Last Updated on November 2, 2023

“If you want a real thrill, just push the lever all the way,” a young man grinned down at me as I loaded into what looked like a flat go-kart on rails.

Around me, the forest at Greek Peak Mountain Resort was already sporting its fall colors, and the morning glowed with a kind of rusty bronze and golden hue. In Cortland, NY, one of the many towns surrounding New York’s wine-soaked Finger Lakes region, the adventure started early. I was ziplining down the mountainside at barely 9 a.m., and the little mountain coaster I was sitting on was still cold from the chilly fall night.

I’m normally not the biggest fan of roller coasters, but this was different. This was a coaster speeding through the lush, autumn landscape of one of the prettiest leaf-peeping regions in the U.S.

I was on a mountain coaster, a type of open roller coaster that zips along rails down the side of a mountain. I took my young guide’s advice and opened the lever all the way, releasing the brakes fully, so I could have the full rush of adrenaline. It wasn’t the only heart-pounding excursion of the trip either.

The Finger Lakes region is named for a group of 11, long, narrow, glacier-carved lakes located directly south of Lake Ontario in New York. The 9,000-square-mile area is full of waterfalls, wineries, plunging gorges, lakeshores, hiking trails, waterways and adventure.

Yes, the Finger Lakes is a renowned wine country, boasting 130 wineries specializing in crisp Rieslings, but if you’re visiting the region just for wine and leaf-peeping, you’re missing out on half the fun.

From hot air ballooning and kayaking to soaring quietly at 1,200 feet above the valleys, welcome to the adventurous side of the Finger Lakes region of New York.

Greek Peak Mountain Resort, home to an adventure park with mountain coasters.
Greek Peak Mountain Resort, home to an adventure park with mountain coasters. Photo by Lyle Kilgore

Getting Rowdy in Rochester

I started my 10-day fall adventure in Rochester, the seat of the Finger Lakes region and a city famous for its breweries, festivals, history, museums and culinary delights. The legendary Erie Canal is also in the area. The 363-mile engineering marvel traverses New York state from Albany to Buffalo on Lake Erie.

In the nearby suburb of Fairport, I pulled up to a quiet stretch of the canal to explore the kayaking and biking options at the Erie Canal Boat Company.  

As part of a grander plan to make the former transport waterway into a recreation hub, The Erie Canal Boat Company is opening up adventure to everyone as the only adaptive kayak and bike center in the U.S., meaning those with physical limitations can enjoy a leisurely paddle on this famous waterway.

From a brand-new launch dock that allows those with disabilities to enter kayaks more easily to bikes designed for riders with limited mobility, this company proves that the outdoors is for everyone.

Outside of Rochester, kayak fans should hit the waters on Canandaigua Lake with its views of the stunning Bristol Hills or calm and quiet Canadice Lake. Canadice Lake might be the smallest of the Finger Lakes, but it’s the most zen-like due to its remoteness and zero-speed boat, jet ski or water skier traffic.

I kicked off day two by letting my inner child out to play at The Strong National Museum of Play. The Strong is the only museum in the world dedicated to all things play and houses the largest collection of toys, dolls and games in the world. If you think this giant playground is only fun for kids, think again.

My family could have spent all day exploring the National Toy Hall of Fame and World Video Game Hall of Fame, along with the largest indoor Butterfly Garden in upstate New York. I even got a spin on a legit carousel and had a run-in with a fire-breathing dragon!

Take a break from the screaming kids at The Strong and try out some of Rochester’s best breweries and distilleries, including Black Button Distilling and its small batch gin, or the Genesee Brew House to sample the brews of one of America’s longest-running breweries.

Upstate Apple Picking & Horseback Riding

“Look at the size of these apples!” I yelled to my buddy as we plucked giant red apples from the trees at U-pick orchard at Lagoner Farms in Williamson on our first day venturing into the Finger Lakes.

I’m a big fan of apples, but this region had varieties I’d never even heard of ranging from heritage breeds to the newer hybrids like Honeycrisp.

