Rolling hills, deep glacier-carved lakes, and hidden gorges define the area known as the Finger Lakes region in central and western New York. Historically overshadowed by the metropolis of New York City to the south, Upstate New York and its Finger Lakes regions are finally beginning to draw some visitors away from the concrete jungles of Manhattan, and it’s about time. New York is so much more than the big city.
Eleven elongated lakes, carved out years ago by heavy glaciers dragging across the landscape, make up the Finger Lakes. They span from the city of Syracuse at one end to Rochester on the other side, and just about down to the Pennsylvania border. The area is within driving distance of several major cities, including Philadelphia, Toronto, Montreal, Baltimore, and (of course) New York, making it a great place for a weekend getaway. But with so many places to see along the east coast, why pick the Finger Lakes? Here’s 10 solid reasons:
1. Wine and lots of it
The Finger Lakes region is most famously known for its wine, and with good reason. There are over 100 different wineries around the Finger Lakes, helping make New York State the second biggest wine producer in the country behind California. The cold climate produces a sweeter wine than the California varieties, but with such a large number of vineyards there really is something for every taste. Most of the vineyards have been built into the fertile hillsides lining each of the Finger Lakes, making for some gorgeous views as you sip your Riesling. If beer is more your thing, the region also has an up-and-coming microbrewery scene with its own beer trail.
2. Great hiking
The Finger Lakes region may be most famous for its wine, but the area’s true hidden gems are its parks. The area is home to dozens of state, county, and local parks, most of which have established hiking trails. The glaciated landscape is full of deep valleys and rolling hills covered in green forests. Many of the parks have been built around the area’s numerous gorges, where trickling streams have slowly carved hundreds of feet into the delicate shale, leaving some of the most beautiful scenes that look straight out of a movie.
3. Funky small towns
The towns of the area toe the line between old-fashioned small town charm and quirky hippy-dom. The numerous colleges in the area help bring in a more liberal vibe to the villages and make for some interesting shops and restaurants. It’s not difficult to find vegetarian restaurants, organic wineries, and holistic medicine shops tucked among the main streets of the towns.
If there’s one thing there’s more of in the Finger Lakes than wineries, it’s waterfalls. They’re everywhere! When the glaciers receded from the land many years ago, they left an irregular topography that slants towards Lake Ontario to the north. The numerous remaining streams and rivers flow northward towards that lake, cascading down small hills (like in Watkins Glen, pictured below) and over giant cliffs (Taughannock’s 215 foot waterfall) along the way.
5. Sunsets over the lakes
The elongated lakes run north to south, making for some perfect vistas of sunsets to the west. Prop up a chair on the east side of any of the lakes and catch some amazing views as the sun dips below the hills on the west side. Every night is a show. Or, if morning is more your thing, camp out on the west side and watch the sun rise over the opposite side of the lake.
The small town of Seneca Falls is not only the inspirational setting for the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, it’s also the birth place of the Women’s Rights Movement and home to the National Women’s Hall of Fame. You can visit the area’s museums to learn more about the suffragette’s movement. The area also played a large roll in the Underground Railroad, helping transport escaped slaves north to Canada and freedom. If religious history is more your thing, just north of Canandaigua Lake is Hill Cumorah, birthplace of the Mormon religion and host to an annual pageant drawing thousands of visitors.
7. White deer
A former army depot next to Seneca Lake is home to a herd of white deer. They aren’t albino, but have a rare gene that causes their coats to stay white. Because they are contained in the fenced acreage of the old military base, the population of white deer has grown and there are now more than 300 of them. You can often see the deer as you drive along the road that borders the depot, but you currently can’t enter the grounds. A non-profit group is trying to make the land an eco-tourism center, protecting the rare white deer herd.
8. Cheese Trail
If you get sick of the wine, or just need a little snack along the way during your wine touring, you can hop on the Cheese Trail! The Finger Lakes aren’t just home to wine trails and beer trails, but also some of the tastiest fromage around. All of the cheese producers are local and many of them run organic dairies. You can find a variety of cheese along the trail, but cheddar varieties seem to be the most popular.
The winters in Upstate NY are harsh and long, so locals know how to make the most of the warm summer months. Almost every weekend, some town offers a festival of some sort, many geared around a specific local food. Whether garlic’s your thing, or you’re really into sauerkraut, or you just can’t get enough of the local grapes, there’s a festival for you. And it’s not just all about food. There’s a thriving arts scene in the area, with numerous arts and crafts fairs and musical performances. The Finger Lakes region definitely knows how to have a good time in the summer.
10. It’s affordable
Hiking, waterfalls, festivals – all free! And unlike the wineries of Northern California, samplings of wine at Finger Lakes wineries are typically $5 at the most, with bottles starting under $10. Although chain hotels are few and far between, typically only being found in the bigger towns and cities, the area is dotted with quaint B&Bs that are both affordable and comfortable. Or you can get out and really experience nature; camp sites can be found at most of the state parks and at various places along the lakes.
Are you sold yet? You should be! The Finger Lakes region truly is a hidden gem and an ideal getaway. What’s not to love?