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Not just a pretty place, the Finger Lakes are a destination for history and wine

Patti Nickell, Lexington Herald-Leader on

Published in Travel News

Learn their story at the Seneca Art & Culture Center at Ganondagan State Historic Site in Victor. The 500-acre site stands on two hilltops, and in the 17th century was the home of a thriving culture with 4,500 people living in 150 longhouses.

In 1687, a French expedition, hoping to gain control of the region's lucrative fur trade, burned Ganondagan, known as the Town of Peace, to the ground. Today, in addition to the Center, there are three trails, a representative garden (featuring the Three Sisters -- corn, beans and squash), and a full-size replica of a bark longhouse open to the public.

Better known for chronicling history than making it, Mark Twain was an indelible part of the American experience, and the Finger Lakes Region -- specifically Elmira -- played a role in his story. For 20 years, he created some of his most memorable characters (including Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn) in a small octagonal study at Quarry Farm, the home of his sister-in-law.

Quarry Farm is now open only to Twain scholars, but fans of his work need not despair. In 1953, the author's niece Ida, a professor of English at Elmira College, had the study moved to the campus. Twain lovers are welcome to visit before heading to his nearby gravesite, listed as one of the 10 most visited graves in the world.

The 11 lakes do offer spectacular scenery, but the region is also known for its rolling hills, deep valleys, gorges and waterfalls, and during the time I was there, its tapestry of fall colors making the vista appear to be a red, orange and yellow jigsaw puzzle.

Because it was formed by a glacier, the Ithaca area alone has 150 waterfalls and gorges, two of which are especially scenic. The Fall Creek Suspension Bridge is on the campus of Cornell University above Fall Creek Gorge, part of a hanging valley where the creek passes through the glacial trough of Cayuga Lake. The single span bridge provides a great overlook, and after taking in your fill of nature's handiwork, you can head over to the Johnson Museum for man-made art.

 

Whatever you do, don't miss Taughannock Falls State Park. Its namesake falls are the tallest single-drop waterfalls east of the Rockies and three times taller than Niagara. They splash down the side of a rugged gorge that, when clothed in its fall best, provides a riot of colors.

One of the real jewels of the Finger Lakes region is Letchworth State Park, often referred to as "the Grand Canyon of the East." While that may be an exaggeration, there is no doubt that with its concentration of gorges and waterfalls, it is one of the most scenically magnificent areas in the eastern U.S.

As luck would have it, on the day I stood at the Humphrey's Corners overlook, mist and fog had shrouded the Genessee River Gorge, allowing only a peak at its silhouette. By squinting, I could just make out the silvery loop of water bisecting the gorges.

Fortunately, by the time I reached Glen Iris Inn, the weather had improved enough for me to get a real sense of the park's grandeur, most notably the cascading waterfalls just below the inn's front lawn.

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