While sampling the handcrafted hard ciders at Embark Craft Ciderworks, which has a taproom at Lagoner Farms, we learned about why The Finger Lakes is a utopia of produce and farmers markets.

In the summer, berries, sweet corn and tomatoes erupt along the lake shores while in the fall, area farmers harvest autumn pumpkins, apples, cabbages, root vegetables and of course, grapes, at small family farms offering you-pick experiences.

If you want to get lost in a traditional corn maze or just cuddle up with some alpacas, many farms in the area have farm tours and experiences.

One of my favorite experiences during our exploration of the region was a leisurely horseback trail ride with Nunda Ranch Resort through the drizzly forests near Letchworth State Park – aka the “Grand Canyon of the East.” 

Go Chasing Finger Lakes Waterfalls

Thundering Middle Falls of Letchwork Park waterfalls at night.
Thundering Middle Falls of Letchwork Park waterfalls at night. Photo by Heide Brandes

My thighs were still a little stiff from a two-hour horseback ride when I ventured to Letchworth State Park. From the towering and roaring falls at Letchworth to the 19 waterfalls and 200-foot cliffs at Watkins Glen State Park, and the miles of trails and waterfalls at Fillmore Glen State Park, waterfalls are in no short supply here.

Even now, if I close my eyes, I can smell that sweet decay of autumn leaves in the damp mornings and the soft crunch of orange, red, yellow and purple leaves on the ground.

I explored one of the newest state parks – Camp Beechwood in Wayne County – which used to be a Girl Scout Camp, and the steep and gorgeous Buttermilk Falls with its stair-stepping of water features, and 215-foot Taughannock Falls at Taughannock State Park.

In Naples, I hiked and marveled at beaver dams at the Cumming Nature Center, a 900-acre nature preserve and educational area boasting more than six miles of hiking trails and 15 miles of groomed cross-country ski trails. 

Everywhere you turn in the region is another opportunity to get into the outdoors and discover hidden groves, dark winding trails and vistas of incredible beauty.

Adrenaline Rush and Flying High

Soar over the valleys and changing leaves in a guide plane at Harris Hill Soaring.
Soar over the valleys and changing leaves in a guide plane at Harris Hill Soaring. Photo by Heide Brandes

Don’t just see the changing colors of fall from the ground – see it from the air.

One of the most popular adventures in the Finger Lakes region is to float over the massive falls of Letchworth State Park with Balloons Over Letchworth. A bucket list adventure for many, this hot air balloon excursion ‘kisses’ the waters of the park and gives guests a bird’s eye view of the impressive canyon that gives this park its nickname of “Grand Canyon of the East.”

Elmira, NY is the soaring capital of America, and taking a sailplane flight with Harris Hill Soaring over the region’s spectacular hills is a definite adrenaline rush.

Gliders and sailplanes are motorless craft that are towed into the air before being released to soar like birds. This unforgettable gliding experience over the Chemung Valley was a highlight of the trip, especially after learning all about the history of gliding and sail planes at the National Soaring Museum at Harris Hill Soaring.

You don’t need planes or balloons to get in the air though.

At Greek Peak Mountain Resort, I sped along zip lines through the crisp fall morning and raced down the slopes on mountain coasters, which is more fun than you can possibly imagine. This all-season resort turns into a ski hill during the winter, but fall is a perfect time to take in the colors on the many other adventures.

Of course, if wineries and scenic drives are a must, the Finger Lakes has plenty of those to explore as well. Just don’t overlook the “adventurous” side of a leaf-peeping trip when there’s so much more adventure to be had.


  • Heide Brandes

    Heide Brandes is an award-winning journalist and editor with more than 20 years of published work. A former investigative reporter, Heide now freelances fulltime for The Smithsonian, Southern Living, AAA, AARP, National Geographic, BBC Travel, Roadtrippers, Sierra Magazine, ROVA, Travel Awaits, Fodors, and more. She also has bylines in The New York Times, the Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. Besides being an avid traveler, her interests include hiking, professional belly dancing, and practicing medieval warfare.