Finger Lakes Day Trips - Hiking Canyons, Petting Goats, and Stunning Waterfalls

Buttermilk Falls State Park

This area is dotted with craggy lakes, deep gorges, cascading waterfalls, and lush greenery, peppered with small towns and wineries. I lived in this area for over a decade and did lots of exploring. The Finger Lakes in Central/Western New York has so many places to check out that it is hard to pick just a few, but these are my picks for where I would take friends from out of town for a memorable trip:

Most of these trails are fairly well shaded so they make for pleasant summer hiking. The waterfalls can be incredible at peak flow after the winter melt, fall brings spectacular colors, and the winter freeze turns them into shimmering crystal.

Naples

  • Grimes Glen - Waterfall Adventure - Moderate to Hard
  • Conklin’s Gully - Waterfall Canyon Adventure or Hike - Hard
  • Arbor Hill Winery - Tasting - Easy
  • Naples Day Trip - Itinerary Ideas

Ithaca

  • Robert H Treman State Park - Waterfall Hike - Moderate
  • Buttermilk Falls State Park - Waterfall Hike - Moderate
  • Ithaca Day Trip - Itinerary Ideas

Southern Seneca/Cayuga Lake

  • Taughannock Falls State Park - Waterfall Walk & Beach - Easy
  • Watkin’s Glen - Waterfall Hike - Moderate
  • Lively Run Dairy Farm and Creamery - Tasting & Goat Petting - Easy
  • Seneca/Cayuga Day Trip - Itinerary Ideas

Letchworth

  • Letchworth State Park - Sightseeing & Hiking - Easy to Hard
  • Mount Morris Dam - Sightseeing, Museum, & Tour - Easy to Moderate

These last two may not be considered Finger Lakes, but they can are easy to visit while you are in this area so I figured I would mention them here.

Sodus

  • Chimney Bluffs State Park - Coastal Bluff Hike - Easy to Moderate

Niagara Falls Area

  • Niagara Falls State Park - Sightseeing & Hiking - Easy to Moderate
  • Lockport Historic Caves - History & Sightseeing - Easy

Whether you are staying in the Finger Lakes, Rochester, Buffalo, or Syracuse, all of these places are doable as a day trip or could easily be made into a weekend.

Rating Key:

  • Easy - Sightseeing viewpoints or short walks on mostly flat ground
  • Moderate - Requires some hiking
  • Hard - Long hikes or requires climbing/water

Naples

Quaint area with lots of park, that is known for its grape pies and sentinel windmills.

Grimes Glen - Waterfall Adventures

Grimes Glen

  • Moderate to Hard
  • Free
  • Dogs Allowed
  • Facilities include a bathroom

This is a popular park with limited parking, so come early.

There are several options for this hike and a couple ways to attack it. You have the option of wet or dry feet and climbing the falls or relaxing in the water.

The easiest way is to just walk straight up the stream. This is a refreshing way to spend a hot day and a fairly easy walk. Alternatively, depending upon the trail conditions, you can clamber along steep/narrow trails along the banks and keep your feet dry.

There are two decent size waterfalls on this trail. One cascading down the left wall, and the other rushing down at the “end” of the trail. Both waterfalls usually have climbing ropes anchored around them. Climb at your own risk and use your judgment, as people have gotten hurt here. When I have been there the ropes have been in good condition with good anchors. You usually know that you are getting close when you hear the whoop of children fearlessly swinging from the ropes and splashing in the water.

There is a third waterfall that you can get to by climbing up the ropes at the second waterfall and continuing up the river (can be a bit slick) or going all the way up to the ridge and following it above the river for a glimpse of the third waterfall from the top. You can also take this trail in the opposite direction to the top of the first waterfall. Mind the Private Property signs, because the upper trail follows right along the edge of the park.

What to Bring?

Conklin’s Gully - Waterfall Canyon Adventure or Hike

Conklin's Gully

  • Hard
  • Free
  • Dogs Allowed
  • Beware of Hunters in the Fall

This place is carved by water and constantly changing. I have done this twice, once with relatively high water (which made everything super slick and felt mildly dangerous) and once in low water (fairly easy).

