Crossing the Thousand Islands Bridge from eastern Ontario into upper New York State is akin to having a road trip menu spread out before me. If we want a rustic experience where we can commune with nature, we turn east and head for the beautiful Adirondacks. If we’re looking for something that includes countryside but with some ‘refined’ experiences in the mix, we meander towards the south – with a few stops in the Thousand Islands region – and head for the equally beautiful Finger Lakes.
The Finger Lakes are named for the long, slender waters that spread like a handprint to the southwest of Syracuse. The region is renowned for its wineries and craft breweries, many linked by official driving trails winding along the lakefronts. Add in some spectacular state parks and the Finger Lakes can make the ultimate relaxing weekend trip for Ontario RVers.
Each visit can be a totally different kind of experience. With a wealth of options, we like to cherry pick and create a different road trip experience each time. How about some suggestions?
Stop 1: Antique Boat Museum, Clayton
History meets Clayton’s pretty waterfront at a beautiful collection of 320 boats dating from the earliest days of pleasure boating in the mid-19th century up to the late 1900s. The Antique Boat Museum is dedicated to preserving the area’s rich boating heritage with displays from the search for the perfect canoe design, to an array of classic wooden craft, to the development of fishing by skiff on the St. Lawrence River. There’s also a lecture series on all things boating. An extra tip for Covid time? Galleries can also be visited virtually using the free Google Expeditions app.
Nearby camping: Wellesley Island State Park with 414 sites (many with full and partial hook-ups), which has showers and a dump station. The park’s Minna Anthony Common Nature Center is an excellent introduction to the flora and fauna of the Thousand Islands.
Stop 2: Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, at the top of Cayuga Lake
Established as resting, feeding and nesting grounds for migratory bird populations, Montezuma is a perfect spot to get out, relax and stretch for RVers. The 9,809-acre wetland complex is recognized as an Audubon Important Bird Area with 242 species of birds. There are alos a half-dozen active bald eagle nests, with live nest-cams peeking in at osprey and purple martins, as well as shorebirds and waterfowl including more than 100,000 ducks. At the spring and fall migrations, Canada and snow geese number in the thousands. There are short, peaceful walking trails and the refuge has a 5.6-kilometre Wildlife Drive that is also open to bicyclists and walkers in the summer months.
Stop 3: Seneca Falls
The wonderful town of Seneca Falls is closely tied to the classic holiday film, It’s A Wonderful Life. Built on the banks of the Cayuga–Seneca Canal, it shares the small-town feel and look of the movie’s fictional Bedford Falls. Both were mid-century mill centres with wide main streets and beautiful Victorian architecture.
According to local lore, in the early 1940s, Hollywood director Frank Capra passed through Seneca Falls and stopped to get a haircut where he chatted with the local barber about the town and its history. He learned the story of a young man who jumped from the steel truss bridge to rescue a woman who had leaped into the icy waters of the canal. Many people believe this event was Capra’s inspiration for key scenes in the film. The hamlet celebrates its Hollywood history with small shops dedicated to the movie, the It’s A Wonderful Life Museum and an annual wintertime festival (with 2021 marking the film’s 75th anniversary).
A stone’s throw away from ‘George Bailey’s Bridge’ is the Women’s Rights National Historical Park, a part of the National Park Service that tells the story of the first Women’s Rights Convention held in Seneca Falls in 1848, where some 300 forward-thinking individuals first gathered to champion the rights of women. Life-size sculptures, displays and a film all tell of the struggles for women’s rights, civil rights and equality at a time when even the demand for the right to vote was considered radical. The historic park marks the beginning steps of the women’s rights movement.
Nearby camping: Cayuga Lake State Park is just eight-km from Seneca Falls and has 253 campsites, although with a limited number with electrical hook-ups. There is also a dump station and comfort stations with showers.
Stop 4: Exploring the wine, craft beer and hard cider trails
The Finger Lakes are world-renowned for aromatic whites like Riesling and Chardonnay but have also started to attract attention for hard ciders and a growing number of craft breweries.
Founded in 1986, the Seneca Lake Wine Trail now has more than 30 winery locations, many with serene views over a dramatic, glacially-formed landscape of deep lakes and sloping shorelines. Most have tasting bars and small shops stocked with wines, liqueurs, bar goods, giftware and foodstuffs. We hopped from one to the next, as much for the picnic spots and short walking trails as for the chance to learn about the award-winning libations.
Confession time: We are not really big wine drinkers but it didn’t make a bit of difference to our enjoyment of the wine trail experience. We soaked in the breathtaking views from the bluff trail at the very dog-friendly Lakewood Vineyards and the expansive picnic grounds and views of Seneca Lake at Lamoreaux Landing Wine Cellars. Both offer wines by the glass as well as tastings – as always, moderation is the key.
At day’s end we stopped at White Springs Farm Winery, widely recognized for their scenic patio setting and flights of wines, craft beers, real draft root beer and hard cider. The brew house – Glass Factory Bay Brewing – is a nod to the 19th-century glass manufacturing plant that operated at the spot, producing cylinder-blown window glass. The brew house is just one of more than a dozen microbreweries in the Finger Lakes, where they are a growing niche in the beverage industry.
Nearby camping: The Finger Lakes around both Cayuga Lake and Seneca Lake offer a great selection of private campgrounds, state parks, Harvest Hosts members and even free camping in the Finger Lakes National Forest, located on a ridge between the two ‘fingers’ of water. The National Forest (renowned for its blueberry picking) also has the Blueberry Patch Campground with a picnic area, sites for self-contained RVs, a hand pump well and vault toilets. There is a modest fee for overnight use on a first-come, first-served basis.
Stop 5: Ithaca
Fans of The Office television show will enjoy strolling the grounds of Ithaca’s Cornell University – although never a film site for the series, the university sometimes achieves character status in the scripts.
Ithaca’s university cred is on full display downtown – from the Ithaca Commons (one of the nation’s first outdoor pedestrian malls), to several bookshops and ethnic eateries, to the site of the iconic Moosewood restaurant. It’s a walkable, small city worth exploring and an excellent spot for restocking RVing necessities, especially fresh produce and baked goods at the Farmers’ Market at Dewitt Park.
Nearby camping: Watkins Glen is a large state park at the lower tip of Seneca Lake. The park is one of the most popular in the area, so reservations are recommended. The park’s Gorge Trail hugs steep cliffs, passing 19 waterfalls along its route and rim trails overlook the gorge. The campground has an Olympic-size pool, comfort stations, playgrounds, a dump station and 236 campsites suitable for RVs (52 with electrical hook-ups).
Next time you can’t put your finger on a vacation spot, check out the Finger Lakes and any of these Upper New York State RV-friendly destinations where there is something for everyone!