Lakes, waterfalls and wine trails lure visitors to a serene setting
Upstate New York is often known for its negative digits in the worst of winter, but the rest of the year offers ideal weather. In spring and summer the landscape is bright with colorful flower blossoms. And come autumn the fall foliage turns to shades of gold and rust. The area’s proximity to major east coast cities like Philadelphia and New York City make it a popular weekend destination. Explore the Finger Lakes for its variety of lodging, lakes and trails, that make it a doable road trip for any budget.
Our visit to NY’s Finger Lakes was a busy one including Cornell’s Ornithology Lab, Watkins Glen, the Carl Sagan Walk, the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum and Lakes Cayuga, Seneca and Keuka. Some of the lake names identify the native American tribes who first inhabited the area now known as the Finger Lakes in upstate New York. Geologists explain their existence from continental glaciers widening and deepening the river valleys. We prefer the Native American legend that says the lakes were formed by the hand of the Great Spirit which left the imprint of it’s fingers that filled with water to become lakes.
In our October visit this year the temps were a balmy 75 degrees, perfect for exploring the Finger Lakes in upstate New York. We wanted to revisit some of our favorite places and discover some new ones. Our adventure included the areas around Cayuga, Seneca and Keuka lakes and a visit to the Erie Canal. We used our binoculars many time whether it was to see a warbler up a tree or a waterfall up close. Here’s a few quick tips about Traveling with Binoculars.
Ithaca on Cayuga Lake
Ithaca, on the shores of Cayuga Lake in upstate New York is home to Cornell University. The vast campus of stone and brick buildings sits in the hills of the countryside. A well integrated bus system throughout the town and campus shuffle students and residents to wherever they want to go. And one way streets seem to make congested traffic a non-issue. As a college town with many visitors there’s a diverse selection of restaurants and plenty of hotel and bed and breakfast stays to choose from.
Birds and more birds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in upstate New York
Our first stop was Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology devoted to the study of birds. The Visitor Center is set within their Sapsucker Woods Sanctuary, a 230-acre nature preserve of forest, ponds and wetlands. You can walk the four miles of mostly-level mulched paths and boardwalks in this pristine habitat for willife. And you can site your binoculars in any direction and find a variety of species – full time residents, winter visitors or summer nesters. We liked using our spotting scope to see a handsome mallard in a nearby pond.
Inside the Visitors Center you can’t miss the bold, black and white mural, the “Wall of Silhouettes” depicting 140 species of birds decorating the walls.
The lab has created a useful app to help identify birds using your cell phone, the Merlin Bird ID App. You can download Merlin from the App store or Google Play and at All about Birds.
Another amazing project for birders is BirdCast, live bird migration maps from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Colorado State University. Take a look at the site to see real time analysis maps and predicted nocturnal migration patterns.
Sagan Planet Walk
For an enlightening walk in downtown Ithaca in upstate New York we used another app to magically walk from the Sun all the way to Pluto on the Sagan Planet Walk. The scale model of our Solar System is a ¾ mile walk beginning at the Sun station at the Commons and ending at the Pluto station at the Sciencenter. This family-friendly walk was created in memory of Ithaca resident and astronomer Carl Sagan. We downloaded the free podcast, a tour narrated by Bill Nye, the science guy, and listened as we walked and found this a fascinating way to tour the universe.
Wineries and waterfalls
A nice drive north on Rt. 89 up the western shore of Cayuga Lake features miles of shorefront cottages and homes most with lakefront docks. The other side of the road was rolling farmland. We used the Cayuga Lake Wine Trail supporting 14 wineries and found most of the wineries along the western shore of Cayuga Lake. The website is a useful site with a planning tool with maps and printed material.
We stopped along the way to see waterfalls, some more spectacular than others but all showing the tremendous power of cascading water. Ithaca in Tompkins County is home to 11 waterfalls, many at state parks like Taughannock Falls off Rt. 89 going north from Ithaca. Everyone seems to talk softly as we left our car and followed signs to the overlook to see the 215 foot drop cascading down into the gorge. It is the tallest single drop waterfall east of the Rocky Mountains and is three stories taller than Niagara Falls.
