Have you ever visited a place that completely blew away your expectations?
That’s what happened after my most recent road trip to the Finger Lakes, a region marked by deep gorges and waterfalls that flow within them; countless wineries sitting atop rolling green hills; incredible waterfall hikes; and miles and miles of scenic roads that connect the 11 glacial lakes that give the region its name.
If it sounds incredible it’s because it truly is.
During spring 2020 I was able to experience some of New York’s best natural wonders with a quick three-day Finger Lakes road trip. While the region is mainly known for the excellent wines produced there — kind of like New York’s very own Napa Valley — my personal goal in visiting was to explore the very best of the Finger Lakes waterfalls and the epic waterfall hikes that lead to them.
Truth is, I was first drawn to the region for Taughannock Falls, a waterfall with a spectacular 215-foot drop that looks like it belongs in Iceland. Ever since coming across a photo of Taughannock on Instagram, I knew I had to make the drive up to visit.
About New York’s Finger Lakes
Little did I know that I’d find so much more than just a single waterfall in the Finger Lakes! The Finger Lakes is home to some of the best waterfalls and hikes in the state of New York — where it’s common to see not one but several waterfalls gracing each and every trail.
The Finger Lakes region is made up of 14 counties and 11 lakes that resemble “fingers.” The lakes themselves have existed for more than 2 millions years. They were formed from receding glaciers during the last ice age, which also helped carve the incredible gorges found in the region.
Now that road trips are the trip of choice for the foreseeable future, I can’t recommend this Finger Lakes road trip enough.
Read More: Top 25 Hiking Trails in Upstate New York
Where Is The Finger Lakes Region?
The Finger Lakes is a region located about 4 to 5 hours (~230 miles) from New York City. It’s one of the top road trips to make from the city, mainly for the abundance of impressive waterfalls and hikes the region offers.
Overall, the Finger Lakes encompasses over 9,000 square miles in western Upstate New York, stretching as far north as as Lake Ontario and as far west as Lake Eerie.
The Finger Lakes gets its name from the 11 glacial “finger-looking” lakes that stretch north to south across the region.
How To Get To The Finger Lakes and Its Many Waterfalls
The best way to reach the Finger Lakes and its many waterfalls and hikes is by car. While many of the waterfalls are located near one another, you’ll need a car to to get to each. Traveling to the Finger Lakes by car will also give you the freedom to explore the rest of the region, such as the different lakes, the many wineries and nearby state parks.
To get to the best Finger Lakes waterfalls, you’ll want to strap on some good hiking boots. Many of the waterfalls are located inside state parks and can be reached by hiking. Trails vary in difficulty, though most are beginner-friendly.
Some waterfalls can even be accessed without a hike at all. The Finger Lakes is home to several roadside waterfalls — though I found that the best ones are hidden deep within gorges and the forests that engulf them.
Best Time To Visit The Finger Lakes Waterfalls
The best time to visit the Finger Lakes waterfalls is in late spring, when the weather is warm and the waterfalls are flowing at their full potential. Some Finger Lakes waterfalls tend to dry up in the summer, so they may not appear as impressive as when visiting in the spring.
A good way to ensure a gushing waterfall flow is to visit after a big rainfall.
Fall is another beautiful time to visit the Finger Lakes, when the foliage surrounding the waterfalls become a stunning palette of oranges and reds.
Read More: The Best of Lake Placid Hiking
Best Place To Stay When Visiting The Finger Lakes Waterfalls
The town of Ithaca is an ideal place to stay if you want to visit all the top Finger Lakes waterfalls in a short amount of time.
You can get to Ithaca Falls, Lucifer Falls, Buttermilk Falls and Taughannock Falls in under 20 minutes from downtown Ithaca. Meanwhile, Watkins Glen and SheQuaGa Falls are under 40 minutes away.
Ithaca is a small college town home to Cornell University. It has a thriving food and wine scene with plenty of options for an entertaining evening after a long day of waterfall hiking.
The charming town sits right on Cayuga Lake, making it the perfect starting point to explore the lake and nearby wineries as well as the many waterfall trails.
There are plenty of affordably priced hotels in Ithaca, too. Check out a few hotel options below.
Heading To The Finger Lakes? Check Out These Great Hotels:
- HOLIDAY INN EXPRESS & SUITES — GREAT VALUE
- HAMPTON INN – WHERE I STAYED
- THE BOND 1835 – BEST RATED ON BOOKING.COM
The Top 7 Finger Lakes Waterfalls
Ready to discover one of the most stunning regions of New York state — and the East Coast as a whole? If I haven’t convinced you to visit the Finger Lakes yet, maybe the following list will. Behold, the top 7 must-see Finger Lakes waterfalls in western Upstate New York.
