Auto racing, hiking, and wine-tasting are just the beginning of many things to do and see in this popular area.
By Bert Henderson, F385218
New York’s Finger Lakes region makes motorhome travelers want to stop to see the waterfalls and sample the wine. But those are just a taste of what is available to travelers. Following is an overview of some highlights as you plan your excursion to this beautiful part of America.
One of the most renowned villages in the region is Watkins Glen, about two hours southwest of Syracuse. If you travel south along Seneca Lake on State Route 14 into the “Glen,” wineries and beautiful scenery are your constant companions. While approaching the grade into Watkins Glen, you might want to downshift so you can heed the traffic controls at the bottom of the hill. Seneca Lake on one side, picturesque rolling scenery on the other, and a view of the town in front of you all make a fine setting.
With its two-lane streets and traffic signals, the town can be slow to navigate, especially if you are in the downtown area during rush hour.
The first thing that came to my mind when we arrived in Watkins Glen was auto racing. Street racing is forbidden, of course, but motorsports action can be viewed at Watkins Glen International. The track, outside of town on County Road 16, is an original road course and hosts a variety of events, including several NASCAR races (K&N Pro Series East, Nationwide, and Sprint) all in one weekend during the Cheez-It 355 in August. If you have a towed vehicle with you (motorhomes are not permitted), you can drive three laps around the track for only $25 as part of the track’s Drive The Glen program. For more information about this and other races, contact Watkins Glen International at (866) 461-7223 or (607) 535-2338.
Watkins Glen is actually the name given to a natural gorge that was used as a source of energy to operate a mill. Beginning in the early 1800s, water behind a dam flowed down a wooden trough and over a waterwheel to grind flour. The mill was located near the present-day main entrance to the town.
The gorge was first opened to the public as a tourist spot in 1863 by Morvalden Ells, a journalist from Elmira, New York. The private property was operated as a tourist resort until the state of New York purchased it in 1906. The land became a state park in 1924.
For more than 100 years, visitors have marveled at the naturally sculptured chasms and the 19 waterfalls in the glen. The trail includes more than 830 steps (if you take it all), from the main entrance to the upper entrance, transporting you 400 feet vertically. You can elect to park at the top of the gorge, hike down into it, and then take a shuttle back up. The shuttle runs daily during the summer, and on weekends only after Labor Day.
Because of the terrain, no rest rooms or water fountains are available along the trails. Park literature advises that you should bring water with you when you hike, especially in the summer. The promotional material also warns to stay on the trails to avoid serious accidents. No one is allowed to swim in the fast-moving water. A parking fee of $8 per vehicle is charged. Please note that if you stay at the park campground, the RV length limit is 30 feet.
Complementing the “Glen” is another smaller waterfall park called She-Qua-Ga, or Tumbling Waters, located in Montour Falls, a short drive south of Watkins Glen State Park. She-Qua-Ga was sketched in 1820 by future king of France Louis Philippe. His artistic representation is now on display at the Louvre Museum in Paris.
Drink In The View
After marveling at the natural beauty of these falls, travel back north and out of downtown Watkins Glen, and then up the east or west side of Seneca Lake toward Geneva. Along the way you can “uncork New York” by visiting some wineries. Since there are more than 30 wineries on the Seneca Lake wine trail, the 45-minute drive to Geneva will reveal several. If one winery doesn’t have what you want, continue down the road a tenth of a mile, and another winery will await you with more great gifts, more great products, and more great atmosphere.
If you plan on making multiple purchases during your wine-tasting journey, you may be able to spare your motorhome the additional weight and have the wine shipped to your home. Ask at the vineyards, as laws differ depending on your state of residence.
The Finger Lakes Wine Country features two additional wine trails — Cayuga Lake (the first wine trail organized in the United States, established in 1983) and Keuka Lake. All of the wine sold in the local wineries is derived from fruit harvested within the federally recognized Finger Lakes Appellation, meaning they do not purchase juice from other grape-growing regions. Seneca Lake and Cayuga Lake also have their own individual appellations.
Use your towed vehicle to access all of the attractions and amenities in the area, such as the city of Corning, and spend a day touring the Corning Museum of Glass. There you’ll see stunning works of art glass located on three floors. The galleries display 3,500 years of glassmaking art and history. See a small glass design demonstration on the exhibit floor before entering the main auditorium to watch a glass craftsman make art right in front of you in the Hot Glass Show.
The Hot Glass Show is a live, narrated glassmaking demonstration, offered all day, every day, according to the museum’s Web site. Master glassmakers take glowing molten glass on the end of a pipe and skillfully shape it into pieces such as vases, bowls, or sculptures. Cameras inside the furnace enable spectators to view the entire process, which lasts between 20 and 40 minutes. The demonstrators answer questions during the show.
