Travel: The Finger Lakes

The Finger Lakes are a chain of long thin lakes in Northwestern New York State. When I read that there are about 1000 waterfalls in the area I knew that I had to go, since I’m a big fan of waterfalls, particularly for photography. Since the area is close to Vermont/New Hampshire, I figured that going in October would be a good idea since the autumn foliage of the trees would be spectacular. I wasn’t lucky in this respect; the trees did not get very vibrant. I was told by a shopkeeper that she had lived there for 26 years and had never seen such a green fall. Just bad luck for me, but I had a great trip anyway, due to the gorge hikes, university architecture, small towns, local restaurants, unexpected sites and…there are over 100 wineries in the area…


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A small patch of nice foliage that I found.



Keep in mind that spring is the best time for seeing strong waterfalls, while autumn is good for foliage but there’s not as much water. I went in the fall and I suspected that things must look quite different in the spring because the gorges are carved into interesting rock formations from the powerful water that flows through them. But, even though there was less water, the hikes through the gorges were still amazing; stone bridges, rock formations, narrow winding pathways and staircases, etc. Plus, during low season you can avoid all the tourists and have some peaceful walks/hikes. I would highly recommend the Watkins Glen, Filmore Glen, and Buttermilk Falls hikes, and there are definitely other great ones that I didn’t do in my short time there. Letchworth was ok, the falls are big and the park is nice, but the types of shots you get at those kinds of falls weren’t what I was after.


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A small waterfall in Havana Glen Park, downstream from Eagle Cliff Falls.


Since I’ll be moving to Ottawa soon I got a book on the waterfalls of New York (since it’s really close to New York state, and I already have a book on Ontario waterfalls) and I used that to determine which ones I’d most like to photograph. I’d recommend doing some research before you go, picking the ones that look the most interesting to you from a photography standpoint, and planning a route to ensure that you see as many as you can without having to back track. I generally prefer small waterfalls that I can get close to, but you might prefer the huge thunderous ones or the really tall ones. But whatever you do, you really should do the Watkins Glen hike; it’s really something special.


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A small waterfall off the main trail, at Letchworth State Park.



They are known for white wines, particularly Rieslings, but there are also some nice reds as well. You’ll find many grape varieties here that you may have never heard of before, like Delaware, Traminette, or Rkatsiteli (apparently one of, if not the, oldest known wine grape, I don’t like dry whites so I was in luck because they have a lot of sweeter options; I found out that there are levels called semi-dry and semi-sweet. I will add that the wines in the area are relatively expensive. Usually wine in the U.S. is much less expensive because the government charges less duties/taxes on it than the Canadian government. Plus, since it’s made right in that are area I thought it would be cheaper. But you’ll have trouble finding a bottle for less than $15 U.S.


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A tree near the Buttermilk Falls gorge hike in Ithaca.


All you have to do is drive along the sides of the big central lakes and you’ll pass dozens of wineries. Most have sampling that is about $5 for five tastings. A few were free! You can easily find winery maps in the ubiquitous local travel guides or at a wine store. Do some reading and determine which ones you want to go to, because you can’t do them all. Plus, targeting specific ones helps spread them out, if you’re driving (the tastings are about a glass of wine in total, or a bit less, at each winery). So if you try a few wines, then do a waterfall hike, then stop in at the next one a couple hours later you should be fine. Or you can take one of the winery tours, which might be good for meeting people and being able to drink as much as you want, but the prices I saw were crazy expensive. I targeted Fox Run and Dr. Frank’s because they get good reviews, but I enjoyed the other ones I stopped in as well and they were all pretty good. For example, after Dr. Frank’s I decided to stop in at Keuka Lake winery and it was awesome (and I got a bottle of their Delaware wine). If you’re pressed for time, you can find a large liquor store in the area and they’ll have lots of selection, which saves you from having to drive around tasting, but there are obviously negatives to this as well (you can’t try it before you buy it, you lose the experience of visiting the vineyards, etc.).

