Looking for lake fun? The Finger Lakes region includes 11, narrow lakes nestled in the hills of upstate New York. Known for its natural beauty, cultural heritage, food and wine, the Finger Lakes are perfect for a family vacation on the water. Formed by glaciers, these stone bottom lakes are filled with some of the clearest water you can find.
Deserted Pier with a Benches and a Red Shelter at the End. Woody Hills are Visible in Background Seneca, Lake, N.Y.
Where to Go
The Finger Lakes lie in a region between Rochester in the west, Syracuse in the east, the upper border is Lake Ontario and the Pennsylvania state line on the southern end. From west to east the Finger Lakes include: Conesus, Hemlock, Canadice, Honeoye, Canandaigua, Keuka, Seneca, Cayuga, Owasco, Skaneateles, and Otisco. Ithaca, NY sits at the southern end of Cayuga Lake, and is home of Cornell University.
Great Bend Overlook at Letchworth State Park in New York just after sunrise.
What to Do
The lakes themselves are the main draw here, long summer days filled with swimming, sailing, fishing, kayaking, and more. Kids are drawn to the inviting water like bears to honey. Rent a cottage on the lake, and gather the family, extended family, or multigenerational group, and enjoy the water. Families will find each lake has its own distinct character. Canandaigua, with its proximity to Rochester, is slightly more developed and has a thriving arts community with the CMAC Performing Arts Center. Keuka is more rural, and the only “Y-shaped” lake with a prominent 900-foot-high bluff bisecting the branches. Seneca is the deepest lake at over 600 feet, and has Watkins Glen State Park at the southern end. Cayuga Lake has not only Cornell University, but also Ithaca and Wells Colleges for a funky college town vibe.
- Wine and Culinary – the Finger Lakes are the largest wine producing region in the US outside of California. Vineyards line the hills and the lakes help moderate the temperature for the delicate vines. There are over 100 different wineries in the region, and wine-tasting is certainly a big activity in the area. Four of the lakes have official wine trails to follow: Cayuga, Seneca, Keuka, and Canandaigua. The New York Wine and Culinary Center in Canandaigua is a non-profit institution to educate visitors about food made with New York sourced ingredients, wine, cider, and craft beers. The center houses a restaurant, demonstration kitchen, and a number of workshops throughout the year. Of course you can’t have wine without grapes, Naples, NY hosts a grape festival each September where families can sample the unique grape pie.
- Outdoors – besides the water there are plenty of other outdoor recreational activities. Letchworth State Park, on the western end of the region, features the “Grand Canyon of the East” as the Genesee River cuts through a gorge on its northern route to Lake Ontario. Watkins Glen State Park near Seneca Lake features 19 waterfalls plummeting off 200-foot high cliffs. Families can find plenty of hiking trails surrounding the Finger Lakes as well.
- Museums – Need a rainy day activity? The Finger Lakes truly have world-class museums and cultural opportunities. In Rochester, NY families can find The Strong National Museum of Play and George Eastman Museum, the world’s oldest photography and film archive. In the southern Finger Lakes region is the Corning Museum of Glass, a fascinating space dedicated to art, history, and science of glass – their hot glass show is NOT to be missed, and you’ll find plenty of hands-on activities for kids. Ithaca boasts a Discovery Trail with eight museums and sites such as the Sciencenter, Museum of the Earth, and Cornell Lab of Ornithology all within an easy drive from each other.
A car is definitely required to get around the Finger Lakes region, or, once you’ve reached your lakefront cottage, a bike. There are not many public transportation options traveling between the Finger Lakes, so your own or a rental car is necessary. You can find tour companies offering guided (and driven) wine tasting tours to prevent drinking and driving.