Watching the gaffers (master glassmakers) during the Hot Glass Show illustrates the skill and artistry that go into the glass objects displayed in the galleries. Glass was made first in Mesopotamia, but the glassblowing technique was discovered by the Romans around 50 B.C. Many of the techniques and tools used by glassmakers today have changed little over thousands of years.
Children and teens, 19 and under, receive free admission to the Corning Museum of Glass. Parking is available at a welcome center lot, from which visitors are shuttled to the museum. Again, take a towed car.
Visitors can arrange to make their own glass piece with the help of a glassmaker. The piece must remain at the museum to cool overnight and can be picked up the next day. (Admission is valid for two consecutive days.)
More Waterfalls, Museums, And Shops
With its deep, pristine lakes, forested hills and valleys, gorges and waterfalls, and bountiful wineries and farms, the Finger Lakes region offers yet more to see. Other attractions in the region include the following:
- A variety of waterfalls. Taughannock Falls State Park protects one of the highest single-cascading waterfalls east of the Rocky Mountains. It is southeast of Trumansburg by Cayuga Lake. Robert H. Treman State Park, located a few miles southwest of Ithaca, has a waterfall that forms a natural swimming hole. And Buttermilk Falls State Park, south of Ithaca, has a foaming, multi-cascading waterfall. More waterfalls in the previously mentioned town of Montour Falls include Chequaga Falls and Eagle Cliff Falls; both are at the end of Main Street.
- Don’t forget Niagara Falls, situated approximately three hours northwest of the Finger Lakes.
- Between Finger Lakes and Niagara Falls is Letchworth State Park, the “Grand Canyon of the East.”
- Women’s Rights National Historic Park in the town of Seneca Falls preserves the home of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and other spots involved in the struggle to gain voting rights for women. It also honors the fights for civil rights, human rights, and other such causes.
- The Rockwell Museum of Western Art in Corning is known as “The Best of the West in the East.” Children and teens are admitted free.
- The Wings of Eagles Discovery Center at Elmira-Corning Regional Airport in the town of Horseheads collects, maintains, exhibits, and flies vintage and historic military aircraft.
- Down the road a few miles from Horseheads is Elmira, home of the National Soaring Museum. It is one of only two museums of engineless flight in the nation.
- The Glenn H. Curtiss Museum in Hammondsport (at the southern tip of Keuka Lake) celebrates the accomplishments of Glenn Curtiss, a prolific inventor who also is considered the father of naval aviation.
- The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown is approximately two hours east of the Finger Lakes region, give or take. When you’re in the area, you might also visit the Fenimore Art Museum and the Farmers’ Museum. Just outside of Cooperstown is the Fly Creek Cider Mill & Orchard.
- If you’re a shopaholic, you’ll likely enjoy Franklin Street in Watkins Glen. Corning’s historic Gaffer District on Market Street also will attract you, as will Arnot Mall, the area’s largest shopping spot, located in the Horseheads/Big Flats area. Downtown Cooperstown is especially known for baseball memorabilia. In the Penn Yan area on State Route 14A, the Windmill Farm & Craft Market entices shoppers with predominately Amish and Mennonite items; it is open on Saturdays only, plus Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, and Labor Day.
New York’s Finger Lakes region is a place you can explore for days on end and always find something new. If you have not visited yet, add it to your list!
While you are in the Finger Lakes region, it’s best to drive a towed car to see the sights. Some roads may not be best for a larger coach. So, leave your roaming home in one of the area RV parks. A few are listed below. For additional listings, refer to a campground directory or to the RV Marketplace at www.fmca.com and in the January and June issues of Family Motor Coaching:
Babcock Hollow Campground
5932 County Route 11
Bath, NY 14810
Camp Bell Campground
8700 State Route 415
Campbell, NY 14821
(800) 587-3301 (reservations)
Ferenbaugh Campground & Recreational Center
4248 State Route 414
Corning, NY 14830
Hickory Hill Family Camping Resort, C7563*
7531 County Route 13
Bath, NY 14810
Warren W. Clute Memorial Park and Campground
155 S. Clute Park Drive
Watkins Glen, NY 14891
Watkins Glen/Corning KOA Camping Resort
1710 Route 414 S. (1710 KOA Drive)
Watkins Glen, NY 14891
Watkins Glen State Park Campground
Watkins Glen, NY 14891
(800) 456-2267 (campground reservations)
(800) 777-9644 (information)
*FMCA commercial member
Finger Lakes Travel Info
Finger Lakes Tourism Alliance
309 Lake St.
Penn Yan, NY 14527