Exploring New York: The best things to see and do in Finger Lakes region

Finger Lakes region takes its name from eleven long and narrow lakes spread like fingers across the region, and it’s located within four to five-hour drive from metropolitan cities, such as Toronto, New York, Philadelphia, or Pittsburgh. Over thousands of years receding glaciers carved this landscape, giving place to an idyllic home to generations of people. No wonder why, as sparkling lakes, breathtaking waterfalls and rolling pastoral hills dominate the landscape, making Finger Lakes Region a hidden gem.

European settlers found one of the most powerful Native Americans Nations in this area, who believed that Finger Lakes were the fingerprints of the Great Spirit. It is said that the Great Spirit reached down and, in touching the earth, transformed this land into sacred ground. But the geological term finger lake refers to a long, narrow body of water occupying a glacially over deepened valley, and the most notable ones are Cayuga and Seneca Lakes. Within about 9,000 square miles, there are miles of lakeshores, countless waterfalls, and vineyards; from biking, hiking, boating, fishing, to visiting museums, or quaint towns and villages, there is an activity for everyone, you name it.

Here are some of my favourite places and activities!

Wine trails

Each of the Finger lakes is connected by rivers, ultimately leading into Lake Ontario. But beyond the major lakes, and rivers, there are numerous smaller lakes, ponds, and tributaries, all offering a great variety of outdoor activities. Hiking and biking are two of the countless activities in the area, and if you are looking for a certain trail, you should find one for any interest of yours, either if its about art, history, waterfalls, or food. Gourmands can pick some of these trails Finger Lakes Cheese Trail, or Finger Lakes Beer Trail, but they are not limited.

With over 100 wineries flanking the shores of the lakes, Finger Lakes is the New York largest wine producing region. It can be quite dazzling with such huge number of selections, and booking in advance is highly recommended if wine-tasting is on your agenda. But even if you are not curious about tasting the local wines, you should still take some of the amazing wine trails around these lakes. We did enjoy Cayuga Lake Wine Trail and Seneca Lake Wine Trail, two excellent options that are opened year-round, famous for their beautiful vineyards stretching for hundreds of acres on the sloping hills around.

Watkins Glen State Park

As a waterfalls’ lover, I need to admit these were the first ones on my route, while planning this trip. Watkins Glen State Park, hosting the most picturesque falls, is the central piece of the Finger Lakes region. Within two miles, the Glen Creek (descending 400 feet past 200-foot cliffs) generates 19 waterfalls along its course. Stunning rapids, waterfalls, remarkable flumes, picturesque potholes combined with stone staircases, arched bridges and winding paths make you realize how well the human craftmanship converged with the natural playground of Mother Nature. It might not be the oldest state park in U.S., but it certainly has a history. Watkins Glen first paths and wooden bridges were used by the first tourists to the glen when Judge George C Freer first opened the gorge in 1851, and it was privately run until 1906 when it was purchased by New York State. Cavern Cascade and Rainbow Falls are the most stunning waterfalls within the park, but what it did really impress me was the setting and the stonework of the Gorge – you can read more about here.

Robert H Treman State Park

An area of wild beauty, with a rugged gorge called Enfield Glen, and winding trails following 12 waterfalls, Robert H Treman State Park is a park you wouldn’t want to miss. It also features a natural swimming pool, several camping and picnic areas, and the spectacular 115-foot Lucifer Falls.

We started the Gorge Trail from the Lower Park Entrance, and were shortly in awe by the swimming pool carved in stone by the Mother Nature. The clear water and the twinkling ripples were very enticing, but we didn’t plan to take a swim, and followed the sign to Gorge Trail. This lower part of the gorge is considered the “old” gorge, unearthed by Enfield Creek since the end of the last ice age. The rich scenery along the trail made us forget how hot it was actually, and after a while we found ourselves in the “new” gorge near the upper park. Lucifer Falls mark the boundary between the two, and the last section of the trail, narrow and rocky is certainly more dramatic than most of the “old” gorge. We were awarded with handsome views of the sheer cliffs, and soon forgot all the difficult uphill start of the hike. The trail is rated as moderate, but the humidity factor made a bit difficult all the rugged wooded area, including the stairs. We didn’t visit the Old Mill, instead, we followed the Rim Trail on our return through another wooded area, 7 km in total, the whole loop. For winter trail closures and additional information, you can check here.

