I grew up in Rochester, New York, and worked summers at my grandparents' farm, which was about 60 miles away, in the Finger Lakes region. I left the area post–high school, but friends and family who remained have always lauded the Finger Lakes as a prime vacation destination. Its miles of biking and hiking trails, scores of wineries and lovely autumn hues across a pastoral landscape enticed me back to explore the region.
The 11 elongated lakes, located in western and central New York state, were formed by receding glaciers that carved deep valleys in their wake. The small towns of Geneva, Penn Yan, Watkins Glen, Ithaca and Canandaigua reside at the north or south ends of the larger lakes, and I set out to see them all.
My plan was to drive and ride between the towns, biking every morning over four days, then spending the afternoons exploring these communities as I worked my way back to Rochester on the final day.
My tasty trip begins
I secure my rented e-bike in my car and drive to Ithaca, less than two hours from Rochester, at the southern end of Cayuga Lake. Home to Cornell University and Ithaca College, this small city has always enjoyed an outsize level of cultural offerings. It also boasts a beautiful setting, with more than 150 waterfalls within 10 miles of town.
Ithaca’s culinary scene is as enticing as its waterfalls. For dinner, I head straight to Ithaca Commons, the city’s popular downtown pedestrian mall, and slip into Thompson and Bleeker, a small trattoria with pale yellow walls, farmhouse-style seating and a round brick pizza oven.
A delightful day two
My second day includes a stop at Ithaca’s Saturday farmers market before tackling two trails and two state parks. I drive about 5 miles to the Black Diamond trailhead. This trail follows the former rail line of the Black Diamond Express, a luxury train service from New York City to Buffalo that ceased 63 years of operation in 1959. The 8.44-mile gentle slope runs from Taughannock Falls State Park to the Cayuga Lake shoreline.
I don’t need electronic pedal assistance on the 8-mile descent, and I cycle beneath a colorful canopy of oak, maple and hickory trees beside farmers’ fields and across bridges that span small ravines. Cardinals dart across the trail, flashing their vibrant red plumage; a catbird issues its distinctive mew call and a lone mockingbird sings borrowed songs from the top of a trailside maple. I breeze along through 6 miles in a mostly arboreal passage, until the trail opens up beneath the sun for the final 2 miles to the lake.
On this trip, I rented a pedal-assist three-speed Trek e-bike that lightens the rider’s pedaling load but still requires pedaling to progress. Handlebar throttle e-bikes also empower pedaling, but the fact that they don’t require pedaling has led to some criticism that they are essentially electric scooters. Also, e-bikes are heavier than traditional bikes due to the battery, so I recommend removing the battery before attempting to stow your bike in a vehicle or placing it on a bike rack.
On the return, however, I have an 8-mile climb. I set my speed to eco, the lowest electronic aid, so that I still get a little bit of legwork. I could handle this gently sloped trail without any pedal-assist technology, but I know that I will sacrifice several miles of pleasure without it. Pedal assist is perfect for these rides, providing that extra boost to get you where you’re going.
It’s still early in the day, so I depart from the trailhead to drive to Watkins Glen State Park, about 20 miles away at the southern end of Seneca Lake and arguably the most breathtaking gorge trail in the entire region. I hop on the bike for a 3-mile roundtrip that passes 19 waterfalls with vibrant broadleaf and vine leaves hanging off the 200-foot-tall cliffs above.
I return to my car and travel the west side of Seneca Lake for another 30 minutes to Penn Yan, passing at least a dozen wineries. More than 100 wineries, as well as a growing number of breweries, distilleries and cideries, have established tasting rooms among the Finger Lakes, and there’s no time like autumn to cozy up in a tasting room or beside a firepit with a glass of wine, cider or spirits.
It is clear that Penn Yan, a village of around 5,000 people, has, like so many of the region’s towns, benefitted from wine tourism. The closest commercial area to my grandparents’ farm, Penn Yann had more feedstores than restaurants when I was growing up. Now the brick facades of downtown reveal the Union Block Italian Bistro and Burnt Rose Wine Bar, among others.
I’m delighted to discover the Amity Coffee Co. on Main Street for my afternoon tea, and equally thrilled to dine that evening at the Main Deck. Chef Jason Lambert, a recent New Orleans transplant, has created a menu with items such as apple-glazed pork belly, barbecue rabbit and slaw, and mussels and pistou.
Next up: wine tasting
Day three dawns, and I drive back to the shore of Seneca Lake to ride the Keuka Outlet Trail, an out-and-back heavily wooded path that leads to Penn Yan. The route was established in 1833 as a towpath for the Crooked Lake Canal, then transformed into the Fall Brook Railroad in 1884. Today it’s a lovely 7-mile, one-way, dirt, ballast and gravel trail with minimal grade changes that passes through hardwood forest. There’s also a perfect picnic spot (and photo op) beside the multitiered Seneca Mills Falls.