Taughannock Falls, the Most Stunning Of All Finger Lakes Waterfalls
As I previously mentioned, Taughannock Falls was the waterfall that drew me to the Finger Lakes in the first place.
Taughannock Falls is a 215-foot plunge waterfall set deep in a gorge in a beautiful state park. The waterfall — which is actually taller than Niagara Falls — is surrounded by trees and 400-foot cliffs on either side, making it a truly spectacular sight.
An easy 0.75-mile trail (the Gorge Trail) takes you along Taughannock Creek to the base of the falls. It’s a quick, mostly flat walk. The quiet forest leading to the falls is beautiful in and of itself; it’s the kind of walk that forces you to be truly present.
To get to the Gorge Trail, follow directions to “Taughannock Falls Gorge Trail” on your Google Maps app. If you continue up Taughannock Park Road, you’ll reach the overlook pictured above, which is labeled “Taughannock Falls Overlook View Point” on the map.
There are two other trails at Taughannock Falls State Park, including the South Rim (~1 mile) and North Rim (~1.5 mile) trails. The North Rim Trail takes you to the second waterfall on this list.
The Upper (Hidden) Falls at Taughannock Falls State Park
Often referred to as the “hidden falls” at Taughannock Falls State Park, this Finger Lakes waterfall is the one that feeds into the famous Taughannock Falls below.
The 200-foot Upper Falls plunges deep into a vertical tunnel of rock that can be seen from an abandoned yet easily accessible railroad bridge above. The bridge sits at the end of both the North and South Rim Trails, which form a loop around the park.
I wish there was a way to get closer to these falls, but the only view here is from the top. Nevertheless the sheer power of the water makes it worth the uphill hike. (You can also access the rim trails from the overlook parking lot, which essentially cuts a lot of the uphill portion of the hike out.)
Note: Taughannock Creek can dry up in the summer. The best time to view the waterfalls here is to visit during late winter or a day or two after hard rainfall in the spring or fall. I visited in May, and both waterfalls were in full force!
Lucifer Falls in Robert H. Treman State Park
I hadn’t heard much about Robert H. Treman State Park before visiting, so I didn’t know what to expect when we started the ~2-mile Rim Trail.
And then we stumbled onto the base of Lucifer Falls, one of the most stunning Finger Lakes waterfalls I came across on my trip.
I first laid eyes on the 115-foot waterfall from the Rim Trail, which takes you to the base of the falls before continuing upward. There were people playing and bathing underneath the falls, and I instantly regretted not bringing a bathing suit.
I’d soon find out that Lucifer Falls is even more impressive from above.
I took the Rim Trail up and the Gorge Trail down, which was about 4 miles round trip. As beautiful as the waterfall was, the deep ravine at the beginning of the Gorge Trail might have been my favorite part of this entire hike. The gorge is stunning and like nothing I’ve ever seen before! I felt like I was in a scene from Avatar.
Buttermilk Falls at Buttermilk Falls State Park
Buttermilk Falls is easily accessible from a parking lot, which makes it a great swimming and picnic spot. You actually don’t have to hike anywhere to see the main waterfall.
But I strongly recommend you do hike the Gorge Trail! Like many of the gorge trails in the Finger Lakes, the one at Buttermilk Falls is home to unique rock formations that ignite a sense wonder.
Plus, several waterfalls cascade down a good portion of the trail, making it hard not to stop at each one for photos!
If you want to get a real hike in, I recommend taking the Gorge Trail (0.65 miles) to the Bear Trail (0.67 miles) and then looping into the Lake Treman Trail (1.3 miles). You can then return on the Bear Trail and hike back down the Gorge Trail the way you came in, or once the Bear Trail ends, take the Rim Trail down the other side.
I highly recommend going and returning on the Gorge Trail, as the Rim Trail doesn’t compare to the beauty of walking through the gorge itself!
SheQuaGa Falls in Montour Falls
SheQuaGa Falls is worth a visit for its unique location in the village of Montour Falls.
The 165-foot tumbling waterfall can be found at the edge of a small park in between two houses. Yes, in between two houses.
SheQuaGa Falls basically sits behind someone’s backyard, and it’s easily accessible from a small town road that cuts through the neighborhood. It’s probably the most accessible Finger Lakes waterfall—visitors can park in a tiny lot in front of the park or find street parking around the neighborhood.
