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The 11 Best Things to Do in the Finger Lakes

After working as a chemist at a biotechnology company, I enjoy writing about science, travel, and gardening.

Watkin's Glen offers spectacular views from the hiking trail.

Watkin's Glen offers spectacular views from the hiking trail.

Are the Finger Lakes Worth Visiting?

Spectacular wineries, hiking trails, and unique outdoor activities make the finger lakes one of the most beautiful areas of the United States. Spectacular waterfalls and plentiful water activities are draws in the summer months, along with wine tasting. Fall foliage is spectacular in this region, and skiing is available nearby for the winter months at Bristol Mountain.

A boat-side view of Lake Seneca—the largest Finger Lake.

A boat-side view of Lake Seneca—the largest Finger Lake.

What Are the Finger Lakes?

The Finger Lakes stretch from Rochester, NY, in the west to Syracuse, NY, on the eastern end of the state. Created by glaciers at the end of the ice age, 11 lakes grace the center of New York State. With temperatures moderated by Lake Ontario to the north, the region is well known for its vineyards and wineries.

Beautiful gorges, state parks, waterfalls, and hiking trails are abundant in the Finger Lakes Region. The Erie Canal also passes through this region for those with an interest in history.

Lake Seneca is the largest Finger Lake, dotted with wineries along the sides, the town of Geneva to the north, and Watkin’s Glen to the south. For people unsure of where to stay in the Finger Lakes, this centrally located lake offers a wealth of activities (and the ability to travel to other nearby lakes).

Cascades along the trail of Watkin's Glen, just one of many gorgeous hikes in the Finger Lakes.

Cascades along the trail of Watkin's Glen, just one of many gorgeous hikes in the Finger Lakes.

1. Hike the Finger Lakes

Hiking paths are plentiful in this region. Watkin’s Glen is located at the southern end of Seneca Lake, and is a spectacular gorge with waterfalls, stone bridges, and tunnels along the path. Hikers will pass behind waterfalls and climb 832 steps to the top of the gorge from the lower visitor center. The park also contains an Olympic-sized swimming pool and children’s playground at the top of the gorge, along with a shuttle bus to carry visitors back to the lower visitor’s center.

Stream hiking is an alternative to traditional hiking, and many people truly enjoy this sport. Stream hikers do not follow a trail but simply follow the stream. Popular state parks for stream hikes include Watkin's Glen, Fillmore Glen, and Stony Brook. A sturdy pair of waterproof sandals or water shoes are wonderful for stream hiking, along with a walking stick to gauge the depth of the stream. Take care to note the length of the hike—make sure to hike only as far as you are willing to hike on the return trip!

Many visitors overlook Fillmore Glen and Stony Brook, which are amazing state parks. Fillmore Glen has more than 5 waterfalls and is located in Moravia (near Lake Owasco). Stony Brook State Park is located near Dansville (south of Conesus Lake) on the western end of the Finger Lakes. Stony Brook has a large playground and a natural swimming hole, waterfall, and lifeguards during the summer months.

Another spectacular area to hike is the Cayuga Nature Center. Located near Ithaca, the nature center has exhibits for families with small children, hiking trails, and a six-story treehouse to explore.

Chimney Bluffs State Park is another amazing state park, with stiff peaks formed by glaciers that jut out over Lake Ontario. The park is located in Huron, NY, north of Seneca Lake.

Pontoon boats are a wonderful option for families with small children, as they allow a comfortable way to explore the lakes and canals.

Pontoon boats are a wonderful option for families with small children, as they allow a comfortable way to explore the lakes and canals.

2. Rent a Canoe or Boat

Rent a kayak or canoe and explore one of many rivers or creeks. While whitewater is not found in most of the Finger Lakes’ streams, there is “fast water” to be found. The Canandaigua Outlet has a great section of fast-moving water between Manchester and Lyons (the area drops over waterfalls near the lake itself, so take care)!

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The Catherine’s Creek Marsh is located near Watkin’s Glen at the bottom of Seneca Lake. Rent a kayak and venture out into the secluded wilderness. Great Blue Herons, beaver, deer, and turtles are plentiful in the region.

Another option is renting a powerboat or pontoon boat. Typically offered for 4-hour or full-day rental, these boats allow visitors to see more of the Finger Lakes and to stop at state parks alongside the lake. Our family has small children and recently rented a pontoon boat on Lake Seneca. We stopped at Sampson State Park, Seneca Lake State Park, and took a swim in the lake. We also motored (slowly) up a canal to get a great view of the local wildlife.

Wineries in the Finger Lakes

3. Go Wine Tasting

The lake effect moderates temperatures in this area of New York, which allows vineyards to flourish. The lakes best for wine tasting are Seneca, Cayuga, and Keuka as several wineries dot the hillsides and form a wine trail.

Wineries near Seneca Lake include:

  1. Wagner Vineyards Estate Winery
  2. Lamoreaux Landing
  3. Glenora Wine Cellars
  4. Boundary Breaks Vineyard
  5. Hermann J. Weimar Vineyard

Wineries near Cayuga Lake include:

  1. Sheldrake Point Winery
  2. Americana Vineyards
  3. Hosmer Winery
  4. Swedish Hill
  5. Heart and Hands Winery

Wineries near Keuka Lake include:

  1. Ravines Wine Cellars
  2. McGregor Vineyard
  3. Keuka Springs
  4. Heron's Hill Winery
  5. Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery

4. Play a Round of Golf in the Finger Lakes

Traditional golf is another activity in the area. The Finger Lakes Golf Trail includes courses like Bristol Harbor, Ravenwood, Greystone, and Mill Creek. These golf courses are stunningly beautiful and many offer gorgeous views of the lakes and surrounding hillsides.

