The Finger Lakes region is a patchwork of wineries, orchards, swimming holes, cascading waterfalls, and glimmering lakes. Dramatic canyons slice through the region creating stunning natural beauty that attracts tourists from around the world. If your family enjoys hiking, water activities, wineries, or breweries you should book a Finger Lakes Family Vacation. Its accessibility and affordability are icing on the cake.
Below I’ll highlight where we found incredible hiking, wines, and hospitality.
Saving Money at New York State Parks
Before I dive into the key things to do in the region, there are a number of State Parks on the list so I wanted to share a few budget conscious tips.
- Multiple New York State Parks can be explored in one day with a single day pass fee. Just save your parking pass on your dash. In some areas, several State Parks are in close proximity making park hopping easy within one day without over doing it with kids.
- NY State Parks also honor the 4th grade free entry program through the National Park Service’s (NPS) Every-Kid-in-a Park pass.
- A day pass is $10, but if you are spending significant time in New York, an $80 annual pass might make sense.
A Day at Letchworth State Park
Letchworth State Park stole my heart and was my favorite day of our Finger Lakes Family Vacation. The landscapes here are so staggering that it earned the nickname, “Grand Canyon of the East.”
Our original plan was to spend three hours there for the main waterfalls and the nature center, until we ended up being so taken by the park that we made an entire day out of it! We spent 7 hours hiking, conquering playgrounds, building fairy houses, and exploring the Nature Center and adjacent Autism Nature Trail.
The waterfalls here will stop you in your tracks and the two best waterfalls (Middle and Upper) are accessible with a stroller or wheelchair from a single parking lot. Hiking with kids is great and all, but sometimes an easy and rewarding view is a gift.
Letchworth State Park does not have any trash cans. Carry out all the trash you bring in, if not more than you arrived with.
Suggested Journey though Letchworth State Park with Kids
Start from the north end of the park and work your way south. The Lower Falls are the most difficult to access and honestly don’t offer as overwhelming of a view as the middle and upper. So don’t overdo yourself with all the stairs if you have mobility limitations or young children. (The bottom right picture below shows the two viewpoints for Lower Falls.)
After your Lower Falls jaunt and perhaps some time at the playground at the trailhead/parking lot head to the Humphrey Nature Center.
Lastly head south to the Middle and Upper Falls which only require a short, accessible walk from their parking lot at the south end of the park and should be saved for last, as a grand finale.
Humphrey Nature Center
The nature center houses several interactive exhibits to learn about the geology and inhabitants of the State Park. My son learned all about erosion before we saw the results hiking numerous gorges during our Finger Lakes Family Vacation.
They also have a large Black Rat Snake and an aquarium of caterpillars and chrysalides.
Outside the building there is a butterfly garden and also the entrance to the Autism Nature Trail.
Autism Nature Trail (ANT)
Letchworth State Park opened America’s first ANT in 2021 and it is a treasure. This beautifully designed one mile loop was designed with frequent sensory stops from a music station to playful paths for log jumping. All are welcome to enjoy and explore the trail!
My boys had such fun playing with the musical instruments, building things with natural materials, and inspecting each item in the touch station.
Hike the Gorge Trail at Watkin’s Glen State Park
If you arrive in the early morning, before crowds gather, this is one of the most serene and romantic walks you could hope for.
The ultimate experience within this State Park is a hike on the Gorge Trail which winds over, under and alongside 19 waterfalls. A one way hike with our 2 and 4 year old took us 90 minutes which included a snack break.
I really enjoyed walking up the gorge from the South entrance (which wasn’t as buy as the Main entrance on the east) and seeing the waterfalls in front of me. Then we took the South Rim Trail back to our parking lot. If you start at the Upper Entrance, the waterfalls will be at your back.
- Alcohol and pets are not allowed on the Gorge Trail.
- Prepare to get wet from the falls, wear waterproof shoes and quick dry clothing.
- You can park at the top and walk down hill for an easier journey. There’s a $6 shuttle at the bottom that can take you back to your car.
- There’s a hefty fine for anyone who tries to enter the water in the gorge.
