The Finger Lakes region is magical in the fall. It’s harvest time and as the pastoral scenes roll by you can’t help but feel that you are in a special place, surrounded by a myriad of bright colors with the changing of the season. One of the things that makes this area so unique is its diversity and concentration of parks. For the outdoor enthusiast or shutterbug, you will be hard pressed to find anywhere else you can visit so many accessible parks in a single day’s time with their own unique flavors and characteristics. We thought we’d help you out and focus on our top five favorites to see fall color. Although you could visit all five in a single day, we suggest taking a more leisurely approach and spread it out over at least two so you have time to sample some of what America’s Best Wine Region has to offer as well.
Fillmore Glen State Park
Located just outside Moravia, Fillmore Glen State Park is a bit off the beaten path and a great place to go if you want the solitude of hiking or photographing largely alone. On our recent visit to the park, we only encountered three other people while out hiking for a couple of hours. There are five waterfalls along the main loop trail which cuts through the lush forest of the gorge. The air is generally cooler here which makes the 3.5 mile loop tail a little easier on a warm day. With 626 feet of elevation gain, if you are doing the whole loop trail, this should be considered a moderate hike. The first of the waterfalls is close to the trailhead for those not wanting to do the longer hike.
Make sure to bring along an extra pair of shoes or a towel as the trail can get muddy from time to time. Dogs are able to use the trail but must be kept on a leash.
There are a few local restaurants in Moravia if you get hungry. Our recommendation: put a picnic lunch together if you are planning on eating here. The park has lots of picnic tables near the entrance. The current fee is $7 per car or you can use the state Empire Pass.
Watkins Glen State Park
Situated on the South end of Seneca Lake, Watkins Glen is likely the most iconic park in the region. Over the course of two miles in the park’s gorge, the stream descends over 400 feet producing 19 waterfalls of various sizes, including one you can walk under. Over time, the stream has cut numerous pools and leaves tend to dance in circular pattern along the surface of the water. It’s a pretty magical place.
Watkins Glen has five trails to choose from ranging from .7 to 4.1 miles in length. The Gorge Trail is the most popular at 2.1 miles with a vertical gain of just over 500ft making it a moderate level hike. Again, it’s a good idea to have an extra pair of shoes as the gorge trail tends to be wet in places. Pets are not allowed on the Gorge Trail.
The park is just a few minutes drive out of the town of Watkins Glen. There are several nice lunch spots in the town to choose from. If you are looking for American cuisine, check out Nickel’s Pit BBQ who has several kinds of delicious smothered tater tots on offer which are great after a nice hike. The current park fees for Watkins Glen is $8 per vehicle which includes the pool or you can use the state’s Empire Pass.
Taughannock Falls State Park
Taughannock Falls State Park is known for its signature waterfall which plunges 215 feet over the rim of the gorge. There are two ways to take in the majesty of the falls. The first is from the Taughannock Falls Overlook Viewpoint, accessible from Taughannock Park Road off of Highway 89. The other is a two mile roundtrip hike across easy terrain accessible from the Gorge Trail parking area just off Highway 89. They offer very different vantage points and are both well worth the visit. The Overlook Viewpoint, as the name suggests, provides more of a straight on view of the falls from eye level. In the fall, the waterfall itself is framed by beautiful yellow and orange foliage. It’s quite dramatic and the overlook is just a few short steps from the parking area. In contrast, the Gorge Trail meanders streamside through a rustling forest full of color. The end of the hike is rewarded with a view of the falls from below. Lower Falls (pictured above) is accessible just off the trail at the beginning of the gorge hike. Dogs are able to use the trail but must be kept on a leash. There are also two separate trails along the rim of the gorge. The entrance fee for the park is $8 per vehicle or you can use the state Empire Pass.
Taughannock Falls State Park is 15-20 minutes outside Ithaca along the lake depending on traffic. Ithaca has loads of restaurants to choose from. We usually like to grab a cup of coffee at Gimme! Coffee before hitting the park and then grab a bite at one of the wineries or cider stops farther north up Cayuga Lake afterwards.
Buttermilk Falls State Park
Buttermilk Falls State Park is one of the most accessible parks on our list and was named for the foaming cascade formed by Buttermilk Creek as it drops over 165 feet at the main falls towards Cayuga Lake. The waterfalls pictured above is a short walk from the parking lot. For the adventurous wanting to stretch their legs, the gorge and rim trails can be combined into a 4.5 mile trek roundtrip around Lake Treman. There are nine other waterfalls along the gorge trail, however, all are much smaller than the main falls at the parking lot. Dogs can use the trails but must be kept on leash. For those with mobility concerns, combining the falls at Buttermilk Falls State Park with the Overlook Viewpoint at Taughannock Falls makes for a really nice afternoon as Buttermilk is about 10-12 minutes south from downtown Ithaca. The lower park also has a nature trail that winds through the wetlands at Larch Meadow. The entrance fee is $8 per vehicle or you can use the state’s Empire Pass.
Did we mention that you shouldn’t leave your camera at home yet? Make sure to check at the bottom of the post for a few photography gear suggestions.
Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge
Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge crowns the North side of Cayuga Lake and is a ten minute drive from picturesque Seneca Falls. The refuge is a haven for birds and those people who love to watch them. It is usually fairly easy to find large groups of birds in the Main Pool at the Visitor’s Center. However, if you are seeking a more private experience, there are numerous other smaller pools along the driving route that are accessible to most people without significant mobility concerns. There are numerous trails that meander around the ponds and marshes of the refuge if you want to stretch your legs. It’s best to visit either early in the morning or late in the day as the flocks tend to be out foraging at other times. The pools, framed by the golden grasses, set off the glory of the surrounding autumn colors.
Have lunch or dinner with us at the Gould Hotel in Seneca Falls and take your time wandering down the main street exploring shops or strolling along the canal.
Lens selection is easy unless you are trying to capture close up images of the birds at Montezuma. A lens covering 24-105mm is your ideal grab and go simple kit for these parks. You will rarely want to shoot a wider angle than that. If you are intent on capturing waterfalls, you will need a tripod and we strongly recommend a polarizing filter to cut some of the glare on the water. To get that ribbon-like effect, you are aiming for a shutter speed of 1/2 a second or longer. This is far more easily accomplished on cloudy or broken cloud days over bright and cloudless skies. Some days, you’ll just need to wait for the clouds to cover the sun, but could you think of a better place to wait than enjoying the beauty of the Finger Lakes?
All images provided courtesy of Byron O’Neal. All rights reserved.