The historic Cook Mansion Bed and Breakfast sits nearby with rooms that offer views of the falls.
Watkins Glen State Park
Watkins Glen State Park is the most well known park in the Finger Lakes.
The famous Gorge Trail at Watkins Glen is home to nearly 20 waterfalls in a span of less than 2 miles, which makes it the easiest place to see the most amount of waterfalls in the Finger Lakes at once.
Unfortunately the Gorge Trail was closed when I visited, so I could only catch a peak of a single waterfall from outside the trail.
But the photos I’ve seen online are stunning: The rocky hike seems to wind over and under several waterfalls, allowing you to interact with the falls more than any other trail.
I’d definitely love to return one day!
With a drop of 150 feet, Ithaca Falls is another stunning waterfall in the Finger Lakes region. It’s actually been deemed one of the region’s most powerful falls.
Ithaca Falls can be found smack in the middle of the town of Ithaca. The trailhead can be found at the intersection of Falls and Lake Streets. From downtown, take Aurora Street north to Lincoln Street, where you’ll turn right and then take an immediate left onto Lake Street.
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The trail to the falls is easy. The best view, though, is from the bridge over Lake Street. Although swimming in prohibited, the park surrounding the falls makes for a perfect picnic situation. The plunge pool is popular for fishing.
You can park your car on nearby city streets or the small lot adjacent to the falls.
Three-Day Finger Lakes Waterfall Road Trip Itinerary
I spent two nights in Ithaca in late May 2020 to explore the best of Finger Lakes waterfalls and Finger Lakes hiking. Here is the three-day itinerary I followed.
Day one: Ithaca & One Finger Lakes Waterfall Hike
- Ithaca Farmers Market
- Hotel Check-In
- Robert H. Treman State Park
- Sunset at Stewart Park
I went straight to Ithaca’s famous farmers market when I arrived Saturday morning, though many vendors weren’t there due to the pandemic.
From the market I checked into my hotel at the Hampton Inn.
I soon set off to Robert H. Treman, where I hiked around the stunning Lucifer Falls.
I then returned to my hotel to shower and change. An hour or so before sunset I picked up a bottle of wine and a pizza at a local slice joint to enjoy at Stewart Park, a prime location for sundown on Cayuga Lake.
Since most bars and restaurants were still closed due to coronavirus, I called it a day and returned to the hotel to prepare for an early morning.
Day Two: Taughannock Falls & Drive Around The Finger Lakes
- Taughannock Falls
- Cayuga Lake
- Seneca Lake
- Watkins Glen (Gorge Trail was closed)
- SheQuaGa Falls
- Sunset at Sunset Park in Ithaca
On Sunday I woke up bright and early to be the first one at Taughannock Falls. There was only one other couple there when my boyfriend and I arrived. Success! Having the waterfall to ourselves was pretty special.
From Taughannock Falls we drove up to the northern tip of Cayuga Lake. We grabbed a delicious barbecue chicken lunch at Wolffy’s Grill & Marina. Since we couldn’t dine inside, we ate in our car looking over the lake.
Once we reached the tip of Cayuga Lake we crossed over to Seneca Lake, driving through the quirkiest little towns like Waterloo.
We drove down the west side of Seneca Lake all the way down to Watkins Glen. Although the Gorge Trail was closed, we were still able to visit a viewpoint that looked over the beginning of the gorge.
From there we drove over to SheQuaGa Falls, which was only a six-minute drive from Watkins Glen.
At this point it was time to head back to Ithaca to catch another sunset at Cayuga Lake.
This time we watched the spectacle from Sunset Park, a hill that overlooks the lake and the rest of the Finger Lakes region. It seemed to be a popular spot with college students, many of which were picnicking there when we arrived. It was a lovely ending to the day.
Day Three: Buttermilk Falls
- Buttermilk Falls State Park
- Ithaca Bakery
- Lunch in the Catskills
After requesting a late checkout at our hotel, we set off to hike all of Buttermilk Falls State Park on Monday morning.
It was a wonderful way to start the day — and the sweetest ending to our escape from the city. Before leaving town we stopped by Ithaca Bakery for a bagel and a sandwich, which came recommended by a local. The bagel was good, but not as good as a NYC bagel. 😉
On the way back to New York we stopped in a tiny town in the Catskills for a quick to-go lunch. The only place we found open was a cute cafe and market called Main Street Farm, where we got a delicious mozzarella and prosciutto sandwich.
That marked the end of our three-day road trip chasing waterfalls in the Finger Lakes. I hope this post inspires you to visit this beautiful region of New York.
Happy road tripping!