Much of the rock is crumbly shale so climbing out is not an option, you either push on or go back. There are often some crude ropes along the trail, but the sharp shale makes quick work of them, so be careful.

If I haven’t scared you away and you are up for the adventure you are in for a treat. This canyon has countless waterfalls and something about the lighting through the trees just feels magical to me.

Pretty early in you will meet the largest waterfall and one of the harder ones to scale. The shear cliff walls here tower above you creating a beautiful chasm. This is one of my favorite spots on this trail that makes me feel small and gives me that feeling of awe and respect that you get at the top of a mountain.

The video was taken when the water flow was very low, but even then looking up at this waterfall was a little intimidating. There is often a bit of rope here. If you use it, be careful because it wears quickly rubbing against the shale and please be considerate and toss it back down for the next person.

The first time I did this a dog came tearing up the trail and flew up the waterfall as if it was nothing, almost colliding with my husband halfway up.

Conklin's Gully

Beyond the big waterfall there are a series of smaller waterfalls that stair step their way up the canyon. There are a couple of holes with deep pools in them that can be refreshing and can be relaxing to soak your legs in.

There is one more waterfall that I found tricky, which had a narrow ledge around the outside and a hole in the middle. When the water was low it was easy to just walk into the pool and climb straight up, but with high water that was more difficult. Be ready to get wet.

On my second visit to the gully, as we were approaching the end of the canyon we had this really weird experience. We looked up and saw this large vulture perched on a tree with its wings outstretched. It just stayed that way and watched us pass. It was a bit erie, but a very cool experience.

Conklin's Gully

The Route:

Both times I went up the gully until I hit the intersection with the other trails. At this intersection you can go a bit farther then turn around and retrace your steps, turn around here and go back the way you came (although I am not a fan of going down waterfalls), make a left turn for the foolproof route, or a right for the more scenic route.

The Foolproof Trail on the left dumps you out on a road that you follow left back to the parking lot.

The Scenic Trail on the right is a bit more complicated, so be sure to check out a map of the area beforehand. It takes you along the rim trail and you get a couple nice views from the top of the canyon. It is particularly pretty in the fall. The last bit is almost straight down on a slick rocky trail.

What to Bring?

  • Map: Unless you plan on going back down the waterfalls, make sure to look at a map before you head out and ideally bring one with you. There are lots of trails back there and several turns depending on which way you go. AllTrails has some maps but they only work if you have cell service or subscribe. Gaia also has maps that stay loaded when you are offline.

  • Footwear: Hiking shoes with good tread. Waterproof or not really doesn’t matter because you are going to get wet.

  • Bug Spray

  • Waterproof phone case & dry bag are optional, but nice to have so you can concentrate in the experience instead of protecting your valuables.

  • Hiking Poles are also optional and a bit of a mixed bag. They give you some stability on the slick spots and are really nice on the way down, but also get in the way sometimes. I would make sure you have a pack that you can attach them to.

Arbor Hill Winery - Tasting - Easy
  • Tasting Fee
  • No Dogs

Off all the wineries in the Finger Lakes, this one lacks the beautiful vineyards and there are arguably better places, but this is the one where we had the most memorable tasting.

At most places you just get the tasting, sometimes the founding story, and occationally some personalized attention to help you pick which wines to taste. Here the host took about 30 minutes (between customers) explaining the wines. She had a bubbly personality and a story to go with each wine. She was entertaining, informative, and seemed to have a passion for her job.

The winery is conveniently located near these hikes. It is a small shop, full of wine themed trinkets, with Brews and Bratts next door. If you plan on stopping for a tasting make sure you check the hour ahead of time.

Naples Day Trip - Itinerary Ideas

One of my standard favorite day trips is to get up early and head down to Grimes Glen before it gets crowded. Then have an early lunch, go hike Conklin’s Gully, and stop at Arbor Hill on my way home.


