Rust Belt and Waterfalls, a mostly New York and Ohio 16 day loop, October 2021
Updated: Sep 9, 2022
Rust Belt and Waterfalls Route:
Chicago, IL ⇨ Letchworth State Park, NY ⇨ Finger Lakes, NY ⇨ Hudson Valley towns, NY ⇨ Laurel Highlands, PA (Fallingwater) ⇨ Cincinnati, OH
Highlights: Great Lakes, state parks, historic towns, Frank Lloyd Wright, many waterfalls and mighty rivers.
Tip: Our Great Lakes trips are supplemented by Dan Egan's The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, an informative and sobering read.
Method of Travel: 2900+ miles in our car, with suitcases in the back, we stayed in hotels and with friends. This trip was supposed to be a camping trip, but our Camper Van, Margaux, needed a new (used) engine, so we had to reroute and scramble for non-campground lodging. It all worked!
Soundtrack: Sirius' Grateful Dead Channel, The Promised Land by Barack Obama on Audible, a Columbia University podcast: The History of the World to 1500 CE (actual college lectures from 2010), Brandi Carlile’s In These Quiet Days, and my Spotify playlist featuring three versions of CSNY's Ohio.
Chicago, IL - We are here often, and usually book hotels last minute using Hotel Tonight. First Great Lake = Lake Michigan, the greatest of them all! We kicked off the trip with Belgian beers at the Hopleaf, in the cool Andersonville neighborhood. Tip: when heading east from Chicago I recommend taking the Skyway, mostly for the shortcut but also so you can listen to the Replacements' 1987 song "Skyway" even though they were singing about Minneapolis. Also, you can sing "Gary, Indiana" from the Music Man when you drive over it, above street level.
The first Ohio stop of the trip was a sunset dinner on the shore of Lake Erie (Great Lake!), in Geneva-on-the-Lake, or GOTL, which is a vintage summer vacation town. But not in October. In fact its deserted streets would have made a good movie set.
Erie, PA: We were pleasantly surprised by the accessible downtown, the self-important Bicentennial Tower and scenic Presque Isle State Park, where we learned about Erie’s salt industry and the Battle of Lake Erie.
Battle of Lake Erie, (Sept. 10, 1813), a major U.S. naval victory in the War of 1812, ensuring U.S. control over Lake Erie and precluding any territorial cession in the Northwest to Great Britain in the peace settlement.
We did put our hands in Lake Erie, but briefly because it's cold in October! It's the most shallow of the 5 Great Lakes.
Letchworth State Park, NY (and Geneseo and Rochester) - The “Grand Canyon of the East” did not disappoint. Awash in charming CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) shelters, tables, and walkways, it brings the views.
Like me, you may find state park websites lacking in information such as… there are 4 entrances! And they are far from each other! There are lots of steps! I was fortunate to have come across these two helpful blogs:
https://livinlifewithlori.com/letchworth-state-park-ny-the-best-things-to-do-when-you-visit/. Visit them to learn more about this beautiful park.
Our hotel in Avon was closest to the northernmost Mt. Morris entrance, whereas the Glen Iris Inn and most of the falls and views are near the southernmost entrance at Portageville.
While at Letchworth we witnessed TWO proposals, for this one Mark was chosen as
photographer. This was in front of one of Letchworth's three major waterfalls. Of course I cried, and wish them the best.
Because this camping trip had turned into a car/hotel trip, we found a historic hotel (our favorite kind) about 20 minutes north of the North park entrance in Avon, with a busy restaurant in full wedding prep. We ate at the hotel the first night, and the second night we decided to drive north to Rochester (30 minutes) because neither of us had been there nor had we ever touched Lake Ontario (Great Lake!). We headed straight for the shore, which, of course, was cold and deserted. And looked pretty much like Erie.
But Rochester, we didn't know you had a waterfall right in the midle of town! Bonus waterfall.
Tip: When you're in a town you don’t know, find the neighborhood where its most famous resident lived - for Rochester, that was George Eastman of Eastman-Kodak. While we did not visit the museum, we did drive around his lovely neighborhood.
