03/10/2022

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5 Best Upstate NY Lakes: A Finger Lakes Road Trip

5 Best Upstate NY Lakes: A Finger Lakes Road Trip

What’s better than exploring upstate New York in the fall? Here are 5 best upstate NY lakes we discovered on a Finger Lakes road trip.

The saying, “Go jump in the lake,” can be taken literally when you visit the eleven Finger Lakes. I visited five favorites on my Finger Lakes Road Trip—Seneca, Cayuga, Keuka, Conesus, and Canandaigua. The name Finger Lakes has a great origin. According to Native American legend, the Great Spirit placed his hands on the land to bless it, creating his handprint on the land, thus the name Finger Lakes.

I first explored the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York with my mom. Our favorite season to travel was fall. The flame-colored fall foliage is at its peak in October and early November. Here are the 5 best Upstate NY Lakes you can discover on a Finger Lakes road trip.

Finger Lakes NY

Glenwood Waterfalls near Ithaca, New York is just one beautiful area you will experience in a Finger Lakes road trip. Photo by Paul Massie Photography via iStock by Getty Images

Road Trip Adventures

Road trips with mom are treasured memories. It was a season in our lives when it was just mom and me against the world after her divorce. She made sure we made time to travel together. (That was our theme song by Helen Reddy, “You and Me Against the World.”)

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Those adventures had us laughing so hard. One time, after having brunch at Belhurst Castle in Geneva, NY, we ran in the rain to get to the car. She peeled off her soaking wet pantyhose in the car. Oh my! Finally, the rain cleared, and a bright, breathtaking rainbow appeared in the blue sky.

The scenery on a Finger Lakes Road Trip will warm your heart, and so will the wine. The Finger Lakes is also Wine Country. There are over 100 wineries, breweries, and distilleries around Keuka, Seneca, and Cayuga Lakes. Some of them host wine and food events.

finger lakes NY road trip

Enjoy the wines as you explore Upstate NY on a Finger Lakes road trip. Photo by Anita Warren-Hampson via iStock by Getty Images

This time, I traveled solo, creating new memories on this Finger Lakes Road Trip wearing not pantyhose but my Serengeti shades (even Tom Cruise has a pair of this amazing eyewear).

Seneca Lake

Seneca Lake is the largest of the glacial Finger Lakes in upstate New York. It’s named after the Seneca Nation of Native Americans. It is known as the lake trout capital of the world and is hosts the National Lake Trout Derby.

finger lakes new york

Seneca Lake is the largest of the Finger Lakes. Photo by Albert Pego via iStock by Getty Images

A relaxing way to take in the sights on Seneca Lake in Watkins Glen is a dinner cruise or narrated sightseeing cruise on Capt. Bill’s vessels. The crew catered to every need. The dinner cruise was delightful, and we enjoyed live music. Dancing to the music and watching the sunset from the deck made me feel happy and free. You get the best views of lovely homes and Hector Falls from the boat.

Set sail on the famous True Love. In 1956, True Love made her debut in the musical film, High Society, starring Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, Frank Sinatra, and Louis Armstrong. There is a famous scene where Bing serenades Grace with the song “True Love” by Cole Porter. Wow, I love a good romance story. Today, this pristine schooner is home in the heart of the Finger Lakes. That makes my heart go pitter-patter.

Another fun adventure on my Finger Lakes Road Trip was kayaking on Seneca Lake. I walked along the marina and discovered Summit to Stream Adventures, where you can rent kayaks, participate in excursions, have a go at fly fishing, or go charter fishing. They supply all the equipment and instructions necessary.

Finger Lakes Road Trip Seneca Legacy Dinner Cruise.

Capt. Bill’s Seneca Legacy Dinner Cruise. Photo by Lori Bruton

Eat, Play, Stay on Your Finger Lakes Road Trip at Seneca Lake

When you get hungry, take a stroll along North Franklin Street and stop at Nickel’s Pit BBQ or if you prefer Italian food, I recommend Jerlando’s Ristorante & Pizza Co.

Homemade ice cream for dessert hits the spot. When Mom and I visited Watkins Glen years ago, there was a five-and-dime type store that served homemade vanilla ice cream at the counter. I can still remember how sweet and creamy it tasted. Now, you can find homemade ice cream at the Colonial Inn & Creamery. They have a variety of flavors. This time I chose a scoop of chocolate and a scoop of coffee ice cream that I enjoyed eating outside, sitting in a wooden rocking chair.

