Oddly enough, the first time I heard of the Finger Lakes was in high school watching an SNL skit – The Lawrence Welk Show, starring Kristen Wiig (you can watch one of the skits here… random, I know). That video certainly didn’t teach me much about the lakes of upstate New York, and if it would have, I imagine it would have made me think it too strange a place to visit.
Fast forward maybe 8 years, and I found myself planning a trip to the Finger Lakes with some great friends living in Syracuse. (I’ve been frequenting NY a lot these days!)
The Finger Lakes do in fact have tons to see and do! Everything from outdoor activities to upscale dining, and of course, wine. We spent most of our time at Cayuga (the longest Finger Lake) & Seneca (the largest Finger Lake), and I can’t wait to go back and explore the nine others.
Read on to find out my favorite things about the region.
1. Visit Watkins Glen State Park
So this was totally the highlight of my trip! As much as the area is known for lakes and wine, it is also famous for waterfalls. And Watkins Glen State Park holds some of the most beautiful waterfalls and rock formations I’ve ever seen.
Located at the southern end of Seneca Lake, the park features a 1.5 mile stretch through a gorge, where you hike directly alongside a river and 19 cascading falls. There are three trails, all of which can be completed within a few hours. Signs are posted to teach you all about the geology and history of the area as you go.
It was preserved yet privately owned until the State of New York purchased the land in 1906. It has since then become a wildly popular tourist destination – when I went, the trails’ overlooks were completely crowded with eager visitors from all over the world. (Which is both a positive and negative; it’s great that so many people get to appreciate the natural phenomenon, but nature can be so much sweeter in solitude.)
There is a great nearby campsite along the gorge. My friends and I were only able to secure one night because it fills up in advance, so be sure to make reservations here. Camping will probably always be my favorite way to experience national & state parks, and this is another great resource I’ve found for additional car camping inspo across the US.
Watkins Glen Geology
Because I studied earth science in college, I couldn’t contain my fascination with the geology of Watkins Glen:
The area was once under shallow sea water. Upstream mountains were slowly eroding and depositing sediments into the waters over tens of millions of years. This is the perfect environment for sedimentary rocks to form, which they did. Mostly the shale and sandstone you find in the gorge today.
When Pangea formed, there was continental uplift, and the area that is now Watkins Glen was no longer under water. Somewhere in the next many millions of years, dinosaurs went extinct.
All of the Finger Lakes were carved by migrating glaciers during the last ice age, between 2 million and 10,000 years ago. Since then, the waters of Watkins Creek have progressively eroded the gorge that is Watkins Glen, as they flow into Seneca Lake.
As interesting as it is to read about the geology (you can read more here), it is even more incredible to see in person! The layers of shale are so stunning, as are the fractured “joints” from millions of years of pressure on the rocks.
Definitely a state park you don’t want to miss.
2. Swim in a lake
If you are like me & totally drawn to any body of water in the summer heat, you should definitely check out these lakes. At Watkins Glen State Park, visitors are unfortunately unable to swim in the creek, so my friends and I took to the nearby Seneca Lake.
We checked out Clute Park, which had some sandy beaches and beautiful views.
Even in May, the water was FREEZING! It was a hot day, but this water was seriously painful to the touch.
We really wanted to go into the water, so we got creative… One Walmart trip later…. and we had ourselves a big inflatable pool that we used to float out into the lake with! It was a wild success, although we made some nearby kids jealous. (We were surprised no one working at the park told us it wasn’t allowed!) If you want to swim comfortably in the lake in a more traditional sense, I would recommend late summer or autumn.
If you find yourself at a different Finger Lake, there are tons of other beach and swimming options. You can check them out here.
You can also enjoy the lakes from a boat tour. I had been hoping to do a BYO sunset cruise with Ithaca Boat Tours, but they were unfortunately fully booked. So make sure you reserve in advance.
3. Check out breweries
I love wine, but I was still excited to learn that there are tons of breweries along the Finger Lakes’ wine trails as well.
On the Cayuga wine trail, I loved the Boathouse Beer Garden. It was open-air, with lots of local beers on tap (as well as wine and cider). There were live music events, corn hole, and rows of Adirondack chairs overlooking the lake. Any time I was in proximity to one of the lakes, all I really wanted to do was sit back and stare.
My favorite brewery on the Seneca wine trail (north, in Geneva) was Lake Drum Brewing. They had delicious IPAs, a free self-serve popcorn machine, and a super cool atmosphere. After hanging out there for some time, an awesome local band came on playing funky blues music that made me feel like I was transported to New Orleans! It was a seriously fun, pleasant time.
Overall, I was willing to take a break from a million wine tastings for some awesome local beers, and I was surprised by how plentiful the breweries actually were.
4. Taste some wine
When one visits the Finger Lakes Region, one drinks the wine. There are hundreds of wineries, at times seemingly everywhere you look.
My first word of advice: don’t just go to the first winery you come across.
I was super excited to start sampling the world-renowned wines, and stopped at the first winery we passed around 11:00 am. I walked up to the counter and paid $5 for six tastings (the typical price in the area – tipping didn’t seem to be expected, as none of the receipts had a line to leave one). Then we got long lists of wines & descriptions to select from.
The wines for the most part were unique and delicious, but I didn’t love the atmosphere. We were standing at a busy counter, pretty much in the middle of a kitschy gift shop. When I had pictured being on the wine trails, I had pictured myself sipping a glass of Cabernet on a deck overlooking a Finger Lake, or perhaps strolling through a vineyard.
After that first winery, I started researching each winery more, to try to secure the atmosphere I had envisioned.
I really enjoyed the Goose Watch Winery on the Cayuga wine trail. While you still had to stand at a counter for the sampling (logistically, I’m not sure there’s any avoiding that), there was a nice deck overlooking Cayuga Lake, and a lovely pond nearby with geese. And I did get to walk around some of the vineyards. I think next time, I will just order one glass of wine and relax outside, instead of doing a sampling at the counter.
Getting Around the Wine Trails
When I first heard of the wine trails, I had the wrong expectations. I had actually imagined gentle hikes through scenic woods, where you happen upon occasional wineries to dip into. While that would be a dream come true, that is not the reality. You do very much have to drive between wineries.
Which brings me to another piece of advice: consider your transportation options while on the wine trails.
Before arriving in Upstate NY, we had thought about hiring a guide & driver. There are tons of car services that will drive you around for the day so that you can sample as many wines as you want without worrying about being too buzzed to drive. These services start at around $50/person. They are a perfect option if they fall within your budget.
Uber also came to mind, but the problem with that was that ridesharing has only recently been legalized in NY, just in 2017. So we weren’t sure if we would be able to rely on the services, or if we would end up stranded.
We ultimately decided to save money and drive ourselves between wineries. But later in the evening, we were able to catch an Uber from the hotel to Seneca Lake State Park. From there it was a lovely evening of walking along the lake, then heading into downtown Geneva. It was just a 15 minute wait for the Uber back that night – totally doable, and worth it for the several glasses of wine.
I hope my two cents will inspire you to check out the Finger Lakes & reach out to Dreamavoo Travel & Tours. Email me at email@example.com when you’re ready to plan 🙂
Hello. impressive job. I did not anticipate this.