Ithaca

Robert H Treman State Park - Waterfall Hike - Moderate

Robert H Treman State Park

  • Park Day Use Fee ~$8 (good for any State Parks for the day)
  • Dogs Allowed

Lucifer Falls is my favorite Finger Lakes waterfall! This place is well known, but doesn’t seem to get quite as much traffic as some of the other parks in the area.

The magic in this park beautifully combines nature and man-made stone walkways to enhance instead of spoil the feel of the place. If you look closely at the photo, you can see the walkway that takes you all the way up and around the waterfall.

Where to go?

If you are just going for the highlights you can go to the Upper Entrance take the Rim Trail (see Park Map) down to Lucifer Falls, cross the bridge, and take the Gorge Trail back around the other side or do it in reverse (it is a decent amount of up and down either way). If you have all day explore them all and go for a swim in the waterfall swimming area at the Lower Entrance.

I loved how detailed the trail signs are letting you know exactly what to expect.

Robert H Treman State Park - Trail Signs

What to Bring?

  • Footwear: Comfy hiking shoes, waterproof is a plus in case you want to walk in the water (ex. his and hers). The spray from the waterfall can make the stairs slick.

  • Bug Spray

Buttermilk Falls State Park - Waterfall Hike - Moderate

Buttermilk Falls State Park

  • Park Day Use Fee ~$8 (good for any State Parks for the day)
  • Dogs Allowed

This park is a fairy land of countless gently cascading waterfalls.

Where to go?

You can start at the top or the bottom. I like to take the Rim Trail in one direction and the Gorge Trail in the other (see Park Map). The trails do have some elevation gain, but relatively gentle. These cover the main waterfall section, but there are many other trails in the park that you can explore if you have more time. This park also has a waterfall swimming area that you can swim in when it is open.

What to Bring?

  • Footwear: Comfy hiking shoes, waterproof is a plus if you want to walk in the water to get that perfect photo (ex. his and hers).

  • Bug Spray

Ithaca Day Trip - Itinerary Ideas

Any of these can be a day to itself, but I like to mix these up with a winery or a stop at the creamery (see below) on my way home.


Southern Seneca/Cayuga Lake

Taughannock Falls State Park - Waterfall Walk & Beach - Easy

Taughannock Falls State Park

  • Park Day Use Fee ~$8 (good for any State Parks for the day)
  • Dogs Allowed

Did you know that Niagara falls is not actually the tallest waterfall in New York State? Taughannock actually beats it by over 30 feet so if you want to see the tallest you have to come here!

The Gorge Trail is not the most exciting, but it is easy and the waterfall is quite dramatic and it is right on the Cayuga Lake so you can go for a dip while you are there (see Park Map). The Gorge Trail follows the river along a mostly flat sand and gravel trail. There are usually lots of kids playing in the river and waders cooling their feet. It brings you right up to the foot of the falls. There is lots of spray and you will get wet if you want to get close.

If you are up for something a big more strenuous you can take the rim trail for a top down view of the falls, but it doesn’t take you nearly as close.

What to Bring?

  • Footwear: If you are just doing the gorge trail you can wear just about anything.

  • Waterproof phone case & dry bag are optional, but you will get wet if you want to get close to the falls.

Watkin’s Glen State Park - Waterfall Hike - Moderate

Watkin's Glen State Park

  • Park Day Use Fee ~$8 (good for any State Parks for the day)
  • Dogs Allowed but not below the rim in gorge

No matter what kind of waterfalls you like, this park has ones for just about everyone! The falls here range from small glassy cascades to raging funnels and the elaborate Gorge Trail takes you around and even behind a couple.

This trail is very well done. Cut into the gorge wall it is another one of those walkways that tastefully amplifies the natural beauty. My favorite trip here was in the fall when the colorful leaves were drifting down the river with the torrents of water and gracefully fluttering down from above.

This is another one that I like to get to early because the park gets very busy and sometimes a bit congested.

Where to go?