Watkins Glen State Park is the most famous of the Finger Lakes State Parks. Chiseled stone stairs lead you past captivating waterfalls and gorges. Rim trails overlook the gorge. Be careful, it can be slippery. The views are worth the hike. Campers and visitors can enjoy the Olympic-size swimming pool.

finger lakes road trip takes you to Watkins Glen State Park

Take the Watkins Glen State Park stairs to see the Cavern Cascade waterfall. Photo by Juntaski via iStock by Getty Images

Stay a day or two and capture as much as you can. I found myself with no place to stay one night. I was grateful there was room for me at The Red Kettle Inn Bed & Breakfast. It is a charming Victorian home, and the Innkeeper serves a homemade full country breakfast with food from local farms.

A Glamping Experience at Seneca Lake

Glamping lets you experience nature without roughing it. I stayed at NaturLuxe & Stars, which was true luxury and serenity surrounded by nature. A campfire, modern amenities, and a comfortable bed in a safari tent were amazing. Dawn Aprile created and designed this place with style. I highly recommend glamping here. This place is unique because it is located next to Watkins Glen International Racetrack. Did you know that you can drive your vehicle on the racetrack? Check out the other racetrack events and festivals while you’re there.

Finger Lakes Road Trip Glamping

Safari Tent at NaturLuxe & Stars. Photo courtesy Walter Colley

Cayuga Lake, Part of a Finger Lakes Road Trip

Cayuga Lake is the longest of New York’s glacial Finger Lakes. It is just under 39 miles long. This name comes from the smallest Native American tribe of the Iroquois confederacy.

I drove on the East side of Cayuga Lake and had the pleasure of staying at the historical Rogues Harbor Inn. I didn’t need to travel far for a bite to eat. The Corner Pub at Rogues was right next door. After a good meal and resting at the Inn, I was ready for another day to explore.

Finger Lakes Road Trip, Rogues Harbor Inn.

Rogues Harbor Inn. Photo courtesy of Walter Colley

The historical homes of Harriet Tubman and William Henry Seward are nearby. Wandering along the waterfalls and trails, I had many “wow” moments of the views and rock formations at Ithaca Falls and Buttermilk Falls.

Pack in some time for pampering. I booked a massage with Bec Haley at Ithaca Massage Station. That was a wonderful wow experience. You can go to her, or she can come to you.

Later, I enjoyed a spectacular sunset at Myers Park, located on the eastern shore of Cayuga Lake in the town of Lansing. There are pavilions, picnic tables, and grills throughout the park. It’s a peaceful place to swim, play volleyball, or do horseshoes. I was in awe, looking at the boats in the marina. You can have an adventure by renting a kayak, paddleboard, or canoe from Paddle-N-More.

Finger Lakes Road Trip, a stop at Cayuga Lake.

Myers Park on Cayuga Lake. Photo by Lori Bruton

Keuka Lake

Keuka Lake is one of the major Finger Lakes in upstate New York. Its name is derived from the Iroquois meaning, “canoe landing.” This unusual Y-shaped lake has been called Crooked Lake. However, it is commonly called “Lady of the Lakes” because of its natural beauty.

This was a must-see lake on my Finger Lakes Road Trip. Both sides of the lake have wineries. Hammondsport is a quaint village on the southern tip of the lake. You’ll enjoy the antique shops, stores, restaurants, and gazebo.

Drive up the hill for a breathtaking view, good food, and wine. Learn about ice wine and take a tour at one of the wineries.

By now, you may have guessed that my favorite adventure is kayaking. I got to kayak on Keuka Lake, thanks to Keuka Watersports. Those jet skis looked tempting to ride. Maybe next time. If you love boats, water, and swimming, make this a stop on your Finger Lakes Road Trip.

Jet ski during your Finger Lakes road trip.

Keuka Watersports jet skis. Photo by Lori Bruton

Conesus Lake

Conesus Lake is the westernmost of New York’s eleven Finger Lakes. Like the majority of the Finger Lakes, at one time, this is where the Iroquois Indians lived. In the Native American language, Conesus means “always beautiful.” Positioned on two stagecoach routes and a railroad, the area boomed in the mid-1800s with ferry boats, hotels, and an amusement park.

I remember going to Long Point Amusement Park back in my dating days. Today, it is a public park with pavilions which is still fun.

Conesus Lake Finger Lakes NY

View of Conesus lake from Vitale Park in Lakeville, New York. Photo by Debora Truax via iStock by Getty Images

This lake holds a special memory for me. It was our first camping trip when my sons were young. We rented a camper and boat at Conesus Lake Campgrounds. It is clean, comfortable, and a complete experience. They still have RV and tent sites, cabins, rental trailers, and camping cottages. Enjoy this home of hospitality full of fun activities.

