New York’s Finger Lakes Region:

Hands-down, bucket list-worthy

When it comes to planning family vacation time, New York is full of choices such as New York City, with its skyscrapers, theaters and world-class museums.  And, there are the famous Hamptons, known for family beach time. But the Empire State offers so much more beyond the urban and seaside landscapes!

A prime hot spot for outdoor buffs is the upstate Finger Lakes region. All who flock here love hiking within the vast collection of state parks, admiring the forested hills, swimming in the freshwater lakes and visiting the historic centuries-old towns and villages. Throughout the region, there are over 1000 waterfalls and gorges to admire, over 20 varieties of New York apples to be picked at a slew of orchards, local craft brews to sample, museums to admire, (and mature wineries to tour, if your crew is of age).

The Origins

Named for its series of long, narrow lakes that run north to south in west-central New York, The Finger Lakes region was formed during the Ice Age, when continental glaciers shifted, thus creating, along with the 650 miles of lakeshore, a plethora of gargantuan gorges and tumbling waterfalls, lush peaks and now farm-laced valleys. Native American legend says that their Creator looked upon this special land with extra care and kindness, reaching from above to bless it while leaving the imprint of His hand on it.

Within a virtual triangle between Elmira-Corning, Rochester and Syracuse, there are 11 lakes, splayed across nearly 100 miles. From east to west they are: Otisco, Skaneateles, Owasco, Cayuga, Seneca, Keuka, Canandaigua, Honeoye, Canadice, Hemlock and Conesus. Arguably, the most popular towns sprinkled throughout include Auburn, Canandaigua, Geneva, Ithaca, Skaneateles, Penn Yann, Watkins Glen, Corning and Elmira. Each lake and its adjacent town(s) have its own special historic bent and areas of interest to embrace (see for more specific details).

Firsthand Experience: Ithaca and Cayuga Lake

Calling Tulsa home for 20 years, yet having grown up in New York, I was thrilled to support my son’s decision five years ago to attend Cornell University in Ithaca, the most bustling scene in the Finger Lakes.  Located on the southern point of blue-hued Cayuga Lake, the longest of the 11, Ithaca offers an eclectic culture with a college town vibe (thanks to Cornell and Ithaca College sharing the downtown) along with a wide variety of ethnic foods, theater and outdoor activities. I secured every chance to visit him, so that I could soak it all in. Aside from the legendary vegetarian Moosewood Restaurant in Ithaca Commons and the I.M. Pei-designed Herbert F. Johnson Art Museum on the slopes of Cornell’s campus, several recommended attractions include:

Taughannock Falls State Park. I made a point to visit this waterfall on several occasions since it is one of the most impressive natural attractions this side of the Colorado Rockies and is actually taller than Niagara Falls to the north. Close to 400 feet above the breathtaking gorge, Taughannock Falls plunges a whopping 215 feet over rocky cliffs. There is an outpost above the falls and an easy gorge trail below, providing “up close and personal” views. Dine and/or stay at the stunningly renovated Inn at Taughannock, with its sweeping views of the lake.

Treman State Park. Robert H. Treman State Park’s highlight is Enfield Glen, a rugged gorge. Multiple trails afford the chance to see 12 waterfalls. The tallest is cascading Lucifer Falls, which is an impressive 115 feet tall. The upper gorge offers a memorable one-and-a-half-mile down toward the lower gorge.  There is a stream for wading and a natural swimming pool at the waterfall’s base.

Cornell Botanical Gardens. On the magnificent university campus, begin at the Nevill Welcome Center. Don’t miss out on what’s growing in the F.R. Newman Arboretum, which has been awarded the title of best college arboretum in the country. All around Cornell’s stunning campus, you’ll find hiking trails among the gorges. The colorful gardens and natural areas are open at no cost, year round from sunrise to sunset. Keep in mind there are seasonal highlights, too.

Cayuga Lake Scenic Byway. For an outdoor lovers’ dreamscape experience, consider trekking along the Cayuga Lake Scenic Byway, an 87-mile loop around the lake that affords sweeping views. While doing so, be sure to visit picturesque Aurora on the eastern shores, home to Wells College and a cornucopia of astounding historic inns recently renovated to perfection. Dine at the lakefront Aurora Inn while watching the sun set. On the west side, Trumansburg offers darling bed and breakfast inns and quaint shops and eateries.

Seasonal Specialties

Hands down, The Finger Lakes region is bucket-list worthy! And, each season offers a unique experience within its bountiful beauty. Spring comes late, but is a fine time to hike to one of the many waterfalls, which are highly active due to the melting snow. Summer is perfect for swimming, boating and hiking.  Come fall, the leaves are changing color, the air is crisp and there is an abundance of apples and pumpkins ripe for picking. Winters are chilly, but the ground is covered in snow for skiing, snowmobiling and snowshoeing. Essentially, determining when to visit will simply depend on your outdoor activity preferences.

To plan your perfect trip, visit, and/or

New York’s Finger Lakes Tourism Alliance does an excellent job spelling out the many ways tourists can find fun in the region. A sampling of their solid list of activities to consider when planning your itinerary includes:

  • More than 135 museums
  • More than 400 registered historic sites & landmarks
  • 14 professional theatre companies
  • 1,063 waterfalls and gorges
  • More than 100 wineries
  • 20 tour boats
  • More than 300 bed & breakfasts
  • At least 100 restaurants with waterside views
  • 26 state parks
  • A 16,036-acre national forest
  • 17-mile “Grand Canyon of the East”
  • 100 miles of the historic Erie Canal
  • More than 2,000 miles of hiking/biking trails
  • 95 public campgrounds
  • 40 nature centers

Categories: Family Travel