Waterfalls and Wineries: A Long Weekend Camping in the Finger Lakes

We just got home from a five-day trip up to the Finger Lakes region of New York. In an uncharacteristic move, I wanted to blog about it while the trip was fresh. (Editor’s Note: I wrote this right after getting home. True to form, I posted it 4 months later.) I should probably mention that we bought a travel trailer (RV/Camper/toy hauler whatever you want to call it) back in February 2021. I have lots of blog posts planned about the RV including what it’s been like camping with an infant/toddler and I’ll eventually get to them. Eventually…

For now, let’s talk about the finger lakes. We had an absolute blast during an activity-filled trip. We brought the bikes for the first time on a camping trip and that added a whole new level of exploratory ability. 

A quick orientation to the Finger Lakes: Carved by glaciers more than 2 million years ago, there are 11 large lakes as well as several smaller lakes. We stayed near Seneca Lake in Watkins Glen, and spent a day around Cayuga Lake. 

What We Did: Trip Breakdown

Day 1: Drive from NJ to Watkins Glen 

Estimated drive time – 4 hours 36 minutes

Actual drive time with a toddler and towable RV – 6 hours 30 minutes

Drive days are always tough with the kiddo. We didn’t manage to get on the road for various reasons (only some toddler-related) until 10am. With a stop for lunch that included a surprise auto show and errand running at Lowe’s (gotta love the ability to make lunch and have it anywhere!), and a gas stop, we didn’t get unloaded and set up until 5:30ish. That left us with a lost day unless we could salvage it. We rolled the dice on if the baby would be ok with a late dinner and headed over to Grist Iron Brewing Company for dinner. This turned out to be an epic decision. Incredible sunset, live music, great pizza, and better beer. The kiddo had a blast running around like a maniac with the other kids enjoying the night. A true 10/10 experience and a great way to start the trip. A quick note: the brewery was open seating, go to the bar/counter for food. We rocked up for prime dining hours on a Saturday night and managed to grab some space at a table. Plenty of the seating was outdoors, and the indoor seating was surrounded by wide open doors and windows.

After dinner, we headed back to the campground to put the child to sleep and hang out around the campfire. Spoiler alert: that summarizes every evening ever camping with a 1-year-old. Now that we’ve covered that, I won’t bother talking about nighttime activities the rest of the post, though for what it’s worth, the one night we drove through town at the ungodly hour of 8:30pm there really didn’t seem to be anything going on…

Day 2: #Lakelife, Football, and Wine

I couldn’t imagine going to a lake and not going boating on it. Since we wanted more flexibility than a scenic tour (even one as lovely as this one looked), we opted to rent a boat for a few hours and putter about. Glen Harbor Marina has a great location and it’s a short ride over to Hector Falls, which is amazing to see from the water. Truly unlike anything I’ve seen from a boat before. We convinced a less than thrilled toddler to take a nap on the boat, and cruised around looking at the real estate on Seneca Lake. The marina limits the distance you can take the boats out to the very Southern end of the lake. There is a dock-and-dine tiki bar, but we opted to BYO and didn’t check it out. We did float by and it looked very nice. A three-hour rental cost $250 and included gas and life jackets. We brought our own for the baby. 

After docking, we drove over Kookalaroc’s to catch part of the football game. They offered outdoor seating in view of the bar TV’s and had the NFL ticket. The Jets were their usual miserable selves, so we rolled at halftime to check out Lakewood Vineyards. We picked it for the view, and that was the best part of the stop. They have a trail that walks around the vineyard and allows you to take in some gorgeous lake views. Their only tasting option is a guided tasting, otherwise, wine is sold by the glass or bottle only, no flights. Since the time needed for a guided tasting and a one-year old’s attention span don’t jive, we opted for glasses. The unfortunate part of needing to drive is that meant our day was over after this stop. I did see ads all over town for designated drivers (including some that would drive your own car!) and vineyard tours on buses, so that’s definitely a possibility if you wanted to go that route. 

Day 3: ALL THE ACTIVITIES – Hiking, Biking, and Dinner in Ithaca

Even for us, this day was a bit much. We started off with a casual morning at the campground. Then we loaded up and headed to Taughannock State Park. This park was my absolute favorite of the trip. About 40 minutes from where we stayed, we had lunch at the lakeside half of the park. They had a great playground (with baby swings) and our daughter had a BLAST. When we finally dragged her away, we went across the street to the gorge trail to check out the Taughannock falls. The trail to the falls is an easy-grade gravel path that the map says is ¾ a mile long, but my watch clocked it at 2.2 miles out and back. We learned after hiking with the baby in the Poco that we could have definitely pushed the stroller on the trail. We had our Burley with us for the biking and it would have handled it. Our umbrella stroller would have been tougher.

After an already event-filled day, we loaded up and headed to Ithaca. We parked near the trailhead for the Cascadilla Gorge Trail, part of the Cornell Botanic Gardens. The trail follows Cascadilla Creek and consists of gravel walkways and lots of stairs. The stairs were pretty wet when we did it, not sure if it was the rain or spray from the falls, so make sure to wear shoes with good traction.  We climbed about ¾ a mile before turning around and heading back down. The trail continues on, but we had done the section we wanted to do.

The trail made us rethink our plan to go biking in Ithaca, since the roads weren’t that accommodating and gorges = steep inclines. We opted to go up to the Cornell Botanic Gardens Welcome Center and seek out some advice. The lovely folks there suggested biking through the arboretum, which was in fact beautiful, but a very short, steep ride. We would have been better off walking around and not schlepping the bikes all the way there. On the upside, we did manage to get the little one to take an on-the-go nap in the Burley, which meant we could stick around for dinner and not dash back to the campsite for bedtime.