I have been and will go again to the Naples Grape Festival. This is one you don’t want to miss in September. Have you ever tasted a grape pie? Since 1961 the grape festival has been held every September in Napes, NY, to celebrate the grape harvest. You can do more with grapes than make wine. The festival has artisans, winemakers, food, and music to fill your adventure cup.

The village of Naples is at the southern end of Canandaigua Lake. That is the next lake I visited on my Finger Lakes Road Trip.

Canandaigua Lake 

Canandaigua Lake is the fourth largest of the Finger Lakes in upstate NY. It runs from the City of Canandaigua to Naples. The name came from the Native American word, “Kanandarque,” meaning “chosen spot.”

This is my chosen spot. It doesn’t feel like summer unless I’ve been swimming in Canandaigua Lake at Kershaw Park. This lakefront—the landscaped park—has a sandy beach, walkways, a public dock, picnic pavilions, and an open-air gazebo. I like sitting on the swinging benches and looking out at the water when I’m not swimming.

finger lakes new york

Canandaigua Lake is my chosen spot as I explore the Finger Lakes. Photo by Debora Truax via iStock by Getty Images

Swimming works up an appetite. I walked to Murphy’s Law Irish Pub and enjoyed a BBQ Chicken Quesadilla on the outside deck.

BBQ chicken quesadilla.

BBQ Chicken Quesadilla. Photo by Lori Bruton

Be sure to experience the Canandaigua Lady on your Finger Lakes Road Trip. The Canandaigua Lady is a 19th-century steamboat replica and authentic double-decker paddle-wheeler. Enjoy a meal or a narrated cruise on this Mississippi-style paddle-wheel boat. Lunch, dinner, and excursion cruises run from May through October.

Finger Lakes

Enjoy a lunch or dinner excursion onboard the Canandaigua Lady. Photo by Barefoot_Photos via iStock by Getty Images

Make a bigger splash at Roseland Water Park just down the road. It’s the largest waterpark in the Finger Lakes Region. I remember my dad would surprise us when I was a kid and take us there. Maybe that’s why I have a passion for water activities. Dad would go on the rides with me. Now, I prefer a milder ride in the wave pool.

Canandaigua Lady.

Canandaigua Lady. Photo by Lori Bruton

History, Art, and Culture on a Finger Lakes Road Trip

My mom found beauty in flowers. She was a creative gardener. It’s no wonder she enjoyed visiting Sonnenberg Gardens in Canandaigua, NY. I can now appreciate the beauty and history there.

Sonnenberg is a 50-acre estate known for its distinctive period architecture, formal, unique gardens, and fountains. What captivated me most was the fountains and mansion, specifically the library. The mansion was once a summer home of the affluent Frederick Ferris and Mary Clark Thompson.

Stop at Sonnenberg Gardens on your Finger Lakes road trip.

Sonnenberg Gardens in Canandaigua. Photo by Lori Bruton

On this Finger Lakes Road Trip, I stayed in the Elizabeth room in this 200-year historic home, the first bed and breakfast in Canandaigua. It was originally owned by Oliver Phelps, the founder of Finger Lakes. B&B at Oliver Phelps has lovely features of Greek Revival architecture and a lovely Innkeeper. She provides a generous, farm-to-table breakfast and excellent service and amenities. There is information available about what to see and do.

Warm lemon pudding breakfast cake.

Warm Lemon Pudding Breakfast Cake. Photo by Lori Bruton

Across the street is the Fort Hill Performing Arts Center and another art and culture experience nearby, CMAC. It is located on the Finger Lakes Community College Campus. My sister and I saw Kenny Rogers perform there years ago. Whatever your taste in music, you’re sure to find the event that suits you.

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Make Memories on a Finger Lakes Road Trip

This Finger Lakes Road Trip held surprises, memories, and new experiences. There is always more to explore, see, and do. The winding wine and hiking trails paired with the canvas of the colorful views are treasures I will hold dear forever. Art, culture, cuisine, music, water, boats, and nature are everywhere. Discover more hidden gems of your own and enjoy the ones I shared with you in the Finger Lakes. Whether you are looking for an exciting road trip in the United States, a fall leaf-peeping tour through New England, or a boutique stay in a small town, let Wander with Wonder be your guide.

What's better than exploring upstate New York in the fall? Here are 5 best Upstate NY lakes we discovered on a Finger Lakes road trip. We include tips on what to do, where to eat, where to stay—and plenty of great water activities for summer and fall.

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5 Best Upstate NY Lakes: A Finger Lakes Road Trip