If I had known how incredible the Finger Lakes region was, I would have booked a trip years ago. As someone who loves international travel, I tend to overlook the boundless possibilities that lie just along the East Coast. This past weekend was a great introduction to small portion of the Finger Lakes region, and I cannot wait for the chance to go back and explore more. In the meantime - if you're looking for a quick but fulfilling and adventurous weekend away, keep reading!
While there are many unique options in the Watkins Glen area, our stay at Seneca Heights Cabins was superb. I booked our cabin through AirBnb, but you can book directly through their website https://senecaheightscabins.com/ as well.
The property was gorgeous, the hosts were so kind, and the cabin had tiny kitchen features and the one of the most comfortable beds I have ever slept in. The bathroom is detached from the cabins, but looked brand new and was cleaner than any hotel bathroom I have ever stepped foot in. A small bonus were the little locally made goats milk soap! One of our favorite parts of staying here was the secluded pond in the woods. We took the paddle boat out on the water, saw plenty of fish, and took in the serenity of the scene. 10/10 stay. I look forward to going back.
Drinking and Dining
We only ate three meals in the Watkins Glen area, but they were all excellent. On Saturday afternoon, we had lunch at the famous Nickel's BBQ Pit. It's not a great destination for non-meat eaters, but our meals were incredible right down to the various bbq sauces. If you do eat meat, this spot cannot be missed... and order the baked beans as a side... they were the highlight of the meal.
On Saturday night we went to Grist Iron Brewing Co. for dinner and drinks. This recommendation came from online, but was highly lauded by our AirBnb hosts as the local watering hole. Grist Iron sits on top of a tall hill overlooking Seneca Lake and has a large outdoor seating area featuring live music and your standard outdoor games like corn-hole and life-sized Jenga. We grabbed two Scottish Ales (delicious) and a table outside while we settled in to enjoy some live music (The Tins - a really freakin' great band from Buffalo, NY) all encompassed by the perfect summer sunset over Seneca Lake. Just when we thought things couldn't get any better, we ordered food. I got the Buffalo Chicken Dip (incredible) and Michael ordered a pizza topped with more meat and ranch. It was not healthy but after an evening hike it hit the spot.
I feel that I should at least mention that the Finger Lakes region is most famous for its vineyards, wineries and wine trails. I am not a wine girl.. so I did not partake in these activities. While I'm sure they're lovely I am more excited to go back and try more of the breweries.
Finally, we went to Glen Mountain Market Bakery & Deli for our pre-hike Sunday breakfast. There are certainly fancier spots in town, but I'm personally glad we chose this spot. Most of their products are locally sourced and everything is incredibly fresh. The coffee was incredible and our breakfast sandwiches were too. It was the perfect spot to fuel up before climbing the falls.
There seems to be an endless supply of waterfalls, lakes and trails in the Finger Lakes region so I can't wait to go back and explore more of them. However, it's easy to see a whole lot of beauty in a very short amount of time which makes Watkins Glen the perfect weekend trip.
We were able to fit in a handful of epic mini-adventures into a two day itinerary.
Taughannock Falls - Saturday Evening
One thing social media is great for when you're traveling is getting recommendations from friends. Taughannock Falls was not on my radar until two pals said we had to go... and I'll admit we almost didn't because I was tired of sitting in the car from our long morning drive. But, Michael got me moving and I'm so glad we made the 30 minute drive towards Ithaca to visit this place. We visited the falls during Golden Hour. This was a great time to go because in addition to the beautiful light, the foot traffic was starting to thin out (I would imagine it gets incredibly busy during the day). It's a very easy and accessible walk to falls - about one mile each way (two round trip), on flat gravel. We saw at least one person make it on a wheelchair. The walk itself follows a wide and shallow creek, perfect for creek walking. We got in sans shoes for a bit, but we didn't have the proper clothes. The waterfall itself is a 215-foot plunge waterfall and is the highest single-drop waterfall east of the Rocky Mountains. To spend time beneath something so stunning, with 1/100th of the people compared to visiting a place like Niagara, was humbling. I had noticed a lot of the names in this area had Native American sounding origin, so after some quick research I found that the region surrounding the falls belonged to the Cayuga people prior to their forced displacement just after the American Revolution. There are several apps out there that use GIS to provide information on whose land you are standing on. It can be an important exercise, especially when learning the history of a region as history books and trail signs typically leave this part out.
