Four Days in New York's Finger Lakes: A Waterfall Lover's Dream
Home to deep gorges, cascading waterfalls, rolling hills and pristine lakes, New York's Finger Lakes Region is as historically significant as it is beautiful. It's eleven lakes, Conesus, Hemlock, Canadice, Honeoye, Canandaigua, Keuka, Seneca, Cayuga, Owasco, Skaneateles, and Otisco were once mere streams flowing northward through narrow V-shaped valleys. Beginning about two million years ago glaciers crept south and buried the valleys under ice. As the sheets of ice pushed south they gouged the bottoms and sides of the narrow valleys, deepening and widening them into U shapes. Over the next many millennia the glaciers slowly melted creating what we know today as the Finger Lakes. And while the lakes, as beautiful as they are, might be the main attraction for some, it's the gorges and their waterfalls in the Finger Lakes Region that are the real treasure. More than one third of New York's 3,200 documented waterfalls can be found in the region, including the tallest single drop falls east of the Rocky Mountains. It was once home to various Native American tribes, including the Iroquois, Tuscarora, Onondaga and Oneida, and many of the region's lakes, streams, and geological features today honor them in name. On this adventure you'll hike through the region's most spectacular gorges, above, beside and up through picturesque waterfalls, along towering cliffs, and float through the skies above. Bring your water shoes and swimwear on this one - you're gonna get wet.
Day 1: Silver Lake
Middle & Upper Falls (0.5 miles/150')
Lower Falls (0.5 miles/150')
Kick off the trip with a visit to the park that in 2015 won the USA Today Readers' Choice Award for best state park in the country, Letchworth State Park. Here, huge waterfalls roar through the vertical walls of the more than 500-foot deep gorge along a twenty-two mile stretch of the Genesee River. The area was once home to the Seneca people who referred to the land as Sehgahunda meaning "vale of three falls". The Upper and Middle Falls can most easily be reached by parking in the lot below the Glen Iris Inn. Head upstream along the Gorge Trail for a third of a mile to reach Upper Falls. Middle Falls, the most popular falls in the park, is roughly a quarter mile downstream from the lot.
After, stop by the William Pryor Letchworth Museum located behind the Glen Iris Inn to learn about the fascinating history of the park, the Seneca people who once inhabited the land, and the efforts of William Pryor Letchworth to preserve the past for all to enjoy today.
Next, drive northeast along Park Rd to Inspiration Point where a short walk from the parking lot leads to an incredible view of both Upper and Middle Falls from a mile away. You'll find a few picnic tables and bathrooms near the parking lot. If you have a telephoto lens, bring it.
After viewing the falls from Inspiration Point drive a mile and a half along Park Rd to the Footbridge Nature Shoppe. Pick up the Gorge Trail from the left hand corner of the parking lot and hang a left at the Footbridge Trail junction. This accesses the falls with the least amount of hiking, roughly a half mile round trip.
A great place to stay tonight is at the Letchworth State Park Campground eleven miles north of Lower Falls near the park's Perry Entrance. The large campground with 257 tent sites and more than 80 cabins was ranked #9 on The Dyrt's 2022 Best Places to Camp: Top 10 in the US and we agree. It's a fantastic campground and should be reserved well in advance. Hot showers, a convenience store, and pool are just some of the amenities that can be found here. The nearby Allegiance Bed & Breakfast is fifteen minutes from the Perry Entrance in Mount Morris and a great stay for those looking for a bit more comfort. This is within walking distance to a few decent downtown restaurants and shops. Of course you could always stay in the Glen Iris Inn overlooking Middle Falls, but book well in advance. The popular inn has beautiful views, immaculate rooms, and breakfast, lunch, and dinner available at its Caroline's restaurant. Built in 1828, it was the retreat estate of WIlliam Pryor Letchworth, businessman and philanthropist, until he bequeathed it to the state of New York in 1906. There's a nominal fee at the park's entrance and can be paid in cash, card, or with an Empire Pass card. You should have only one entrance fee on this trip, so purchasing an Empire Pass card isn't recommended.
Day 2: Canandaigua Lake
Balloons Over Letchworth
Grimes Glen (1.1 miles/200')
Conklin's Gully (3.4 miles/650')
Deckertown Falls (0.3 miles/60')
Start today early with an unforgettable experience by taking a sunrise hot air balloon ride with Balloons Over Letchworth. This is extremely weather dependent, but if all goes well you'll float right over Middle Falls and experience sunrise from around 5000'. The views throughout are absolutely beautiful. The first time we were here we did a sunset ride and it was absolutely incredible.
Forty-five minutes east of Letchworth State Park you'll find Grimes Glen Park, the home of a really fun creek hike. The 1.1 mile trail inside the High Tor Wildlife Management Area follows the Grimes Creek along a dirt path before entering the creek and walking the rest of the way in the water. Shortly after entering the creek you'll encounter a 60' waterfall cascading down the left side of the gorge. This will likely be dried up in the summer months and after long periods of no rain.