The area has expanded its attractions to include popular craft breweries and cideries and plenty of ice cream. You can visit with farming families who share their lifestyle and passion making agri-tourism a favorite for visiting families. Who doesn’t like to pick their own apples and pumpkins?
Seneca Falls on the Erie Canal
We wanted to pay homage to the Woman’s Rights Convention held in Seneca Falls in 1848, some 173 years ago. Today there’s a memorial and museum commemorating the gathering held to demand equal social, civil and religious rights for women and paved the way towards the right to vote.
We’ve cruised our boat from Chicago to the east coast via the Erie Canal years ago so we wanted to revisit this amazing canal system since we were in the area. The 400-mile canal runs across the state from Buffalo in the west to Waterford in the east which connects with the Hudson River. Today the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor is popular with cyclists for its good bike trails along the canal and kayak paddlers enjoy its protected calm waters, all with idyllic small towns and scenery along the way.
Watkins Glen on Seneca Lake
More wineries and waterfalls surround the lively village of Watkins Glen at the base of Seneca Lake, the largest and deepest of New York’s Finger Lakes. The lakefront and harbor are busy with everything from windsurfing to sightseeing and dinner cruises. Trout fishing and steady sailing winds make the lake popular with locals and visitors alike.
The last time we visited Watkins Glen was for a Sports Car Club of America race where we reminisced about our Austin-Healey Sprite. It was painted a sporty British racing green with funny looking bug-eye headlights. We watched a yellow Sprite similar to ours as it rounded the course usually as a tail end Charlie, but seeing the car brought back fond memories of the little sports car with no seat belts and barely a radio or heat, but in our mind, had plenty of pizzaz and personality.
Many know Watkins Glen for its place in car racing history and that’s why we returned for an encore visit. After World War II the town swelled with visitors to watch race cars on the Grand Prix Circuit, a 6.6 mile course that twists and turns through village streets and public roads beginning and ending in the heart of town. Sidewalk markers are located along the length of Franklin Street honoring the drivers and supporters.
On this trip we got the pdf file and printed a copy of the old Grand Prix circuit and followed it in our Chevy Equinox. Operating at the speed limit, Gene clutched the wheel and maneuvered us around the curving, often lumpy pavement and sharp turns. Not exactly an easy ride. If you feel the need for a test drive, click here to get a copy of the circuit.
Today the village has an expansive race complex at NASCAR International at www.theglen.com and car racing buffs enjoy the International Motor Racing Research Center. To find visitor information go to www.explorewatkinsglen.com/
The distances are short between these lake towns so you can see a lot in one day. Throughout the rolling terrain are road signs reminding drivers of the steep grades and “use low gear in the next 2 miles”.
Hammondsport on Keuka Lake
Often called Crooked Lake because of its y-shape, Keuka Lake is home to Hammondsport, New York known to aviation buffs as the home of the Glenn H. Curtiss museum. We wanted to learn more about Curtiss because we knew his notable contribution to early aviation. At an early age he began transforming bicycles with motors and created the Hercules motorcycle with a lightweight air-cooled engine. His success led to supplying early aviators with engines and attracted the attention of Alexander Graham Bell. As World War I began his company manufactured the Jenny, a fleet of airplanes for the armed forces and employed 10,000 people.
The charming town of Hammondsport sits at the southern tip of the Keuka Lake in upstate New York, with an eclectic collection of lodging and eateries around the village square. It’s a popular destination for all forms of watersports especially paddleboards, kayaks and canoes. You’ll see old woodies like a Chris Craft cruiser or Hinckley day sailer in these fresh waters along with water skiers and pontoon boats. For visitors information go to the Hammondsport Chamber of Commerce.
We packed a lot into this short getaway and came away convinced the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York is a very special place. And we can’t imagine a better way to see the sights without using apps on our cellphone to make the most of our road trip.
You might also be interested in:
- Explore Acadia National Park ME
- Cruising Lake Champlain
- Visit Small Harbor Towns on MD’s Eastern Shore
Gene and Katie Hamilton travel the U.S. extensively in search of a favorite place. They are members of the Outdoor Writers Association of America.