After spending time exploring the trails of Shenandoah National Park, we headed north along our RV road trip route to the land of wine, lakes, and waterfalls! The Finger Lakes of New York have several great state parks that are perfect for hiking, with miles of trails to enjoy. In this article, we break down some of the most amazing Finger Lakes hikes that you will want to add to your bucket list when connecting with nature in upstate New York!
About The Finger Lakes Region of New York
Located in Upstate New York, the Finger Lakes region is a mesmerizing destination that enchants visitors with its breathtaking lakes, picturesque landscapes, and abundant outdoor activities. The region is named after the 11 long, narrow lakes that resemble the fingers of a hand.
Each lake possesses its own charm and character, offering a unique experience for nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts. Surrounded by rolling hills, vineyards, and charming small towns, the Finger Lakes showcase stunning natural beauty and provide a haven for hiking and nature exploration.
From the picturesque shores of Seneca Lake to the scenic trails that wind through Watkins Glen State Park, there are countless opportunities to immerse oneself in the region’s diverse ecosystems. Here you can discover hidden waterfalls, traverse lush forests, and savor panoramic views from the numerous trails that crisscross the area.
Additionally, the Finger Lakes are renowned for their world-class wineries, providing the perfect opportunity to unwind and indulge in the region’s award-winning wines after a day of outdoor exploration. With its captivating lakes, outdoor adventures, and vibrant wine culture, the Finger Lakes region of New York offers an unforgettable experience that seamlessly combines natural beauty and recreational opportunities.
If you are planning a New York road trip, here are distances from some other local cities and attractions:
- Distance from Niagara Falls: 2-2.5 hours
- Distance from New York City: 3-5 hours
- Distance from Albany: 3 – 3.5 hours
- Distance from Rochester: 1 – 1.5 hours
- Distance from Syracuse: 1 – 1.5 hours
How were the Finger Lakes formed?
The finger lakes are glacial lakes that were formed by the movement of glaciers during the last ice age, which occurred over 2 million years ago. As the massive glaciers advanced and retreated, they carved deep, narrow valleys into the landscape. These valleys eventually filled with water from melting ice, forming the Finger Lakes as we know them today. The unique shape of the lakes, with their long and narrow characteristics, is a result of the glacial erosion that occurred during this process. The Finger Lakes region is a testament to the powerful geological forces that shaped the land, leaving behind these stunning and distinctive bodies of water.
What is the Finger Lakes Region Known For?
The Finger Lakes region in New York State is best known for its natural beauty and its association with winemaking. With so much diversity in what this destination offers, it is one of the best places to experience:
- Lakes: 11 long, narrow lakes that resemble fingers formed by glaciers during the last Ice Age. (Canadice Lake, Canandaigua Lake, Cayuga Lake, Conesus Lake, Hemlock Lake, Honeoye Lake, Keuka Lake, Otisco Lake, Owasco Lake, Seneca Lake, and Skaneateles Lake)
- Wineries and Vineyards: The region is recognized as one of the premier wine-producing areas in the United States, particularly for cool-climate grape varieties like Riesling and Gewürztraminer. The combination of the lakes’ moderating effect on the climate and the soil composition makes it ideal for grape cultivation.
- Wine Trails: Visitors can explore several wine trails throughout the Finger Lakes, such as the Seneca Lake Wine Trail, Cayuga Lake Wine Trail, and Keuka Lake Wine Trail. These trails offer opportunities to taste a wide variety of wines, visit vineyards, and experience the beauty of the region.
- Outdoor Activities: The Finger Lakes is a popular destination for outdoor enthusiasts. The lakes provide opportunities for boating, fishing, swimming, and other water sports. The surrounding hills and forests offer hiking and camping opportunities, and the region has numerous state parks and recreational areas.
- Historical and Cultural Sites: The Finger Lakes region has a rich history, and there are several historic sites and museums worth exploring. For example, the Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls commemorates the first women’s rights convention held in 1848.
The Finger Lakes area is full of natural beauty and a popular spot for visiting wineries and vineyards and is a great place to escape the rush of the city and enjoy a slower pace of life while connecting with nature for a while.
When Is The Best Time To Visit?
We visited in early May and had amazing weather, while also experiencing the area in the slower “shoulder season.” We highly recommend a late spring visit if you are looking for smaller crowds, just keep in mind that some of the State Park trails may be closed (more on that below).