We ate at the Genessee Brew House, which was hopping on a Friday night, and has a charming gift shop and a great view of the downtown (waterfall) from the rooftop. Of course we tried the local Beef-on-Weck, which is roast beef on a kummelweck roll.
(FYI another cool city with waterfalls in the center is Spokane, WA.)
Cute Town Alert: check out Geneseo, where we enjoyed the Tap Room of Dublin Corners Farm Brewery. While sampling beer flights, we met several friendly locals who taught us how to pronounce some of the more challenging western New York place names and told us about this helpful website for further exploration of the Genesee Valley region. Geneseo itself is worth a walk around.
So why not Buffalo? Well, we’ve been there before, and since it’s such an architectural mecca (Frank Lloyd Wright! Henry Hobson Richardson!) we knew we didn’t have time. A great fictional book about turn-of-the-century Buffalo and water-powered electricity is City of Light by Lauren Belfer.
And... next time, more Erie Canal exploration!
Finger Lakes region, NY: Well, this is a beautiful place! Said everyone all the time. We had three nights in the area, one in Seneca Falls and two on the western shore of Seneca Lake. There are 11 lakes in all, but we only explored Seneca and Cayuga, the bigger lakes. Seneca Falls, near the north end of Cayuga Lake, was the location of the first Women’s Rights Convention (1848). There are several related things to see including the National Women’s Rights Historical Park, the National Women’s Hall of Fame, and these statues of significant women, along the river.
Below, Susan B. Anthony, Amelia Bloomer, Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The second photo is the more recently added statues of Laura Cornelius Kellogg, Harriet Tubman, Martha Coffin Wright, and Sojourner Truth.
We discussed these things and more with locals at a WT Brews brewpub along the river, with a pretty great sunset backdrop. I did brag about our state of Wisconsin being the first to ratify the 19th amendment (the women’s right to vote, 1919).
I highly recommend the Plum Point Lodge, on Seneca Lake, and its amazing restaurant Sapalta. One of the best meals of the trip! We spent our time at the southern end of the lakes wandering the campus of Cornell University (gorges and waterfalls!), hiking in the incredible Watkins Glen State Park (waterfalls!), doing laundry in a laundromat while eating Thai food in our car (glamorous!), and, of course, visiting the Finger Lakes (FLX) wineries.
More info on places to eat and drink:
The winery with the best atmosphere, in our opinion, was Cayuga Ridge Estate. Cute casual barn ambience with local goat cheese to snack on.
Finger Lakes Cider House is very much worth a stop for the view, the food, the hang-out area.
Castel Grisch was worth a stop because there were huge dinosaur statues in the backyard? Can’t explain that.
Thompson and Bleecker, in downtown Ithaca, was a pretty spot for creative Italian.
Sapalta, the restaurant at Plum Point Lodge, again, is phenomenal.
It’s nice to be able to walk to bed after Sapalta's Plumhattans and local wine. We enjoyed the well-rated Hermann Wiemer much more than anything we tasted at the wineries. We also hung out at the lodge's fire pit, where we met fellow travelers and shared destination tips.
More info on nearby natural wonders:
Taughannock Falls State Park (waterfalls!) is worth the hike and the pronunciation.
Even better is Watkins Glen State Park (waterfalls!) where there are 350 unadvertised steps to the beginning of the trail! Worth it, but I was beginning to wonder why the NY state park system can’t be a little more transparent? We saw suffering grandparents attempting this hike. Also, the narrow and picturesque paths get stopped up by selfie-takers (like me). But, again, all praise the CCC!
And so many more hikes that we didn’t take. Must return. Also, waterfalls.
Taughannock Falls and
Watkins Glen walkways
Cute Town alert: all of them! The Finger Lakes region and its intact main streets of Italianate and Federal buildings is an advertisement for why historic preservation is important. Because, cute towns! Waterloo, Geneva, Ovid, Montour Falls (waterfalls!)...
