The Cayuga Lake Scenic Byway, an 87-mile loop that circles Cayuga Lake, is a great fall foliage drive. The trail has a lot to offer, from small, quaint villages to big-city life, breathtaking natural attractions, numerous wineries and more.
While you could easily drive the route in less than three hours without stopping to explore any of the attractions, you’ll want to allow an entire day, a whole weekend or more to fully appreciate everything the byway has to offer.
You can pick up the route at any point along Cayuga Lake. Just look for the green signs with white letters that say “Cayuga Lake Scenic Byway.” However, for the purpose of this article, let’s begin at the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, on Routes 5&20 in Seneca Falls.
Wildlife and wine
The 10,000-acre Montezuma Wildlife Refuge at the north end of the lake, is a major resting spot for migrating waterfowl, as well as home to many creatures that live here year-round such as blue herons, osprey and bald eagles. Take time to explore the visitors’ center, climb to the top of the observation tower or take the 3.5-mile wildlife drive along the main pool of the preserve.
Before you continue along Route 89 south, on the west side of Cayuga Lake, you may want to stop at Montezuma Winery, the first of 16 wineries along or near the byway. I highly recommend Montezuma’s Cranberry Bog dessert wine. You may also want to take a 5-mile detour off the byway to the village of Seneca Falls, which has several attractions including the Women’s Rights National Historical Park.
Route 89 features over a dozen wineries as you head south. They are part of the Cayuga Lake Wine Trail, which is celebrating its 25th year. You might notice that each winery is selling 25th-anniversary commemorative items in their gift shops, including wine glasses, T-shirts and corkscrews. For a complete description of all the wineries on the trail, as well as area accommodations, call 800-684-5217 to request a brochure or visit www.cayugawinetrail.com.
The majority of the wineries are open daily for tastings and sales, and most offer tours by appointment. Some of them even have restaurants, open seasonally May to October – Knapp Winery, Sheldrake Point and Americana Vineyards. If you like hard cider, stop at Bellwether Hard Cider in Trumansburg, the trail’s only hard-cider producer.
If you have time to stop at only one attraction along the way, don’t miss Taughannock Falls State Park. Not only does it offer a gorgeous shoreline along the lake with facilities for cooking out, swimming, boating and a playground, it has a spectacular 215-foot-tall waterfall on Taughannock Creek located deep within a three-quarters-mile-long gorge. Visitors can hike along either (or both) of two upper rim trails or they can take the lower trail, an easy 20-minute walk on flat terrain along the bottom of the gorge. Whichever way you go, be sure to bring along a camera.
The falls can also be viewed from an observation area just off the park road along the gorge rim, if you can’t do the hike.
Overnight camping is available, but if camping is not your thing, the lovely Victorian Taughannock Farms Inn is located adjacent to the park. It has 22 well-appointed guest rooms along with a full-service restaurant.
The many aspects of Ithaca
Following the scenic byway south to the city of Ithaca, you’ll find the excitement of a big city right in the heart of the Finger Lakes. Ithaca boasts several museums, many unique shops and fine restaurants. Home to both Cornell University and Ithaca College, this town has a vibrant nightlife and hosts a variety of festivals and special events throughout the year. Local produce and crafts are available at their Farmers’ Market in season. Always distinctive, Ithaca is actually the only city in America with over 100 waterfalls within 10 miles of its downtown.
Leaving Ithaca, you will travel north on Route 34 to 34B to 90, along the eastern shore of Cayuga Lake through a number of small towns and villages. About midway up the lake are more wineries, King Ferry and Long Point. King Ferry makes a nice blush wine called “Saumon.”
Don’t miss Aurora
One of my favorite spots along the byway is the village of Aurora, home to Wells College. Recently, my husband and I traveled there for a mini-vacation to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary. The centerpiece of the village is the luxurious Aurora Inn, located right on the shores of Cayuga Lake. We were lucky enough to secure one of its rooms with a balcony overlooking the lake.
Even if you don’t stay overnight, you can eat at the inn’s dining room, which is open to the public. The village also has a number of more casual eateries, as well as several retail shops. The Aurora Inn also operates the E. B. Morgan House, which has seven guest rooms.
About a mile north of the village is the headquarters of MacKenzie-Childs pottery, sold in exclusive shops in New York, Palm Beach and Atlanta. You can tour the 1840s farmhouse decorated with the company’s signature pottery and furnishings, watch a film about the production process in the visitors’ center, and visit its large retail shop. We purchased a nice platter with their distinctive checkerboard pattern.
Continuing north on Route 90 you’ll pass several more towns, including the Village of Cayuga. We passed an interesting BBQ place – Mo’s Pit BBQ, 315-252-7130 – which we later learned is famous for its smoked BBQ, spare ribs, homemade chili and stews. But alas, we were traveling too early in the day and they didn’t open up until later.
Cayuga Lake Scenic Byway
Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge
3395 Route 5 & 20, Seneca Falls
Cayuga Wine Trail
Taughannock Falls State Park
Taughannock Park Road, Trumansburg
Ithaca/Tompkins County Convention and Visitors Bureau
391 Main Street, Aurora
3260 State Road 90, Aurora
by Christine A. Smyczynski
Christine Smyczynski is a native western New Yorker with a longtime interest in regional history and local attractions. She is the author of the Western New York Explorer’s Guide, and writes regularly for the “One Tank Getaway” column in the Sunday travel section of The Buffalo News.