Visiting the Finger Lakes in each season offers unique experiences and highlights. Here’s an overview of what you can expect during each season:
- Spring: Springtime in the Finger Lakes brings vibrant blossoms and a burst of greenery. The region comes alive with colorful flowers, and the vineyards begin to awaken from their winter slumber. It’s an excellent time to explore the many hiking trails and witness the waterfalls at their fullest as the snow melts. Spring also marks the start of wine events and festivals, offering opportunities to taste new releases.
- Summer: Summer is a popular season to visit the Finger Lakes, as the lakes become a hub for outdoor recreation. Boating, swimming, fishing, and kayaking are popular activities. The warm weather is perfect for exploring the numerous wineries and vineyards, indulging in wine tastings, and enjoying picnics with picturesque lake views. The region hosts various summer festivals and cultural events, adding to the vibrant atmosphere.
- Fall: Fall is a breathtaking season in the Finger Lakes when the landscape transforms into a stunning palette of red, orange, and gold hues. The vineyards and surrounding hillsides are blanketed with colorful foliage, creating a scenic backdrop. Fall is also the harvest season, and the wineries come alive with activity. Visitors can participate in grape picking, attend wine festivals, and savor the flavors of freshly pressed apple cider.
- Winter: Winter in the Finger Lakes offers a serene and peaceful atmosphere. Snowfall covers the region, creating a winter wonderland. Cozy up in charming bed and breakfasts, visit local breweries and distilleries to warm up with seasonal drinks, or try out snow shoeing to check out some frozen waterfalls.
The following map can be used as a planning tool, with markers for the trails and locations listed throughout this article!
Best Hikes in The Finger Lakes
The two largest and most visited of the Finger Lakes are Seneca and Cayuga Lakes. That is where we focused on exploring during our visit, and most of the hikes and trails below can be found near one of those two lakes.
As full-time RVers and avid hikers, we have hiked some fantastic trails throughout North America. The Finger Lakes hikes we had the opportunity to complete were some of the most unique and accessible features we have encountered. Don’t miss out on these picturesque hiking trails that lead you deep into gorges, past gushing waterfalls, and through enchanted forests of green.
Watkins Glen State Park Trails
Watkins Glen is a famed New York State Park that attracts large crowds of visitors each year due to its gorgeous gorge trail which takes you past 19 breathtaking waterfalls. We had heard mixed reviews about the park, with most everyone touting its beauty, but many speaking negatively of how crowded it can be.
The main trail of the park was still closed when we arrived to the Finger Lakes, which left us having to visit on its opening day…the very last day of our trip. Honestly, the experience felt a bit like being at Disney World. Even though we arrived fairly early in the morning, the park was extremely busy and sections of the trail in the gorge felt like waiting in line rather than going for a hike.
Despite the crowds and less-than-ideal hiking experience, we still felt that it was absolutely worth it. The landscape of the gorge surprises you with each turn and you are quickly transported to a serene nature scape that feels worlds away from the town below.
Entrance Fee: $10/vehicle (paid in the parking area), sunrise-sunset, mid-May-mid October. Seasonal Empire Pass ($80 for unlimited use at most state parks) also accepted
Hours: The park is open year-round, dawn to disk. The gorge trail closes during winter, reopening mid-late may
Parking Area: There is one smaller parking area on the side of the park near the Watkins Glen Gift shop, as well as a larger parking area across the street. There is a $6 shuttle that will take you between park entrances (one end of the gorge to the other) as well, during peak season.
Glen Creek Gorge Trail
The Watkins Glen Gorge Trail is a famous destination, known for its unique waterfalls that you walk under and over throughout the trail and stunning scenery as you traverse a narrow gorge set into the side of the town of Watkins Glen. Along the trail, you will pass 19 different waterfalls of varying shapes and sizes, as well as several unique bridges and small pools that can be found along the length of the creek as you follow it all the way through the gorge.
- Distance: 1.9 miles out and back
- Elevation Gain: 456
- Estimated Duration: 1 – 1.5 hours
Watkins Glen Indian Trail
This was the first trail we did at Wakins Glen State Park, as it is open year-round. Not knowing what was in store for us on the gorge trail below when we finally got to hike it later in the week, this trail left us in great anticipation of what was to come.
We could hear the creek and falls rushing below, but only caught a few glimpses of the gorge itself and very sparse waterfall views. While the trail was beautiful and walking across the suspension bridge that connects to the South Rim trail was fun, this is definitely not the main attraction at the park.
