Travel Guide to New York's Finger Lakes

candice lake

According to Native American folklore, the Finger Lakes were formed when God placed His handprint on some of the most beautiful land ever created (south of Rochester and west of Syracuse). However, there are actually eleven finger-shaped lakes in upper New York state - and geology tells us that these lakes were formed from the incredible grinding pressure that occurred when the glaciers receded at the end of the last ice age (which also created a plethora of fantastic gorges and majestic waterfalls in this same region).

The Names

The picturesque lakes, all named with an American native word, serve as reminders of the Six Nations of the Iroquois (the Cayugas, Mohawks, Onondagas, Oneidas, Senecas, and Tuscaroras) that lived in this area. And each lake is unique. Honeoye Lake (from a native word meaning "Finger Lying" is the shallowest, Seneca Lake (from a native word for "Stoney Place"), is the deepest and widest, and Cayuga Lake (from a native word meaning "Boat Landing") is the longest.

The Wineries of the Finger Lakes

The Finger Lakes area is particularly well known for its wineries and its production of award-winning wines, for the lakes temper the climate surrounding them, keeping the land cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter. There are now more than 70 wineries here, and nearly all of them offer tasting rooms, gift shops, and a look at the process used in making their particular wines; many include restaurants right on their property, too. Five of the lakes have even set up their own distinct "wine trails" (with maps that will lead you from one interesting winery to another around that particular lake). Yates County, located between Keuka and Seneca Lakes, boasts the most wineries in the state. The Pleasant Valley Wine Company is the oldest winery in the Finger Lakes, and the Wine Museum of Greyton H. Taylor at Bully Hill is the site of the first wine museum in the U.S.A.

Scenic Wonders

Along with the unique wineries, the Finger Lakes region has a lot to offer the nature lover, too. Here is a place to take a scenic lake cruise on one of the Finger Lakes - or enjoy a hike in a gorge (Letchworth State Park, for example, known as the "Grand Canyon of the East", offers a 17 mile-long gorge with hiking trails) - or the beauty of a cascading waterfalls (Watkins Glen State Park offers immense glacial-carved rock walls with 19 waterfalls and cascades, and Taughannock Falls, at 215 feet, is the highest straight waterfall drop in the East). Nature centers such as the Sapsucker Woods Bird Sanctuary at Cornell University, the Waterman Conservation Education Center in Apalachin, and the Montezuma Wildlife Refuge near Seneca Falls offer the entire family an opportunity to explore. And there are 25 state parks in the region, so there are lots of opportunities for such outdoor activities as picnicking, camping, golfing, cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, fishing, cycling, and horseback riding.

The History of the Finger Lakes

For the history buff, the area offers you the opportunity to explore the culture of the original inhabitants (at the Rochester Museum and Science Center in Rochester, the Cayuga Museum Iroquois Center in Auburn, and the Ganondagan State Historic Site near Victor), the Civil War era (at the Chemung Valley History Museum, the Woodlawn National Cemetery in Elmira, and at the Civil War encampment at the Newton Battlefield), the Women's Right Movement (at the Susan B. Anthony House in Rochester and at the Women's Rights National Historical Park and the National Women's Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls), the Underground Railroad (through a visit to the Auburn home of Harriet Tubman and several Frederick Douglass sites in Rochester), and the significance of the Erie Canal (in the Erie Canal Museum, in Syracuse).

The Shopping

The Finger Lakes also offers a plethora of unique shopping experiences, including the boutique and specialty shops of Skaneateles, Market Street in Corning, the Commons in Ithaca, Armory Square in Syracuse, the Historic Marketplace in Oswego, and the antique and specialty shops along Maple Street in Elmira. For outlet shopping, check out Rochester's Waterloo Premium Outlets. For uniquely designed furniture, visit Mackenzie-Childs in Aurora. To inspect an incredible array of Mennonite and Amish crafts, visit the Ithaca Farmers Market, the Windmill Farm & Craft Market (near Penn Yan), and the Traders Village (on route 89). And in the Naples area, visit a roadside stand to sample the famous Grape Pies.

For More Information:

Finger Lakes Tourism Alliance, 309 Lake St., Penn Yan, NY 14527; phone: 1-800-548-4386; website:

Was this page useful?
Related & Popular
Travel Guide to New York's Finger Lakes