As we talked with more and more people about our travel plan to drive through the Finger Lakes, nearly everyone who had visited the area told us not to miss Watkins Glen. We weren’t originally planning to stop in the Glen because our planned route took us around rather than through the southern end of Seneca Lake. Earlier in the summer we booked five nights at Sampson State Park, which is roughly 25 miles north of Watkins Glen. Because we choose not to travel with a car in tow, we don’t make long side trips (further than we can pedal our bikes, anyway) after arriving at our parking destination. But we decided to break this rule and make an exception to see Watkins Glen and nearby Taughannock Falls while we stayed at Sampson.
Rather than settle in completely to our parking spot at the state park when we arrived on Sunday afternoon, we kept Cecil the RV ready for an early departure Monday morning. We originally planned to visit Watkins Glen as we left Sampson on Friday later in the week, until we learned that weekend was a race weekend in the Glen. That means the town is packed with NASCAR fans, and with only one main route in and out, the traffic can get pretty dense (as we were told by a few locals). So we set our alarms (shocking, I know) to wake up early Monday, drive the RV to Watkins Glen to hike the Gorge Trail, and then drive over to Taughannock Falls to follow another trail.
Even on a Monday morning, the Gorge Trail can be pretty busy in the summer. We were on the trail before 9AM and by the time we reached the opposite end, the well-worn stone path was already crowded with other eager waterfall seekers. And rightfully so – Watkins Glen is a beautiful place, and we’re both glad we fought the crowds and played the part of tourists for a few hours. We started at Jacob’s Ladder, a stone staircase cut into the side of the gorge descending 180 steps to the main trail. You can look at our photos below, but if you’ve ever seen Watkins Glen in person, you already know that no photo can capture the sheer scale and subtle beauty of the gorge. Well, at least our quick snapshots can’t anyway – a quick internet search will reveal much better photographs if you’re interested.
The Gorge Trail is easily accessible from downtown Watkins Glen, which I can only imagine is incredibly convenient for locals who can simply stroll down Franklin Street and into the park. The trail itself is only one and a half miles long, but it does have over 800 steps and some narrow, slick sections that require a small amount of patience to navigate if it’s crowded. After reaching the end of the Gorge Trail, we followed the Indian Trail back to the upper parking area to get a different view of the park, and to avoid fighting our way back through the growing crowd.
Our next stop was Taughannock Falls State Park, roughly 20 miles east of Watkins Glen. This park lies on the southwestern shore of Cayuga Lake and features a marina, a small campground, and of course a trail leading to a waterfall. The Taughannock gorge trail is an easy stroll, the path is wide and flat with plenty of space to pass slow moving groups or step off the side and enjoy the view whenever you’d like. The trail ends at Taughannock Falls, a 215-foot waterfall – making it the highest single-drop waterfall east of the Rocky Mountains (according to the National Geographic Guide to State Parks of the United States).
I’ve never seen a waterfall of this size before, and it truly was an amazing sight. Yes, it’s a touristy trail, it doesn’t require much effort to reach the falls, and you’re likely to be surrounded by lots of other people. But none of that detracts from the first glimpse of the falls. The pervasive mist gently settles over everything as you approach the base, cooling your skin on a hot day. The steep, sheer walls of the gorge loom over you, dwarfing the trees clinging to the edges of the rock walls. If you look closely in the bottom right corner of the photo of the falls below, you can see two people standing in the viewing area, which may give you a sense of scale of the falls.
After our waterfall-filled Monday, we drove back to our spot at Sampson content with adding an unnecessary 70-mile round trip to our route, and glad we did it. But we don’t plan on repeating something like that anytime soon.
Sampson State Park was a former naval training station during World War II, and an Air Force base during the Korean war, and the layout of the park clearly reflects the military history. Once again, the Wheeling It blog already features an in-depth review of Sampson, so check out their article for more details on staying at the park.
While in the park, we ventured out on our bikes for a leisurely ride along East Lake Road, a mostly flat ride along the Seneca shoreline. Our 20-mile round trip took us to Three Brothers Wineries and Estates, followed by Bottomless Brewing. The Three Brothers property contains three wineries, one brewery, and a coffee shop, and is clearly designed as a tourist destination. It almost feels more like an amusement park than a winery (or three). We spent a few hours sampling the various wines and beers, which vary from the drier, more refined wines from Stony Lonesome Winery, to the over-the-top candy-like sweet wines from Bagg Dare Wine Company. The beer from War Horse Brewing was solid, with the decor echoing the military theme of the area. Three Brothers is worth checking out for the novelty of the design, especially Bagg Dare which is meant to imitate a Cajun watering hole down on the bayou, but the wines didn’t really stand out.
Since we were already seven miles from camp and only a short three miles from a brewery, I convinced Ashley we should just keep pedaling a little further after leaving Three Brothers. Bottomless Brewing is another small farm brewery located in a renovated old dairy barn. This felt like a more authentic experience than Three Brothers, with the focus on craft brewed beer rather than selling trinkets and souvenirs to tourists full of wine slushies. We enjoyed a couple of beer flights while playing a few rounds of IceDice and relaxing in the laid-back atmosphere before hopping back on our bikes for the ride back to Sampson. Oh, and the bathrooms have the most interesting sinks of any brewery I’ve ever been to. Ashley said the other half of the cow is in the ladies’ room.
East Lake Road essentially runs north and south through Sampson, turning into a trail midway through the park. We followed the trail out of camp one morning and into the nearby town of Ovid for breakfast at a little diner named Rylee’s Place. Rylee’s is exactly the type of small-town diner we like when we’re in the mood to go out for breakfast. We sat at the counter and ordered, chatting with the owner while he waited tables and organized supplies. We may or may not have ended breakfast with giant slices of coconut cream pie washed down with hot coffee. We still had a four-mile bike ride back into Sampson, so we needed the extra calories – never mind that the ride back was mostly downhill.
On our last day in camp, we stopped by the military museum at Sampson before heading out for our next destination. The museum is actually in the building that held the former brig, and you can tour the old jail cells as the last stop in the museum. The exhibits cover both the Navy and the Air Force portions of the camp’s history, and each wing is loaded with detailed accounts of what life was like on base during World War II and the Korean War. You can even look out a real periscope if you’re patient enough to wait for the other kids to stop playing with it first.
Someone visiting the Finger Lakes has endless opportunity for exploring and discovering new places. While it might be known best for the overwhelming number of wineries saturating the area, the Finger Lakes region holds a deeper history than what people like us realize, as we simply pass through. I’d like to know more about living in the area year-round – it’s beautiful now, but I might not think the same thing after the fifth or sixth significant snowfall in the winter. And how many wineries does someone native to the region actually visit on a regular basis? If I grew up this close to so much water, would I be a better swimmer? It seems that every house within a hundred yards of the water has some kind of boat, or even a private dock just across the road. What’s it like to wake up in the morning, walk outside, and hop in your rowboat for some morning fishing on the lake? Although we’ve had just this brief taste, I’m sure we’ll be back for more some time down the road.