Watkin’s Glen State Park has a fascinating history as a resort property from the 1800’s, frequented by Europeans. The footpath now is quite easy to hike, I can’t imagine what it must’ve been like then!
Wineries and Breweries are Key Ingredients in a Finger Lakes Family Vacation
This may be a surprise to foreigners but just about anywhere you go in the US you can find a kid-friendly winery or brewery (especially if they serve food).
My favorite way to connect with my husband while we travel is to reward ourselves during the kids’ naptime with a winery or brewery. Lucky for us they sleep well in our double stroller.
Need help choosing where to start? Check out the Livingston County Libation Loop!
Finger Lakes is one of the foremost wine producing regions in the countries and has the most vineyards in the east. More than 100 wineries are waiting to wow you in the Finger Lakes Area. The region is particularly known for their sweeter grapes, resulting in a lot of Rieslings, Gewürztraminer, and Pinot Noirs.
For a super quirky experience, head to Castel Grisch Winery where the owner makes a hobby out of collecting large scale Chinese Lantern Figurines and life-size dinosaurs! Watch your kids’ jaws literally drop.
Picturesque patios aren’t just for wineries, breweries in this region will blow you away with their ambiance.
Chasing (More) Waterfalls on your Finger Lakes Family Vacation
The waterfall possibilities are seemingly endless and so many are easy to access from parking lots or even road side.
More to Explore
Ride on a Sea Plane
For a really unique excursion, you can book a flight in a sea plane with the tour company “Finger Lakes Sea Planes”
Indulge at Monica’s Pies
If you’re visiting between September and December, it is worth stopping at Monica’s Pie Shop in Naples. Before the region figured out how to cultivate grapes for wine production, they were using their grapes for table foods. Monica’s is known for their sweet grape pie!
Shop in Downtown Seneca Falls
Shopping is retail therapy for me and a healthy dose of me time during a family trip. Seneca Falls had the perfect street to stroll while my husband took the kids to a playground.
Where to Stay: Settle into Dansville, New York’s Small Town Charm
Dansville is a lovely ‘small town USA’ type community. I’ll be honest, when I booked our Airbnb in Dansville, I knew nothing of the town, other than it’s optimal location on the map; central to the State Parks we planned to explore during our Finger Lakes Family Vacation. On our first evening there though, the community won me over with their charm and hospitality.
Inside our Airbnb was a brochure for the town’s Fairy Door Map. Our 2 and 4 year old had a blast strolling Main Street and scouring the storefront windows for fairy doors. We even stopped to mail Fairy Daisy a miniature postcard at Tony’s Pizzeria. When we were finished, we had found about 80% of the doors and stopped by the local Library to sign the Fairy Door Guest book and receive a little prize. While we were there our kids loved playing with some new toys in the Library’s Children’s Room.
After all that hard work we were ready for an Ice Cream Treat and Angie’s had us covered. This is definitely the most popular ice cream in town and one of the top in Livingston County.
Every store clerk we spoke with was over the top friendly and welcoming. You can tell they’re a close knit community by the way they recommended nearby businesses and spoke fondly of our Airbnb host.
My favorite store in town was Dogwood Trading Company. I always enjoy browsing gift shop type general stores looking for unique products I haven’t seen anywhere else.
What to Pack for a Finger Lakes Family Vacation
Some items you’ll want to consider bringing from home so you’re well prepared for days outside are:
- Bug Spray with DEET (Apply to children’s shoes/clothes so you don’t need to put it on their skin)
- Waterproof shoes and water wicking clothes/rain jacket for hikes amidst waterfalls or if the forecast calls for rain
- Children’s Floatation Devices if you plan to swim/boat
- Of course, Sunscreen and reusable water bottles
- Children’s Medicine Bag – Don’t take any trip without it!
Finger Lakes Family Vacation Final Thoughts
The highlight of our road trip east was discovering the jaw dropping and highly accessible sights within the Finger Lakes (FLX) region of New York. I can’t wait to return to spend another week in the tranquility of the waterfalls and wineries.