If you have time for only one trail it should be the Gorge Trail, which will by far offer the best views. If you have time for a loop, either the South Rim or Indian Trail combined with the Gorge Trail in a loop would be a great option.
- Distance: 2.4 miles out and back
- Elevation Gain: 557
- Estimated Duration: 1.5 hours
Watkins Glen South Rim
The South Rim Trail is fairly similar to the Indian Trail in that it takes you along the upper edge of the gorge, with only a few opportunities to see the mesmerizing water flowing through blue pools and over the falls below.
If you do choose to return on the South Rim trail, note that it drops you out along Old Corning Road, behind a gas station. It is a quick walk back to the gift shop and parking areas, but it is a pretty anticlimactic end to the hike.
- Distance: 2.6 miles out and back
- Elevation Gain: 570
- Estimated Duration: 5 hours
Taughannock Falls State Park Trails
Taughannock Falls is truly a sight to behold. With a great accessible viewing area from above and a mild trail that leads you right to the base of the falls, Taughannock Falls State Park is a destination that makes it easy to admire the power and grace of a mighty waterfall that emerges over a tree-filled cliff that soars 400 feet above the gorge.
Entrance Fee: $9/vehicle, collected 6 am-6 pm every day late May-early September and on holidays and weekends during between September and mid-May. seasonal Empire Pass ($80 for unlimited use at most state parks) also accepted
Hours: Open year-round, dawn to dusk. Some trails may experience seasonal closures
Parking Area: A medium-sized parking lot can be found at the Taughannock Falls Overlook Visitor Center, which is a great place to start, before hiking down to the falls via the North Rim. You can also park below at the start of the Gorge Trail in the Taughannock Falls Gorge Trail parking lot.
Taughannock Falls via Gorge Trail
At 215 feet tall, Taughannock Falls is the tallest free-falling waterfall east of the Mississippi. It is actually taller than Niagara Falls, just with a lower volume of water.
The Taughannock Falls Gorge Trail is much more open than the more narrow and intricate Watkins Glen Gorge Trail and is dog friendly (unlike the Watkins Glen Trail). The trail takes you down a wide gravel path along Taughannock Creek, with a few smaller “falls” trickling over small ledges along the way.
Along the path there are openings where you can walk out onto the stream bed and splash around in the water, exploring the unique limestone landscape that has been eroded through the years.
- Distance: 1.8 miles
- Elevation Gain: 183 feet
- Estimated Duration: 45 minutes – 1 hour
Taughannock Falls via North Rim and Gorge Trail
If you have a bit more time, we highly recommend starting your hike from the parking area by the Visitors Center. Here you can take in the view of the falls from the observation viewpoint before descending down the North Rim trail and over the bridge before meandering up to the base of Taughannock Falls.
The tree-lined trail is peaceful and is a great way to spend more time in the park and get in a few more steps!
- Distance: 3.5 miles out and back
- Elevation Gain: 593 feet
- Estimated Duration: 1.5 hours – 2 hours
Buttermilk Falls State Park Trails
Buttermilk Falls State Park in Ithaca is another popular place near the Finger Lakes for hiking and waterfalls. At the base of the falls is a great spot to bring your bathing suit and cool off in a natural swimming pool during the warmer summer months, especially after ascending the steps to explore further into the gorge.
Entrance Fee: $9 vehicle fee collected April-November, 6 am – 6:30 pm daily. Seasonal Empire Pass ($80 for unlimited use at most state parks) also accepted
Hours: Open year-round, dawn to dusk. Some trails may experience seasonal closures
Parking Area: A large parking area is situated at the base of the park, just past the entrance station
Buttermilk Falls Gorge and Rim Trail Loop
We made a complete afternoon at Buttermilk Falls State Park by taking on a larger loop that brought us up the gorge along the rushing water, through the shade of a towering forest, and up to a viewpoint over lake Treman that made for the perfect picnic spot. We loved the diverse landscapes we found on this trail and highly recommend it. The further you hike, the fewer people you will encounter as well!
If you don’t have time for an extended adventure here or want a shorter trip, opt for the Gorge and Rim Trail loop to see the main waterfalls and creek views.
- Distance: 4.5 mile loop trail
- Elevation Gain: 679 feet
- Estimated Duration: 2 hours
- Distance: 1.6 mile loop
- Elevation Gain: 462 feet
- Estimated Duration: 1 hour
Ithaca New York Trails
A whimsical stone path on the campus of Cornell University near downtown Ithaca is home to a public trail that leads you past a series of falls through the Cascadilla Gorge Natural Area.