I like to start at the Upper Entrance on the Gorge Trail (see Park Map) and work my way down because it starts out with tiny waterfalls and pools that grow in size and power as you travel down the gorge. I don’t think you would appreciate the small ones as much if they were at the end.

At the end you have the option to turn around and do it again, take one of the rim trails back, or take the park shuttle (about $5) when it is running.

What to Bring?

  • Footwear: Any sturdy shoes with some tread will work. The trail is made up of stairs and walkways, but some get slick.

  • Waterproof phone case & dry bag are optional, but you probably want at least a ziploc bag since trail takes you behind the falls in a couple areas.

  • Jacket - Optional, but it is often cooler down in the gorge.

Lively Run Creamery - Tasting & Goat Petting - Easy

Lively Run Dairy Farm and Creamery

  • Tasting Fee and/or Purchase
  • No Dogs Inside

A fun stop, especially if you are a goat cheese fan. They have fresh, aged, brie, and even blue goat cheese! Sometimes they also have goat milk cheese cake and fudge. They do a fun tasting board that includes most of their goat and cow cheeses. Make sure you check their hours before you go.

Seneca/Cayuga Day Trip - Itinerary Ideas

I like to pick a park for the morning, one for the afternoon, and stop for cheese or wine on the way back. My pick would be Watkin’s Glen, an early lunch, then Robert Treman, and stop at Lively Run for goat cheese on the way home


Letchworth - The Grand Canyon of the East

Letchworth State Park - Easy to Moderate

Letchworth State Park

  • Park Day Use Fee ~$10 (good for any State Parks for the day)
  • Dogs Allowed

Letchworth has lots of options ranging from a scenic drive to intense hiking, or even boating, and everything in between. If you time your trip right you might even get a chance to see hot air balloons.

Scenic Drive - There are lots of scenic overlooks along the main park road and during peak colors this is a great way to see some spectacular fall foliage. Don’t forget to pull into some of the major loops to see some waterfalls too. The Park Map does a pretty good job of indicating the lookout points.

Short Walk - Stop at Upper Falls, Inspiration Point, and Lower Falls for a stroll at each. They all have paved trails with a few stairs to view the falls from. Depending upon the wind direction they can be wet from the waterfall spray.

Easy Hike - Take the Gorge Trail (Pink on the Park Map) which connects the major viewpoints. You can take this as far as you want but I would start at Upper Falls (GPS:42.579923, -78.047960) and go at least to Lower Falls. I like to go down to the lookout (GPS:42.586032, -78.017863) too for a closeup of the water. You used to be able to cross a bridge here, but I think it may be closed for good now.

Off The Beaten Path Hike - The waterfall areas get a lot more love than the rest of the park so if you pick anything in the North end of the park (North Park Map) you should have it much more to yourself. The Finger Lakes Trail on the East side of the park is also much more lightly trafficked. I like to take some of the fishing trails in the south section of the park (indicated on the South Park Map by a fish head) because they take you right up to the water.

Rafting or Kayaking - I’ve never done it, but there are tour companies that arrange day trips through the rapids in the north end of the park.

Mount Morris Dam - Easy to Moderate
  • Free
  • Dogs are allowed outside only

Mount Morris Dam offers a lookout, picnic area, museum, and seasonal free dam tours. The museum and tours are temporarily unavailable (as of Summer 2020). You can call 585-658-4790 to check the status. Until they reopen you can explore some of the history on Exploring Upstate.

This large dam doesn’t produce any electricity, but it does do a great deal to protect the city of Rochester and other towns downstream from flooding. I am not much of a museum person, but I enjoyed the video that talked about how the dam was built, and the old photos of Rochester flooded were surprising.

Dam tours are available on a first come basis, so arrive early if you want to ensure a spot. They take your name and give you a tag once you are signed in, then you can explore the museum to pass the time while you wait. The dam doesn’t allow dogs, bags, or photos inside the dam.