Central New York sidebar: We were simply driving through, so here is one excellent diner recommendation: the Harris Diner in Owego, NY, where we had a delicious version of New York’s macaroni salad and a deep dive into Yankee fandom. Also, here is an interesting podcast to explain New York City’s water supply, by the the smart people at the New York State Museum, A New York Minute In History. For a better understanding of the Catskill watersheds that you'll drive by.
Mohonk Mountain House, New Paltz area, NY: Staying here has been a longtime goal of mine, check the price and you’ll see why. And it was amazing. As I’ve said, I love a historic hotel, especially one with a dress code and an American Plan meal. Luckily my husband is into it too. Pack for hiking and bring a tie! Mohonk is a Victorian dream, architecturally, and the only activities are hike hike hike. Or row row row. I loved it.
Hudson River Valley towns, NY - We had family friends to stay with in two Hudson towns, so our tourism experience was focused. Because something we like to do is visit (other people’s) college campuses, we had a picnic on Vassar’s quad in front of the magnificently Gothic Thompson Library. Tip: if you stay at Mohonk Mountain House, or any other resort where meals are included with your lodging, see if they’ll pack a picnic of your last meal - that was lunch for us.
Here are some lower Hudson Valley highlights:
Manitoga, the home and studio of 20th C designer Russell Wright. We were lucky enough to have a private tour. Best known for his collectible ceramic dinnerware, Wright created much more in partnership with his wife, Mary. The site is comfortable in scale but gigantic in its connection to the natural landscape on which it sits.
After this exceptional curated experience we went to THE place for wine-ing and dining with a view of the river in Garrison, NY, Dolly’s.
Ninham Mountain’s fire tower, which we climbed to the top of, and could (sort of) see New York City and all the fall foliage in full color. The land in this picturesque part of New York is laced with low stone walls, remnants of the struggle to tame a rocky and hilly landscape into usable farmland, also a way to define property. Every turn in this area reveals a lake, a mountain, a charming inn. It was great to be driven around this area, because the locals know the curvy roads better than us!
We also got a glimpse of a landscape defined by luxury rather than hardship, at the wonderful Stonecrop Gardens, a formerly private estate of magnificently cultivated gardens and vistas. While I‘m not exactly a plant enthusiast, certainly no one could be unaffected by the combination of colors and textures so expertly combined.
We were completely amazed by the engineering kick-ass-ness of the New Croton Dam, built 1892-1906, and featured prominently in the watershed podcast I previously linked. Seeing it just brings up all kinds of questions such as hooooow????? You can park nearby and walk across it to understand just how big it is.
Beer garden! The atmosphere at the Captain Lawrence Brewing Company, east of adorable Tarrytown, was convivial and the beer and food were delicious. I look forward to going back post-Covid because the interior looked just as fun.
Of course there is no shortage of historic houses and charming towns in the Hudson Valley, and we had an especially good time exploring Cute Town alert! Nyack, after we crossed the three-mile long Governor Mario M. Cuomo Bridge. On our way to a great lunch at the Art Cafe, we stopped in the kind of store that makes my heart pound (fancy cheese plate stuff), Simard & Co. I ended up with only a very small jar of delicious balsamic pearls. (what's that?)
So. Many. More. Historic things to do in this region.
New Jersey - time out for a family visit! I do recommend Liberty State Park for a hassle-free taste of New York City. You can see the skyline, Ellis Island, and the Statue of Liberty with free parking and lots of room to safely roam.
The architecturally-interesting Central Railroad of New Jersey Terminal, from 1889, is where you catch the ferry to visit Ellis Island. We were simply there to spend time with family and enjoy the view. For more western New Jersey highlights see our Vax Tax Refund Trip from April of 2021.