The Finger Lakes region has a high density of "Frisbee Golf" or disc golf courses. A popular course is Denison Park in Corning, NY. There are many official courses scattered throughout local parks and recreational areas. Seneca Lake State Park near Geneva and Emerson Park in Auburn are other disc golf locations.

5. Go Geocaching

There is a wonderful geocaching trail in Chemung County, NY (south of Seneca Lake, near Corning). The Sojourn geocache trail includes more than 12 unique rubber stamps that can be placed into a passport. The coordinates can be found on the official Geocaching site, then visit the visitor's center in Corning to get a passport. Once the passport contains more than 12 stamps, visitors may return to the visitor's center to receive a geocaching coin.

6. Go Camping in the Finger Lakes

There are numerous campsites and campgrounds scattered around the Finger Lakes. A popular site near Seneca Lake is the Watkin's Glen KOA, which has an indoor pool and a giant jumping pillow for kids. Be aware that this area becomes impossibly crowded during the Watkin's Glen International. This event typically occurs in August, so check the dates before booking a reservation (unless, of course, race cars are on the "must-see" list).

A list of campgrounds can be found on the official Finger Lakes website, organized by general location.

Pick your own blueberries (and more) in the Finger Lakes.

Pick your own blueberries (and more) in the Finger Lakes.

7. Visit a Pick-Your-Own Farm

There are numerous farms scattered throughout the region with "pick-your-own" orchards and fields. Blueberries, strawberries, cherries, raspberries, apples, and more are available to pick (in season).

A stand-out is Abbott Farms in Onondaga County, where visitors can pick many types of berries and apples, visit a barnyard, and purchase delicious baked goods at the onsite bakery. This farm also features fall festivals and Christmas events, extending the fun beyond the traditional berry picking season.

A wonderful list of pick-your-own farms in the Finger Lakes can be found on the I Love the Finger Lakes website.

8. Do the Planet Walk in Ithaca

Located in Ithaca, the Carl Sagan Planet Walk offers a walk through our solar system (to scale). Stop by the Ithaca County Visitor's Center and pick up a passport for a nominal fee; the passport may be stamped at each station along the planet walk. When complete, the passport allows the holder to enter the Science Center in Ithaca for free!

This walk is only 0.7 miles long (about 1.2 km), and is easy for families to complete together. The beginning of the trail is in the Commons in Ithaca with the sun, and the trail ends at the Science Center with Pluto. A free audio tour (narrated by Bill Nye) and map are available.

The splash pad at Seneca Lake State Park  (aka the Seneca Lake Sprayground!) is a great place to cool off.

The splash pad at Seneca Lake State Park (aka the Seneca Lake Sprayground!) is a great place to cool off.

9. Visit Beautiful Parks

There are many fantastic playgrounds located in the Finger Lakes region—a vital component to a vacation with young children. Seneca Lake State Park features a fantastic playground and a massive "sprayground," which is a splash pad that shoots or sprays water out of the ground. A lifeguard is present to watch over the children playing, and many adults join in the fun (if only to cool off on a hot day).

Watkin's Glen and Stony Brook offer spectacular playgrounds, along with Sampson State Park on Lake Seneca. These activities are a great way to allow kids to burn off some energy, while the adults get a chance to cool off after a long day of hiking!

10. Visit the Erie Canal Museum

Located in Syracuse, the Erie Canal Museum contains a full-size replica of the Frank Buchanon Thomson, a line boat. Guests are able to explore the boat and learn about how the Erie Canal shaped the state of New York. The museum also contains an outdoor exhibit featuring a Victorian-era lock-side garden.

The New York State Fair

11. Visit the Great New York State Fair

The site of the first fair in the United States, this fair features over 500 performances each day during its two week session. With over 90 rides, 200 food vendors, and a great music scene, this fair is one everyone should visit if they are in the area at the right time of year. The fair typically runs the last week of August into the first week of September.

Finger Lakes at a Glance

LakeSizeLocationSummary

Conesus

8 miles long with a maximum depth of 66 feet.

West Finger Lakes

A small and shallow lake on the far western end of the Finger Lakes.

Hemlock

7 miles long with a maximum depth of 91 feet.

West Finger Lakes

This lake has landlocked salmon and is popular with fishermen.

Canadice

3 miles long with a maximum depth of 95 feet.

West Finger Lakes

An undeveloped lake: water supply for Rochester, NY.

Honeoye

4.5 miles long with a maximum depth of 30 feet.

West Finger Lakes

A small, shallow lake with clear water - a popular vacation cottage location.

Canandaigua

16 miles long with a maximum depth of 276 feet.

West Finger Lakes

The closest Finger Lake to Rochester, NY.

Keuka

20 miles long and 1/2 mile-2 miles wide. Maximum depth of 186 feet.

Central Finger Lakes

Has a "Y" shape, unlike any other Finger Lake.

Seneca

38 miles long and maximum depth of 838 feet.

Central Finger Lakes

The biggest and deepest Finger Lake. Watkin's Glen and wineries are highlights.

Cayuga

38 miles long and 3.5 miles wide, with a maximum depth of 435 feet.

Central Finger Lakes

The longest Finger Lake. Ithaca, NY sits at the southern end of this lake.

Owasco

11 miles long with a maximum depth of 177 feet.

East Finger Lakes

This lake is small and shallow, and is excellent for swimming.

Skaneateles

16 miles long with a maximum depth of 315 feet.

East Finger lakes

A popular place for celebrities and politicians to vacation.

Otisco

6 miles long

East Finger Lakes

The smallest Finger Lake.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2012 Leah Lefler

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