The Finger Lakes are of New York State is a treasure trove for photographers, hikers and wine lovers. The many state parks and forests that sit in what is the heart of New York wine country are definitely underrated gems, particularly so for those interested in waterfalls. In the fall of 2008, I visited the area for a week, hiking in 5 state parks and checking out several of the wine routes.
The main towns in the area are Watkins Glen, Corning and Ithaca. Watkins Glen may be better known for its famous road racing coarse. Corning, of course, is the home of Corning Glass and Ithaca is where the Ivy League school Cornell University is located. The drive from Toronto to Watkins Glen is about five hours and from New York City about the same. The town of Watkins Glen sits at the south end of Seneca Lake. Corning and Ithaca are both about 40 to 50 minutes by car from Watkins Glen. I’m referencing other points to Watkins Glen because that’s where I stayed.
Right in Watkins Glen on Rt 14 is Watkins Glen State Park. Unquestionably the best maintained of the all the parks I visited, WGSP offers a cornucopia of possibilities for landscape and nature photographers. The Gorge Trail is about 2 miles long, has over 800 stairs and rises 500 vertical feet. The trail is extremely well maintained. There are garbage cans along the trail (most of the parks are carry in/carry out). The hike is not difficult except for the climbing and you will do a lot of climbing. Particularly at the end of the hike up the trail, the stairway out of the gorge is going to hurt a little. The footing is sound due to the stairs and maintenance of the trail. You’ll cross over the gorge a few times on the walk. There are rest stops at both top and bottom, a gift shop at the bottom and vending machines to get a cold drink at both ends. There are a few places along the trail you can rest as well. At some points during the year, shuttles are available to take you from top to bottom or vice versa so you can hike in just one direction if you want. I’d recommend hiking both directions because views and photo opportunities are different going each way. Light will be different as well which may make for better opportunities going in one direction vs. the other. The shuttles operate mainly during the summer season and on weekends in the spring and fall. Check with the park for more information on the shuttle service.
With nearly 20 individual falls along the trail, plan to spend a couple hours going each way. The trail and the falls look very different going down from going up and you’ll get some different and interesting framing in both directions. The trail map shows the main sections of the route.
Spiral Gorge is particularly interesting and there are plenty of other opportunities within this section of the trail.
The Rainbow Falls area is also one where there are lots of possibilities from both above and below.
In this next photo, you can see how the glacial erosion over thousands of years has cut and carved through the bedrock.
The park is open year round but the Gorge Trail is closed in winter. The colours in autumn are spectacular! If you want great volumes of water then going soon after the trail opens in May would be your best bet.
Robert H. Treman State Park is another in the area with some terrific waterfalls. A little southwest of Ithaca, Treman SP is about a 40 to 45 minute drive from Watkins Glen. The best attraction is Lucifer Falls as the top of the Gorge Trail. The Gorge Trail runs a little over two miles and rises 600 vertical feet. The hike would be classed as moderate to difficult. Difficult because some of the trail sections aren’t well maintained. Stairs are heaved in some places making climbing on them more difficult. If you want to forego the walk up from the bottom entrance, you can enter at the top and make the short walk down the trail, perhaps half a mile, to the falls then walk back out. But what fun is that? Whichever way you go, make sure you take note of the sunset and plan your time accordingly. Trying to walk down the trail in darkness isn’t overly easy (don’t ask me now I know that :-) ). Timex Indiglo watches do provide a surprising amount of light; however.
Just a little way above Lucifer Falls is Upper Falls. It’s difficult to get a good shot of this one unless you’re willing to climb down into the gorge and walk along the riverbed. This is not, I don’t believe, generally permitted so do so at your own risk.
If you’re walking down from the top, as you make your way into the gorge and begin walking the trail, the light may be right to get some shots from the top of Upper Falls as well.
At the top, you’ll find an old mill that has been preserved. Inside the building are public washrooms. To the river side of the mill is another small cascade that zigs and zags down the rocks and you can get some interesting interplay between light and shadow depending on the time of day.