Taughannock Falls State Park

Hostingthe tallest single-drop waterfalls east of the Rocky Mountains, Taughannock Falls State Park is another beautiful attraction of the Northeast. The waterfall is located at the end of the lower portion of the gorge, and with its 215 feet, it’s even higher than Niagara Falls (which has 180 feet). Although the hot and arid summer of 2022 dried out the riverbed to almost an extinction, and the falls reached probably some of their lowest volumes ever, the 1.2 km trail following the gorge (rated as easy) was truly spectacular, with rock walls of nearly 400 feet high some places. The time left its print in the form of big fractures, called also ‘joints’, visible along the widest point of the gorge Big Bend.

The first people to experience Taughannock (as well of most of other waterfalls) were the Cayuga people, one of the Six Nations of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) in New York. According to a legend, there was a great battle between the Cayugas and a force of Delaware tribe near the top of the falls. The Cayugas are said to have killed the Delawares’ chief, Taughannock (tuh-gan-uck), and thrown his body over the falls. In the Algonquin language, the name Taughannock means “full of trees”, hence the meaning of “great falls in the woods”.

Woodlawn National Cemetery

Chemung County is not only the southern gateway to Finger Lakes region, but it has a fascinating story on its own. In the Algonquin language, Chemung means “place of the horn”, in homage to a time when the Native Americans would discover large mammoth tusks along what is now the Chemung River.

Woodlawn National Cemetery stands as a tribute to soldiers who died at the infamous prison camp that was in Elmira during the Civil War. It contains many of Elmira’s oldest and wealthiest founding families, but its most famous resident, however, is Samuel Langhorne Clemens, known by his pen name Mark Twain. Twain married Olivia Langdon, a woman from a prominent local family, and they summered in Elmira for more than twenty years.

On April 21, 1910, Samuel Langhorne Clemens died at his home, Stormfield, in Redding, Connecticut. After a simple funeral service two days after his death, and almost four thousand of people passed in review, the coffin was brought to Elmira by rail, where found its final resting place.

Sonnenberg Gardens & Mansion State Historic Park

Sonnenberg (German for “Sunny Hill”) was the summer home of Frederick Ferris and Mary Clark Thompson, a notable couple of the New York state. The beautiful 40-room Queen Anne Victorian-style mansion and its nine gardens comprised across a 50-acre estate were a surprise, giving us an idea of the luxurious bankers’ life style from the end of the 19th century.

Frederick and Mary met in Albany while Mary’s father was serving as governor of New York state between 1855 and 1857. The couple maintained their primary residence in New York City, where Frederick was a founder and lifelong director of the First National Bank of the City of New York (which became Citibank). As the business prospered, the Thompsons purchased Sonnenberg in 1863, which extended and improved over years. The landscape reflected the prevailing approach of the Victorian period, and the gardens were further developed by Mary between 1903 and 1920 (after Frederick’s death in 1899), who brought home ideas from her many trips to Europe.

Although the gardens require intensive restoration, one can still notice the old time’s glory.

Sonnenberg Gardens, a non-profit organization, operates today the estate, in cooperation with the New York State office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, and relies solely on visitor admissions, memberships, donations, wine and gift center sales, and special events to preserve public access to the estate. The park is opened seasonal, for more information, you can visit the park’s website.

Visiting a brewery – Two Goats Brewing

There is no question that wineries and vineyards come first while visiting the Wine Country in New York. But local brewers earned some recognition, putting Finger Lakes brewhouses on the map, as well. Across the eleven Finger Lakes, there are over 80 breweries and brewpubs, offering a taste of the region’s outstanding beer scene.

There is no reason why we chose Two Goats Brewing, and most probably it was for the beautiful settings, ideal for a perfect evening.

Ready to get our ‘flights’, we admired the unique decorations, including the dollar bill-full ceiling. We also contributed with a Romanian Leu, as soon as we noticed some foreign bills up there, to the joy of the audience. Although the plastic bill was stiffer than the paper ones, the bartender’s skill in pinning it up to the ceiling defied all senses! He eventually succeeded while everyone was cheering him. Funny, and entertaining, actually all the tips ended up on the ceiling, and sooner or later they would be donated to the charity.

