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Exploring New York's Finger Lakes: History, adventure, outdoors

See Mark Twain's study, visit a glass museum or hike Watkins Glen.

Over a two-mile stretch, a stream in Watkins

Over a two-mile stretch, a stream in Watkins Glen forms 19 waterfalls as it descends 400 feet. Photo Credit: Alamy / Sara Winter

New York's Finger Lakes region is a beautiful destination filled with history, adventure and the great outdoors. Hikers, historians, artists and literary buffs alike can find numerous attractions to draw them to the area. From Mark Twain's Elmira study to the Corning Museum of Glass, and the natural splendor of forests and lakes, this is an inspirational trip.

Mark Twain Country

One of America's greatest writers, Mark Twain, was a regular visitor to Elmira. He summered there for more than 20 years, his words flowing as he looked out over the countryside, penning such works as “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Now tourists can have their own adventures in the very same surroundings.

You can visit the octagonal study where Twain wrote, which he called “the loveliest study you ever saw." USA Today list it as the “No. 1 literary attraction in America.” Now located at Elmira College, tours of the study are offered. Or perhaps a trip to Woodlawn Cemetery to see the author's final resting place. Don't be surprised to see a cigar or two, a common offering to the memory of the great writer.

In July and August the hourlong Trolley into Twain Country Tour is available (marktwaincountry.com). Starting at the Chemung Valley History Museum, the narrated tour hits multiple historic stops in Elmira touching on Twain, Civil War sites, the restored Powers Theater and Dunn Field, home of the Elmira Pioneers baseball team.

Tanglewood Nature Center even features a Mark Twain trail (tanglewoodnaturecenter.com). Quotes from the author are posted along the trail. His voice still resonates, surrounded by the very places he, too, visited. Twain's appreciation of the natural world is reflected in all of his work, and though he traveled all over the world, this is the countryside he returned to time and time again.

Younger visitors may find the Children's Trail more up their alley. This path includes some obstacle courses while following "a disassembled nature-themed book along the way." The Nature Center is home to more than 40 species of animals, most notably birds of prey. They have ongoing education programs and events for kids and families.

Soaring above Harris Hill

Searching for a loftier view? Try a trip above the treetops. Soaring is a familiar word, but what does it mean when you are entering the "Soaring Capital of America"? An opportunity to take to the skies in a glider, high above the terrain that inspired some of America's greatest literary works.

You can visit the National Soaring Museum (soaringmuseum.org) to learn about these motorless planes or head over to Harris Hill Soaring Corporation (harrishillsoaring.org) in Elmira for a ride in the passenger seat. Weather can be an issue with gliding, but on a clear day there is no prettier view for your silent 15- to 20-minute flight across the sky.

For those of us happier to hug the ground, Harris Hill Amusement Park (harrishillamusements.com) offers some family fun and thrills at a lower altitude. A carousel, go-karts and games right by the museum combine learning and playtime in one stop. If mini-golf is your game, then this is the place, or the driving range where you can see how far your golf balls soar.

Visiting Watkins Glen

Watkins Glen State Park (parks.ny.gov) is famous for its beauty and perfect for a day trip or a camping stop. The Gorge Trail is nature at its most beautiful and unexpected. Over a two-mile stretch, the glen's stream forms 19 waterfalls as it descends 400 feet. The path goes over, under and around the waterfalls. A suspension bridge 85 feet above the creek offers a bird’s-eye view, or you can go down and feel the water on your face while standing behind two waterfalls at Cavern Cascade. Swimming pools, fishing, hiking and biking make the state park ideal for those of any age who enjoy nature.

If you take the Gorge Trail, be prepared for a workout — more than 800 stone steps await as you hike. Also remember to bring lots of drinking water: You'll get thirsty staring at the stream as you make your way through the gorge.

Must-see museums

The Corning Museum of Glass (cmog.org) is more than a gallery of glass art. It is dedicated to the history of glass, and home to historical glass pieces, an amazing "35 centuries of glass art." From the Romans and the origins of glass blowing to modern day innovations, there is more to learn than you could ever have imagined and always more to see among the huge collection. If you want to feel the heat, there are demonstrations of glass blowing (Hot Glass Demo), or the Flameworking Demo where glass rods are shaped. Optical fiber and glass-breaking demos are also offered so you can watch them make it or break it depending on your mood.

"Make Your Own Glass" classes, offered at the museum for all ages, are seriously fun and offer a sense of accomplishment when finished. You can make flowers, ornaments and other objects that will also serve as a unique souvenir of your time in New York State. 

The Rockwell Museum (rockwellmuseum.org) in Corning is the only Smithsonian affiliate in upstate New York. The name comes from collectors Bob and Hertha Rockwell, who gifted their art and artifacts to start the museum. Their goal to "make art accessible to kids" reads loud and clear. Visit the Family Exploration Studio to draw on a light board or take part in the Art Hunt by matching partial images to the full artwork throughout the galleries. To add to its draw, kids and teens visit free.

The Glenn H. Curtiss Museum (glennhcurtissmuseum.org) is dedicated to the local and international legend who became the "fastest man on earth" when he raced a motorcycle at 136.4 mph. He went on to be a pioneer in early flight, being awarded the first pilot's license ever issued. The first to take off and land on water, Curtiss pushed the limits of flight and plane design. The museum houses motorcycles, planes, boats, antique tools and a restoration shop where you can see volunteers working on historic aircraft.

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