Another quarter mile and you'll reach the second waterfall, another 60'er with a swimming hole at its base.
To the right of the falls you'll notice a small cave known as Devil's Bedroom. There isn't much to it, but it's worth taking a look. To the left of the falls you'll find a series of ropes leading up the steep hillside. Using these will eventually lead you to a third waterfall upstream. Another rope on the far side of this falls helps get to the top. Use caution here as a fall could ruin the rest of your trip. After you've had your fun, return the way you hiked in. It's interesting to note, in 1882 a local fossil hunter named Dana Luther found the remains of a 350 million year old fossilized tree here, one of the oldest trees ever found on Earth. The tree known as the "Naples Tree" has been housed at Albany's New York State Museum since 1887. If you're looking for lunch at this point, a great place to check out is Roots Cafe located five minutes away in Naples. Small menu, big flavors.
Sticking with the High Tor area, Conklin's Gully and its twelve waterfalls is less than five minutes away. This is the most adventurous hike of the trip by far. You'll be hiking the entire trail in the creek bed, so water shoes are a good idea here. From the signed parking lot off Rt-245 (not on Parish Hill Rd), follow the creek upstream for roughly 1.7 miles. Along the way you'll ascend multiple waterfalls, encounter several swimming holes, and have the opportunity to climb the surrounding gorge walls if you so choose.
Once you encounter the 50' waterfall, about 1.7 miles in, turn around and head back the way you came. This is an incredibly fun hike and one that sees far fewer people than the Grimes Glen Trail from earlier today. Take your time, have a blast, and get soaked on this incredibly fun trail.
An hour east of the gully you'll reach Shequaga Falls, a 165' falls along the Shequaga Creek where only a short walk up the paved walkway leads to a viewing area near its base. The falls name originates from the Seneca and translates to "tumbling waters".
A short five minute drive east leads to the trailhead for Deckertown Falls, a three tier falls totalling more than 50' that receives far fewer visitors than most in the area. From the small parking area at the end of E Catlin St, follow the dirt trail for a tenth of a mile or so before reaching the first small cascade. You'll have a great view of the other two cascades from here, but keep going. A few hundred feet later you'll reach the tallest of the three cascades where if the water level is right you can get right up to its base and let the water crash down on you. You may notice a narrow dirt trail above the falls, but we recommend against it. It's fairly unsafe and you're just not going to get the views that you would hiking up the creek bed. Water shoes are recommended.
A great campground nearby is the Watkins Glen State Park SIx Nations Campground, five minutes from tomorrow's start. There are hot showers here. Cabins are available, but require a three night stay. If you're going to splurge on a stay we highly recommend the Magnolia Place Bed & Breakfast fifteen minutes north of tomorrow's start.
Day 3: Seneca Lake
Watkins Glen Gorge Trail (1.6 miles/400')
Taughannock Falls Gorge Trail (1.8 miles/150')
Start today in the park that Conde Nast Traveler named the best state park in New York in 2015 and what came in third place in USA Today Readers' Choice Awards list for best state park in the country in 2015, Watkins Glen State Park. This is one of the most overcrowded parks we've ever been to so getting an early start is a must to have an enjoyable experience. The Gorge Trail is the highlight of the park where along the paved trail you'll find several beautiful falls within the gorge and many stunning geological features. Entering the park near the gift shop, you'll have a steep ascent before reaching Sentry Bridge where you'll cross over and ascend Couch's Staircase, a 120-stair stone staircase with a wall of ferns to your left. This leads to Cavern Cascade where you'll walk behind a waterfall pouring over from above. A short distance after this you'll reach a suspension bridge 85' above the Glen Creek where you'll have an incredible view of the gorge facing east. Continue along the Gorge Trail passing Lover's Lane Lookout and Glen Cathedral before reaching the 60' Central Cascade, the tallest falls in the park. From here it's a short distance to Rainbow Falls, the park's most picturesque area in our opinion. The trail continues a short distance more without any overly exciting features. We've typically turned around at Rainbow Falls, but the choice is yours. There's a nominal park entrance fee that can be paid with cash or card, or Empire Pass. To avoid the fee, find a parking spot on North Franklin and walk in.
There are a ton of restaurants and shops worth visiting nearby including Glen Mountain Market Bakery & Deli located less than a half mile walk from the park's entrance on North Franklin. Great breakfast and lunch sandwiches. Afterwards, hop in your vehicle and head fifteen minutes west to Farm Sanctuary, a nearly 300-acre shelter home to more than 600 rescued cows, pigs, turkeys and more. Hour-long guided shelter tours are offered and highly recommended. Get ready for those heart strings to be pulled. Apples & Moore (formerly Reisinger's Apple Country), a pick your own orchard and farm, is fifteen minutes east of here and a worthwhile stop. Here you can pick your own apples and berries, and visit their store featuring a wide range of farm products available for purchase.
