Up close with waterfalls, wineries and the Amish
Surprisingly, in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, bucolic farmland stretches as far as the eye can see and Amish horses and buggies clip-clop along the roads all day long. This area is ideal for a motorhome road trip, with easy, scenic drives and activities galore. Leisurely travel on the pretty roads offers not only a glimpse of America’s bygone family-farm heritage but a chance to play and swim in the lakes, visit tall waterfalls and sample fine wine at dozens of upscale wineries.
On a recent RV trip through the area, my husband, Mark, and I were amazed by just how appealing the Finger Lakes area is, and we loved the tranquility of the region. There are 11 lakes altogether, each one long and narrow and running north-south, like fingers, between the rolling hills.
Our first stop was in the town of Seneca Falls, which sits on the banks of a river connecting the north ends of Cayuga and Seneca lakes. The back side of this historic town may be its most beautiful side, as all the brick buildings back up to the river, and visiting boats tie up along the docks there. From our vantage point across the river, the boats and brick buildings made a striking image as they gleamed in the morning sun.
To our surprise, we learned that Seneca Falls was the birthplace of feminism. Back in 1848, 300 people gathered in Seneca Falls for the “Woman’s Rights Convention.” They documented the current status of women in America, which was decidedly subordinate to men in every respect, and they called their document the “Declaration of Sentiments.” Some 62 women and 38 men signed their names to it.
The Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls, run by the National Park Service, is dedicated to the evolution of women’s rights since that first gathering, and there is a wonderful statue of Susan B. Anthony, Amelia Bloomer (who invented the namesake pantaloons of the time) and Elizabeth Cady Stanton overlooking the river. The three first met each other in that spot three years after the convention, in 1851, and together they ushered in the women’s rights movement that eventually gave women the right to vote in 1920 via the 19th Amendment to the Constitution.
While Seneca Falls offers a peek at historical events of 165-plus years ago, the Amish people whose farms dot the landscape still live the way folks did in those times. The pretty town of Ovid is at a crossroads between Amish farming neighborhoods, and as we stood on the sidewalk in town, we were amazed to see one horse and buggy after another pass by.
Unlike other parts of America where Amish communities are on display for tourists like living museums, no one advertises the presence of the Amish in the Finger Lakes, and they go about their lives naturally without presenting a formal facade to the curious public. We spoke at length with an Amish 19-year-old about his open two-seater buggy, a style of horse carriage used by unmarried men for courting. Showing us its steel tires and well-crafted drum brakes, and explaining the price differences between a fast horse and a slow one, the twinkle in his eye belied the freedom he felt at having his own set of wheels. His happy smile was not unlike the grin of a teenager holding the keys to his first car.
Friends of ours who live in the area have befriended their Amish neighbors, and they took us to see the inner workings of an Amish family’s dairy farm. We were surprised to find the cows hooked up to milking machines, and realized we had expected to see bearded Amish men sitting on milking stools!
We also visited an Amish chicken-and-egg farm and were impressed by the large yard where 5,000 hens roamed outside. The farmer showed us the clipboard where he recorded detailed data on the egg production rates of his hens every day. Usually averaging 94 percent, he told us he’d been alarmed when egg production dipped to 80 percent after he’d inadvertently bought a bad batch of feed. Replacement feed quickly brought the production rates back up to normal.
The Amish are not allowed to use electricity because doing so would make them dependent on the community at large, which is the antithesis of their social goals. However, they do use propane to power their lights, and Amish homes are as well-lit at night as their non-Amish neighbors. We had a special and rare chance to show an Amish mother and daughter the inside of our RV. They loved our little home-on-wheels and nodded in recognition at the LP-gas-powered refrigerator!
Perhaps the highlight of our Amish immersion in the Finger Lakes was a visit to the Seneca Produce Auction. Held in a huge modern warehouse-style building, this auction brought Amish produce sellers and both Amish and non-Amish buyers from far and wide. The Amish were all dressed in handmade royal blue and black outfits. The men wore straw hats encircled by a ribbon and the women wore white bonnets. An Amish auctioneer moved slowly from one crate of watermelon or corn or cantaloupe or tomatoes to the next, singing a rapid-fire patter of prices and quantities as buyers standing in a tight circle around him used hand signals to bid up the prices and make their purchases.
We stood at the back of the room, floored by the scene we were witnessing. Crates of produce that had been claimed were gradually taken out of the auction hall and loaded onto horse-drawn trailers and into the beds of pickups to be sold at farm stands and small grocery stores throughout the region.
This auction gave us a real-life peek at how agricultural business and trade were conducted 100 years ago. Even more intriguing, though, was when we gazed at the landscape all around this part of the Finger Lakes and realized that the profusion of small farms owned by Amish families has given the world a way to see what much of the American countryside used to look like a century ago, before the rise of massive automated farm equipment and factory farms. Without the Amish, those living images would likely be lost.