I turn around before reaching the Penn Yan streets, shift into the bike’s faster tour speed and zip along the trail listening to the sounds of blue jays and a belted kingfisher, which issues its staccato call. I stow my bike and head off to Once Finger Lakes, a tasting room less than 10 minutes away that features a rotating list of more than 40 regional wines.
With so many wineries spread across the hillsides, planning a wine tasting itinerary can feel overwhelming. Once Finger Lakes offers customized wine flights to help you determine which wineries you’d like to explore. Local chef Samantha Buyskes prepares seasonal charcuterie to pair with the wines.
Soon I’m off for a 26-mile drive to yet another renaissance town, Canandaigua, located at the northern end of Canandaigua Lake. I arrive at The Lake House on Canandaigua, a beautifully appointed property on par with the sublime hotels one might expect on Nantucket or Catalina Island. Gorgeous autumnal gardens front Rose Tavern, where I sample mozzarella stracciatella and tuna crudo appetizers and taste for myself why this year Travel + Leisure listed The Lake House among the best resorts in New York state.
On the road again
On day four, after breakfast on The Lake House porch, I depart for Ontario County Park at Gannett Hill, located 17 miles south on the west side of Canandaigua Lake. The trail system here offers an excellent introduction to East Coast mountain biking, with narrow single tracks over thin roots with no rock hops, steep descents or climbs. The short gravel ADA-(Americans With Disabilities Act) accessible trail leads to a Bristol Valley viewing platform where you can take in a broadly brushed mosaic of fall color.
I depart the ADA trail at the Finger Lakes Trail junction toward a series of intermediate blue and expert black trails, and realize these routes are probably best tackled on a mountain bike. I review the map and find an easier, green-marked trail directly off the ADA trail that offers just enough of a challenge to keep me on my toes. I hear the distinctive nasal yank of the white-breasted nuthatch and, some distance away, a downy woodpecker chipping away at a cavity on a hardwood trunk.
My mountain biking itch more than satisfied, I pack up and drive 40 miles northwest to Scottsville, a hamlet 10 miles outside of Rochester, to check out a portion of the Genesee Valley Greenway (GVG), a 90-mile corridor that shadows the former Genesee Valley Canal and the Rochester branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad. The GVG connects to so many other trails that you could mount your bike and never look back.
I ride 5 miles on the GVG from Scottsville’s Canawaugus Park to the Brookdale Preserve. I dismount and search the wetland sedge grasses unsuccessfully for the elusive American bittern but happily settle for a few migrating warblers that move among the maples’ tricolor leaves in the hardwood forest. It’s been a long day and I’m happy to have pedal assist, which I set to turbo, my bike’s top speed, for the return ride to my car.
That evening, I return to Rochester and dine at the Velvet Belly, an impressive seafood restaurant in the newly reimagined Rochester Public Market. I combine spicy tuna tartare and a soft shell crab sushi roll for my meal. After dinner, I slowly drive along Park Avenue, where every one of the many restaurant terraces is packed. The “Flower City,” as my friends here have told me for years, is flourishing.
Fifth and final ride
On my last day, I drive back into Pittsford to pedal on the Erie Canalway Trail, the route that first piqued my interest to bike this area. The 365-mile trail forms the east-west arm of the 750-mile Empire State Trail system, among the longest designated trail systems in North America. The Erie Canalway Trail is a magnificent, car-free artery that connects the quaint port villages along the famous waterway.
I ride west from Schoen Place, meet a friend at Lock 33, continue 7.3 miles to the Genesee River, then follow her lead along the Genesee Riverway Trail beside the river to Mt. Hope Avenue. We pause at Swiftwater Brewing Co. for a pint of IPA, then return on the east side of the river trail, past the University of Rochester campus to the Erie Canalway Trail junction and into Pittsford.
Sadly, I’ve failed to charge my bike’s battery, meaning my planned turbo setting finale calls instead upon a fairly fatigued pair of legs. I return my e-bike and head to the airport with a newfound appreciation of the trails, trips, tastes and sips the Finger Lakes have to offer.
Aging Playfully Series
Check out these columns, and stay tuned for more coming soon:
- Series Introduction: The ‘Just Do It’ Lifestyle
- Exploring North Carolina's Research Triangle
- Walking in England and Ireland
- Paddle Your Way Across Canada
- North American Gardens You Should Visit
- Four Days on the Central California Coast
Crai S. Bower is a Seattle-based freelancer whose work has appeared in AARP The Magazine, Afar, Alaska Magazine, AAA Journey and more. He is a recipient of a 2022 Lowell Thomas Award for Excellence in Travel Journalism for an essay that appeared on AARP Members Only Access.
Renew your membership today and save 25% on your next year when you sign up for Automatic Renewal. Get instant access to discounts, programs, services, and the information you need to benefit every area of your life.