Corning Museum of Glass

We have not anticipated to find so many museums across the region. The Museum of glass from Corning was not originally in our itinerary, but we squeezed in, on our last day of visiting Finger Lake Region.

Conceived as an educational institution and founded in 1951 by Corning Glass Works, the museum has inspired people to see glass in a new light. But the history in Corning started long before, when Corning Glass Works (previously known as the Brooklyn Flint Glass Company) moved to Corning in 1868. For the next years, becoming famous for products such as light bulbs, Pyrex, and Corningware, Gorilla Glass, optical fiber, and Steuben art glass, Corning became the leading center in the glass making field, as an influx of talented glassmakers from Europe and America spurred the growth of the city and region, and then the “Crystal City” was born.

Here we found the most comprehensive and celebrated glass collection in the world, with galleries exploring the glass and glassmaking from antiquity, 3,500 years ago, through present day. With many demos and activities offered daily, it’s hard to know where to start from. Glass making can be seen at any of the two Hot Shops on the second and third floor, while narrators talk through the process, explaining step by step how the glass is made, from taking glowing gobs of molten glass, till the end of the process of shaping them into vases, or bowls.

While you can feed the hunger for art around the various galleries, the Innovation Center is an eye-opener. A 300-foot bridge connects three floating pavilions, where you can ‘meet’ the inventors whose ideas changed the world. You might know certain facts about glass and its industrial use, as optical fibre, or optical lenses, but you can definitely find more interesting facts, how the hard-working inventors obtained some products, or sometimes a lucky accident gave the world the glass we take for granted. For more information, visiting hours, directions, etc, you can check here.

Tip(s) of the day:

  • While Ithaca, the city located in the heart of Finger Lakes region can get quite busy and expensive during the high season, Elmira and Horseheads offer cheaper options for your home base in this region;
  • Best time to visit the waterfalls is early in the morning, week days, and early summer;
  • I would recommend a minimum 3 to 5 days to visit the main attractions in this area;
  • Check each park in advance for closures, as some of the trails are opened seasonal;
  • With 180 state parks in New York, you might consider purchasing the Empire Pass. If the time does not permit to use the pass throughout the entire year, the vehicle entrance fee to most state parks in NY is $10 daily, and you can use the day pass to as many state parks you can use within the same day. Sonnenberg Estate is not part of the State parks, nor the Corning Museum.

~ visited in July 2022


25 thoughts on “Exploring New York: The best things to see and do in Finger Lakes region

  1. When you started with ‘wine trails’, I knew I’m going to love this place 😉. It is such a picturesque place … of course the waterfalls are beautiful! What a fun idea is the dollar ceiling (and that it’s going to charity makes it even more attractive). And wow, love the glass art! Great post with stunning photos!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. All those waterfalls look beautiful, and the glass museum really appeals to me too, as does the wine of course! But I especially like the notion that these Finger Lakes were the fingerprints of the Great Spirit 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Lenore for coming along and for your kind note.
      Although we learned recently about Finger Lakes region, we didn’t think too long before visiting, I knew it’s going to be rewarding. You will love this region, if you decide to give it a try🙂 Hope you had a great weekend as well, ours flew by so fast!


  3. Mark Twain seems to be cropping up everywhere at the moment, by coincidence I’ve seen several posts lately which have mentioned him or his works. Not hard to see why they loved this area, some stunning scenery coupled with fascinating histories.


    1. Hmm, that’s funny, maybe because his birth day is coming up soon, at the end of this month, or just simple coincidence.
      Indeed, no question why they preferred this area as a summer retreat, the idyllic slopes of the hills and the greenery speak for themselves, a great inspiration in fact for some of Twain’s characters.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I love nature and waterfalls, so this post is a real feast for my eyes. Cavern Cascade and Rainbow Falls are simply stunning – there is just something mesmerizing about watching the water tumble off a rock face into a pool or raging river beneath. The noise it makes, the sheer volume of water – it’s magical. Thanks for sharing and have a great day 🙂 Aiva xx

    Liked by 1 person

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