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The Finger Lakes

February 13, 2019
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A short errand turns into a two-day excursion worthy of a return visit

Story & Photos by Jeff Davison

There is something intangibly quaint about so many small towns in Western New York, so when a friend needed a
one-hour errand done just over the Niagara River, I made the most of the opportunity. I had never been to the Finger Lakes, and this was all the impetus I needed to create an overnight getaway. The region is easily identifiable on a map: 11 narrow lakes all running north-south and looking like a pair of open hands (albeit with an extra finger). I threw my passport and enough gear for overnight in the panniers of my V-Strom 650 and I was off.

I took I-90 and 290 just to get through Buffalo quickly, but at North Boston, I turned east and immediately found myself in Chestnut Ridge Park, one of the largest county parks in the U.S. With water and trail mix in hand, I hiked 2 km, descending through old-growth deciduous forest to see Eternal Flame Falls. The waterfall itself was unremarkable, reduced to a trickle by midsummer, but at its heart was a small, flickering flame caused by a steady emission of natural gas from the water-soaked shale. According to geologists, gas shouldn’t form in this kind of shale, and according to, well, everybody, fire doesn’t mix with water. Yet, here the impossible burned on.

I worked up a sweat on the ascent, but, back on the bike, the 25-degree breeze through my mesh riding jacket made me comfortable again in no time. I rode Genesee Road (Hwy 39) as it rose and fell dramatically over deeply rolling farmland that offered panoramic vistas from the crest of each new hill. Just beyond Sardinia, I paused for a drink and a stretch at a characterful fruit market hosting goats and a freshly shorn alpaca that I was sure felt a little ridiculous.

Grand Canyon of the East

Stone Staircase in New YorkWithin the hour, I arrived at Letchworth State Park, winner of a national poll as America’s #1 State Park. Often called the Grand Canyon of the East, Letchworth is an arrestingly beautiful preserve that follows the Genesee River for 27 km from Portageville to Mount Morris. The river has carved a gorge that is over 180 metres deep and winds photogenically between the sharp cliffs. I cruised the entire length of Park Road, stopping to admire three unique waterfalls, the middle of which is 32 metres high, all near the southern end of the park, and Mount Morris Dam at the northern end. The dam was built in 1952 to control severe flooding that had occurred almost every seven years since the early 1800s.

Leaving the park at Mount Morris, I happened upon a simple white frame house with a historical marker on the lawn indicating that this was the birthplace of Francis Bellamy (1855–1931), author of the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance. I then followed back roads – 63 and 415 – to Bath, where I turned north toward Hammondsport at the southern tip of Keuka Lake. Highway 54 rose sharply out of town, hugging the steep shoreline. The view was glorious in the light of late afternoon. I had read about the Windmill Farm and Craft Market on Highway 14A north of Dundee: a farmers’ market with 200 vendors and weekend attendance over 10,000. By the time I had arrived, however, it was closed for the day. Nevertheless, I walked around its streets, making a mental note should I return at some future date. There was a significant population of Old Order Mennonites in the area, and I encountered several horses and buggies, plainly dressed families and farmhouses with no power lines running to them. Woodworking shops and produce stands were in abundance.

Wine Country

The Finger Lakes are the work of ancient glaciers that gouged out deep trenches before retreating and leaving behind moraines and drumlins that form extreme contours. Two of the resulting lakes – Seneca and Cayuga – are among the deepest in North America and have bottoms below sea level. Their depth helps to moderate the local microclimate, making it perfect for grapes, which have been planted on the steep hillsides overlooking the lakes. Over 100 vineyards dot the landscape, producing world-class Riesling, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay rivalling California’s. I visited Miles Wine Cellars on the shores of Seneca Lake, noteworthy because of its Greek Revival architecture – and because it’s haunted. The owners themselves claim to have seen apparitions about the place, including a young couple on their porch, after whom they’ve aptly named one of their white wines, Ghost.

Turning south, I traced the western shore toward Watkins Glen, but swung west again on CR-23 for Sugar Hill State Forest, where I found a secluded, free campground – perhaps the best free site yet that I have discovered. Sugar Hill Recreation Area had running water, flush toilets and picnic tables. It was also the staging ground for the Six Nations Trail System that was primarily designed for horses and snowmobiles. In the late 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), established to provide employment opportunities during the Great Depression, constructed roads and planted thousands of pine and spruce trees in this region, as well as built the 20-metre fire tower on Sugar Hill. This night, there were a couple of horses in the covered stalls. I stretched out my Thermarest cot and bivy sack and lay under a canopy of stars, all the brighter because it happened to be new moon.