Laurel Highlands, PA (Fallingwater) - On our way to Fallingwater, we drove almost the whole length of Pennsylvania, on the expensive but pleasant PA Turnpike. Fallingwater was designed by (Wisconsin native) Frank Lloyd Wright in 1935, and we visited it extensively in 1995. Fortunately it has not changed, except to be further restored. Given our timing we scheduled an unguided exterior grounds tour. If you’ve never been, by all means do the full tour. But this was enough for us - and the waterfall was in full force, unlike 1995. (There's more about Frank Lloyd Wright at the very bottom of this post, in the Notes.)
We enjoyed our stay at the nearby historic Summit Inn, where we had a glass of wine with a sunset view, and then a really nice dinner. The waitress apologized again and again for her distracted attention, as they - like every place in the fall of 2021 - were understaffed. It was fine. The historic lobby had a roaring fire and there were plenty of historic photos to look at. The next morning, we very briefly drove through our 8th state of the trip, West Virginia.
Columbus, OH - This was a quick stop on our way to Cincinnati, on a day-long drive across Ohio. Luckily we enjoy driving and had a lot of President Obama to listen to (see Soundtrack, top of post). We brake for state capitols, and Ohio’s is a good one, centrally located on an inviting Square (like Wisconsin!). One of the older statehouses (1839-61), and curiously dome-free, the interior is geometrically stunning and surprisingly pink, and the basement has a great museum.
Cincinnati, OH - The third Ohio “C” city of our trip (we only briefly drove through Cleveland) was a treat, and I finally learned how to spell it! There were several things on our list for the two days, but we ran across even more to see in this easily-navigable downtown. We stayed at the 21C Museum Hotel (we have stayed at one in Chicago as well, both feature unique contemporary art-filled lobbies), which we booked on Hotel Tonight. Shout-out to the very cool bartender at the hotel's bar, Metropole, who steered us right with the chili and let us taste several amaros!
We immediately walked to the Ohio riverfront. What we didn’t know was that directly across the river from Cincinnati is Kentucky (this isn’t a mystery, we simply didn’t know), so as we walked across the beautiful 1867 Roebling bridge, a precursor to the Brooklyn Bridge, we wondered the whole way whichcity was on the other side. There was no “Welcome to…” sign but our phones confirmed that it is Covington, KY (9th state).
Back across the bridge in Cincy, we found a great spot for the sunset atop the AC Hotel, with great views, charcuterie and cocktails, and firepits. There were several good choices of drinks and views along the river, probably better in warmer weather, and not Covid times.
The next morning I took the free and easy public transport, the Bell Connector street car, to Findlay Market, which did not disappoint. 1852 and still going!
The historic streetscapes of Over-the-Rhine (OTR) and the food stalls of the market were a dream destination for me. I immediately found a spot for a sunny coffee, and a remarkable cheese shop called The Rhined (get it?). I bought fun things to eat and to gift, and thanked the proprietor for carrying Wisconsin cheese (Landmark Creamery) and crackers (Potter’s)!
In our car we explored a lot in a little time, first stop President Taft’s birthplace, a Greek Revival mansion in the Mt. Auburn neighborhood. I didn’t know much about Taft, and frankly I wasn’t very interested, but my respect for him grew during the intro movie (you, too, can learn, watch it here). We definitely disappointed the Park ranger by not visiting the house museum, but we had other things to do. Heading downhill, we hit the amazing view from Eden Park, which is where the Cincinnati Art Museum is located (next time).
We were astounded by the art deco perfection that is the 1933 Cincinnati Union Terminal. Sited far from downtown, and now the home to several museums and very few trains, it is awesome in the original sense of the word. Unfortunately the building was closed that day, but I was able to talk a docent into letting me peek into the lobby briefly. It's the largest half-dome in the western hemisphere!
Lunch = Skyline Chili, of course. We went to the original (?) location on Ludlow Ave. The waitress pegged us for newbies and offered bibs, which we proudly and stupidly declined. Cincinnati chili is spaghetti with a thin and differently spiced chili, optional are beans (2-way) and/or onions (3-way), then it’s smothered in shredded basic cheddar, and served with oyster crackers.
We were pretty pleased with it, and also with the people-watching, especially the expert staff doling out portion after portion of 2-ways and 3-ways. We walked it off in the nearby Burnet Woods.
