This trip to Finger Lakes started out as a race destination and ended up being so much more. The kids said it was as fun as going to Disney. Need I say more? Our annual road trip took us to Watkins Glen, New York, for the famous 6-hours at the Glen endurance car race event. We saw cars, we saw lakes, wineries, farms, state parks, glassblowing and more. And how fun is it to arrive to your restaurant for dinner by boat? As soon as I adjusted to driving 55 mph on an incredibly hilly country road, I fell in love with the region instantly. There is so much to love here, but I narrowed it down to a few of our favorites.
Watkins Glen State Park
When does a 4-mile hike with about 20 floors and dozens of gorgeous waterfalls end in a playground where your kids can meet great friends? This is Watkins Glen State Park. A hiking paradise on Finger Lakes. Once, rated number one state park in the country and still topping the lists. It is certainly the most beautiful park I’ve ever been to. What is here now used to be a tropical forest some 12,000 years ago. The water receded and now you can see the magnificent rocks, numerous fossils, trees, water, cascading in unique and mesmerizing patterns.
There are plenty of steps and numerous trails to explore. Make sure you wear covered and water-resistant shoes. Yes, you come here for the view, but if you want to hike more than a few feet, you need the right shoes.
We loved this park so much that we actually explored 2 different trails. The first one took us from downtown Watkins Glen, where the parking is just $8. We walked up hill over steps and trails, along the course of the river, following the Gorge Trail that goes over and under some 19 waterfalls! The waterfalls cascade but the steps help you navigate. We kept walking until we reached Jacob’s ladder and a challenging (at least for the kids) climb of steps that took us to an area with picnic tables, ice cream shop, playground and a trolley stop. The trolley stops every 15 minutes and can take you back if you’re tired. You can also park at the top and take the trek in a different direction. The second trail we tried was a sharp left climb right after entering the park. It is aptly named the “Couch” after the stone bench at the top that allows the comfort of a seat with a view.
Further climb and a small hike following the path led us to a bridge which offered a view on different sides of the river and rocks, nearby waterlily pond and a mansion. Some time ago, the mansion and the park were a private resort, later sold to the state. The mansion now hosts events and is a general rest area on the way up. There is also a playground (much bigger than the one by Jacob’s ladder), numerous picnic tables and grills. The parking here is plentiful, and this area of the park seems like a favorite among the locals for holiday events.
Cruise on Lake Seneca
If you have a lake, you know you’ve got plenty of options for cruises. They are in no short supply on Finger Lakes! Just head to Seneca Harbor located on North Franklin street in Watkins Glen. There is a cruise for every taste and every schedule. The larger boat, the Seneca Legacy, offers dining afloat – ‘Burgers and Blues’, ‘Beer and Cheese’ or Brunch Buffet, among a few options. These cruises depart every night and weekends and accommodate almost 300 people. It’s a relaxing and fun atmosphere – you view the lake and surroundings as you enjoy the food and, often, music.
If you are here just for sightseeing, try the smaller Stroller IV ship, where you can enjoy the guide’s knowledgeable narration about the Lake, nearby sights and unique features. We opted for the sightseeing tour on this trip.
Stroller IV tours leave every hour on the hour and you can buy tickets in the gift shop. This vintage boat dates back to 1934 but it certainly has all the comforts. Taking this ride was very relaxing, as being on the water always is. Surrounded by the calm of the lake waters, others sailing on the lake, the magnificent scenery, we listened to our guide.
A couple things he pointed out really stuck with me. One was the magnificent Hector Falls cascading on the east side of the lake. The other was the salt industry on Lake Seneca. This was a point of curiosity for us, having seen the salt factory from the road, we wondered what kind of salt was produced here, since we were only familiar with the Morton Salt in Chicago. It turns out, most of the salt is produced on the lake, brined in the pipes and then picked up by various brands, including Morton’s, that package it. My kids were surprised to learn that salt beds go all the way from West Virginia to Detroit. But you will learn much more on the cruise, which lasts an hour. I have to say, it was a perfect balance of narration to just enjoying the lull of the waves.
After the cruise, we decided to have lunch ashore, at the Seneca Harbor Station restaurant. The food was good and it was nice to take extra time to sit by the lake and watch the boats. Order fish if you can, since this lake is touted the lake trout capital of the world. The cruise definitely puts you in a vacation mood. I will also add that Seneca Lake is surrounded by more wineries than any other New York lake, which is worth a visit in my book.
Corning Museum of Glass
My family knows my appreciation for blown glass since we visited a few places in West Virginia. We’ve heard of Corning glass before and were excited to visit this place on a rainy day. We planned to spend a few hours there before heading to the winery. What I didn’t expect is spending the whole day there – there was so much to see and experience! This museum is a gem! It is dedicated to telling the story of glass, and was a gift to the state from the Corning Glass Works on its 100th anniversary in 1951. What makes it so appealing is a combination of exhibits and demonstrations.
We spent most of the time on the upper level. The exhibits in the Contemporary Art and Design gallery from the last 25 years were conversation starters, to say the least.
There was also a section on Contemporary Glass from 1975 to 2000. Finally, there was a rotating exhibit gallery (Changing Exhibitions gallery), which, at the time of our visit, displayed an impressive collection labeled “35 Centuries of Glass”. There was a lot of interesting history in the collections of Roman, Islamic, Venetian Glass, European and American Glass. My kids spent a lot of time in the expansive collection of glass paperweights.