While the personal lifestyle choices of the Amish may seem quaint and a bit odd, the unintentional gift they have given this country by quietly retaining the farming lifestyle of our forefathers and keeping patches of the American landscape free of suburban homes and big-box stores is priceless. Interestingly, their numbers increase by almost 5 percent a year, and the Amish population as a whole doubled between 1991 and 2010.
The Amish don’t drink or grow wine grapes, but the Finger Lakes is becoming increasingly known for its fine wine, especially white rieslings, and it seems there is a winery offering wine tours and tastings every half-mile or so on every road. For those who prefer a good microbrew beer, there are quite a few brewpubs too.
We stopped in at the Wagner Valley Brewery Co. in Lodi, and enjoyed a microbrew out on the huge shaded deck that overlooks Seneca Lake. This microbrew pub shares a gorgeous setting with the Wagner Vineyards Estate Winery (www.wagnervineyards.com). Deciding whether to learn about and sample wine or beer is simply a matter of choosing which door to enter!
As we savored a delicious dark beer, we watched a bevy of winsome young women enjoying a wild bachelorette party at the next picnic table on the deck. It turns out the New York Finger Lakes are a favorite spot for Manhattan brides-to-be to take their friends on a day and night of winery or brewpub hopping, and these girls were whooping it up with glee on their second stop of what was to be a 10-stop winery tour.
Beginning about 150 years ago, New York City people built summer mansions along the Finger Lakes, and a few can still be found by the shores of Seneca Lake. These graceful old homes are girdled by wide shaded decks, and their grassy green lawns spill down toward the lake. Dense woods spread out behind them.
As we drove the backroads past these elegant mansions, we caught sight of two sweet little spotted fawns and a fox. The trio was walking together through a meadow, and when they heard our vehicle they stopped and turned to have a look at us for a few precious minutes before wandering on. Mother Nature was giving us her best that day, and just a short way farther on we saw a doe and her pure white baby fawn. The Seneca white deer are not albinos but are sprinkled throughout the deer gene pool in the area. What a unique treat it was to see one!
Nature abounds in the New York Finger Lakes, and there are lots of stunning waterfalls. Taughannock Falls is enormously tall, plunging 215 feet straight down from top to bottom, and there is a great viewing area right across from it that offers a clear view of the whole waterfall. Ithaca Falls Natural Area is near the Cornell University campus and offers shady trails and a big area below the wide and expansive falls to wade in the water.
Another dramatic cascading waterfall is Hector Falls. The main part of the waterfall is on one side of the highway, but we scrambled down the rocks under the highway bridge to get a better view of the falls from below as the water slipped over stair-stepped slabs of stone beneath the bridge.
We bumped into Hector Falls while on our way to the granddaddy waterfall system of them all: stunning Watkins Glen State Park. We visited Watkins Glen on a gloomy, drizzly day, which turned out to be a fabulous time to visit because all the waterfalls were running at full force. We walked on the Gorge Trail through the canyon, following the carvings made in the rocks by Glen Creek. We climbed up and down stone staircases and crossed over the creek on handsomely crafted stone bridges.
Watkins Glen is home to waterfalls of all shapes and sizes, and each has its own personality. Cavern Cascade is tall and straight, and the trail scoots behind it, while Rainbow Falls is a thin veil of water that glitters like a spray of falling diamonds. We laughed as they sprinkled us when we dashed underneath. In between the waterfalls, the creek was serene and smooth, mirroring the surrounding cliffs on its surface.
We found a different kind of water play at the town of Hammondsport on Keuka Lake, where the community park at Champlin Beach provides an inviting spot for a swim. Sailboats lined the water’s edge and the beach was hopping with sunbathers. The weather had turned hot and sultry, and we happily joined the throngs of people jumping in the water for a refreshing dip.
From swimming to waterfall hunting to vineyard visits and mingling with the Amish, we look back on our New York Finger Lakes road trip as a true highlight in our travels.
For More Information
Finger Lakes Tourism Alliance | 800-530-7488 | www.fingerlakes.org
Ithaca Falls Natural Area | 607-274-6527 | www.visitithaca.com/attractions/waterfalls.html
Taughannock Falls State Park | 607-387-6739 | www.nysparks.com/parks/62
Watkins Glen State Park | 607-535-4511 | http://nysparks.com/parks/142
Women’s Rights National Historical Park | 315-568-0024 | www.nps.gov/wori
Cool-Lea Camp | 607-594-3500 | www.coolleacamp.com
Pinecreek Campground | 877-273-1974 | www.pinecreekcampground.com
Sampson State Park | 315-585-6392 | http://nysparks.com/parks/154/details.aspx
Sned-Acres New York | 877-763-3227 | www.sned-acres.com
Spruce Row Campground & RV Park | 607-387-9225 | www.sprucerow.com
Watkins Glen KOA | 800-562-7430 | www.watkinsglenkoa.com