Most of the stories in this special edition are about a single lake. This one is about an entire region named for the 11 lakes that dot a 75-mile-wide band of Western New York.
The person who gave these lakes the collective name Finger Lakes showed about as much imagination as whoever named the Great Lakes, but both names are accurate.
Ten of the Finger Lakes are shaped like long, slender fingers; the 11th is shaped like three long, slender fingers arranged in a “Y.”
It is one of the most beautiful regions in the Northeast and a good place to spend a weekend or a weeklong vacation.
Many of the places and activities that were shut down in 2020 appear to be on track for at least partial reopening in the summer of 2021, but best to check directly with anything that ranks as a must-see/must-do destination for your traveling party.
Biking, hiking and boating are safe bets. Winemakers and craft beverage producers would love to see you. The region is almost as famous for waterfalls as it is for flatwater. At least some of the museums will be open in 2021.
Some highlights in the Finger Lakes region:
- Taughannock Falls, a 215-foot waterfall near Cayuga Lake.
- Watkins Glen State Park, a series of waterfalls in a very narrow gorge that empties into Seneca Lake.
- Letchworth State Park, called (with some exaggeration) the Grand Canyon of the East, a dramatic series of waterfalls and gorges that carry the Genesee River north to Lake Ontario.
- Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, everything you ever wanted to know about glassmaking, a nice stop on a rainy day.
- Watkins Glen International, the raceway and event venue; some events are canceled for 2021.
- Glenn J. Curtiss Museum in Hammondsport chronicles the area’s contributions to early 20th-century powered flight; Curtiss is known as the Father of Naval Aviation, or one of the fathers.
- There are many wineries in the microclimate created by the lakes; formal tours are available, or follow a designated trail at your own pace.
- Ithaca is a great place for restaurants and more waterfalls.
- Seneca Falls oddly enough doesn’t have a waterfall, but it is a key site in the early history of the U.S. Women’s Rights movement; a national historical park and the National Women’s Hall of Fame are there today.
- Abolitionist and Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman lived much of her life in Auburn; her home is now a museum but it has been closed due to COVID.
- Beach swimming is possible in the Finger Lakes, but not as much as one might think, as most of the Finger Lakes shorelines are privately owned; one of the best swimming holes in the state is in Robert H. Treman State Park near Ithaca, in a deep pool in a gorge beneath Enfield Falls.
- The famous white deer at the former Seneca Army Depot are a fascinating sight, a herd that became genetically isolated and inbred behind the tall fences over the past 80 years; the site is privately owned now by Deer Haven Park, which offers tours.
- Sonnenberg Gardens & Mansion State Historic Park is a beautifully restored relic of the late Victorian era.
THE 11 LAKES
From 11 Finger Lakes were carved into the landscape by Ice Age glaciers; several lesser bodies of water nearby have the same slender, north-south orientation.
Here is a little information about each, from west to east:
- Conesus: One of the small lakes, it is 8 miles long and 1 mile wide at the widest point. Public access is very limited, as the lake is ringed almost entirely with cabins and houses.
- Hemlock: Smaller still is Hemlock Lake, 7 miles long and a half-mile wide. Hemlock and nearby Canadice lakes are unique among the Fingers — there’s no residential development on them. They supply drinking water to Rochester, and a buffer zone is maintained in a mostly natural state.
- Canadice: This is the smallest of the Fingers, just 3 miles long and a third of a mile wide. The steep, forested shorelines of Canadice and Hemlock create a quiet sense of isolation improbable in such a populated region. Swimming in both lakes is forbidden … for humans and dogs alike.
- Honeoye: A small lake at 4.5 by 0.8 miles, Honeoye is also quite shallow — a maximum of 30 feet — and warms up earlier in the season as a result. Sandy Bottom Park offers swimming and there are public boat launches, but the shoreline is mostly residential.
- Canandaigua: At last, a big lake! Canandaigua is the fourth-largest of the Fingers, but once again, public access points are small, few and far between.
- Keuka: This is the odd lake out, shaped like a wishbone rather than a finger, but many consider it the most picturesque of the lakes. There’s a state park with beach access at the northwest fork and one of the better bike/hike trails in the state — The Keuka Lake Outlet Trail — running from the northeast fork east to Seneca Lake.
- Seneca: The largest of them all, Seneca Lake stretches 38 miles from north to south, as much as 3 miles east to west, and up to 600 feet deep. It’s ringed by multiple parks and dozens of wineries.
- Cayuga: The second-largest Finger Lake is bookended by the college town of Ithaca on the south and the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge on the north. Cayuga Lake State Park and Taughannock Falls State Park offer good public access to the water.
- Owasco: At 11.1 miles long and a maximum of 1.3 miles wide, Owasco Lake falls into the category of larger Finger Lakes but isn’t huge. Public access is available at Emerson Park in the north end.
- Skaneateles: “Skinny atlas” or “ski-knee-AT-lus” or SCAN-ee-at-uh-less, it’s one of those upstate places with multiple pronunciations. The village at the north end of the 16-mile-long lake is one of the more quaint places in the region. Syracuse and other area communities drink its water.
- Otisco: The easternmost of the Fingers is only 6 miles long and has less commercial development along its shores than some of the others. A causeway divides it into two basins.