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The Central Finger Lakes are Packed with Family Fun in New York State: Day Trips and Overnight Excursions in Seneca County

Kids and water

By Carol Fingar, Tourism Marketing Director, Seneca County Chamber of Commerce

When I was a child, my parents regularly brought me and my brother to the Finger Lakes for wonderful family vacations in Central and Western New York. I was a water rat, so I was in my element. We would spend all day swimming in the lakes, going for boat rides, water-skiing, tubing, canoeing. It was a little slice of heaven coming from my landlocked corner of the world. Plus, we’d go on great nature hikes where I’d play the archeologist, stuffing snippets of plants and bark, rocks, and “artifacts” into my backpack for later study back at the campsite in hopes of finding a fossil or something used by people who lived here long before my ancestors came ashore in the United States.

Those were great days filled with sun and laughter and discovery for all of us. And the nights were incredible, too. Eating dinner on the picnic table—something yummy my dad had cooked over the campfire, complete with corn on the cob and potato salad. Gulping down glasses of homemade lemonade that my mom always brought as an extra special treat. After dinner, our family game of baseball, kickball, or badminton would always attract participants from nearby campsites.

As an adult, I lived and worked in Manhattan for 20 years, far away from my childhood stomping grounds. So when an opportunity arose for me to work in the Finger Lakes, promoting the area I loved so much as a child, I jumped on it. I wanted make sure other families knew about the area and the kind of memories a vacation here could create, memories that would last a lifetime.

You’re probably beginning to think about your summer vacation right now. I want to encourage you to spend some quality time with your family in the Finger Lakes. Seneca County is in the center of the Finger Lakes, between Seneca Lake (the deepest) and Cayuga Lake (the longest). At the north end, the two lakes are connected by the Cayuga Seneca Canal, which is part of the Erie Canal system. Although, of course, the scenery is amazing and peaceful, let's face it: Kids don’t really care about that. I know I didn’t: I just wanted into the water!

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The Finger Lakes have plenty of beautiful beaches, so everyone can swim to their hearts’ content. We also have plenty of places to rent boats so you can get out on the water even if you don’t have your own. Plus, many of the local marinas offer lake and canal tours offered. If you’re into human-powered watercraft, rent a canoe or kayak. Fuzzy Guppies, on Routes 5 & 20 in Waterloo, even has a Aqua Ball—a big plastic bubble that you get into and you can literally walk on water! Such fun! Seneca Lake State Park in Geneva has a splash park for the kids, and there’s also one at the Waterloo Community Center in Waterloo.

Young geologists and archeologists can choose from trails aplenty for hiking and exploring. Bike paths fill our parks as well. And—depending on your kids’ ages—you can take them horseback riding, golfing, or, if you’re feeling crazy-adventurous, sky diving.

The beauty is: Everything is so inexpensive here. Now maybe my being a Manhattanite for so long has skewed me a bit. But when you can stretch a Benjamin Franklin over a few days while on vacation, you know it’s a bargain! There are so many free things to do here it’s almost futile to try to mention them all.

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To put it mildly, the Finger Lakes is wealthy in history. To a large extent, the history of upstate New York is the history of 19th-century America. Women’s Rights got its start in Seneca Falls. A free tour of the Women’s Rights National Historical Park will give you the entire story, as will a tour of the Weslyn Chapel where the first Women’s Right Convention was held in 1848, and Seneca Falls is also home to the houses of some of the original suffragettes, like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Amelia Bloomer, and Mary Ann M’Clintock.

Waterloo, right down the road from Seneca Falls, is the birthplace of Memorial Day. The holiday, originally called Decoration Day, was first celebrated community-wide in 1866 to honor the fallen soldiers of the Civil War. A family might enjoy a tour of the National Memorial Day Museum, which tells the whole story and is packed with military memorabilia and stories from the Civil War to modern times.

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One of my favorite secrets is the Deere Haven Farm Museum in Interlaken. Little boys, especially, love this! This is anything but your typical museum: It is literally three barns filled with antique farm and heavy equipment that the kids can touch and climb on. How fun! You need to call in advance, because it is open by appointment only. Make sure to wear play clothes, because you’ll be climbing and delving and exploring in the center of it all. But what a fun, hands-on look back at the “olden days.” It beats the heck out of Tonka trucks!