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A fountain in one of the themed gardens at the Sonnenberg mansion estate in Canandaigua.

If you’re from Canada, keep in mind that the limit is two bottles. You can get more but then you’ll have to pay duty on them. Don’t lie at the border because it’s not worth getting caught and having your name entered into their database, affecting all your future travel. If you have a bottle or two extra they may let you through as it’s not worth the paperwork for them to only make a few dollars.


Small Towns

As you drive through the small towns of the area you’ll find that they all have main streets with cool shops, restaurants, and character buildings. Either do some research before you go, or ask around when you get there, and try some of the unique things that can be found around the finger lakes. For example, there’s a brewery north of Watkins Glen that only sells roast beef sandwiches (other than beer of course). Also in Watkins Glen, I walked to a nearby ice cream place one day and found that they make their own ice cream. It was during the run-up to the 2016 election, so they had a Hillary Clinton flavour and a Donald Trump flavour. There are also some independent coffee roasters in the area.


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Old architecture at Cornell University.


There are a lot of universities in the area, such as Syracuse, Rochester, or Cornell, which often have interesting architecture. Speaking of Cornell University, a friend gave me a tip: go to the Agriculture building where the dairy department is, they make their own ice cream and it’s really good. Ithaca itself (where Cornell University is located) is a good place to go. They have an interesting, pedestrian only downtown area as well as nearby waterfall hikes. It’s a good place to base yourself as it’s relatively close to everything. If you’re in Watkins Glen, you can drive south to Corning for the glass museum. I thought it was a bit pricey and I didn’t care too much about the history of glass, so I just looked through the gift shop. It’s huge and has a lot of intricate glasswork on display and for sale; it ended up being an amazing experience just wandering through the gift shop. Another spot to check out is the Sonnenberg mansion in Canandaigua. The house is now a museum, which is pretty interesting to wander through, but they also have about a dozen gardens surrounding the house, all based on a different theme (Japanese garden, Roman garden, rose garden, rock garden, etc.). Plus they also do wine tastings there and have some of their own estate wines that aren’t available anywhere else.


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Modern architecture at Cornell University.



Go for the wine, go for the waterfalls and hiking, and go for the small towns and university architecture. As per all of my trips to the U.S., the people were all really nice. But I find this is the case anywhere; the people are nicer in the smaller towns vs. the big cities. It’s up to you what time of year you want to go in regarding the hiking and waterfalls, but you almost can’t go wrong since there will be nice foliage in autumn when there’s less water in the falls. And the little restaurants and unique specialties are always there.


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One of the falls at Stony Brook State Park. I liked the two circular swirling areas that this waterfall created at the base.


I forgot to mention that I did a couchsurf while I was there (, in Canandaigua. It’s been a long time since I did a couchsurf. The couple I stayed with were super nice and we had long chats about a variety of topics. We visited a local café/restaurant and the owner ended up giving me a box of four huge homemade cookies for no charge. I ate those cookies for a couple days, they were so big. Another example of the kindness in small towns.

As usual, feel free to send me an email at if I’ve missed anything or if you have a location in the Finger Lakes that I should visit the next time I’m there. Feel free to visit, and don’t forget to sign up at the bottom of the blog to receive an email notification of future posts.


A few more shots:

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One of the waterfalls at Watkins Glen that make the hike so special; you walk under this waterfall. You can see in the upper right that the trail goes into the cliff, another aspect of the hike that makes it interesting.
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Some interesting rock ledges at Stony Brook State Park.
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Some intricately planted gardens at Sonnenberg estate, with the mansion in the background.
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I believe this crevice was at Robert H. Treman park south of Ithaca.


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One of the large waterfalls at Letchworth State Park.
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Watkins Glen.
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Havana Glen Park, near Watkins Glen. I was trying to include the dripping water on the left side.
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Eagle Cliff Falls in Havana Glen Park south of Watkins Glen.
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Watkins Glen.


I post to the blog about once a month, so if you want to get an alert when there’s a new post just scroll to the bottom of the page and click the Follow button.

– Patrick

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