For a change of pace, and a much easier walk, Taughannock Falls State Park is the desired destination. The Gorge Trail here is flat and only 3/4 of a mile long. The easy walk along a wide, well groomed trail brings you to Taughannock Falls. Walking into this waterfall is like walking into a giant amphitheatre made of rock. The fall itself is over 200 feet high. The rock walls leading out from the fall rise to over 400 feet from the riverbed. The flow of water over the cliff will vary greatly depending on time of year and amount of rainfall. It had been a fairly dry late summer when I visited so there was little more than a ribbon of water flowing over the edge. In spring after the melt or in rainier times, the flow is much greater.
Further up the river is another fall – Upper Falls. You can’t get to it from the Gorge Trail but you can from either the North Rim or South Rim trails. Unfortunately the Gorge Trail doesn’t meet up with either of these so you’ll need to walk out and back in again if you want to get to Upper Falls. Or you can drive out and park at the upper end of the trail and walk back in the short distance to Upper Falls.
A short, 2 minute drive from Treman SP is Buttermilk Falls State Park. Both can be visited in a single day if desired. Of the five parks I visited, Buttermilk was the most disappointing and if I had to leave one out, this would be the one. Buttermilk Falls is a long, sloping cascade that looks like it would make a great toboggan hill in winter. It’s accessible from the parking lot at the lower entrance to the park and there’s not a lot of reason to go much further except for the walk. Unfortunately. The vertical drop from top to bottom is about 400 to 500 feet. The Gorge Trail is a little under a mile but it is steep. You can cross Buttermilk Creek near the top of the Gorge Trail at Pinnacle Rock or right at the top and connect back with the Rim Trail for a different route back down. The trail is very steep in places with no stairs to help. There are stairs in some other segments of the trail. A good, sturdy walking staff will help and you’ll be grabbing onto trees and roots in places to help pull yourself up. Due to the steep climbs and lack of stairs, I’d rate his trail as moderate to difficult.
There are some potentially interesting shots along the way but, sadly, these are largely obstructed by trees.
While it’s called the Gorge Trail and while the gorge is visible on some parts of the trail, unlike the other parks, you’re not often very close to the gorge or the creek. In many places, the trail is really more of a rim trail, taking you along the top of the gorge. The roughness of the ground makes setting up a tripod difficult. And the placement of a chest high fence along the edge of the trail impedes camera angles.
Pinnacle Rock, near the top of the trail is an interesting natural formation. It’s a lone outcropping of rock that has been created by the erosion of water between it and the wall of the gorge. Getting a good photo of it is difficult. On the day I visited the light wasn’t in my favour and any direction I tried to shoot from I was getting a lot of flare. You have to be fairly close to the formation to frame it as well which makes apparent perspective distortion an unpleasant side effect.
In the upper half of the Gorge Trail, you begin to get closer to the water, walking right beside the creek bed at some points. It’s in this area that some of the better photo possibilities are available. Stupidly, I left my spare batteries at the hotel on this morning so didn’t get some of the better shots at this end of the trail.
Allow an hour to 75 minutes for the hike up and a similar time for the walk back down. There’s not a lot of difference in time to get back down whether you come back down the Gorge Trail or cross over the creek to the Rim Trail.
There’s also the Larch Meadow Trail which is across the creek from the lower parking area and beyond the baseball fields which are visible upon crossing the creek on the roadway. This trail is supposed to be very good for wildlife and birds. I didn’t hike it myself but am relating what was told to me by locals. Locals know.
The last park on this trip was Letchworth State Park. I only had a day to visit this one but you can spend several days quite easily. It’s well worth it. Nickhamed ‘The Grand Canyon of the East’, the reason for the moniker becomes readily apparent when you start walking the trails. Deep, wide canyons have been cut by the water and wind through the park. Letchworth SP is about 60 miles from Watkins Glen and it takes about 90 minutes to 2 hours to drive depending on traffic, route taken and construction. You can enter from the north or south end. If you want to hike the Gorge Trail, entering from the south at the Portageville entrance and parking in the small lot near the railroad trestle would be optimal because this is closest to the trailhead. If you drive in from the north, it’s about a 10 mile drive to get to this parking lot.
