The Finger Lakes region is well known for its great wineries and waterfalls, but the lakes themselves are also something special and worth exploring. So, when visiting Watkins Glen, I was excited to take a Seneca lake tour with Captain Bill’s Cruises.
Captain Bill’s Cruises leave from a dock on the southwestern end of Seneca Lake and is easily accessible from town. There is a small lot next to the dock where you can find free parking, but, given that the dock is only 0.6 miles from the entrance to Watkins Glen State Park, you could also park in their lot if you are also planning to hike the trail there since the parking fee there covers the entire day.
Seneca Lake cruises with Captain Bill’s run from mid-May through mid-October, with daily sightseeing cruises on the Seneca Spirit, as well as dinner and show cruises on the larger Seneca Legacy.
The Seneca Spirit is a new-to-the-area boat that started plying Seneca Lake in 2021. It replaced the Stroller IV, a mahogany-lined boat that was built in the 1930s.
While the Seneca Spirit lacks the historic charm of the Stroller IV, it’s larger and provides two levels of seating (including an open-air second deck), and there are now bathroom facilities on the boat.
Despite the tours not being on a historic boat any longer, my family and I were still excited to get out onto the water and grabbed seats on the top deck, a great spot to be on a beautiful day.
Sightseeing cruises leave several times a day and last about an hour. They start on the west side of the lake, going approximately 3.5 miles north, before crossing the lake and returning along the eastern side of Seneca Lake.
Along the way, there is a lot to see along the shoreline including beautiful lakefront homes and a large salt factory.
As the boat travels along the water, a live narrator offers commentary on the lake’s history and ecology, as well as what can be seen from the boat. This narration is a bit sporadic during the trip, which gives you plenty of time to simply enjoy the scenery along the lake and watch the many smaller boats on the water.
While the first half of the tour along the western shores is very nice, in my opinion, the highlights of the tour are mostly on the eastern side of the lake, especially the chance to see the incredible Hector Falls.
Hector Falls is one of the tallest waterfalls in the region and is one of the state’s most impressive roadside waterfalls. However, from the road, you can only see the top half of this majestic waterfall.
Fortunately, while portions are blocked by trees during the summer months, you can get a great view of this entire waterfall from the water, which was definitely one of the highlights of the Seneca Lake boat cruise for me.
Another highlight was seeing the Painted Rocks along the cliffs on the southeastern end of the lake.
As the story goes, these rocks were painted by Native Americans commemorating their escape from John Sullivan’s expedition in 1779. However, while the story of their escape is likely true, these cliffs were almost certainly painted at a much later date. In fact, one historian believes they may have been done by a local boat tour operator in the late 19th century.
Either way, the paintings that you can see from the boat today, which include teepees (which weren’t used by local tribes), dancing Native Americans, and an American flag, were done to commemorate the event’s 150th anniversary in 1929.
So, while the story told on the boat may only be partially true, seeing the paintings on the rock is still one of the more interesting aspects of the tour.
Overall, my family and I really enjoyed our tour with Captain Bill’s on Seneca Lake. While it’s a bit sad that they no longer have their historic boat, the new vessel does offer more space for visitors and provides some great outdoor seating that wasn’t available on the Stroller IV.
So, if you are looking for a really fun way to spend an hour while in Watkins Glen, want to get out onto the water in the Finger Lakes, and want to learn more about the area, this Seneca Lake boat tour is a really fantastic option.
Captain Bill’s Seneca Lake Tour
Hours: Daily from mid-May-mid-October.
Cost: Adults: $25, Kids: $10
Address: 1 N Franklin St