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The Finger Lakes region in upstate New York is known for its stunning scenery, world-class wineries, and charming small towns. (It was even named one of the 50 best places to travel in 2022 by Travel + Leisure editors.) At the southern tip of Seneca Lake — the largest Finger Lake by volume — is a hidden gem for visitors looking to explore the outdoors: Watkins Glen.
While many head here to visit Watkins Glen State Park — known for its 19 waterfalls cascading hundreds of feet down a winding gorge — the area is equally popular for its wine. The Seneca Lake Wine Trail, in particular, is one of the three unique wine trails in the Finger Lakes region and features 25 wineries.
Bruce Murray, who owns Boundary Breaks Vineyard, told T+L that the local community is tight-knit and highly collaborative, which leads to a welcoming environment. “Part of what makes coming to places like this feel different is that you can see the owner pouring wine themselves,” Murray said. “You can tell that people are committed, and they really care.”
Whether you’re looking for a relaxing getaway or a fast-paced adventure, Watkins Glen is a great central town to kick off your Finger Lakes adventure.
For luxury accommodations in town, the Idlwilde Inn is an 18-room retreat set in a renovated 1892 historic Victorian house. Less than half a mile away, the Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel offers a stay right on the lake, with many rooms featuring waterfront balconies. Be sure to ask about their special package deal for the 2024 solar eclipse. (This upstate town is set to sparkle even more during the celestial event.)
A unique option is Grist Iron Brewery, which has an on-site guest house called the Farmhouse. It can accommodate up to 16 people and has a huge deck that boasts picturesque views of the sunset over the lake. Plus, it puts you within walking distance of the great beer and BBQ right up the hill at the brewery.
More of a wine lover? Glenora Wine Cellars has an inn offering stunning views of surrounding vineyards and easy access to the winery on the property.
There are a number of local bed-and-breakfasts sprinkled along Seneca Lake as well. And for more hotel options, check out the nearby town of Ithaca — it has several larger hotels and is only a 30-minute drive from Watkins Glen.
Things to Do
While Watkins Glen itself is quite small, the real sights to behold are found in the surrounding natural beauty of the Finger Lakes. Watkins Glen State Park offers a full day (or more) of activities, including an Olympic-sized pool, tours through the gorge in the summer, campsites, picnic areas, and more. On its two-mile Gorge Trail, which is open seasonally, travelers will wind over and under waterfalls, through the spray of Cavern Cascade.
Seneca Lake is also a great spot to fish, or, for those more interested in swimming, a visit to the lakefront Watkins Glen Beach or Sampson State Park Beach is a refreshing way to spend the day.
Wineries are a top activity for many visiting Watkins Glen — charting a course along the wine trail is a surefire way to taste some of the region’s best wines while taking in the beautiful surrounding views. The history of wine being made near Seneca Lake can be traced back to the mid-1800s. Some great wineries include Wagner, J.R. Dill, Damiani, and, of course, Murray’s Boundary Breaks Vineyard.
Murray’s hope is that visitors interested in Finger Lakes wine will expand their palettes beyond the riesling wines the area is best known for. “People think red wines aren’t very good in the Finger Lakes, and for many years they weren’t. But that’s changing,” Murray told T+L. “If you’re on a wine tour and you want to get to know the best red wines in the Finger Lakes, you should try cabernet franc.”
But there’s more to the region than wine, according to Murray. “People come to this region for the wine and craft beverage community,” he said. “We have beer, we have cider, we have distilled spirits, and within an hour of Watkins Glen, there are probably 100 choices.”
If you’re a racing enthusiast, be sure to check out Watkins Glen International, an automobile race track. This historic raceway has hosted numerous national and international events, including the United States Grand Prix.
The nearby Corning Museum of Glass is also a highlight for visitors of all ages. With glassmaking demonstrations, exhibitions, and galleries, plus kids and family programs, the museum is a top tourist destination and is only 25 minutes from Watkins Glen by car.
For an upscale dining experience, try the Blue Pointe Grill. This waterfront restaurant offers fresh seafood and steak dishes and stunning views of Seneca Lake. The Elf In The Oak is a highly rated local sandwich shop with covered patio seating.
Many wineries and breweries in the area offer tasting menus and local snacks. For a fun lunch while out wine tasting, try F.L.X. Wienery for gourmet hot dogs. Near Watkins Glen, Ithaca has a number of great restaurants, including Moosewood, a popular vegetarian spot.
Best Time to Visit
Watkins Glen is a great year-round destination. In summer, the warm temperatures mean more nature trails and parks are open — but this also can draw larger crowds. The fall brings the harvest season and cooler temperatures, while spring sees the waterfalls surge back to life after the snowmelt. Winter, while cold, is also beautiful, with frozen lakes and cozy cideries.
The Finger Lakes Wine Festival takes place annually in July at Watkins Glen International, and it features samples from almost 100 New York state wineries and food vendors.
How to Get There
There are several airports in the Watkins Glen region, including Elmira/Corning Regional Airport and Ithaca Tompkins International Airport — both are about 30 minutes away by car. The largest nearby airport is Syracuse Hancock International Airport, which has more frequent flights and is about a 1.5-hour drive from Watkins Glen.
The drive to Watkins Glen is about 4.5 hours from New York City. It’s also possible to take a train or bus to the Finger Lakes area, with both Amtrak and Greyhound offering service to larger cities. Trains run through Syracuse and Rochester, and buses stop in Corning and Ithaca.
How to Get Around
Having a car in this area is most convenient for exploring everything the Finger Lakes offers, especially getting to Watkins Glen itself. While rideshares are sometimes available, keep in mind the area is fairly rural and service might be limited.
While there are no car rental locations directly in Watkins Glen, renting a car from your arrival airport is easy, with major companies (like Avis, Budget, and Hertz) at the airports.
For larger groups looking to take on the Finger Lakes wine trail, there are also plenty of bus and shuttle companies that can safely drive your group to different wineries or other craft beverage stops. Make sure to check each winery’s group policy before arrival. You can find recommended transportation services from the Finger Lakes Wine Country Tourism Association, the Seneca Lake Wine Trail, or the Finger Lakes Tourism Alliance.