If you are searching for solitude, this is not the trail for you. It is a mix of runners, students and faculty strolling by, and tourists. In addition, the path of the trail itself is really narrow and can make it hard to navigate around slower groups at times.
This being said, the scenery is still beautiful and is a wonderful oasis and natural escape from the cityscape.
Entrance Fee: FREE
Parking Area: No designated parking area. Your best bet will be street parking in Ithaca. We found free street parking just up the hill from the Cascadilla Falls entrance on University Ave, just past the Ithaca City Cemetery
- Distance: 1.1 miles out and back
- Elevation Gain: 298 feet
- Estimated Duration: 45 minutes
Robert H. Treman State Park Trails
As with many of the state parks in the Finger Lakes, Robert H. Treman State Park closes down during the winter months. Unfortunately for us, this was the last of the state parks in the area to open, and it did not open officially for the season until a few days after we left and continued our RV journey north to Maine and into Canada.
Keep this in mind when planning your trip to the Finger Lakes! Just because the spring weather is nice and conditions seem like they may be good, the parks and some of their best trails may not be open yet. Typically the parks will not announce opening dates until a few days before, although mid to late May is fairly typical.
- Entrance Fee: $9 vehicle fee collected April-November, 6 am – 6:30 pm daily. seasonal Empire Pass ($80 for unlimited use at most state parks) also accepted
- Hours: Open daily dawn to dusk. This park was the last to open up its trails for the season when we visited in May of 2023, not opening until May 25.
While we were unable to explore the park’s trails during our trip, these are a few of the best-rated trails. and what we had on our list to hike:
- Distance: 4.5 mile loop
- Elevation Gain: 810 feet
- Estimated Duration: 2 – 2.5 hours
- Distance: 1.1 mile loop
- Elevation Gain: 282 feet
- Estimated Duration: 45 minutes
- Distance: 0.3 miles out and back
- Elevation Gain: 9 feet
- Estimated Duration: 5 minutes
Finger Lakes National Forest
Situated between Cayuga Lake and Seneca Lake, the Finger Lakes National Forest encompasses over 16,000 acres of protected land perfect for exploring and connecting with the area’s pristine nature. The second smallest National Forest in the United States, it has some stiff competition with the many State Parks in the area. With our limited time during our trip, we didn’t find it to be a large draw compared to the other State Parks in the area.
If you have additional time and are looking for some solitude, hiking in the Finger Lakes National Forest could be a great free option. If, like us, you are limited on time, we would choose some of the other trails listed above first due to their more unique and breathtaking features and qualities.
Entrance Fee: FREE
One of the longer hikes and more popular trails in the National Forest, is the Interloken Trail:
- Distance: 11.3 miles point to point
- Elevation Gain: 705 feet
- Estimated Duration: 4 hours
Finger Lakes Trail Conference
Established in 1962, the Finger Lakes Trail is a testament to the great hiking in Upstate New York and beyond and how much the local communities work to preserve and protect its beautiful land so people can enjoy the healing powers of the outdoors and live in harmony with nature.
The Finger Lakes Trail includes more than 1,000 miles of trail across the state and to the border of Pennsylvania, and the Finger Lakes Trail Conference offers great resources such as group hikes and events, as well as educational programming.
Keuka Outlet Trail
A trail that lies between Keuka Lake and Seneca Lake, this is one of the original “rail trails”, built on the track bed of an old railroad. A multiple-use trail, this path is open to activities year-round, from sunrise to sunset.
This would be a great trail to explore if you are looking for an easy trail that you could bike, run, walk your dog, horseback ride, or snow shoe or cross country ski in the winter months. As with the trails in the Finger Lakes National Forest, this wasn’t at the top of our list when compared to the State Park trails in the area, but if we had more time and wanted a more laid back, local feel for the area and it’s history this would be a great pick!
- Distance: 13.5 miles out and back
- Elevation Gain: 278 feet
- Estimated Duration: 4 hours
Letchworth State Park
Letchworth State Park, often referred to as the “Grand Canyon of the East,” is another natural wonder nestled in upstate New York. Spanning over 14,000 acres, the park is renowned for its magnificent gorge carved by the Genesee River, which plunges through a series of stunning waterfalls. With its breathtaking scenery, rugged cliffs, and diverse wildlife, Letchworth State Park offers visitors a captivating outdoor experience reminiscent of the iconic Grand Canyon, showcasing the awe-inspiring power of nature in the eastern United States.
