New York's Finger Lakes Region - My Family Travels

New York’s Finger Lakes Region offers quality family fun in a beautiful country setting. Here’s my exclusive guide to making the most of an upstate getaway. The Finger Lakes Region offers quality family fun in a beautiful country setting; here’s an exclusive guide to making the most of an upstate getaway.

Seneca Lake is the perfect setting for a peaceful and pleasant family vacation in summer or fall. Almost all of the attractions hold appeal for all ages: families can hike through the nature trails and scenic waterfalls in Watkins Glen, or go cruising, swimming or fishing in the lake. They can learn about local agriculture when visiting farms and vineyards, or about specific crafts, like basket weaving and glass blowing. For an enriching cultural experience, they can watch a flick at the Smith Opera House, or get a dose of history at the Women’s Rights National Historic Park. The region also has a wide variety of places to stay, reviewed by FTF here.

The Great Outdoors By Land Or Lake

Hike along the stone steps of the gorge trail at Watkins Glen State Park (607/535-4511, Rte 14, Watkins Glen, NY 14891) and go over, under, and around its 19 waterfalls and through its 200-foot shale and sandstone cliffs. The walk along the gorge is both beautiful and captivating, like an exploration through a secret garden. The park also has 305 campsites, active recreation programs, and an Olympic-size swimming pool. You can also swim and picnic at the scenic Seneca Lake State Park. Younger kids will enjoy the calm lake water as well as the park’s “Sprayground,” a playground that has over 100 jets that spontaneously spray water.

At the Seneca Harbor Station (607/535-6101, North Franklin Street, Watkins Glen, NY 14891), located within the Park, enjoy a lovely meal in the restaurant’s elevated dining room, or outside on the deck overlooking the lake. The building is a restored train station that dates back to 1876, with high-ceilings and a spiral staircase, and the food selection consists of seafood, steak, and casual American fare.

You can also opt to go on a dining or sightseeing cruise with Captain Bill’s Seneca Lake Cruises (607/535-4541), where you can explore the lake and listen to a historical narration from the Captain and 1st Mate, as well as see sights such as Hector Falls (165 feet), the cliffs of the east shore with their Native American paintings, and a view of the salt industry. On a dining cruise, you won’t get the history, but you can dig the sights as you dig into your meal.

There are several farms in this area that welcome visitors. In the fall, my family likes to go apple picking at Red Jacket Orchards (315/ 781-2749, 957 Canandaigua Rd., Geneva, NY 14456). Grab a few baskets; take in the spectacular view of Keuka Lake bathed in the changing colors of autumn, and pick away. Children will want to run through the orchard and climb up the branches of the apple trees, and they can! When you finish, weigh and pay…and since you’ll probably have more apples than you know what to do with, bake an apple pie…or three. Check their website for recipes.

The Region’s Arts & Heritage

When, in 1848, Elizabeth Cady Stanton spoke with Quaker abolitionists about her frustration with women’s position in society, they all decided to take action. Ten days later, 300 women gathered in the Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls and held the first Women’s Rights Convention. The Women’s Rights National Historic Park (315/568-0024, 136 Fall Street, Seneca Falls, NY 13148) consists of four properties. Begin at the visitor’s center, which has intriguing films and exhibits.

My cousin and I visited this museum with our mothers when we were ages 9 and 12, and I remember being particularly delighted by the audio headsets we could pick up at each display. We had so much fun listening to stories that we didn’t even think about the fact that we were learning. Younger children can also obtain a “Junior Rangers” workbook at the visitor’s center to help them learn about the women’s rights movement; completion of the book will earn them a badge and a certificate at the end. If they have a passport, bring it, and you can find out how to get it stamped.

You can also sit inside the Wesleyan Chapel and take a tour of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s house, which my cousin and I liked because it was outfitted with antique items and furniture, and we could imagine living in another time. All of the tours and exhibits are free. If you have extra time, visit the National Women’s Hall of Fame (315/568-8060, 76 Fall St., Seneca Falls, NY 13148) down the block, which has a library, more exhibits and historical artifacts — basically a shrine devoted to the women who have contributed greatly to America throughout history. Boys might be bored, so do what our families did and make it a girls’ day.

Arts Abound In New York’s Finger Lakes Region

The Corning Museum of Glass (800/732-6845, One Museum Way, Corning, NY 14830), which boasts the world’s best collection of art and historical glass, has live, narrated glass-blowing demonstrations all day, every day. There are hands-on exhibits, walk-in-workshops, a year-round studio for classes, a research library, and a glass market. If kids are timid about making their own glass souvenir, they have the option of drawing their own design and having a professional make it. Or they can buy one of the kid-friendly items in the gift shop. Every Wednesday morning in the summer, the museum holds story-telling and magic shows for the children. Best of all, those under the age of 20 pay no admission.

