As a lifelong Midwesterner, I grew up listening to others talk about spending time “at the lake”. Friends’ families had cottages on lakes in Wisconsin and Michigan. They would spend weekends and summers swimming, fishing, and boating. To this city girl, time at the lake sounded like heaven. My family did not have a lake house but I often dreamed of one. (And, Mom and Dad, if you’re reading this, I am in no way complaining about not having a lake house. You made up for it by taking us on month-long trips and hockey-tournament weekends.)
Then last year, as an adult with children of my own, I paid my first visit to the Finger Lakes Region of New York. I immediately fell in love with the area, for it caused me to think back on my childhood dreams of spending time “at the lake”. And there isn’t just one lake in the Finger Lakes (duh, plural); there are ELEVEN. Each of the lakes is special in its own way. Moreover, the immediate area surrounding each of the lakes offers a variety of things to do for families. While many of the activities are seasonal, the list of things to do in the Finger Lakes with kids is still impressive.
With 11 lakes, you kind of HAVE to get out on the water! Seneca Lake is the largest of the 11 Finger Lakes and offers a number of water-based activities. Schooner Excursions runs day sails on the historic Schooner True Love and the experience is quite delightful. Another option is a guided, sightseeing cruise on Captain Bill’s Stroller IV. This protected mahogany vessel would be better for families with young children as it provides shelter from direct sunlight and other unfavorable weather conditions. Find both boats and others at the pier at Seneca Harbor Park in Watkins Glen.
Finger Lakes National Forest also covers a portion of the region and provides miles of trails. An excellent way to enjoy the natural beauty of the area is on horseback. Reserve a trail ride with Erika of Painted Bar Stables and you will not be disappointed! Her extremely thorough pre-ride orientation session is both educational and highly entertaining. Erika may come off as the Queen of Sarcasm but don’t let it throw you off. She knows her stuff and tells it like it is. She’s also great fun and loves her horses as if they were her children. Most importantly, Erika will ensure that you and your children are safe and having the best time ever.
The glacial activity that created the Finger Lakes millions of years ago also cut out dramatically beautiful gorges, valleys, and waterfalls. The most popular hiking trail in the region is the Gorge Trail at Watkins Glen State Park – and for good reason. It’s stunning. The trail is a bit moderate and suitable for older children. Strollers definitely are not an option on the trail. A shorter and almost equally beautiful trail is at Havana Glen Park. Hike to the waterfall and, if it’s warm enough, take a dip in the natural pool at the bottom. It’s an inviting and scenic little swimming hole. Another option, for families a bit more hardcore about hiking, is the Finger Lakes Trail System. There are more than 1,000 miles of trails within the system, including spur, loop, and branch trails from the main Finger Lakes Trail.
I’ve mentioned that each of the 11 Finger Lakes has its own “personality”. This holds true when talking about the types of fish species present in each lake, too. With varying sizes and depths, some of the lakes are home to only cold-water fish; some have only warm-water species; the deeper lakes are home to both. Some of the fish species living in the different Finger Lakes include northern pike, walleye, brown trout, small- and large-mouth bass, yellow perch, landlocked salmon, and many more. (This excellent article breaks down the habitat and inhabitants of each of the lakes.) Unless you’re a seasoned angler and very familiar with the lakes and different species, your best bet is to hire a fishing guide or to go out on a chartered fishing boat. Here is an extensive list of fishing charters, guides, and marinas, broken down lake by lake.
If you’re like me, you prefer to provide a bit of educational experience for your kids during your travels. Moreover, no matter how hard we try, we just cannot control the weather. Need something to do on a rainy day? The many museums of the Finger Lakes have us covered. Here are a few of my favorites:
- Glenn H. Curtiss Museum (Hammondsport). Glenn H. Curtiss is known as Hammondsport’s favorite son, though I had no idea who he was before arriving at his museum. I did learn that Curtiss was a pioneer aviator but, before that, he built bicycles and motorcycles. And, in 1907, Curtiss became known as “the fastest man on Earth” when he rode one of his motorcycles up to a speed of 136.4 MPH! The fascinating story, including his association with the Wright Brothers, is outlined throughout the museum amidst antique and vintage bicycles, motorcycles, and aircraft.
- National Soaring Museum (Elmira). The museum’s mission is to preserve and present the history and heritage of motorless flight and is one of only two museums of its kind in the U.S. The museum’s location, on Harris Hill in Elmira, is also significant. Harris Hill has been the site of soaring contests and exhibitions since the 1930s. And during World War II, Elmira was the chosen location for developing a glider program and training military pilots. Today, visitors can marvel at the collections of flightless aircraft on display at the National Soaring Museum, some of which date back to 1890! Don’t worry if you know nothing about soaring; I didn’t know a thing and still found the museum fascinating. And if you’re feeling adventurous, you can even go on a glider ride!
- Corning Museum of Glass (Corning). Without question, one of the absolute coolest museums I have ever visited! It’s equal parts science museum, history museum, and art museum. Round it out with an opportunity to make your own glass and its high coolness quotient is solidified. The museum’s galleries contain approximately 50,000 objects representing more than 3,500 years of history. There’s also the Innovation Center, where visitors learn about the science and technology behind glass through hands-on exhibits. Visitors can make advance reservations to make their own glass. Prefer to just observe? Then take in one of the daily glass-making demonstrations. Lastly, as the name suggests, expect to find plenty of displays of – you guessed it – CorningWare (and Pyrex).
Something else that surprised me about the Finger Lakes Region is its connection to Mark Twain. I’ve read Twain’s classics and once visited his boyhood home of Hannibal, Missouri. But I had no idea he had spent so much time in Elmira. In fact, Twain spent upwards of 20 summers in Elmira, even penning classics like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in his octagonal study overlooking the Chemung River. His study has since been moved to the campus of Elmira College which is also home to the Mark Twain Exhibit (inside Cowles Hall). For a full experience, take part in one of the Trolley Into Twain Country Tours. These seasonal tours cover the significant Twain sites, as well as provide a better look at the city of Elmira. Some of the tours also include a visit to Twain’s gravesite at Woodlawn Cemetery.
Tanglewood Nature Center and Museum
If you have younger children and are craving some easy outdoor activity, Tanglewood is a great place to spend a few hours. There are more than 10 miles of walking and nature trails that are perfect for short legs and little feet. The museum and live-animal exhibits will interest the older kids (and adults), too. (Most of the animals at Tanglewood were placed there after undergoing wildlife rehabilitation and being deemed “non-releasable”.) While the emphasis at Tanglewood is on preservation, imagination is also embraced, evidence being the darling little fairy garden. Tanglewood is just a pleasant hamlet in a serene setting. And who knows? If you’re lucky, you may even be able to get up close to an adorable hedgehog!
This is just a sample of things to do with kids in the Finger Lakes. My family and I will be spending a week in the region this summer, so I’ll definitely report back on any new, fun stuff we come across!