It seems that Ithaca has been closing down a park of North Aurora street for pedestrians and cafe seating for the restaurants there. This was great since we currently only eat outside. What wasn’t great was that half the restaurants were closed on Monday. We lucked out and got a table at Luna Inspired Street Food. I say we lucked out not because we quickly got a table (we didn’t, we waited like 30 minutes) but because this place was AMAZING. The menu is all over the place with the only common linkage being “street food.” Think burritos, gyro bowls, tacos, rangoons, chicken and waffles. If you’ve traveled somewhere and eaten something amazing from a cart, Luna is probably serving up some version of it in Ithaca. 

A note for parents of young kids: there’s a small playground in the middle of the Ithaca Commons, down the block from the restaurants on North Aurora. A great place to wait for a table.

Day 4: Watkins Glen and More Beer and Wine

Given that cell service and wifi coverage at the campground was non-existent, we headed into Watkins Glen early on Tuesday so my husband could get some work done. I took the kiddo and checked out the playground in town (which had baby swings) and walked around the harbor. After work was over, we met up at Watkins Glen State Park to tackle the 832 steps along the 1.5-mile gorge trail. Although I’d visited the park some 20 years ago, I don’t think I tackled the full length until this visit. It was definitely worth the pain! Be warned that parts are very narrow and crowded. I had a bad bout of vertigo in one section. Sturdy shoes are super important if you plan to do this trail (Grammarly is suggesting I use the word trial here and you know what, not wrong). Also, a friend offered me the BEST piece of advice about the region: avoid the state parks on the weekend if you can. Even on a Tuesday mid-morning, it was crowded in the most popular sections of the trail. Navigating the rock overhangs and narrow stairways with a child carrier sticking up about a foot above your head makes for an interesting hike. Once we hit the mile point bridge, we popped up to the North Rim / Indian Trail for the hike back. This was a great idea because not only did it get us away from the crowds in the gorge, it gave us a few great overlooks and a chance to walk across the historic suspension bridge! Plus, this is the pet-friendly trail so there were plenty of dogs for the wee one to greet! Of course though, what goes up must come down and the trial ends with a pretty intense stairway to descend back to the visitor’s center.

After waiting out a Poco nap (fell asleep on the hike out, stayed asleep sitting on a bench for another 30 minutes), we headed to Wagner Vineyards and Brewery to have lunch at the Ginny Lee cafe. The food was great, the view was better, and the beer and wine were excellent. They had preset flights for wine and build your own flights for beer. The toddler enjoyed running the length of the deck and saying hi to every single table. Apologies to everyone if you wanted a classy dining experience uninterrupted by an adorable 1-year-old. On the way back to the campground, we turned into Two Goats Brewing for one last stop on the Seneca Beer and Wine trail.  

Coming home from Ithaca, we’d passed through the village of Montour Falls and been shocked by a massive waterfall on the side of the road. We opted to take the 4-minute detour to scope it out in the light of day. Shequaga Falls is on the side of South Genesee street. There’s a little park to view it from and a pull-in with a couple of short-term parking spots. It’s one of the more impressive roadside attractions I’ve seen in my day!

Day 5: Packing up and heading home

We lucked out with the weather on this trip and mostly caught rain late at night. While that was great for sight-seeing, it wasn’t great for our outdoor camping gear. We spent our morning figuring out what was dry, what needed to dry, and how to put away wet things. Once we finally packed everything away, we headed home. And, proving my husband’s theory that with a kid you need to add an hour for every 3 hours of drive time, it again took us 6.5 hours to make a 4.5 hour trip.

Where We Stayed

After much debate, we booked at the KOA Watkins Glen / Corning Resort. While it was fine, I was disappointed with our stay overall. Part of this was we didn’t have a great site because we had booked about 3 weeks out. We were upfront in the spot directly across from the security gate. While our future campground greeter absolutely loved it and said hello and goodbye to everyone, the lights from the security booth shone in on us all night. Additionally, we booked it for the amenities and were disappointed to learn that they had limited hours. The bounce pad and jumping pillow were only inflated from 10am-5pm and the indoor pool closed by 5pm every night, so we never got a chance to use it. We knew the outdoor pool would be closed since we had called in advance and learned it closes the Tuesday after Labor Day. Neither of the 2 playgrounds had good toddler-sized equipment nor did they have baby swings (or any swings at all for that matter). Given the crappy site and limited ability to use the amenities, we could have saved some money and stayed somewhere else. The location was probably the best part of the campground, less than 10 minutes from the Village of Watkins Glen.

What I Would Have Done Differently:

Having the bikes with us was an absolute blast. Not having done enough research on where best to use them was a mistake. In chatting with another couple at Two Goats Brewing (following our resident greeter making friends again) we learned there is a great rail trail for biking in the area (the Catherine Valley Trail). This would have been a much better option than trying to bike in Ithaca.

I also would have tried to stay at the Clute Park and Campground. A city run park offering full hookups, it’s across the street from Seneca Lake and a playground (with baby swings, do you notice a theme?), and a short walk to town. Staying there with the bikes would have been amazing. Next time…

What I’ll Check Out Next Time:

There is so much to do in the area I feel like we barely even touched anything! Next time we’ll probably look into a babysitter and a designated driver too and really enjoy the Seneca Lake Beer and Wine trails. I wanted to go to the Corning Glass Museum, but we generally avoid taking the baby inside unless a mask mandate is in place. Somehow we never made it to a creamery for ice cream and cheese, which is hard to believe given my love for both of those things. We didn’t get a chance to visit Skaneateles, which was a bummer because I’ve heard great things. I also sort of forgot Seneca Falls was in the Finger Lakes. If I’d remembered, I would have loved to visit the women’s rights historical sites. Good thing there’s always a next time…

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