The Gorge Trail is roughly 7 miles long. There are three main waterfalls on the route with numerous other smaller ones that can be seen as well. The three main ones are Upper, Middle and Lower Falls. Lower Falls is roughly half way along the trail. I’m not certain of the exact vertical but it is several hundred feet from the head of the trail to Lower Falls. The trail is fairly well marked. It’s well maintained in some places but less so in others. There are some steep climbs. In places, stairs have heaved or are missing entirely. Some steep climbs don’t have stairs at all and in others the height of the steps is significant. Overall, I’d rate this trail as moderate and difficult in places. At times during the year the segment of the trail that leads to Lower Falls may be impassable due to wet conditions. When I visited, despite it having been a dry late summer and autumn, this part of the trail was quite wet which made walking difficult in places. The climb in and out of the gorge to and from Lower Falls is long and steady with little break in the slope. Be prepared. The trail does pass through some forested areas which provide shade and a respite from the climbs. At Lower Falls there’s a bridge over the river which allows you to connect to the Portage or Footbridge trials.
One of the most popular viewing spots for Middle and Upper Falls is Inspiration Point. If you get the right angle, you can from both falls in the shot.
Where to Stay: There are numerous hotels, motels and inns in the area. I stayed at the Golden Knight Inn on Rt 14 just outside of Watkins Glen. It was clean and the owners were very friendly and helpful. The decor is a bit dated but that’s fine. The water gets hot in the shower very quickly and you don’t get scalded or frozen when someone in another room turns on their water nor does the pressure change much (something not even a lot of high end hotels can say). Wireless internet is available. When I was there you needed to be close to the offices to use it, so if you need it make sure to as for a room in range of their router.
Where to Eat: Montage Restaurant – Avoid. The carpet is dirty and grungy. The food is truly awful. Rooster Fish Brewing/Wildflower Cafe – Excellent brewpub. Very nice selection of beers brewed on site. Food is good. Comes to the table hot. Bread is baked in house and is very tasty. Hours are a bit odd. I went to eat about 9:00 on a Saturday evening (admittedly not in high tourist season) and was told they were closing the dining room but I could get food in the pub. Closing at 9:00 on a Saturday? Still, good food and friendly staff. Jerlando’s Pizza – decent food. Probably a 3 to 3 1/2 stars out of 5. The food is hot. My pasta was cooked a little past al dente but it wasn’t mush. The meatballs had good flavour. The pizza is just OK but it’s hard to find good pizza. On another trip to the area I’d eat there again. Seneca Harbor Station – not a pleasant experience. Waited at the entrance for 10 minutes before anyone asked if I wanted a table. Perhaps they thought I was waiting for someone else but they should have asked. It was busy the night I was there. Maybe that says something, maybe not. It’s passable seafood but that’s about all. Not spectacular, not even really good. The service was fast and curt. Too fast, really. Courses followed on each other before the previous course was finished. If you’re looking for a somewhat leisurely dining experience, this isn’t it. The staff were very indifferent. It felt as though my being there was an inconvenience and that they were doing me a favour by serving me. Not a pleasant experience. Savard’s Family Restaurant – good place for breakfast. Typical diner fare. Served hot. Lots of food. Good prices.
What Else To Do: Corning has the Corning Glass Museum which includes glass blowing demonstrations. There are numerous other state parks and nature areas in the region including Finger Lakes National Forest, Cayuga Nature Center and on the campus at Cornell University are Sapsucker Woods Sanctuary and the Cornell Plantation.
As I mentioned at the top of the article, the area is the heart of New York wine country. The Finger Lakes Wine Country website has a wealth of information. I did parts of the Seneca Lake and Cayuga Lake wine trails. There are a lot of really good wines being made in the area, but quality is still hit and miss as not all the wineries are up to the same level. Prices are reasonable for the most part and some of the wineries are doing some experimenting. A couple of the wineries are having success with the Zinfandel grape. One is growing the grapes on site and burying the tender vines in the winter for protection. The other is having the fruit shipped in from California.