Speaking of hands-on activities, many farms in the Finger Lakes offer family tours. Muranda Cheese Company in Waterloo gives great farm tours. High Point Farms in Trumansburg has some really unique cows. Autumn’s Harvest Farm encourages visitors by appointment to see all their animals. And Lively Run Goat Dairy in Interlaken does daily tours during the week where the kids can see and pet the goats. On top of that, there is a whole host of U-Pick farms where the whole family can get in on the fruit and berry picking fun.

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Your days are going to wear you out, so you’re going to need a family-friendly place to stay. The Finger Lakes have plenty—from hotels to bed & breakfasts where the innkeepers treat you as part of their family, to fantastically fun campgrounds and cabins. There are even houseboats you can rent to sleep right on the water if you’re looking for something completely unique!

If the kids want even more swimming experiences than in the lakes, the Holiday Inn in Waterloo has a beautiful pool, along with tennis courts, a fitness center and a restaurant right on site. And you’ll find wonderful hotel amenities, like a sauna and a hot tub which are perfect after a long busy day of Finger Lakes fun. Plus they offer family packages. The VanCleef Homestead in Seneca Falls is a family friendly B&B, complete with a wonderful outdoor pool for relaxing in and around.

For cottages, check out Kingstown Beach Cottage & Yurt Rentals in Trumansburg. Right on Cayuga Lake, you can swim, boat, and fish right from their private beach. Buttonwood Grove Winery & Cabins in Romulus has the best of all worlds: a woodsy setting for your little explorers, a great lake and vineyard view for you, and lots of animals for the whole family. Plus it’s an easy base camp to the local beaches and parks.

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For the family camping trip, there are a lot of great options from woodsy setting to waterside. One of my favorites is Waterloo Harbor Campgrounds in Waterloo, right on the Cayuga Seneca Canal. Family-owned and -operated, these guys create a real community feel for their guests. Camper cookouts and chili contests, games and fishing contests make this a family fave. Plus their sister business, Fuzzy Guppies, has all the water toys for the family to enjoy: canoes, kayaks, paddle boats, and the Human Hamster Ball I mentioned above.

Oak Orchard Marina and Campground in Savannah is another waterside family. You can camp by trailer or tent, or rent a cabin. Oak Orchard is directly across from Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge for hiking and wildlife-watching. At Oak Orchard, you can dock your boat right in front of your site and enjoy miles of waterways for canoeing, boating and fishing. Kid friendly activities? Fishing contests and hayrides. And favorite kid-friendly amenities include a huge swimming pool and game room.

For lakeside camping, check out Cayuga Lake State Park on the outskirts of Seneca Falls. The rates are reasonable, plus you have access to the beach, the hiking and biking trails, the boat launch, and the ball fields. Cayuga Lake State Park has tent camping, trailer camper, cabins and cottages, so something for every type of camper.

On Seneca Lake, check out Sampson State Park in Romulus. The beach, docks, a boat launch and an in-park marina are just a few of the water amenities. Plus there is biking, hiking, and even the Sampson State Park Military Museum for the history buffs in the family. Tent or trailer camping are your options at Sampson. And this park is enormous, filled with so much to do that your family will have a ball.

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Want to sleep on the water instead of just by it? Try Seneca Marine and Canalside Experiences, both in Waterloo. Both places rent houseboats by the night or the week. Canalside also rents kayaks, and Stivers boats. Both also offer lake and canal boat tours.

So are you ready for some fun in the Finger Lakes this summer? Come spend some time in Seneca County with your family. You’ll create new friendships and memories that will last forever. Who knows…Maybe one day, your child will be sitting here writing an article like this one, fondly recalling their childhood times in the Finger Lakes too. For more information on everything mentioned here and more, go to fingerlakescentral.com. You’ll also find an up-to-the-minute calendar of events you might want to plan your vacation around. And be sure to “like” Seneca County on Facebook for events and local, insider information on the area!

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© 2010, Carol Fingar
© 2012, KidsOutAndAbout.com. This information may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, without the express written permission of KidsOutAndAbout.com.