We opted not to travel the 2 hours each way to visit Letchworth State Park during our trip to the Finger Lakes due to time constraints, but we have this on the list for a separate trip! If you have the time for a road trip within your trip to the Finger Lakes, we have heard amazing things about this park!
- Entrance Fee: $10/vehicle, collected 9 am -5 pm daily between 5/7 and 10/24
- Hours: 6 am – 11 pm daily
Fulfilling Travel Tips
New York’s Finger Lakes have great wine, great hiking, spectacular views, and some of the best waterfalls in the state. The spring months bring mild temperatures, sunny days, blooming flowers, bright green vegetation, and rushing waterfalls. In the summer months, many of the trails offer natural swimming holes and waterfalls perfect for a cool dip.
Whether you are an experienced hiker or casual outdoorsman, you can find great Finger Lakes hikes that will leave you feeling refreshed, rejuvenated, and in awe of nature. We were pleasantly surprised with how much the Finger Lakes had to explore beyond the wineries and vineyard and we highly recommend taking the time to get out into the great outdoors while traveling through upstate New York. With most of the trails and State Parks being so easily accessible (many are situated right in the center of the local towns) it makes it really easy to go from trail to vineyard to roadside waterfall all in one day.
With so many great falls in the area as well, we highly recommend an excursion to chase the local waterfalls. Read more on the iconic waterfalls in the Finger Lakes to help you plan your trip!
Other helpful tips for hiking in the Finger Lakes region:
- Trails, especially those in the gorges, can be wet, muddy, and slick. Wear shoes with a good grip that you don’t mind getting wet
- Many of these trails are popular, consider hiking early to beat the crowds and secure parking
- Trails may be closed later than you think, with many not opening until late May – plan ahead and check with the parks for updated information
- Some sections of the trails may be steep, take it easy and enjoy the views! And don’t forget to look back in the direction of the Finger Lakes – you can catch some great panoramas of the sparking blue waters from above from a few of the parks… we’ll let you discover which ones!
PLAN YOUR TRIP TO THE FINGER LAKES
As full-time RVers, we are drawn to camping as it allows you to travel and spend more time in nature – which has amazing benefits for health and well-being. We got to the Finger Lakes Region of New York in the shoulder season, which meant the State Parks were not yet open for camping. We had a great stay with lake views at a private local campground (Sned-Acres Family Campground), but the area does offer great State Park camping during the summer season as well!
State Park Campgrounds:
- Taughannock Falls State Park Campground
- Watkins Glen State Park Campground
- Robert H. Treeman State Park Campground
- Buttermilk Falls State Park Campground
Other Area Accommodations:
If you are looking for the perfect one-stop shop for comparing RV parks and glamping options and prices with instant booking, we highly recommend Campspot.
RV Share: If you are looking to get closer to nature but don’t have an RV, consider renting one through RV Share. We used this service when renting out our Casita and found them to be high quality and easy to use!
You can explore all Finger Lakes area accommodations, including hotels and private rentals, and compare prices on Booking.com, which is a great resource for high-quality and unique stays at the best rates.
Great Local Places To Eat & Drink
We are not necessarily foodies or wine connoisseurs, but we do enjoy supporting local businesses and having fresh meals during our travels! In the Finger Lakes, these are the spots we recommend:
- Thirsty Owl Wine Company: An amazing, educational and well-priced wine tasting, great food from the Thirsty Owl Bistro, beautiful views from the outside seating area, and a great deal on wine prices
- Finger Lakes Cider House: Great cider and farm fresh food, beautiful views of the farm. Don;t leave without strolling the property and checking out the sheep!
- Garret’s Brewing Company: A fun local spot that is perfect for a drink and bite to eat after a day of exploring when making your way back to Cayuga Lake from Ithaca or Seneca Lake.
- Ryan William Vineyard: A more upscale spot with a nice tasting room and pre-selected flights as well as food and appetizers. Select and small-batch wines available using 100% Estate grown fruit
- Chateau LaFayette Reneau: Another great stop with views of Seneca Lake from the tasting room. A selection of red wines, white wines, and sweet wines.
- Graft Wine + Cider Bar: Great fresh local food in a small, hip space. This was the perfect date night spot for us!
Looking for other great stops as part of a Northeast road trip? Check out:
- Perfect Portland Maine Itinerary
- Best Things To Do in Acadia National Park
- Best Things To Do in Acadia’s Schoodic Peninsula