Back to Over-the-Rhine, as we wanted to see more buildings, as well as the shops and restaurants we’d read about in almost every article ever written about Cincinnati. I think we would have been more impressed if, again, it had been warmer and not Covid times. The coolest place we saw was Indigo Hippo, which is a non-profit art supply recycling shop, a model that should be recreated in every city.
An example of the many historic (and gentrified) brick buildings in OTR, so many murals!
Heading back down to the river on Walnut Street, I came across the Mercantile Library, which is a secret spot on the 11th floor of the Mercantile Library Building. Maybe not so secret since there’s a historic plaque outside that basically invites one to go up to the 11th floor to find this exquisite space, a quiet and seemingly private (but not) library and reading room filled with crowded shelves of crumbly books.
It was truly an unexpected pleasure, and the stacks reminded me of those in the Wisconsin Historical Society. They are structural, as if the bookcases hold up the floors above.
Then on to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, which I only had an hour to explore, but it was so worth it. The building itself is remarkable, but the exhibits are really extraordinary. The museum explores not just the Underground Railroad, but also modern-day slavery and human trafficking - the horrors as well as the stories of heroes.
The Bell Connector took me back to the hotel to freshen up for cocktails at the stunning Netherland Plaza Hotel, c. 1931 (now a Hilton).
As I’ve said, we love a historic lobby bar, and this one is over the top, like a ‘30s movie set. Pictures hardly do it justice because of the scale, and I explored what balconies and ballrooms I could access. (I do love to sneak around hotels). The hotel is within the equally well-designed art deco Carew Tower complex, a“city within a city” concept which pre-dates NYC's Rockefeller Center.
We then had an amazing dinner that started with foie gras, a weakness of mine, at Boca. The menu of exquisite small plates was created in front of our eyes from our kitchen-facing seats, the drama of which was entertaining, especially because I once worked in the restaurant industry.
As this was the last night of our trip, we made one more ill-advised stop... at the historic Bay Horse Cafe. There were very few (sober) patrons, but the historic photos inside and the bartender’s personality made it a worthwhile ending before our 400+ mile drive the next day.
Farewell Rust Belt and Waterfalls!
And these are The Notes:
Who is Frank Lloyd Wright? An American architect, designer, writer, and educator, Frank Lloyd Wright promoted organic architecture, which was best exemplified in his most famous work—Fallingwater. During his seventy-year career, Wright designed over 1,100 buildings (seeing over 500 of them realized), authored twenty books and numerous articles, and was a popular lecturer in the United States and in Europe until his death. Already renowned during his lifetime, Wright is now considered the “greatest American architect of all time." More here.
Our favorite historical resources when we're driving and don't mind the weight: The Smithsonian Guides to Historic America. Published in the late 1980s, and broken into regions, these books are a treasue trove of information, which, of course, one could look up on a phone. Here's me geeking out on finding the actual cover shot on the Rocky Mountain States, during our 2020 trip "Project Empty Nest."
Why do I love Hotel Tonight? They aren't paying me (yet), but I have been tooting this horn for a few years. I usually make cancelable reservations wherever we go, and then see what I can find last-minute on Hotel Tonight. For our frequent visits to Chicago I can almost always find something downtown for much less than any other site. I've used it all over the country and in some foreign countries, for example when we were flying to Granada, Spain, and our flight was canceled, rather than stay in the terrible hotel the airlines stashed us in we found something in Manhattan for less than $200. On the other end of that trip we stayed an extra day in Seville, and found one of the more charming hotels we've ever stayed in, Las Casas de la Juderia.
Other resources: Travelocity, TripAdvisor, Eater (for food recs), and old-fashioned soft cover travel guides, like Frommers. Also VRBO, Open Table, Resy, local Visitors Bureau sites, Rick Steves, and any articles I happen to have saved from Travel and Leisure, Midwest Living, and wherever else. Thank you to my fellow travel bloggers, let us continue to use each other for travel!
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