The Windmill Farm Craft Market (315/536-3032, Rte.14A, Penn Yan, NY 14527) is a 26-acre outdoor market with over 200 vendors and craftsmen, open every Saturday from April through December, 8am-4:30pm. Buy gourmet foods, handmade quilts, paintings, clothing, furniture, jewelry, house wares, toys, and just about everything else that can be made by hand. As a child, I liked watching Amish women weave cloth and woodworkers make chairs and carve designs. Many craftsmen take orders for custom work, and some will even make it for you on the spot. Buy some fresh food for lunch, and stay to enjoy a free show. Be sure to visit the Stolfsuz Buggy Ride stand (located in the South Street shops area) to pet the animals and go for a horseback or buggy ride.

Built in 1894, the Smith Opera House (315/781-5483, 82 Seneca Street, Geneva, NY 14456) serves as a tribute to the performing arts. After a $2 million renovation, the 1400-seat theatre has been restored to its original splendor. What began as an opera house and later became a vaudeville theatre is now a grand movie palace, showing independent and foreign art films in addition to many modern blockbusters (at bargain prices, no less!). The building, which also hosts rock and other concerts, is worth a visit even if nothing’s going on because of its majestic architecture and its Baroque interior, featuring Victorian murals and Moorish details. 

Family-Approved Thrills In The Finger Lakes

For the adventurous ones, the towns of Watkins Glen and Farmington both have racetracks. At Watkins Glen International (866/461-RACE, 2 North Franklin Street, NY 14891), a.k.a. “New York’s Thunder Road,” you can catch a NASCAR event or, if no race is scheduled, take a tour of the track in your car. If you’re truly daring, you can race your own car around the track for about $25.

Horse races take place at the Finger Lakes Racetrack (585/924-3232, 5857 Rte 96, Farmington, NY 14425) seven days a week during the season, and parking and admission are both free. The race complex also has a new arcade with over 1,000 video game machines.

Another racing option is the fun, cheap thrill that is Keuka Karts (315/536-4833, 2245 Rt. 54A, Penn Yann, NY 14527). This bare-bones track (the course’s boundaries are literally made by stacked oversize tires) is a fun way to bond. My father took my brothers and I here and we had the course to ourselves. We rented two go-carts, teamed up, and raced against each other (must be at least 10-years-old to drive; two-seater carts are available for underage passengers.)

If you think that vineyards are not kid-friendly, you haven’t been to Fox Run, Glenora, or Anthony Road. A winery tour is a must for anyone visiting this wine region, and some kids actually enjoy learning about the farming techniques and walking through the grapevines. While adults taste the vineyard’s wine at the end of the tour, children are treated to homemade grape juice. My tweenage brother accompanied my mother on some of these tours, and each time he brought back a few bottles of the rich juice. Fox Run’s café uses in-season produce from local farmers to create its gourmet soups and sandwiches, which it serves on its deck overlooking the lake, and Anthony Road invites you to picnic on its grounds. The fairly well known Glenora Vineyard (800/243-5513 or 607/243-9500, 5435 Rte 14, Dundee, NY 14837) has a nice restaurant and hotel on the lake, and your kids can go swimming or fishing off the dock.

History of the Region

Seneca Lake was named for the Seneca Indian Nation, one of the six nations of the Iroquois Confederacy that used to inhabit the area. The word “Seneca” is derived from the Indian name “Assiniki,” which means “place of stone” or “stony place”. Due to its large water volume as the deepest and widest Finger Lake, Seneca has a moderating influence on the air temperature around its periphery—the principal reason that the lake has evolved into a prime grape-growing area. Rated as an excellent lake for fishing, particularly for trout, Seneca Lake hosts The National Lake Trout Derby every Memorial Day weekend.

According to Iroquois legend, the Finger Lakes were formed when the Great God Manitou placed his hand on the favored land in a blessing. He brought part of the heavens down to the Iroquois hunting ground to reward the confederacy for their courage in battle and devotion to him; the indentations later became lakes.

However, there a six major Finger Lakes, which the Iroquois attest to Manitou’s hand slipping as he pushed down the portion of Indian Paradise. West to east they are: Canandaigua, Keuka, Seneca, Cayuga, Owasco and Skaneateles. There are five minor lakes also referred to as part of the Finger Lakes, although they are not part of the Iroquois legend.

Dear Reader: This page may contain affiliate links which may earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase. Our independent journalism is not influenced by any advertiser or commercial initiative unless it is clearly marked as sponsored content. As travel products change, please be sure to reconfirm all details and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.