Seneca Lake - Sunday Morning
Before breakfast, we walked down to the Seneca Lake Harbor which is right on the edge of town. The lake itself stretches out ahead farther than you can see. The Seneca Harbor pier is very picturesque. We greeted the fishermen on the pier before walking along the rocky wall that separates the marina from the open water. It was such a beautiful, quiet start to the morning. We even had a mink follow us along the rocks the whole way. One of the fishermen told us a handful of stories about the pesky little creature, but she was incredibly cute.
There are many more lakeside adventures to be had in this area, including boat rides, beaches and trails.
Watkins Glen - Sunday Morning
I've hiked in parks across America and in several countries, but I have NEVER seen anything as magical as Watkins Glen. Michael and I kept saying that we felt like we entered an enchanted forest or climbed through a wardrobe to Narnia. The moisture of the falls and the time of year made everything burst with bright green against the darkness of the woods. The trail is three miles round trip, but takes quite a bit of time due to a lot of stairs and of course a lot of stopping to gape at nature. Just when you think the trail must be ending, or you couldn't possibly see another stunning waterfall, gorge or stone bridge, you turn a corner and are amazed yet again. It's truly humbling and inconceivable how so much beauty can lie in such a small corner of the world.
However, a few useful tips would be
1) Go Early! Like get up really early before everyone else wakes up and go. We went Sunday morning and there was quite a bit of foot traffic, but because of our pace we were able to have most of the hike to ourselves. This made it all the more magical. It also made it easier because many sections of the hike are very narrow. The trail requires ducking behind falls and under caves, climbing up steep and narrow staircases and getting close to the edge of the rushing water. The way down was an entirely different story... almost nightmarish. There were so many people towards the bottom that I felt like I was trying to get out of a crowd at a concert. No one could take pictures without dozens of people in them and the wetter portions became entirely unsafe.
2) Wear the proper footwear and take only what you need, as goes with most hikes. You should also expect to get wet as you walk behind and underneath some falls. I was astounded by the amount of folks trying to do this hike in sandals, flip flops, restrictive clothing, carrying babies and strollers. I understand wanting to show your little tikes the beauty of nature but you are putting their lives at risk by trying to carry a stroller up wet, narrow, crowded stairs... and your own life at risk in those Old Navy flip-flops.
I digress... the hike up was the perfect amount of challenging and beautiful. I feel very lucky to live just a few hours away.
Farm Sanctuary - Sunday Afternoon
Farm Sanctuary is nestled in a valley about 10 miles outside of Watkins Glen and is the largest farm sanctuary in the United States. Despite eating meat the day prior, my animal loving heart had to go. The Sanctuary also acts as an education center, so the verbal content of the tour is focused on veganism and animal cruelty. As someone who is trying to cut back on meat consumption, this certainly tipped me over the edge. However, even if you aren't a vegetarian or vegan, or are just someone who is trying to cut down on animal products and move towards use of more plant based products, I believe it is important to face where your food is coming from and recognize the life behind your meal.
Throughout the tour we met cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys, and goats. We were able to pet and interact with all of the animals and hear their stories. I was so surprised how sweet and smart the turkeys were. They love being pet underneath their feathers and I quickly fell in love with them. We had so much fun meeting all of the animals on the tour and for a 10$ donation I am so glad we went.
Pennsylvania Grand Canyon and Wellsboro
If you're driving up to New York from around the same area as Michael and I, this is the perfect opportunity to stop by the Leonard Harrison State Park Visitor Center / Overlook. It's only about 20 minutes out of the way to see the PA Grand Canyon in all of its glory. While there are enough trails here to constitute it's own trip, stopping by the visitor center was a perfect way to break up the drive. The overlook is something spectacular and every Pennsylvanian should see it for themselves at least once. Wellsboro is also an adorably quirky town that looks like it hasn't changed since the 60's. It's worth a stroll or at least a slow drive down the main street, and Wellsboro Diner has some bomb pancakes.
So while our trip was all too quick - we managed to have the time of our lives and have a handful of new life experiences in just two days. After a few chaotic weeks at home, it was the perfect summer weekend to spend quality time with each other in close proximity to some wicked nature and come back feeling refreshed. It's not always possible to hop on a plane and fly to another country or have a grand adventure - but no matter where you live there are opportunities to travel, explore and learn something new if you seek them out.