor. It hadn’t even rained here for a few days, so these puddles must take a lot of time to dry up, probably because they’re continually blocked from sunlight.
Since most of the forest looked similar after a half mile, I began experimenting with my macro lens and some of the wildflowers. They were scattered about the forest floor, but apparently they’re everywhere during Spring. Not sure what the two above are called but they were spotted frequently, among others.
I must have been walking quieter than I realized along Garner Point Trail. My eyes were almost always on the ground picking my way through mud puddles, but when I looked up I must have startled this deer (left), which instantly ran away down the path. I’m horrible with distance but I’d guess it was only about 30 feet away to start with. Thankfully I had my macro lens on the camera, although I wish I had the zoom lens. Lighting was tricky, and we had a brief stare down before the deer silently slipped off the path. I walked forward as quietly as possible, searching through the brush to see if I could get another glimpse, but no luck. The brush to the sides of the trail was exceptionally thick; it was amazing to me that the deer could have slipped through it without making a noise.
My hike was relatively quiet after the deer spotting; the teal on the top map shows a little detour off of Garner Point trail to overlook Lake Ontario. After that it’s a short hop and a steep climb down onto the Bluff Trail which lets out at the picnic area before continuing along the shoreline in dense forest.
Bluff Trail continues for awhile in thick forest before starting the modest climb from 250 to 390 feet. The trail was still quite muddy at points, although detours had been carved out in parallel to the path.
Eventually the hike starts to open up to the cliff edges, which are quite precipitous in some points. Sturdy shoes are a must along this hike, and there are prominent signs reminding you to stay back from the cliff edges as they are constantly eroding. Sometimes the side trails carved out to avoid mud puddles led you right up to the edge and it’s unavoidable walking there.
When I took this hike it was actually pretty cool outside, only 62° or so. I imagine this would be a great hike even in the middle of summer though; the sun is blocked by the shade from the trees but you’re close enough to the edge of the forest to feel the lake breeze. It’s the best of all worlds, really.
You reach the bluffs probably 3/4 of a mile into the trail, going from west to east. They pop up quickly, and each time you think you’ve seen them all another few come into view. You can clearly see how the water has eroded entire miniature valleys in between them, and the distinct markings left behind in the sand and clay. (See the picture at the beginning of this post for another angle, in addition to the two below.)
The water is shockingly clear and blue compared to the previous times I’ve visited Lake Ontario. I’m not sure if it’s because I was farther away from the city of Rochester, if it has to do with the winter’s snowmelt, or if I simply had a better vantage point. But the beautiful blues were a nice surprise along the hike. These views reach 50 miles across the lake, creating an endless horizon.
At the end of Bluff Trail I walked down to the eastern parking lot and laid next to the beach for awhile, enjoying the sounds and the sun. Plenty of people were walking along the beach and the bluffs collecting stones and dipping their feet in the water, although I imagine it was still ice cold from winter. Like I mentioned previously, I didn’t see many people toward the western side of the park walking along the beach. It looked like tricky footing toward that end.
After a small break in the eastern parking lot I headed back up the stairs to take Drumlin and East-West trails back to my car. It was essentially the same forest I had been walking through previously, but now with a dirt path instead of grass. It was exceptionally peaceful. I only saw 3 other groups on my walk along the Bluff Trail, and no one on my way back to the car along Drumlin and East-West. I thought it was a relatively perfect day for hiking, so I’d be curious to see how busy this park gets in the middle of summer.
The one issue I still had to deal with was mud. Up until this point my shoes had gotten quite dirty, but my feet had managed to stay dry. Along the way back there were many more puddles though, all with paths picked around them off to the sides. No matter which side I picked, it seemed as if I would consistently make it halfway along the puddle only to get stuck, look off to the other side, and see a perfectly dry path starting up over there. Eventually, toward the end, I finally met my match and stepped into a soft mud pile that covered and soaked my foot. Quite a bleak end to the nice day.
I’d still do this hike again, even through the forest on the way back, or maybe along the beach if it looks more clear. I’m not sure what to say about the mud as it hadn’t rained in several days. It might just be a necessary evil of this park. All in all though, very nice hike, and I left feeling satisfied I had seen most all of it in only about 4 miles of hiking, which is pretty rare.