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One of my favorite experiences was discovering the area around the Finger Lakes in the fall a few years ago. My husband and I chose a long Finger Lakes weekend getaway in mid October and found that to be a wonderful season to explore the region. Whether you are looking for a long weekend away, a scenic road trip, or just want a getaway that offers a variety of activities, I think the Finger Lakes has it all. There are wines for every taste, cute small towns to discover and plenty of history and scenery to enjoy.
From the skyscrapers and high end shops in historic midtown Manhattan to the peaks of the Adirondack Mountains or the thunderous waterfalls of Niagara Falls, New York state has something for all interests. Each fall we try to do a “leaf peeping” trip somewhere in the US to catch the height of the autumns color season. Discovering the Finger Lakes had long been on our wish list so it seemed appropriate to plan a short autumn road trip to this popular NY destination.
Experience the Finger Lakes in the Fall
The Finger Lakes covers an area of about 9000 square miles in north central New York state and consists of 11 glacially carved lakes. The lakes were formed about 2 million years ago as a large sheet of ice retreated, leaving behind a series of north-south oriented deep valleys and gorges. The region is primarily agricultural and is dotted with small towns and medium sized cities like Rochester and Syracuse.
With this much area to cover in just a few days, we decided to focus our trip around the Seneca and Cayuga Lakes, the largest of the Finger Lakes by volume.
Finger Lakes Best Wineries
The Finger Lakes region is renowned for its excellent conditions for growing grapes and producing top quality wines, especially whites like Riesling, Pinot Noir and Ice Wines.
The glaciers that carved out this scenic topography also produced ideal conditions for grape growing. Much like the hillsides along Germany’s Rhine River, the slopes here are steep and rocky and covered with only a thin layer of soil. The large, deep lakes provide the critical temperature regulation needed for optimum grape production, keeping frost at bay in the winters and high heat away in the summer.
With over 146 wineries and tasting rooms and 5 separate wine trails in the Finger Lakes, there were definitely more than enough choices for our long weekend getaway. We focused one day on the Seneca Wine Trail which narrowed our options down to “only” 30 wineries as we circumnavigated the lake. We read up on all of them and then picked about six that sounded good.
On the second day, we visited a few more wineries on the western side of Cayuga Lake as we tried the Cayuga Lake Wine Trail, and on the drive home we stopped at a few more.
There is a reason this viticultural area is known for its white wines, especially Rieslings. These are not the sugary sweet Rieslings you may be familiar with, but crisp, dry and semi-dry vintages that cool you off on a hot day or pair perfectly with a mixed salad topped with grilled herb crusted salmon. Our favorite winery by far was Chateau Lafayette Reneau on Seneca Lake and we went home with a case of their award winning semi-dry Riesling. We also liked Hosmer winery’s dry Riesling, on Cayuga Lake, and took home three of their bottles. (Note that both wineries also ship their wines if you want to give them a try).
Besides tasting wines, we also wanted to enjoy the outdoor scenery on our Finger Lakes weekend, and found some of the best in the state at Watkins Glen State Park.
Watkins Glen Gorge Trail
One of the most scenic trails in the Finger Lakes region has to be the Watkins Glen Gorge Trail, especially in the fall. If you like waterfalls (and I love them) then this is the place to go. While hiking the 2 mile Gorge Trail, I encountered 19 waterfalls of all shapes and sizes, some of which I was able to walk behind. The trail does include about 800 steps total as it takes you up and down along the gorge. Parts of the trail get wet and slippery so take care.
Watkins Glen State Park is right in the heart of the town of Watkins Glen which makes it very accessible. This also means that it is quite popular and so it was not surprising that on the sunny fall day that we were there, the parking lot filled up quickly.
I suggest getting there early in the morning to avoid the crowds, though you may not have the best light for photographing the many waterfalls as they may still be partially shaded. For photography, an overcast day would actually be best as you would have more even lighting and not as many deep shadows.
On the one rainy day that we had, we decided to check out some of the many museums in the area. We picked two – one for each of our interests.
Corning Museum of Glass
I love the fluid glass sculptures made by the master artist Dale Chihuly and I search out the many Chihuly exhibits in my travels. I was super excited to be able to see some more of his pieces at the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, NY. We spent a few hours exploring the diverse exhibits and could easily have spent a good part of the day there.
I saw the Chihuly pieces in their collections as well as other amazing pieces that were all made of glass. I found their 35 Centuries of Glass Gallery especially fascinating as I learned about some of the earliest pieces of glass made by the Mesopotamians, Egyptians and Romans.
In contrast, the Contemporary Glass Galleries features works from the past 25 years and demonstrates the unique and cutting edge applications that today’s artist apply to this fluid medium.
I especially enjoyed watching the experts show how glass is manipulated in one of the daily hot glass demos. Next time I visit, I will allow some time to also take one of the “Make Your Own Glass” classes. I appreciate that they offer projects for all abilities and ages from age 4 on up.
Glen H. Curtis Museum
As much as I love the glass art by Dale Chihuly, my husband loves all things related to aviation. For him, we visited the Glen H. Curtiss Aviation Museum in Hammondsport, NY. The museum celebrates Hammondsport’s favorite son, Glen Curtiss, and all the bicycles, motorcycles and planes that he helped to develop throughout his career starting in the early 1900’s.
I appreciated the extensive collection of antique airplanes, cars, boats and other vehicles as much as my husband did. Some of the items in the collections are originals and others are reproductions, but they all gave an authentic sense of the history of Glen Curtiss’ extensive contributions to early aviation.
Where to Stay and Eat in the Finger Lakes
There are many accommodation option throughout the Finger Lakes region, including many delightful B&B’s. Sadly, the one we stayed at which we really liked, is no longer open for business, so I will have to find another one next time I am in the area. Our favorite meal was Nickel’s Pit BBQ in Watkins’s Glen (there is also a location in Corning). Ever since we moved away from Texas, we are always on the lookout for good BBQ restaurants, and this one did not disappoint. I especially liked that they use locally sourced products for their menu.
My husband and I really enjoyed our short Finger Lakes getaway. The region is large and there are many sights that I did not have the chance to visit yet. There are numerous historic sights related to the women’s suffragette movement including the Women’s Rights National Historic Park and the National Women’s Hall of Fame, both of which are located in Seneca Falls. There is also the home of Harriet Tubman in the town of Auburn and the summer residence where Mark Twain authored some of his most famous novels in Elmira, NY. And then there is also the vibrant city of Rochester as well.
There is so much more for me to explore in this amazing region on my next trips. Plus, more wines to taste. I can’t wait.
Thanks for visiting.