2015 Lake Seneca

Trip Planning

Underrated Destinations - New York's Finger Lakes Region

Jeremy Puglisi shares his tips for visiting New York's Finger Lakes Region. Here's what to do, what to see, and where to stay.

If New York’s Finger Lakes region were located in another state, it might be the state’s premier travel destination due to its astounding beauty. However, since the Empire State offers so much to see and do—from the Big Apple to the Adirondacks and Catskills—the Finger Lakes region can be easy to overlook.  Here you will find fantastic trails, divine wineries, scenic campgrounds, and so much more. The entire region is magnificent, and it also has many great campground options for RV owners.

The Finger Lakes region is named for the span of long, skinny glacial lakes that stretch out like fingers across the rolling hills south of Rochester and Syracuse, creating a clearly visible landmark from the air. Lakes Conesus, Hemlock, Canadice, Honeoye, Canandaigua, Keuka, Seneca, Cayuga, Owasco, Skaneateles, and Otisco are the larger ones, while several smaller waterways dot the area.

While the lakes give the region its name, the waterfalls might be the star of the show. Melting glaciers created rivers and deep gorges over 12,000 years ago. These combine in a number of stunning waterfalls, found in locations like Watkins Glen, Letchworth, and Taughannock Falls State Parks. There are almost too many to count!

As if lakes and waterfalls aren’t enough, the region’s landscape and climate combine to create the perfect conditions for vineyards to thrive. Come for the natural beauty, stay to sample the wines. Harvest Hosts members may also be able to find an overnight spot to park their rigs at one of these beautiful wineries, Check their app for more details and current locations.

Popular lakeside towns can serve as landing points for your adventures, including Geneva, Ithaca, and Watkins Glen. But, there are tons of other charming hamlets to explore. State parks abound, offering budget-friendly camping in magnificent locations. Family-run private parks and bustling RV parks provide diverse camping accommodations.

Family Fun & the Great Outdoors

The lakes and waterfalls combine to create divine backdrops for a full menu of recreational opportunities. Boating? Check! Paddling? Check! Swimming? Check! Hiking? Check! Cliff jumping? Yes, even that gets a checkmark in the Finger Lakes!

You can organize your visit by selecting a few state parks as your focal points. Watkins Glen State Park is perhaps the most iconic in the region, thanks to the fairy-tale-like structures found amid the 19 waterfalls that drop over cliffs rising as high as 200 feet overhead. The 1.5-mile Watkins Glen Gorge Trail is a must-do (though you will encounter 800 stairs). Don’t forget your camera!

If you want to do more than admire the waterfalls and waterways from the ground, check out Buttermilk Falls State Park, which offers a swimming spot at the base of the falls and several smaller pools along the trails. Some of the ledges and cliffs provide great perches for making a splash into the deeper pools.

There are, as expected, many ways to enjoy the stunning lakes. Soak in the scenery by kayaking or paddling in the coves or on the smaller lakes, like Keuka Lake, or rent a powerboat to get out on some grander waters. You’ll find tons of marinas and options across the region. Where the water meets the skies, you’ll find the magic of the Finger Lakes.

Contrasting the natural serenity of the Finger Lakes, you’ll find Watkins Glen International, which hosts NASCAR racing and more. The revving engines and cheering crowds provide a different kind of exhilaration.

You can’t spend all of your time outside. If you want to sprinkle in a bit of history, head to Seneca Falls. You’ll find locations related to the classic film It’s a Wonderful Life, as well as museums honoring the town’s role in the battle for women’s rights. Head south to find the Corning Museum of Glass—many visitors rave about how it exceeded their expectations. 

Where to Eat and Drink in the Finger Lakes Region

This is wine country. You can absorb more views while sampling the vintages. Dr. Konstantin Frank is one of the most notable vineyards due to the many awards it has won. For a grand tasting room experience, check out Heron Hill’s Winery. Or, head to Keuka Lake Vineyards for a patio that overlooks the blue stripe of water amid the verdant hills. There are dozens of other options, so it might be good to book a winery tour or to focus on one of the region’s many wine trails.

While some people will argue that Upstate New York can’t possibly have good seafood, Doug’s Fish Fry rises to the challenge—at two Finger Lakes locations, one in Cortland and another in Skaneateles. This isn’t a fancy joint, but you won’t mind the plastic silverware as you chomp your way through delectable plates heaping with mounds of fried fish, fries, and house-made slaw.

The iconic Moosewood Cookbook—practically considered a sacred text for generations of vegetarians—was written by a member of the culinary collective known as the Moosewood Restaurant in Ithaca. The evolving menu features the best local produce each season, allowing you to truly sample the tastes of the region.

Campground Recommendations in the Finger Lakes Region

Watkins Glen State Park

Watkins Glen, NY

If hiking the gorge at Watkins Glen State Park is on your to-do list, you should definitely consider staying onsite. The huge, wooded campsites offer a true taste of the best in state park camping. Aside from the silence, you might hear the sound of the tumbling creek. The park has several trails, scenic overlooks, and a huge pool. Some of the campground loops have electric hookups, while the rest do not.

Sampson State Park

Romulus, NY

Located on the eastern shores of Seneca Lake, this 2000-acre park offers 300 campsites (the majority have electric hookups), lake access, a waterfront playground, trails, and more. A handful of sites offer views of the water. You’ll love the large, rambling campsites. Plus, there are gorgeous modern cabins onsite, too.

Jellystone Park of the Finger Lakes at Babcock Hollow

Bath, NY

If you have little kids in tow, the waterfalls and wineries might not wow them, but Yogi Bear definitely can. The organized activities, inflatable water slide, playgrounds, pool, rec hall, and more can keep the kids entertained for hours, all with a scenic backdrop parents will appreciate. Lakefront and full-hookup sites are available.

Canandaigua-Rochester KOA

Farmington, NY

There’s a serious battle of the KOAs going on in the Finger Lakes region, with half a dozen great options. It’s hard to say which is the best! The Canandaigua-Rochester KOA earns rave reviews for the meticulous maintenance, charming setting (with a stocked reflecting pond), and onsite activities.

Best Time to Visit the Finger Lakes

If you want to enjoy the full bounty of outdoor recreation, head to the Finger Lakes in the summer. The temperatures are warm, without being unreasonably hot. You can enjoy taking a dip in the cool waters. Spring is a lovely time for hiking, but you will definitely want to stay on land. The shoulder season is a little less crowded, so you may have the trails to yourself.

Fall brings with it the changing of the leaves, and the Finger Lakes region is a gorgeous place for leaf peeping. Hiking is the preferred daytime activity, while the crisp temperatures mean night is made for gathering around a campfire. While winter can be magnificently beautiful across the Finger Lakes, you need to come prepared for deep snows and cold temps. Most campgrounds are closed for the winter season.

You won’t be able to see all that the Finger Lakes region offers in one trip—so don’t even try! This is a destination that will lure you back again and again, revealing new treasures with each visit.

Jeremy Puglisi

Author and co-host of the RV Atlas podcast

Jeremy Puglisi is the co-host of the RV Atlas podcast and the co-author of See You at the Campground: A Guide to Discovering Community, Connection, and a Happier Family in the Great Outdoors, and Where Should We Camp Next: A 50 State Guide to Amazing Campgrounds and other Unique Outdoor Accommodations. He loves nothing more than hitching up and heading out to the next campground with his family.