Finger Lake Adventures Part II – Falls, Gorges & Seneca Lake, NY
Following our four fabulous days in Ithaca we moved “the beast” all of ~35 miles to the next lake over, Seneca Lake. It was a pleasant little drive across a sleepy 2-lane road and in less than an hour we arrived at our destination, the biggest lake in the area and one of the biggest State Parks we’ve ever seen too.
Sampson State Park (full review coming) lies on the middle-eastern shoreline of Seneca Lake making it a sweet little centralized spot to explore the area. It’s a pretty state park with ~6 miles of shoreline and a cute little marina, but what’s unique about it is that it was once the largest Naval Training Station in the Nation (later it became an Air Force Base). It was established during WWII and over 400,000 recruits went through here, so not only does it have a bunch of interesting buildings and history, but it’s HUGE, covering over 2,000 acres of land!
We slotted ourselves into our very spacious and pretty corner site (thank you to CampADK.com for helping us pick the perfect site!), and set-about planning our week of exploration in the area.
The Highest Waterfall (And Some Ice Cream & Wine)
Our first order of business was to see some falls that we hadn’t managed to fit into our Ithaca visit.
Taughannock Falls is a rather spectacular 215 ft (65 m) waterfall surrounded by rocky cliffs that tower nearly 400 feet above a gorge. They’re the highest falls in the entire Finger Lakes area and considered a definite “must see” in the area.
They’re physically located on on the lower Eastern shore of Cayuga Lake so you can easily visit them from either Ithaca or Sampson (if you’re coming from Ithaca you simply drive around the bottom of Cayuga Lake to the other side, whereas if you’re visiting them from Sampson State Park you simply drive directly back across the little strip of land between Seneca and Cayuga. It’s about the same time-wise from either spot).
It’s a great little visit and if you’re coming from Sampson you’ll pass at least 8 wineries and the sweetest little ice cream store, all of which offer outstanding post-hiking indulgences. For our trip we loaded Polly in the car and did the very pleasant, very wide-path, very easy ~2 mile hike to the base of the falls. It was early in the morning so there were very few people around, and the shaded walk to the trails kept us cool the whole way. A very nice stroll!
After the hike we felt we deserved a little reward, so we indulged in a tasting of wine at Americana Vineyards (wonderful place and SO dog friendly!!) followed by a massive ice cream cone (oh YES we did) from Cayuga Lake Creamery (oh me, oh my, roll me on home please). It was the perfect outing!!
VISIT & PAW NOTES: Taughannock Falls State Park costs $8 to visit (FREE with either Empire Pass or if you’re camping at another NY State Park (just bring your camping pass with you)). Dogs are welcome on all trails! On your way back Americana Vineyards is 100% dog-friendly (incl. inside the tasting room), and if you decide to stop at Cayuga Lake Creamery, there is outdoor dog-friendly seating.
The Most Spectacular Gorge
The other big reason we camped ourselves at Lake Seneca was to explore the amazing gorges of Watkins Glen. And oh, what a place it is!
When you say you’re going to visit the Finger Lakes region everyone (and I mean EVERYone) will tell you that you MUST go see Watkins Glen State Park. It’s located at the very southern tip of Seneca Lake and it’s one of the most famous and iconic spots in the area, and for good reason too!
This 778-acre (3.15 km2) State Park is centered around a single 2-mile trail called the Gorge Trail which follows Glen Creek through narrow 200-foot-deep (60 m) shale and sandstone cliffs. It took ~10,000 years to be carved out of the landscape, and it’s a magical kind of the place, where you imagine Elves might live (or Unicorns, why not). And the Gorge Trail takes you through it all, curving 400 feet down the steep cliff faces, winding through caves and into twisting staircases, going over and under waterfalls (all 19 of them!!), sweeping past lush greenery and swirling pools, taking you over overgrown brick bridges and onto sunlit paths.
Yeah, it’s a helluva spot and there’s only one little potential gotcha (well, maybe two).
The first is that the trail doesn’t allow dogs. Technically you can bring dogs into the State Park and on all other trails, but not the Gorge Trail which is really the one and only reason to come here. So if you’re coming for the Gorge leave pooch at home.
Also the trail is very narrow in spots and very popular, so as the day goes on it gets packed and it can become tough to navigate. Early morning it’s nice and empty, but by around 10-11AM it gets crowded.
So, when I came I left Paul and the dog at home (Paul’s choice) and went very early morning to avoid the crowds. It was a beautiful drive in along the lake, a SPECTACULAR hike and the only thing that could have made it better was if it had been overcast (gorges are so darned hard to photograph in sharp, speckled sunlight!). After the hike I walked around downtown (it’s a quickly done), visited the Marina (also speedy) and then drove back home to Sampson past ~20 or so wineries (which I valiantly resisted). Awesome trail, wonderful nature, GREAT outing! Don’t miss this!!
VISIT & PAW NOTES: Watkins Glen State Park costs $8 to visit (FREE with either Empire Pass or if you’re camping at another NY State Park (just bring your camping pass with you)). Dogs are NOT allowed on the Gorge Trail, but are allowed in other areas of the park. Come EARLY to avoid the crowds, and for best photography chose an overcast day. More info HERE.
A Few Good Beers
Our last order of business on Seneca Lake was to track down some of the breweries on the Finger Lakes beer trail. Of course there are an abundance of wineries in the area, as well as a fair few distilleries, but at this point we were in the mood for beer and as luck had it there were two most decent breweries just ~15 mins from our camping spot Sampson State Park. Oh, and both were dog-friendly too!
So, we loaded Polly in the car and went out to explore.
The first place was an enormous estate that clearly caters to the tourist crowd with both an on-site winery, gift shops, wine slushy stations (ugh!) and our particular target, War Horse Brewing. We were able to buy a taster sampler and sit outside on the patio with Polly (no dogs allowed inside the building), and although the crowds were a little crazy (it was far too busy for us here) the beer was very decent. The Scotch Ale was quite tasty, and all the IPA’s too, but Paul’s personal favorite was the Lieutenant Dan IPA of which he bought several 4-packs to take home.
Next we headed to a more relaxed barn just 5 minutes away called Bottomless Brewing. This time we were able to bring Polly inside the brewery and hang out in the airy/spacious and not-crowded upstairs area (much more to our liking!). We enjoyed the darker beers here, especially the Kilt Smack Wee Heavy and Dark Rye and even had a few tacos to eat with them (so, so but they worked).
VISIT & PAW NOTES: War Horse Brewing is open 10AM to 6PM daily. Dogs are allowed on the estate grounds and the outside patio areas, but are not allowed inside any of the tasting rooms. Bottomless Brewing is open Wed-Sun 10AM to 6PM. Dogs are welcome inside the brewery.
And Then We Veged
That’s really all we managed in the area while we were here. The rest of the time we just hung out at our sweet RV site enjoying the lake, biking around all the interesting trails and taking in the views at the park. So, we didn’t make it up to see Seneca Falls (there’s a Women’s Museum there which is supposed to be very interesting), nor did we do the Seneca Lake Boat Tour (which I’ve heard is lovely) or sample any of the other many wineries on the lake. Something for next time, right?
Next stop -> Another bucket list item for us both = Niagara Falls. See you there!
Useful External Links:
- Visit Seneca Lake -> Useful general guide HERE
- Taughannock Falls State Park -> Official Park link HERE
- Watkins Glen State Park -> Official Park link HERE
- Seneca Lake Wine Trail -> Click HERE
- Finger Lakes Beer Trail -> See Seneca Lake HERE and download PDF map HERE
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