The tour actually takes you down inside the dam. There are long hollow passageways and stairs running through the inside of the dam and a little balcony on the downstream side of the dam that we got to check out. The passageways were just open damp corridors and you don’t see any of the mechanisms, but you do get a sense of just how big it is and learn a bit about how it works.


Sodus

Chimney Bluffs State Park - Coastal Bluff Hike - Easy to Moderate

Chimney Bluffs State Park

  • Parking Fee ~$5
  • Dogs Allowed

If you are looking for a break from the waterfalls this is a unique experience. From a distance these bluffs look like rock, but they are actually giant natural sand castles! This is a great spot to be on the water on a nice summer day or to check out the colors in the fall.

There are three main trails here, one through the woods, one across the top of the bluffs, and one along the water below them. All of these trails are relatively easy, but the conditions can vary. I like to go out on the bluff trail and walk back along the water.

The lower trail along the water is the easiest when it is clear. It is a nice flat walk, but in the spring and after storms trees often fall here, transforming it from a gentle stroll to an obstacle course. On windy days the waves wash up high on the beach and you may get your feet wet.

The upper trail along the bluff is fairly easy, but gets quite muddy in the spring. One year we went on a nice day in early April and it was completely flooded. I prefer the views from the top and like hiking in the shade of the trees. Please mind the edge and do not walk out onto the bluffs as they are just sand and can be unstable. You don’t want to be the giant that destroyed the sand castle or worse, got buried under it.

What to Bring?

  • Footwear: Comfy shoes and you may want sandals if you want to walk in the water since it is a bit rocky.

  • Bug Spray


Niagara Falls Area

Niagara Falls State Park - Sightseeing & Hiking - Easy to Moderate

Niagara Falls

  • Paid (~$10) or Free Parking (farther from the falls)
  • Dog Friendly Except Attractions
  • Don’t forget a Passport or Enhanced License if you want to cross to the Canadian Side

Everyone goes to Niagara Falls and you can find hundreds of guides to the main attractions, but I prefer to skip the crowds and explore the lesser known side of Niagara Falls. This is one of my favorite places to enjoy Western New York’s fall foliage.

Niagara Falls has a full network of well maintained gorge trails with upper and lower sections. Many of these make great loops by combining and upper and lower trail, like the Devil’s Hole Rapids and the Niagara Gorge Rim Trail (See the Park Map).

Rim Trails: All of these are easy paved trails that give you great views and can be as long or short as you like.

Niagara Falls

Lower Trails: These trails involve hundreds of stairs, a good workout with a big pay off. The Whirlpool and Devil’s Hole Trails bring you right up to the water’s edge and really let you feel the power of this river. These trails are incredibly well done, with beautiful stone steps, but they can get a little slick when covered in fall leaves.

Devil’s Hole is my favorite because it has stairs on both ends so you don’t have to backtrack, and there is a flat rocky area that you can walk out on and actually feel the spray. The Whirlpool Trail is usually the least busy.

Niagara Falls

Boat Option: If you want to experience the whirlpools without the hike, there are jet boat tours daily during the summer. I have never done one, but I have seen them from the trail. Prepare to get wet! If you want to do this be sure to make a reservation.

Niagara Falls Up Close: The falls themselves are beautiful as well, but I highly recommend a weekday off season if at all possible. For me, literally waiting in line to get close enough to look over the wall kind of ruins the experience. Last time I went the lines for attractions like the Maid of the Mist were over 90 minutes and you were waiting in full sun. If you are there on a busy day, Goat Island is popular but not as crowded as the main observation points and has some nice views.

Lockport Cave Tour - Easy

Lockport Cave Tour

This is another interesting spot near Niagara Falls that is worth a stop if you have the time. The tour includes a history lesson about the area, access to the museum, a walk along the canal, and takes you down into the cave.

This cave was completely man-made for the purpose of providing power to run the factories. We were shown how it was cut out, one stick of dynamite at a time placed into hand drilled holes. The boat ride itself was a bit dull, but the tour and the history was interesting.


Have you visited the Finger Lakes?
What was your favorite spot?


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