But Corning Museum of Glass is so much more than displays. There were many special demonstrations, happening every 15 minutes at some part of the museum. We witnessed the creation of a vase, starting with molten glass and ending in a whimsical edges shape. It was just like watching art in the making.
We also observed a Glassbreaking demo, which was especially fun for some younger participants. Finally, an optical fiber demo was a great educational 20 minutes, to expand the kids’ understanding of different uses and applications of glass. This visit was so entertaining!
If you have extra time, you can also make your own glass in the studio. Since we ended up spending to much time at the museum, we were happy to find an extensive cafeteria with food for every taste. Make sure to check out the gift shop, especially the items made by local glass artists. Do not miss this museum!
Wine Tasting at the Wine Trail
The upstate New York region is famous for its wine – the same soil that is home to a lot of waterfalls and cascading hills is also very fertile for grapes. Though red wine is available here, I felt that this region stood out more for its whites, Riesling in particular. Each of the Finger Lakes has its own wine trail, with plenty of vineyards, but it’s also dotted along with breweries, distilleries, potters, bed and breakfasts, restaurants, markets and galleries. You can make a vacation just out of that! I suggest you take a bus tour or cabs if you travel between the wineries.
Each winery offers wine-tasting, many have food and tours, but there is usually a special selling point. For example, Bottonwood Grove offers cabins and live music. Americana Vineyards also has dancing. Miles Wine Cellars can be visited both by car and boat, so imagine the views! Casa Larga is famous for hosting weddings and special events, and they have a nice Sunday farmer’s market. Many wineries go back years but Pleasant Valley wine company at the Great Western Winery is the oldest at Finger Lakes. Fulkerson Winery in Dundee offers fresh pressed grape juice, which is kid friendly.
Since we were traveling with kids, we found a kid-friendly winery that offered grape juice for kids, a wine museum, a gallery and a free tour of the vineyard. It’s called Bully Hill winery. It’s located on the beautiful Keuka lake and right near our hotel in the charming town of Hammondsport. Keuka is affectionately called the “crooked lake” for its chicken twig shape. We traveled the length of the lake one night looking for the famous ice-cream shop for the kids (Seneca Farms, completely worth the drive) and stopped at many lake-front restaurants on several other nights.
Bully Hill vineyards are located at the top of the hill, steep drive up, and once you’re up there you’re first treated to the most stunning views of the Keuka lake, hills covered with rows of grapes and that amazing air. Make sure you get there early enough for a free 30 minute tour of the vineyards and the wine process. You can also stop in their museum which offers a lot of interesting historic exhibits, including an interesting story about the owner’s goat (being Chicago Cubs fans, we were intrigued by another trouble story involving a goat).
Most importantly, stop for the tasting! This area is home to Finger Lakes Wine festival and Cheese festival in July and Finger Lakes Beer Festival in October.
In the meantime, if you can’t wait, try some of the white wines in our Wine Shop!
With the exception of my vegetarian year in Texas (of all places), I have made plant food my priority but not the only sustenance. Going to Farm Sanctuary made me reconsider. I am not a vegetarian or much less vegan yet but I have definitely made an effort since. This place in the middle of the Finger Lakes region is a respite for farm animals, where they can rest and roam free without fear of a cattle call, the cruelty of cutting horns or simply being Thanksgiving dinner.
We signed up for a tour and our knowledgeable guide took us to different animals – cows, goats, turkeys, pigs – while telling us their stories and sharing things we can do to help. We started with a video (somewhat too graphic for little kids) in the Visitor Barn and then went to get up close to a number of farm animals. Despite the rain, we managed to see a lot.
Farm Sanctuary is North America’s largest farm animal rescue organization, which for the last 30 years has been working to stop cruel animal practices through research, public awareness and education projects. Watkins Glen is not the only farm shelter – there are others in California. Thanks to their work, thousands of animals have been rescued and everyone that visits the farm, learns a little bit more. The road that leads to the Farm Sanctuary is fairly small and my phone was no longer receiving a signal, so plan your route carefully. You can go any day, but the Farm Sanctuary hosts special events, such as Celebration for the Turkeys, Hug a Farm Animal day and Country Hoe Downs – I imagine there is more to do and learn at these events.
Watkins Glen International
This was our main reason for this trip to Finger Lakes. Our kids weren’t looking forward to the race but ended up really enjoying it in many ways. The race we went to was Sahlen’s Six Hours of The Glen 2017, the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar championship. As part of the Tequila Patron North American Endurance series, four classes of cars battled it out on this 3.4 mile track with 11 turns. Green flag was in the air as the Prototype field entered the first corner!
The beauty of this road course was that you could walk to different areas of it and watch from different vantage points. Here’s our view from the front stretch grandstand. The blue flag meant faster cars were approaching.
The No. 67 Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT raced for the lead in GTLM category at the boot.
The No. 93 Michael Shank Racing Acura NSX GT3 livery scheme was an ideal look for July 4th weekend. It also won it’s class in GTD.
The kids were fascinated by the fast pit stops, a perfectly coordinated process for fuel and fresh tires.