If you haven't seen them before, the bluffs just east of Sodus Bay on Lake Ontario's southern shore may remind you of terrain in a science-fiction movie. Even if you have seen them, you may think they are out of place, that they belong out West, perhaps in Utah's Arches National Park, or Monument Valley on the Utah/Arizona border, where John Ford filmed so many movies.
In either case, the trip to Chimney Bluffs State Park offers a view of fascinating landforms that are both unusual for Western New York and ever-changing. Every time you make a trip there, they will look a little different.
There are, of course, differences between the Southwestern landscape and Chimney Bluffs. Arches and Monument Valley are largely sandstone formations, while the ones at Chimney Bluffs are laden with clay. But these are all places shaped by wind and water and time.
Another difference will be surprising to those who put too much credence in names. Some of the formations in Monument Valley and Arches do look a bit like chimneys. None of those in Chimney Bluffs State Park look like chimneys. My daughter America said some look like shark fins, and from a particular angle, a group of others, she noted, looks like the back of a stegosaurus.
And the shapes change more quickly at Chimney Bluffs than in the West. Clay, as many sculptors have learned, is more malleable than sandstone.
The bluffs are actually the ends of drumlins, the elongated hills shaped centuries ago by retreating glaciers. Drumlins are common in Western New York, but almost all are covered with trees, shrubs, grapevines and other vegetation. The ones at Chimney Bluffs, however, have long been exposed to the beating waves of Lake Ontario, the winds that cross the lake unobstructed, and other forces of nature.
And Nature the Sculptor has rewarded those who visit Chimney Bluffs with spectacular sights.
The easiest way to see the formations is to take a road to their east end, park, walk out on the beach, and look up. The more rewarding way is to leave your car in the park's main parking lot and walk north to the lake and then a mile or so along Bluff Trail. The trail affords an almost continuous view of the bluffs, and they become more spectacular and complex as you near them.
Bluff Trail takes you above the bluffs, and as long as you don't get careless and fall over the edge, you'll feel the extra walking was worth the effort. While most of the walk is flat and easy, the last quarter-mile is uphill, and some people may find it moderately tough going.
Once you're on top of the bluffs, signs warn you to exercise common sense: "Danger Sheer Unstable Bluff Stay Back." Not surprisingly, it's not unusual to see people standing on the wrong side of the signs or even climbing up the bluffs.
On the way back you should take the Drumlin Trail. Drumlins are often described as whale-shaped. In this case, the unusual landforms are at the head of the whale, and walking back to the parking lot will be like walking down the spine of the whale until you reach the tail.
No signs mark either the Bluffs or Drumlin trails, but the Bluffs Trail parallels the lakefront and provides a constant view of the lake. The Drumlin Trail runs south and southwest away from the bluffs. Both are well worn and easy to follow.
The park includes picnic tables and rest rooms, and spending a few hours there is not an unreasonable stay.
If you're in the mood for a little extra hiking, the Garner Point Trail runs north-south on the park's west side. It's about a half-mile flat walk that affords a view of a swampy area. On the north, it ends at the lake.
Because many of the hundreds of drumlins in the area between Sodus Bay and Oswego end at the lake shore line, there are other locations with similar if less spectacular bluffs. For example, about 15 miles farther east, Fair Haven State Park offers a good view of Sitts Bluff, outside park boundaries and privately owned.
After your visit, you might consider going to the other (west) side of Sodus Bay to visit the village of Sodus Point. There you will find at least a half dozen places to eat and drink and some small shops.
And there are plenty of boats and small yachts along the water's edge for leisurely viewing. Sodus Point is a favorite access point to the lake, and many of its visitors arrive by boat.
Stop into the Sodus Bay Lighthouse and Museum to view the exhibits, which focus on local history. Lighthouse museums are always small, but if you've never been inside one, you're denying yourself a small pleasure. Admission is $3 for adults, $1 for children 11 to 17, and free 10 and under. It's open every day in the summer (except Mondays) from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
On the second floor of the museum is the D. Russell Chamberlain Maritime Library, which focuses on local history.
And if you're still in the mood for things old, you might consider driving a few miles west to dine at Orbaker's, an 8-decade-old eatery that, like so many old-fashioned restaurants in small towns, specializes in everything that's high in calories and fat.
It's not a health food stop, but the hamburgers, hot dogs, fried chicken, fried jalapenos, fried this and fried that sure can be very satisfying.
If you go:
Take the Thruway (Interstate 90) to I-390 north to I-590; take I-590 north to Route 104; take Route 104 east 35 miles to Route 414 (Lake Bluff Road); take 414 north to Chimney Bluffs State Park. The first entrance gives you access to Bluff Trail.
To view the bluffs with less walking, continue past the main entrance for about a mile until you come to East Bay Road, turn left, drive for about a mile. The road dead ends at the lake; there's a small parking lot and rest rooms.
To go to Sodus Point, take 414 south, turn west on Ridge Road, follow the signs into the village.
To go to Orbaker's, take Route 14 south out of the village to 104, and turn west. You will come to Orbaker's in about nine miles; it's on the north side of the road.