This week we embark on our annual Labor Day weekend trip to the Finger Lakes region of New York. We’ll be staying on the east side of Seneca Lake again this year (east side is a must to see the gorgeous sunsets!), in a small cabin just down the road from where we stayed last year. The nearest town is about 20 minutes away. Watkins Glen is home to an international raceway used on the NASCAR circuit, a stunning state park full of waterfalls… & not much else. But that’s why I love this little town: the streets & waterfront are perfect for strolling. So here are my recommendations for a lovely 48 hours in Watkins Glen, NY.
How to get there
The southern Finger Lakes are an easy drive from many places on the east coast: 5.5 hours from DC, 4.5 hours from NYC & Philadelphia, 6 hours from Boston. You can also fly into Elmira-Corning Regional Airport, which offers daily service to Detroit, Philadelphia & Chicago. But you’re definitely going to need a car for this trip, so road tripping is probably the best.
Where to stay
Most people stay in vacation rentals during their visit to the Finger Lakes. We’ve always had good luck with HomeAway.com & VRBO.com. If you’re picky on your accommodations, be sure & book early for the best selection, as homes do fill up quickly.
Watkins Glen is also home to the only luxury hotel in the southern Finger Lakes, the Harbor Hotel. During our very first visit to the town, we stayed here for a night & it was absolutely lovely. Many of their rooms have balconies that overlook Seneca Lake & the on-site restaurant’s fire pit seemed to be the hottest place in town.
What to do
The most popular attraction in town is gorgeous Watkins Glen State Park. Even though we’ve hiked the trials before, B & I always make it a point to get back here every trip because it’s just that beautiful. The Gorge Trail is a well maintained trail & an easy hike that rewards you with 19 Gorge-ous (hehehe) waterfalls. This year, we’re going to head to the backside of the park & hike some of the upper trails, but I likely won’t be able to resist at least a little time on the Gorge Trail, gawking at waterfalls.
If you’re coming to the Finger Lakes region, you will definitely want to find time to spend time actually on Seneca Lake. You can take a leisurely afternoon ride on True Love sailboat, a restored historic sailboat; rent a kayak & paddle up to Hector Falls; or just enjoy a stroll along the rocks which provide protection for the harbor.
Back on land, the Finger Lakes region is known for their excellent white wine growing environment. A number of wineries line the shores of all the lakes & it would take several visits to the area to sample them all. Some of our favorites on Seneca Lake include Atwater Winery, which has a beautiful view from their back deck; J.R. Dill, a small winery that has live music on their front lawn in the evening; SIlverthread Winery, a quaint winery down a winding road that makes a killer riesling; Wagner Vineyards, a huge winery & brewery which has live music in the evenings & fireworks on Labor Day weekend; & a tasting room for our all-time favorite Finger Lakes winery, Heron Hill. Also on our agenda for this trip? Two Goats Brewing, a brewery which is rumored to make killer roast beef sandwiches.
Our favorite evening activity is sitting out on the dock, enjoying a bottle of local wine & watching the sun dip behind the horizon.
Where to Eat
For such a small town, there are a number of great places to eat around Watkins Glen. In the town itself, we love Nickel’s Pit BBQ (part of Rooster Fish Brewing) for awesome, authentic BBQ smoked right there on-site. Glen Mountain Market Bakery & Deli makes delicious breakfast sandwiches & serves coffee that was roasted just a few miles down the road. Outside of Watkins Glen, on the east side of the lake, is an awesome bistro called Stonecat Cafe. Make sure to snag a seat on their back deck & be rewarded with sunset views over the vineyards (note: while they don’t have a view of the lake, the food & atmosphere make it worth a stop anyway).
Got an extra day?
There are 11 lakes in the Finger Lakes region, each with their own personality. They’re all within a few hours drive of each other, meaning if you have an extra day, it’s the perfect time to explore a new lake. Keuka Lake, anchored by the towns of Hammondsport & Penn Yan, is a clam, Y-shaped lake perfect for water sports. Cayuga Lake is anchored by the walkable town of Ithaca, home to a ton of waterfalls & Cornell University. All around the Finger Lakes are wineries that excel in making beautiful white wines & trails just waiting to be hiked.