The Workout

Winery in Western New YorkThe first rays of sun peeking over the trees awakened me the next morning, and before I set out for the day, I climbed the fire tower just to enjoy the view of valleys all around Sugar Hill. Then I rode into Watkins Glen, where I was surprised to find the very modern Watkins Glen State Park welcome centre right in the middle of downtown. There was an automated paid parking lot along the street, and I was pleasantly surprised to find the $8 fee also covered admission to the park, as well as access to all other New York State Parks for the day. The glen was directly behind the welcome centre, and I eagerly set forth up the stone stairs. Little did I know there were 832 of them and the trail ran 3 km uphill. On this hot July day, I would regret both not bringing water and failing to keep up my winter workout routine.

The gain, however, was worth any pain, as the gorge was stunning. If Letchworth canyon was bigger, Watkins Glen was perhaps more interactive. The CCC, charged with making park improvements, had arrived just two days before the Great Flood of 1935, when 280 mm of rain fell in 48 hours. The park was closed for the rest of the year while crews laboured to repair the extensive damage to park and village. At the same time, however, they built the naturalistic stone stairs and bridges that enabled visitors to experience the depth and beauty of the gorge up close.

Arriving atop the cliff, I discovered that Watkins Glen operated a shuttle; lacking water, I swallowed my pride and let the park service do the work of getting me back down to the main gate. I lingered in the air-conditioned welcome centre while I drank two full bottles of water. Once again, I was grateful for my mesh gear as I rode lovely back roads, all in very good condition, through Odessa and then winding toward Robert H. Treman State Park just 35 minutes east. Here, Lucifer Falls was the main attraction, and I set out on the 1.6 km loop to see the 35-metre cascade. A dizzying stone staircase led me, this time descending, into Enfield Glen. It was breathtaking in every sense. There were a total of 12 waterfalls to explore in this gorge, but it was already mid-afternoon, so I chose to move on. In Buttermilk Falls State Park, just up the road, a lifeguard looked on as bathers swam in the 18 C water at the base of the falls. A few shivering children were even taking swimming lessons.

Passing through Ithaca, by far the largest city in the region, I turned the Strom north and began to follow the western shore of Cayuga Lake. To my right, directly below me, were the roofs of homes and cottages that hugged the steep grade as it rose from the water. Above me to my left were forests and vineyards almost the entire 64 km length of Cayuga Lake. The Cayuga Wine Trail, I learned, was the first organized wine trail in America, and includes not just wineries but distilleries, a meadery and a taproom.

Impressive Waterfall

Waterfall in New YorkAt Taughannock Falls State Park, I used my all-day pass one last time to see the tallest single-drop waterfall in the northeast (taller even than Niagara Falls), plunging 65 metres past rocky cliffs that towered 123 metres above the gorge. From the top, I watched as tiny people milled about on a viewing platform far below. In the small visitors’ centre, I picked up several brochures and a guide to the Finger Lakes.

“Do you have any questions?” asked the park ranger.

“Just one,” I said. “How do you pronounce the name of this waterfall?”

“Ta-GAN-ick,” she replied, and at my raised eyebrows, she added with a grin, “Exactly!”

Further north on Highway 89, at Interlaken, I detoured right down to the shore and discovered O’Malley’s Cabin on the Lake, a restaurant with a dock on the water. I sat and observed boaters coming in and tying up for lunch – a seemingly common occurrence.

Finally reaching the northern tip of Cayuga Lake, I rolled into charming Seneca Falls, believed to be the inspiration for Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. And I toured the Women’s Rights National Historic Park on the site of the first Women’s Rights Convention, in 1848. As a father of two daughters, I found it indeed sobering to review the conditions that women were subject to only 100 years ago, and to recognize the courage of women – and men – who willingly braved “no small amount of misconception, misrepresentation and ridicule” in the fight to gain equality for fully half the population.

Due to the late hour, I had to bypass iconic Smith Opera House and Belhurst Castle in Geneva. Over dinner, I flipped through the guide to the Finger Lakes I had picked up at Taughannock Falls. Along with the several sights I had just enjoyed, as well as those I had to skip, the guide highlighted so many more: NASCAR racing in Watkins Glen, the Curtiss Museum in Hammondsport, Corning Glass. I had already been thinking I’d like to come back sometime, but this confirmed it. There was still so much to see and do. As I saddled up for the ride home, I was already planning my return to the hands of 11 fingers…

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