After, head thirty minutes east to Taughannock Falls State Park and hop on the Gorge Trail located near the shore of Cayuga Lake. Follow the easy trail for just short of a mile before reaching the falls. There isn't much to see along the trail before reaching the falls, but once you do you'll have a great view of the tallest single drop waterfall east of the Rocky Mountains. At 217' it's actually 33' higher than Niagara Falls. Taughannock is pronounced tawg-nick and is believed to have been named after a Delaware chief named Taughannock who was killed and tossed over the falls by rival Iroquois.
Taughannock Falls State Park Campground is an excellent place to camp for the night. The campground's campsites and cabins overlook Cayuga Lake, have hot showers and canoe rentals. Hotels in and around the area are pretty pricey, so we've always stayed at this campground. A great way to end the evening is with a drive up to the Taughannock Falls Overlook located less than a mile from the campground along Taughannock Park Rd. You'd be hard pressed to find a better sunset spot in the area, especially in the fall after a good rain.
Day 4: Cayuga Lake
Ithaca Falls (0.2 miles/flat)
Cascadilla Gorge (1.3 miles/300')
Lucifer Falls (1.1 miles/250')
Buttermilk Falls (1.6 miles/450')
Taughannock Beach, located a half mile from the campground on Cayuga Lake, is a great spot to catch sunrise if you're an early riser. If not, begin your last day in the Finger Lakes with a short hike to Ithaca Falls, one of the six major waterfalls within Fall Creek Gorge. The walk to the falls begins from a small parking lot on the corner of Lake & E Falls and proceeds a few hundred feet before reaching the base of the falls. Go as far as you like or the water will permit, hugging the right side as you get closer. The 150' falls with an even wider base was owned by Cornell University until 2000 when it was sold to the city of Ithaca as part of an environmental cleanup effort. The city of Ithaca and its falls were named after the Greek island of Ithaca in Homer's epic Odyssey.
Cascadilla Gorge, about three quarters of a mile south from Ithaca Falls, is a great spot to check out after. It's nearly three quarters of a mile paved walkway connects downtown Ithaca to Cornell's campus and features eight waterfalls ranging from 8' to 50'. The trail winds through the gorge never straying from the creek while ascending 350' from downtown to campus. The first waterfall along the trail, a 20' cascade comes early on and is followed by another that curves around a bend in the creek. Further along you'll find the 22' Stewart Falls before crossing the creek on a stone bridge. A 20' unnamed cascade appears next followed by the 35' Lower Falls. The last waterfall before reaching campus is the gorge's tallest, the 50' Upper Falls, also known as Cascadilla Gorge and Giant's Staircase. A stone staircase leads to the top of the falls and eventually to another paved walkway behind campus buildings.
When you're ready, head back to the trailhead the way you came. There's no parking lot for this one, so you'll need to street park. If you're looking for a spot to grab lunch at, check out Shortstop Deli located a mile from the trailhead. Really good sandwiches. If you're looking for a short retreat from mother nature at this point head over to the second floor of Cornell's Uris Hall to check out the WIlder Brain Collection. The collection, started in 1889 by Civil War surgeon and founder of Cornell's Brain Society, Dr Burt Green Wilder, once held more than 600 human brains from women, murderers, racial minorities, and those with mental illness. Wilder's goal was to study the brains and see if any differences could be detected among the groups. Today, Cornell's Department of Psychology maintains the collection and displays eight of said brains in the hall. It's a bit morbid, but some of you crazies may get a kick out of it like we did.
Lucifer Falls, a 112'er located within Robert H Tremen State Park, can be found about twenty minutes south of here. The entire park is gorgeous, but Lucifer Falls steals the show. Take the Rim Trail upstream before reaching an excellent view of the falls near the top of the trail, about a third of a mile in.
Above the falls is a decent sized swimming area and another smaller waterfall surrounded by huge cliffs to the right. Shortly after this you'll cross a bridge over the creek, where you'll hang a left and head back to the trailhead via Gorge Trail. About a tenth of a mile into your return you'll find an even more impressive view of Lucifer Falls to your left. Another awesome spot in the park and one you should definitely not skip is Enfield Falls and its huge swimming area and diving board near its base. This can be reached after a short tenth of a mile or so walk from the park's office, located ten minutes from the Lucifer Falls Trailhead.
The last hike of the trip is one of the most beautiful gorge hikes in the Finger Lakes in our opinion. The Rim and Gorge Loop Trail along Buttermilk Creek in Buttermilk Falls State Park is drop dead gorgeous. Non-stop waterfalls, emerald swimming holes, cliff jumping, awesome rock formations and more make it a great final hike. The park's 165' Buttermilk Falls can be viewed almost immediately after the trailhead, but the real fun, the creek's swimming holes, can be found a bit farther into the hike. Definitely bring water shoes and swimwear on this one if you are visiting in the summer months.
If you're sticking around the area for a bit and want to grab dinner somewhere, two solid options are Mercato Bar & Kitchen and Bickering Twins Restaurant & Tequila Bar. Mercato has a bit more upscale menu and Bickering Twins has some of the best tacos in the area.
And that's Four Days in the Finger Lakes. We hope you have a blast!